What Is A Black Man?

[T]he black Atlantic has always been the queer Atlantic…

Omise’eke Tinsley, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic”

Running the risk of angering my black brothers, I shall say that a Black is not a man.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

And if we are at a new beginning, we got to make a man all over again…

Minister Louis Farrakhan, “Million Man March”

On February 1st 1968, two black male Memphis garbage collectors were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. February 11th 1968 over 700 black men attended a union meeting and decided unanimously to strike. The number of black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works who participated in the strike eventually reached up to 1,300. Sanitation workers, led by union organizer T.O. Jones, marched repetitively demanding union recognition, better safety standards, and a decent working wage. After a week of striking, the NAACP passed a resolution supporting the strike. On February 22nd, the city council voted to recognize the union and recommended a wage increase that was eventually denied by the then-Democrat Mayor Henry Loeb. The following day the strikers were met with the brute force of the state. Nonviolent protesters were maced and teargassed while marching to City Hall. The violence galvanized the local community and brought more national attention to the strikers. By the beginning of March, local high school and college students, traveling ministers and civil rights activist were in Memphis participating in the strike – among them were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When King arrived on March 22nd riots ensued, shops were looted, a 16 year old was shot by a police officer, and police officers teargassed a church and clubbed people who tried to leave the church to get fresh air. Unaware of the growing black militancy in the Memphis black youth, King was flustered by the riots and stayed in a nearby hotel as a local minister James Lawson attempted to defuse the crowd. The following day Mayor Loeb called in 4,000 troops from the National Guard, and while the numbers of active protestors dropped immensely 200 black male striking workers continued their daily march carrying signs that read, “I Am A Man.”[1]

The simple statement, “I Am A Man”, made by the Memphis Sanitation Strikers, is the focus of this paper. It is a simple statement that discursively produces a paradox in light of the theoretical considerations articulated by contemporary radical black queer and feminist scholars. These scholars, attempting to reach beyond the assumptive logic of humanist black feminism and queer theory, look to the process of ungendering that occurs on the Black body writ-large, not in order to dismiss the reality of sexism and misogyny, but in order to question the hostile relationship between Blackness and Gender, Blackness and Sexuality. The considerations of the Black Radical Feminist thinking of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter alongside the Black Queer thinking of Omise’eke Tinsley force us to rethink Blackness and Manness. They force us to return to the question of the Black Man with trans*formative eyes. What is a Black Man? Is there a such thing?

The Humanism that is Man in conjunction with the Non-Human Black point to a paradox of systemic proportion. To announce to the World, as a Black, that one is a Man is to assert one’s absent subject position into the World of subject positions that have rendered the black absent. In other words, the Black “Man” is an anomaly, a paradox, a queer thing. The Black Man is “a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.”[2] In what follows, we will explore this dynamic more, starting with Sylvia Wynter’s dissection of the category of Man, moving towards the queer alternative that considers Black “Male” sexism and misogyny as a will to Man and an attempted repression of the queer performance – that is, black male performance.

A Hypothesis.

In her article, “1492: A New World,” Sylvia Wynter writes a radical critique the project of Euro-Modernity in relationship to Black bodies stating:

the physiognomy, black skin, way of life, culture, historical past of peoples of Africa and Afro-mixed descent has to be represented consistently as the liminal boundary marker between the inside and the outside of the ostensibly genetically determined and evolutionarily selected mode of ‘normal being’ encoded in our present model of being, Foucault’s ‘figure of Man.”[3]

What Sylvia Wynter is after in this statement is a more precise deconstruction (or perhaps destruction) of Foucault’s description of modernity as a culture-specific production of the figure of Man. Whereas one might easily take for granted the assumption that the Human is Man or that Man is the name given to the cisheterosexual body of a symmetrical binary spectrum that names Woman the Other to Him, as has been articulated by the Western conception of the Human since at least the paradigmatic moment of Christopher Columbus’ 1492, Sylvia Wynter wants to question this conflation. For Wynter, Man is a “culture-relative term” that “is represented [as] isomorphic with the class [of the Human] itself.”[4] Man is a new, autopoietic creation – whereas the “varied modes of being human generic” or belonging to a particular kind of species that is both “bios and logos” is as evolutionarily old as the earliest signature of the Human species as found in Blombos Cave – 77,000 years ago. In other words, what we call Man is a contingent construction made possible by a particular formation within the Western World, what we call Human is a transcultural variant taken up different forms and elaborations of itself – often in conflict with this very contingent qua Eurocentric idea of “Man.”

