This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which I edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.
Mark Anthony Neal’s weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced by Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies, is a powerful example of the roles academics can play as public intellectuals, brokering important conversations the culture needs to be having, highlighting key scholarly and cultural works that deserve greater attention than they are apt to receive from mainstream media, and asking the most urgent questions his regular fans want answered about race as embodied by both lived experience and contemporary popular culture. Among topics recently addressed on the series include the thirty year history of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, the story behind “We Shall Overcome” and other anthems of the civil rights era, the role of black barbers and barbershops in constructing the black public sphere, and parenting in a “post-racial” America.
Neal brings his diverse knowledge and interests to bear on various performances of black masculinity in his newest book, Looking for Leroy. Here, he argues that many constructions of black male identity in American culture are far too “legible”, reproducing the same lethal stereotypes where black male bodies are rendered as criminal, needing to be subjected to police authority and containment. Yet, he’s interested in the ways that some performers construct personas which are less legible, which challenge our expectations and force us to think differently about identity politics. The book ranges from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to Barack Obama, with stops along the way to talk about The Wire, Star Trek, Fame, and the Oscars. The writing throughout is direct, engaging, witty, and broadly accessible, which helps to explain why his work is attracting readers and listeners far beyond the university book store circuit. At the same time, he is the master of close reading, offering interpretations that are nuanced in their attention to detail and yet encompassing in their ability to link the specifics of individual performances into larger career trajectories and into their political contexts.
Neal is one of the busiest people in the field of cultural studies today, so I am grateful that he could spare some time to address my questions.
Let’s talk about your title, “Looking for Leroy.” Can you share with us what it was about the figure of Leroy in Fame which inspired this particular path through black masculinities? In what sense are characters like Leroy “illegible” figures when compared to more stereotypical representations of black masculinity?
My connection to Gene Anthony Ray’s character “Leroy” from the movie and series Fame was personal. The series debuted just as I was developing a sense of who I was as a young man (I had just turned 16 at the time) and as the primary Black male character on the show I had a natural affinity for him. Yet it was clear, at least to me, that the character or perhaps Ray were gay—this in an era when there were only a handful of gay characters on network television. As a 16-Black kid from the Bronx, who was regularly “queered” because of my choice of clothing and the way I spoke—which was read amongst some of my Black male peers as both too soft and also too White (this was the era of the Preppie)—something about Leroy always resonated to me. It was fitting that he would be one of the primary inspirations for the book and my own grappling with illegibility.
Given the harsh realities confronting many black men in this country, why should we be concerned with popular representations of black masculinities? In other words, what relationship are you positing between the constraints experienced by black men and the cultural construction of black masculinity?
As someone whose academic training is in Cultural Studies, I’m always concerned about whether my work addresses (in any way) the real crises being faced by young Black men in particularly. Whether we’re looking at sports, the criminal justice system or even national politics, it’s clear that so many perceptions of Black masculinity are framed by media depictions of Black men and boys. Hoping my work is but one intervention, poised to acknowledge the range of Black masculinities and also deconstructing (on some level) the most visible images of Black masculinity. I think there is real connection between the limited view of Black masculinity available in US media and the limitations placed on Black men and boys in their everyday lives.
What motivated the choice of these particular case studies? What do these performers and characters, individually and collectively, help us to see about popular representations of black masculinity?
Virtually all the choices I make in the book with regard to case studies, represent figures that I had some personal affinity to. In the case of “Leroy” or Avery Brooks, they really were figures that impacted how I viewed Black masculinity as a younger man. It was that affinity to Brooks’ “Hawk” that made Idris Elba’s “Stringer Bell” legible to me. In the case of Luther Vandross and Jay Z, as a fan who had consumed so much of their art, they allowed the opportunity to do the kind of close readings that I wanted to do. And admittedly, there are any number of other figures I wanted to bring into the mix—Kanye West, Erik LaSalle’s character on ER (though that will show up in a later project), Rob Brown 16-year-old character in Finding Forrester, and a whole host of “Queer” Soul and Gospel (which will also show up in another project)—but I’d still be working on the book, LOL. What I hope I have presented is just an opening, for more work to be done, in terms of thinking about the publicness of Black masculinity. In that regard looking forward to new books from Jeffrey McCune and C. Riley Snorton.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and most recently, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013). He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.