My representation as a certain type of black man often transgresses the accepted boundaries of black masculinity. The ways I cut my hair, shape–or refuse to shape–my beard, style my clothes, walk, talk, and gesture tend to confound some folk and, on occasion, anger others because of my seeming transgressions. Sinning ain’t easy.
Indeed, some will stare at me as I make my way down any street rocking a beard, frames, “man bag,” and a little less than loose clothing because my gender presentation seems to be read as a sign of non-heterosexuality, deviance. In fact, most folk are okay with what they “see” until they notice that I am wearing something like hot pink (!) sneakers. According to some, a black man wearing hot pink sneakers, like a black woman wearing a suit, ain’t at all “cool.”
The notion of “Black cool,” in particular, seems to be limited, limiting, and quite “straight” (as in hetero and rigid). I am thinking, for example, of one of the inspirations that motivated Rebecca Walker’s investigation of “black cool.” She mentioned during an interview on NPR that an image of then-Senator Barack Obama exiting a black Lincoln Town Car during the 2008 campaign “was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool.”
She went on to say that she was “drawn to that image because [she] wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic.” And while that image is but one of Walker’s inspirations (and while her book, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, actually includes critical and beautiful essays that think through the gendering of “black cool”), that particular picture of Obama locates the quotidian “black cool” in a male-bodied, masculine, straight black man and leaves me to wonder: Does coolness exist anywhere beyond black masculinity, maleness, and heterosexuality? As some of the writers in Walker’s Black Cool argue, I think so.
I can recall, for example, growing up with an older female cousin who was a swagged-out straight young woman and mother. She often chilled with the dudes in my family. Her vernacular was cool. Her walk was cool, or, as others would say, “pimped out.” She was cool. But this one black straight woman’s coolness was contingent upon the masculinity that she performed expertly. And, no, she didn’t identify as lesbian. Which, again, forces me to consider: are masculine performances solely emblematic of “black cool”?
In a recent documentary, which was featured on NewsOne, Sylvia Harvey “explores the strange double-standard that allows Black men to express intimacy on the basketball court, but keeps a tight lid on those feelings and actions off the court.” She describes the origins of the project as follows:
'The mini-doc, “Out of Bounds,” was born out of a fight over the TV remote, which I lost. Slowly descending into the world of clock shots, blocks, and turnovers, I started to anticipate Ray Allen’s three-pointer, Kevin Durant’s quick release shots and Blake Griffin’s dunks. NBA games showcased breathtaking plays and hard fought victories. But most compelling was the quiet backdrop that spoke louder than any winners or losers – the players’ behavior on the court.
'When a player made that unimaginable shot or game saving free throw, yelling, chest pounding, mid-air chest bumps and high-fives ensued. But alongside this bravado came rare public displays of intimacy between black men—intimacy that if recognized could challenge traditional boundaries of black masculinity.
'I set out to ask: What gave these men the license to hug, kiss, and slap each other’s backsides unapologetically in front of millions of spectators? Why hadn’t that license been granted to black men everywhere, and why was that license seemingly suspended once the game ended?
'Many recreational ball players with whom I spoke ascribed the intimacy to the quirks of sports culture, but admitted an unspoken rule prevents this behavior from carrying beyond the court. That unspoken rule is explored via the influence of hyper-masculine hip-hop culture and heteronormative privilege.'
In the film, John Amechi, a former NBA player, notes that men are taught that those who show emotion toward another man are seen as gay, leading to repression and concealment of such feelings. Linking this to childhood and popular culture, Harvey depicts sport, and particularly basketball, as a space wherein the restrictions placed upon masculinity are loosened to a certain degree. In the documentary, Khalil G. Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, describes sporting fields as places where intimacy has been normalized; in other words, touching, physical closeness, hugging, kissing, crying, and other forms of physical interaction have become normalized and therefore are accepted as part and parcel with sport. As sport and heterosexuality are imagined as intertwined, the presence of intimacy and emotional bonds are seen apart from homosexuality within the sports worlds, a disentanglement not seen elsewhere. Yet the film also notes the various ways, whether in the deployment of phrases like “pause” or in the performative heterosexuality that emanates throughout NBA culture, that the visible intimacy occurs in a space always already defined by the policing and surveillance of sexuality.
