For regular readers of Cypher Avenue, its safe for you to say that any article about Black Masculinity not written by us on this site is going to be utterly disliked. The latest one, “The Evolution of Black Masculinity Through Fashion” featured in the 2014 Fashion Issue of VICE MAGAZINE is no exception.
Don’t get me wrong. The article by Wilbert L. Cooper is very well written and checks all of the necessary boxes in defending its point of view. My problem is with the starting premise itself:
Male Masculinity needs More Femininity to Heal Its’ Wounds.
The article doesn’t outright say this but its heavily implied. Here’s an excerpt:
All eyes were on Shayne Oliver as he stepped into a sweltering Bronx church in the heat of summer, 2000. The lanky teenager shuffled into the vestibule wearing a short white crop top, exposing his taut midriff. Blots of black skin poked through hand-tattered jeans that were so tight he had to cut them up and safety-pin them back together to get them on. Shayne’s outfit set him drastically apart from the men of the congregation, who wore boxy suits. He and his mother hadn’t even taken seats in a pew before the preacher started spewing a diatribe of venomous, homophobic remarks from the pulpit. It took a moment before Shayne realized the preacher was attacking him. “Basically, the pastor ran me out of the church,” he told me recently. “I stopped going after that.”
Shayne’s now 25 and the designer of menswear label Hood By Air, whose provocative styles—along with brands like Telfar and Third Floor—are carving out a new and empowering palette of masculinity for young black men to paint from. At Shayne’s shows, it’s not out of the ordinary to see his models stalk the runway in makeup and dresses. Their bellies are often exposed, and half the time you can’t tell whether they’re men or women. But far from sissiness, the looks exude the visceral power of a lineman crushing a quarterback, or two swords clashing in an action film. This time last year, at Shayne’s debut New York Fashion Week runway show, the scene was so thick I had to stand on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of his powerful vision of androgynous modern menswear. With macho gangster rapper A$AP Rocky on the catwalk, and stars like Kanye West and Waka Flocka Flame in the crowd offering up their adulation, the show was the birth of a new epoch in the evolution of black masculinity.
There have been others who’ve pushed similar boundaries in the past. Before Kanye and A$AP, black artists like Sly and the Family Stone in the 60s and Cameo in the 80s wore gear that looked like it was straight out of the Folsom Street Fair. In the 90s, Tupac walked in a Versace fashion show in a flamboyant gold suit.
But one of the things that sets this new wave apart from what came before is that straight men like Kanye and Rocky have no problem recognizing that some of their looks might have originated in the gay community. This kind of inclusiveness and openness is one of the many elements that signifies a shift in the way black men comport themselves in an age when the old notions of machismo, which were burdened with the baggage of 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, continue to be chipped away.
There are many positive takeaways from this passage that I’m not too blind in my primitive masculinity to see. Any aspect of life that welcomes collaborative inclusiveness is a good thing. I’m not one that thinks clothing makes a man “masculine.” I actually like seeing guys in “skinny jeans” or wearing leather bracelets or earrings.
However, when I see terms like “androgynous modern menswear,” I unconsciously cringe because it usually means the men’s clothing has been made more “womanly” and flamboyant, instead of merely being gender neutral.
Its disheartening that we’re always playing on defense when it comes to Masculinity. Some would argue that in itself is not a particularly masculine trait. I would somewhat agree with them. I would prefer to not be one of only two black gay men with a popular website that is not afraid to discuss this subject from a non-feminist point of view. But like the masculine Spartan King Leonidas against the effeminate Persian King Xerxes, we’re alone in this battle.
Ever since we started this website over 2 1/2 (glorious) years ago, we’ve witnessed an extreme amount of push back for not only us outwardly celebrating traditional masculinity, but also the mere mentioning of the word. Even the title of this post will instinctively turn many gay men off. Granted, this negativity came (and continues to come) from a minority of people, but like the Tea Party, that small group of people make the most noise.
“Those guys are OBSESSED with ‘masculine’, they talk about it ALL the time”
“That website hates femininity, they want to annihilate it.”
“Every other word on that site is ‘masculine this’ or ‘masculine that'”
“I hate that site…they promote masculinity by tearing down femininity.”
“Those Cypher Avenue queens once used a small thumbnail of an obscured photo of Beyonce on their site so that proves that they’re not masculine either!”
*Snaps twice and wipes away imaginary bangs*
We’ve heard it all.
We’re not at war with male femininity nor do we believe that there is a war on male masculinity. Over the last 2 years we’ve simply asked the question: What’s wrong with being a gay man free to celebrate male masculinity (in the traditional sense, not some hybrid) just like gay men are free to celebrate their femininity (flamboyant or otherwise)? What’s wrong with Gay Masculinity represented in our media?
I love masculinity. Real Talk. It’s one of my few clear joys of being gay. Sometimes I look at a man…A man’s man…and I understand why women deal with so much bullshit from them. The confidence, the demeanor, the arrogance, the cockiness, the style, the power, etc…All of that is very attractive.
The problem is I don’t think you can have that same type of man being in a gay culture where masculinity is continuously “watered down.” I argued the point in the past in “Real Men Don’t Cry: A Defense of Hypermasculinity” that the examples of masculinity that I saw in my childhood, helped make me the masculine man I am today. You take away those role models, in the future we may have a society of overly soft, cross dressing, gender neutral black men. We here at Cypher Avenue try to be examples of masculine black gay men for impressionable homosexual 18-22 year olds out there who falsely think that truly embracing your “gay side” means to become more effeminate.
