Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Two)

You argue that Avery Brooks, as a performer, was, despite often being cast in stereotypical roles, able to “draw on the full range of black expressive culture, often in opposition to the intent of the show’s writers and producers.” This claim has strong implications at a time when black men exert much greater influence on our culture as performers than they do as “writers and producers.” Can you say more about the forms of agency that surface in this analysis?

 As I mention in the book, Brooks was granted agency around the character, because the writers and producers really didn’t have a sense of who and what the character (created by the late Robert Parker) was.  I think what Brooks’ did with the character spoke a great deal about both his classical training and his investment in Black arts—he was of a generation that was a direct product of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, he was deeply involved in the National Black Theater Festival, for example.  I think that in the last generation, Black performers have had more access to mainstream success and thus have had less need for the kinds of Black organizations that Brooks’ generation cultivated.  Whereas Brooks may have always been clear that his work was in conversation with a Robeson, Belafonte, or a Diana Sands and Rosalind Cash—to name just a few—contemporary artists don’t have the same relationship with previous generations of Black performers—and thus I think it limits their ability to really drawn fully and freely from “the culture” (whatever that means).  The irony is that in the era of Youtube, they actually have much more access to those earlier performers, than any other generation.  One of the things I appreciate about Beyonce’s art is that she has spent serious time in the “archive,” if you will, though she’s often criticized for not being original.  I see it as a real tribute to those folk, some of them obscure,  that come before her.

You express throughout the book some deep ambivalence towards hip hop culture which you describe in your introduction as “a cottage industry of problematic images of black masculinity” but refuse to dismiss altogether as a vehicle for exploring alternative forms of black masculinity. When and how have performers or audiences been able to escape or at least challenge the more problematic aspects of hip hop culture? What contemporary performers do you think offer the best source for alternative articulations of black masculinity?

There’s an “inside baseball” aspect to this re: “corporate sponsored” entertainment geared to American youth, and what some would deem more “authentic” (however problematic that term is) rap music and Hip-Hop culture. I will only say that the latter is far less accessible to young people and the former is far more visible. From a pedagogical standpoint, I find all of it of value, provided we can equip audiences—young folk in particular—with a critical framing that allows them to contextualize what they are consuming.  Looking for Leroy is largely about providing some of that framing and hopefully encouraging even more framing from others.  Of contemporary artists, I find the work of a Jasiri X compelling, because of his ability to humanize some of the political realities of Black life globally, but even he is challenged to not simply be seen as the “protest” rapper.  I think in a purely artistic sense, beyond his place in celebrity culture, Kanye West is pushing past some boundaries particularly in indexing trauma, mental health struggles, vulnerability and loss within Black male life.  Indeed, his willingness to find raw sonic material from beyond the typical pop music archive, speaks to his searching to find sonic examples that best represents his emotions.

You draw in the book on Manthia Diawara’s notion of “homeboy cosmopolitanism”, a phrase which seems intentionally oxymoronic, given the rootedness in a particular location or community implied by “homeboy” and what you describe as the “desires for physical, social, and economic mobility” implied by the concept of cosmopolitanism. How can we resolve these contradictions? What forms of culture best express this concept?

 Part of the genius of Hip-Hop culture is that when many of these artists began to travel globally, they brought the ‘hoods they grew up in and the “hood” that they are all perceived to be from, with them.  I don’t think any of them saw this as a contradiction, in part because many of their ‘hoods, were always/already cosmopolitan, if we consider immigration patterns from the Caribbean, West Africa and migration from the American south as challenging the concept of a monolithic “blackness” or Hip-hop, for that matter.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.