By Derrick M. Gordon, Ph.D.
‘I Am A Man’: a powerful film about black manhood and violence in America
Black masculinity” has for centuries been misrepresented, not understood, and undermined. This has left our society and the black communities with questions about what truly are the quintessential characteristics of this identity, and how do we as a people transmit the important components to the young men and women in our communities, while healing those of us who have already reached the developmental stage of adulthood?
In this documentary by Byron Hurt and Andrew P. Jones, the producers posed the question of what constitutes black masculinity to male and female “experts” and “community” members. This impressive list of individuals includes Bell Hooks, Alvin Poussaint, John Cade and Richard Meyers. What is most valuable about this cast is the inclusion of “accomplished” experts, black men who live their identity on a daily basis and the women involved with them. In this eyeopening and sometimes philosophically challenging discussion, these interviews confronted how we think about black men and the impact of their views.
In this film, Hurt presented a discussion of black masculinity from seven perspectives, which challenge the viewer to consider how black manhood in America is shaped. The first area explored was the "Images of Black Men." Here he explored the representations of black men in American culture, and how these images impact not only the general perceptions but interact with our internalized assessment of these images.
This discussion then naturally flows into "The Cool Pose" and the role that symbols play in the construction of black masculinity. This includes a brief exploration of the role of the cool pose as a “rite of passage” for black boys and its relationship to the ever-elusive search for respect.
Any discussion about respect and black masculinity raises feelings. In the section "Emotions" the focus begins with reactions to the attacks on black masculinity, attempted to integrate the other and the self of black masculinity and our feelings toward external and internal reactions to emotions. This called for emotional self awareness that is sometimes stifled due to the unwritten rules that stress not letting others know that there are feelings there. This highlights the threat that emotionality poses to black masculinity and resulted in one interviewee stressing that emotionality is not an abdication of masculinity!
“Black Male Homosexuality” within any discussion of black masculinity is important. In a thoughtful and skillful way, the producers challenged the audience to explore how their notions of masculinity influence their views and integration of homosexuality within the black community, as well as the meaning of homosexual identity for black masculinity. The discussion presented the challenges that the black community and black men face as they think about their manhood and how their sexuality impacts on masculinity: Is masculinity more than whom I have sex with, and does homosexuality undermine masculinity? “Violence and Fears” tells the story of how with a misguided definition of manhood, black men can, at times, be self- destructive. The interaction between the expectations of toughness and bravery, and how these expectations could cause harm to us and others broadened the discussion. The tough exterior, its relationship to internalized and societal racist views, and the value it lends through protection were explored.
“Sexism – Men’s Violence Against Women” was an important issue to explore and a natural springboard from violence and fears. This section underscored the oft-times ignored experience within black life of women being marginalized and devalued, while continuing to be important to the sustainability of the community. This discussion explored how black men, who feel stripped of their identity, strip their female partners of their identity through their use of violence. Black men’s responsibility for their actions was stressed. Important in the development of this film was some exploration of the social forces that continue to affect how boys and girls understand their roles and the pressures of socialization for our community.
As the documentary looked to “The Future”, the producers underscored the role that black men play in the construction of their identity, the responsibility for working collectively to ensure that we help to define that identity, the challenges faced given the social context in which we exist, and the value that each of us adds to the definition of black masculinity. This analysis clearly underscored the important role that women have as the black community works together to ensure that all parts of it are functioning in healthy ways.
The value of this documentary rests not only in the questions posed, but extends to the discussions that could be generated in our homes; on the street; in the churches, mosques, and synagogues; community centers; cultural events; and intimate discussions on viewing it. Its instructive strength from a domestic violence perspective rests with its initial emphasis on the black man’s experience and its crescendo into a challenge for the future.
Let us think creatively as we seek to instruct and help, not only the next generation, but ourselves as we define and redefine what it truly means to be a black man in America. This, more so than any other reason is why I recommend this video.