There is no possible way to discuss masculinity in the gay community without ever mentioning male femininity. Trust me, I’ve tried. At the current time, femininity DEFINES homosexuality. When a masculine gay man publicly comes Out, most people (especially gay men) instantly joke that he likes to wear women’s clothes or they call him a “Queen” or other comparisons to women in some way.
Given that dynamic, there can be no discussion of gay male masculinity without contrasting it with the reality of a feminine dominated gay culture.
So at times, we contrast masculinity with femininity in order to articulate obvious differences, not to bash. It’s akin to saying, “I prefer watching Basketball because Football moves way too slowly.” This statement doesn’t imply that Football needs to be “annihilated” or that it doesn’t offer some enjoyment on some levels. It’s merely used to help quickly contrast the two sports so that the overall point can be made succinctly.
Back to the History of Black Masculinity Through Fashion.
Cooper’s article seems to singularly examine black masculinity’s history through the needle pinhole of the runway fashion industry. This is a world where flamboyancy and ‘clothing no typical black man would ever actually wear’ is heralded.
Also, the male runway fashion industry is typically defined by twinks: slim, young men with 28″ waists. This is not to say that men of this stature could never be “masculine”, however I’d argue that its not quite fair to only use men with boy-like physiques to illustrate the “history of black masculinity.” What about the muscled men…or the heavy set men…or the average beer-bellied men…or the men who look like our fathers and uncles growing up, the examples of black masculinity that defined many of us?
Much like the recent “The Fetishism Of Masculinity With Black Gay Men” article on MUSED Magazine, Wilbert L. Cooper’s piece tries to give strained psychological reasons for why black men are “masculine” or even appreciate the masculinity of others.
Cooper’s seems to assert that black masculinity is a side effect to oppression and Slavery.
Hypermasculinity has long been a way for some black men to deal with the stature and privilege they’ve historically been denied in this country. It’s a reaction to the institutionalized de-masculation that was a crucial part of slavery, in which grown men were reduced to terms like “boy” and “nigger,” subjected to castration, and often forced to watch their wives and daughters get ravaged and raped without recourse or retaliation. That emphasis on machismo in black culture has spawned criticism of the more androgynous new styles hitting the streets courtesy of designers like Shayne. Hip-hop forerunner Lord Jamar, of Brand Nubian fame, recently released a vicious diss track titled “Lift Up Your Skirt,” which refers to Kanye as a “fag” for wearing a “dress” and introducing “skinny jeans to the rap scene.
It might seem ridiculous for one man to get so up in arms about the cut and silhouette of another man’s garments, but fashion—going all the way back to the antebellum South—has played a major role in the way some black men express their masculinity. Dr. Akil Houston, a professor of cultural and media studies in the Department of African American Studies at Ohio University, broke down its historical importance for me over the phone.
The clearest manifestation of this is the tradition of blacks putting on their “Sunday best” for church. Six days a week, enslaved men toiled endlessly in rags not fit to clean the inside of a chimney. Sunday granted them an opportunity to cleanse themselves of the filth of a week’s work and exhibit pride—an essential aspect of masculinity, but a most dangerous emotion to express for a piece of human livestock who wasn’t even granted the freedom to read or write.
The specter of slavery has long had a resounding impact on the masculinity of black men. During slavery, stereotypical qualities of black men—that we are volatile, libidinous, stupid, brutish—were propagated to help justify the practice. Portraying blacks as animals made it more acceptable for them to be treated like animals. And unfortunately, these tropes still rear their ugly heads as a justification by the powers that be today for everything from the execution of stop-and-frisk in New York to the unfair application of Stand Your Ground in Florida.
“You have to remember,” Dr. Houston said, “black men were considered three-fifths of a person for voting purposes during slavery. There weren’t many viable ways for them to assert their manliness. But what they could do was use their body, and historically many black men went to fashion to do that.”
For many of us black men, being masculine or being attracted to masculinity isn’t a deep rooted hidden psychological effect of slavery, Jim Crow, masculine privilege, patriarchy, “moving between straight and gay worlds” or even “a fetishisizing of masculine men”.
For many gay men (even effeminate men), it’s as simple as being naturally attracted to men and what has traditionally made them Men (including the stereotypes of manhood), not just the body parts.
Are some heterosexual black men’s attraction to women with big breasts a result of the Middle Passage and/or a psychological need to spread their seeds within large Melons? Or could it just be something specific that turns them on?
The notion that some black men can healthily be traditionally masculine and not meld it with androgyny or flamboyant femininity seems to be hard for many non-masculine men to accept. They want to blur the lines of masculinity. There is this idea that traditional masculinity is the cancer and femininity is the chemotherapy.
Here’s a radical idea: That heterosexual kid that teased you in high school for being “soft” or a “sissy”…It wasn’t because he was masculine…it was because he was an Asshole. One likely raised by equal or greater Assholes.
I’m a little tired of the hypocrisy in some softer, effeminate men on one hand complaining about masculine privilege, men’s fashion and patriarchy at the same time they’re attracted to the masculinity of others (rappers, athletes, actors) as they fight to redefine it so that they can also fit into what it means to be masculine, presumably so that they can also hold the “coveted” title.
This article on VICE falls right into this category.
Our attitude on this website has always been and will always be: Do You! Be yourself and all that it entails and let others do the same (even if it doesn’t include you). Everything “Gay” (titles, labels, websites, web series and even men’s non-androgynous fashion) doesn’t have to be for or inclusive to everyone.
Check out the article and photos in full over at VICE.COM