For Wynter, the Black exists “as the liminal boundary marker” from within the anti-Black “regime of truth” that begins to cohere around the figure of Man. In other words, the Black is axiomatically constituted as the “missing link in the chain of being” in a bio-centric world produced by a specific ethno-class of the Human known as Man. The West universalized the descriptive statement of Man only by way of a material and discursive violence that pushed the Black to the outskirts of the descriptive statement of the Human. For this reason, Wynter thus calls the conflation of Man as equal to the Human a “misequation” that “functions strategically to absolutize the behavioral norms encoded in our present culture-specific conceptions of being human.”[5] Blackness is thus a (non)being in the World of Man that exist outside of the equation of Manness en todo. To be Black is to be outside this ‘figure of Man.’ For the Black’s “physiognomy, black skin, way of life, culture, historical past” demarcate the lines by which Man juxtaposes itself as itself. Speaking more precisely to this point, David Marriott writes in his book titled On Black Men that:

Existence might be a daily struggle for us all, but for the black his being is the effect of a war fount on at least two fronts. He must enter into combat not only with the presentiments and premonitions of a world condemning him to nonexistence, he must also enter the lists against his own image. That battle, though principally conceived in grand metaphysical terms as an Hegelian war over ‘reciprocal recognitions’, an ontological war in which existence ‘is always a question of annihilation or triumph’ is also a tenacious street war over the simple right to live.[6]

In other words, the Human and the Black exist as absolute metaphysical opposites. The being of Man does not only exclude the being of the Black, but the being of Man is unthinkable without that violent exclusion.  If blackness is unthinkable within the constituted boundaries of the Human as composed by Man, then where does one locate the statement of the Sanitation Workers who claim that they are indeed men? If Manness and Blackness exist as metaphysical opposites/antagonism, can the Sanitation Workers actually be Men?

The location of the answer to the question, “Can the Sanitation Workers actually be Men” finds coordinates somewhere in proximity to the question that Judith Butler asks in Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, in which she states:

What will the legacy of Oedipus be for those who are formed in these situations where the positions are hardly clear, where the place of the father is dispersed, where the place of the mother is multiply occupied or displaced, where the symbolic in its stasis no longer holds?”[7]  

Butler asks this question as a means to make a queer intervention into the traditional patriarchal family model that Freudian psycho-analysis is structured upon. Whereas Freudian psycho-analysis, assumes like Euro-patriarchy itself, that all families will be structured by way of the “Father” and the “Mother” and the “Me”, Butler’s question urges us to think about what does the terms of “Father” and “Mother” mean within the context of the queer nature of “dispersed fathers” and “multiplied mothers.” This important intervention gets us closer to thinking about black life, however, the fact that Judith Butler situates her inquiries within the context of white queer theory allows her to reproduce the absence that Sharon Holland reminds us to critique when she claims “the place of slavery in queer studies work” as a place which has “yet to be reckoned with.”[8] Butler’s question queers the family model, whereas Holland’s urges a blackening of the study of queerness. 

Lauren Heintz taking Holland’s remark seriously blackens Butler’s question by asking, “What will the legacy of Oedipus be if we refuse to uncouple queer kinship from the infrastructure of slavery?”[9] Thus with these two questions in mind, my hypothesis is that the location of the  Sanitation Workers’ claim that they are indeed men is internal to the study of the queer nature of slavery, or more precisely,  Black men’s claim to manhood is a queer claim. Black “Manhood” creates queer tensions between the boundaries of what constitutes a Man and what constitutes its Other; Black “Manhood” is a masculinity that performs the paradoxical oxymoronic dilemma of both hypermasculinity and the feminine. Black “Manhood” is a queering of Western binaries. 

For the Black “Man”, in the epoch of Man, is not a Man, cannot be a Man, and will never be a Man. The Black “Man” is a non-ontological thing, a thing trapped in a matrix of violence and subjection, geographical dispersal, corporeal fungibility and queer kinship. To claim “Man” while Black is to either attempt to queer the nature of Man’s kind (produce a New Man) or to structurally adjust oneself to Man’s kind (perform the ethno-class of Man to no avail). If this is true then the latter and the former may both be indexes to the kinds of harms associated with Black “Manness” even if the New Man in question is articulated differently and with different gender performances of Blackness occurring under the title of Man. For if I were to say that the “Black Man’s” representation in Representation as either “Protector” or “Pseudo-Patriarch” were both Representations enabled by anti-Blackness in absence of Black agency, what I would be calling for is a moratorium of the Categories “Black” and “Man.” Dismantling the ways we have seen the “Black Man” articulate himself out of a web of derelict narratives produces an impossibility of speech so profound that every word spoken about this figure begets an utterance of phantasmagoric fascination. There is a “Black Man” everywhere and nowhere at the same time since the performance of their character is a performance of caricature made real by a web of affects, intentions and desires within a group fantasy of anti-Blackness and Manhood. Indeed, it may be said that even to say what has already been said might be to say too much. The best thing one can say of this figure is what Fanon refused to say of them, reserving these words for the “Black Woman” instead which is to say, we know nothing of him.