Martin’s comments were reprehensible in any environment, but most especially during the super-macho (and super-hetero) Super Bowl. Using Suzanne Pharr’s analysis that “Homophobia [is] a weapon of sexism,” it’s also apparent that Martin’s issue with Beckham’s bikini briefs, the unmanly sport of soccer, or the fan’s “pink suit,” relies heavily on sexism to reinforce heterosexist definitions of manhood.
We can’t afford to take homophobia lightly.
For so many LGBTQ people, many of whom are Black, this is life and death. When a noted journalist like Martin uses humor to condone violence against men who appear to be gay, it is insensitive, careless, and extremely irresponsible.
Some have even argued that Martin’s fate is a result of the response of misguided people who have given too much power to words. According to Raynard Jackson, writing in response to this debacle for The Washington Post, “words have no intrinsic meaning other than meanings that are internalized by each individual.”
Words are merely words, right? No! They actually shape the climate in which someone’s “ass” may literally be beat and murdered altogether. The next day after Martin’s tweets, a video surfaced of Brandon White, a black gay man who was jumped by multiple men in Atlanta for wearing skinny jeans. Much like Martin’s tweets, this video shows that someone’s choice of clothing, which others may view as contrary to their gender and abnormal, is a reason to be subject to assault. Our thoughts and the words that we use are reflected through actions. As a result, we need not use words that produce harm, but words that seek to ameliorate violence.
So, where are the “words” of condemnation emanating from the Black progressive establishment regarding Martin’s tweets or the numerous physical attacks on Black LGBT people that happen daily?
The deafening silence from Non-LGBTQ Black Civil Rights organizations and public intellectuals taking a stand against homophobia is unacceptable. It’s as if racism is the main/real issue worthy of being addressed, with sexism/misogyny in a very distant second place, and homophobia a practically non-existent third place on our Black civil rights platform. Why do these organizations and “leaders” continue to act as if they are not accountable to Black people who are LGBTQ? Aren’t we Black, too?
Similarly, why does GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) act is if they are not accountable to LGBTQ people who are Black? As Robert Jones, Jr., author of the Son of Baldwin blog stated, “I think Roland Martin deserved censure and suspension, just like Don Imus deserved being terminated. But where is GLAAD when [white gay writers like] Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage make their racist statements? I sense a double standard and it REEKS of racism.”
GLAAD’s swift action to demand that CNN fire Martin gives us pause. Interestingly enough, GLAAD didn’t also demand TVOne, a Black-owned network, where Martin hosts a weekly show, to fire him. Clearly, based on GLAAD’s actions, they’re not very concerned about the impact of Martin’s homophobia on Black networks (if they even know the networks exist). In response to Martin’s comments, GLAAD’s website reiterates, “Our goal is to ensure better coverage that works toward ending anti-LGBT violence.”
If that is GLAAD’s goal, then why aren’t they also holding other outlets where Roland Martin has a platform accountable? Furthermore, Martin recently met with GLAAD; but none of the Black queer people who first called Martin out over Twitter was invited by GLAAD to join in such a meeting. Why is Martin only accountable to GLAAD?
Cleo Manago, CEO and founder of the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX), had this to say about GLAAD’s demand that Martin be fired from CNN: “…we are still in the process of recovering from many challenges that have resulted from being Black in America. Still, lily-White organizations like GLAAD are not in the position to complain about alleged injustice from Blacks. They clearly are not culturally competent enough to accurately interpret the voices of Black people.”
While Manago might be correct to interrogate GLAAD’s “cultural competency,” he too misses a valuable point.
The fact is: it was Black queer men and women, and not some “lily-white organization,” who were the first to call attention to Martin’s heterosexist words. GLAAD’s response, and CNN’s subsequent move to suspend Martin, followed the swift rebuke of Twitter personalities @kenyonfarrow, @Anti_Intellect, @TheFireNextTime.
The fact is: it was Black brothers and sisters who called out a Black brother. Period.