 With this said, we must turn to Hortense Spillers who writes:

[T]he black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears the life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as anaspect of his own personhood—the power of “yes” to the “female” within.[10]

Black “male” misogyny is an outcome of an attempt to be Man through a structural adjustment of this absent subjectivity. Black “male” homophobia/transphobia is the practice of assuming a feigned subject position that one’s own being is always already excluded from. It is the dark art of wearing the Dunbarian mask of Man. It is the perverse inhabitation of the anti-blackness of their DuBoisian double-consciousness. However, as Wynter reminds us, “The problem of the black man and of the colonial native’s self-aversive reactions was clearly not an individual problem. Rather, it was the processes of socialization by which alone these patients could have been instituted as such self-aversive subjects.”[11] The Black “Man” must be aversive to himself, his blackness, and “the female within.” For the World of Man says to the Black “Man”, “Be a Man, but you will never be a Man.” The self-aversive violence and intra-communal violence that occurs as a result is precisely the result of the drive and inability to make this paradoxical position cohere. Lauren Heintz writes that:

Both the sexual and gendered structures particular to the patriarchal family form were denied to people who were enslaved; concerns over inheritance and extending one’s mark across time were detached from the reproductive act; parentage took on numerous forms (fathers were dispersed, mothers were multiplied, to use Butler’s terms), while care and community sustained bodies through affective attachments amid the material and psychic violence of New World slavery.[12]

In another translation, the Black exist within a paradigm, “where the place of the father is dispersed, where the place of the mother is multiply occupied or displaced.” The result is an un-doing/a scattering of the legacy of Oedipus. When there is no “Father” to exclude because the “Father” can be murdered at will and whim, when there is no “Mother” to desire because the “Mother” can be raped and assaulted, stolen and multiplied, what becomes of the signifier Black “Man” and/or Black “Woman” other than a place-marker set to fill in the void of incapacity? 

When the Black “Man” reads the Moynihan Report as an adequate analysis of the plight of the Black community, he does so through a feigned attempt to institute a false black patriarchy that has not ever and cannot ever exist in the World of Man. He does so without taking a keen account of Hortense Spillers’ words, when she writes, “Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.”[13] The violence of the Middle Passage is a violence through which Blackness and Manness can only exist in antagonism and paradox. The Black “Man” is only a Man through a queer performance of Manness. I cannot protect myself. I cannot protect you. The Black “Man” who says, “I am a Protector,” is already a victim of his own attempt to claim a gender performance that severs his own flesh from underneath of him. Anti-Blackness is a sexism that ungenders and regenders as double violence. Thus, Omise’eke Tinsley is more than right when they say, “[T]he black Atlantic has always been the queer Atlantic,”[14] and the Black “Man” is another instantiation of that black and queer Atlantic. Ask the masculine-figure-in-Black: “Are you a Care-Taker? Do you take care?” Ask the masculine-figure-in-Black: “Are you a Care-Giver? Do you give care?” As for protection: Protection exceeds the Black. All who claim to possess it claim to possess (like when the Black man swears to the heavens and beyond that he is, in fact a Man) that which only accentuates the violence of the anti-Black world. What am I? I am not.

So when one thinks of the “question of the Black Man” we may want to return to Wynter’s provocative statement that claims, “The larger issue is, then, the incorporation of all forms of human being into a single homogenized descriptive statement that is based on the West’s liberal monohumanist Man.”[15]  For it is here that we find an inkling into the heart of the “patriarchal” issue of the Black “Man.” The Black “Man’s” impossible attempt to be incorporated into the liberal monohumanist Man and the autopoiesis of that homogenized descriptive statement. For this reason, I started this the paper off with the Black “Man’s” “Man” himself – Louis Farrakhan, who while at a Million Man March stated that, “[I]f we are at a new beginning, we got to make a man all over again.”[16] And to this I might agree, for it is a remark that adheres in coordination with Fanon’s call for a new black humanism, and for Wynter’s call for a project of the Science of the Word to redescribe the meaning of being Human. However, “Running the risk of angering my black brothers, I shall say that a Black is not a man,”[17] and perhaps it is best to not wish for a New Man to emerge, but rather, to set out to decide for ourselves what we might be, outside of this language, outside of this World and its project(ions). Maybe, perhaps, we were made to become something Other than the genres given. Maybe, we were made to be a new Thing.


[1] “Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968),” Standford.Edu, n.d., http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_memphis_sanitation_workers_strike_1968/.

[2] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritic 17, no. 2 (1987): 67, https://doi.org/10.2307/464747.

[3] Sylvia Wynter, “1492: A New World View,” Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, 1995, 43.

[4] Ibid, 43.

[5] Ibid, 43.

[6] David Marriott, On Black Men (Sweet & Maxwell, 2000), 88.

[7] Quoted in, Lauren Heintz and Lauren Heintz, “Queer Affiliations in the Sexual Economy of Slavery” 23, no. 2 (2017): 221, https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-3750437.

[8] Also quoted in, Lauren Heintz

[9] Ibid, 221.

[10] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” 80.

[11] Wynter, “1492: A New World View.”

[12] Heintz and Heintz, “Queer Affiliations in the Sexual Economy of Slavery,” 222.

[13] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” 67.

[14] Natasha Tinsley, “BLACK ATLANTIC , QUEER ATLANTIC:” 14, no. 2 (2008): 191, https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-2007-030.

[15] Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick, and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations,” Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, 2015, 21.

[16] Minister Louis Farrakhan, “Million Man March,” n.d., http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/farrakhan-million-man-march-speech-text/.

[17] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), xii.

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