Much To Do With Manhood

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

“Weary – Self Portrait, ” Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All rights reserved.

I strongly urge every one to read “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in September 2012’s Atlantic Magazine; and “Barack X: Race and the Obama Presidency” by Atlanta’s own Jelani Cobb posted on October 8, 2012 in The New Yorker.  These are two superior essays that deal with the shifting attitudes about race as this nation examines the record of our current President Barack Obama.  While I cannot give you an analysis of everything Coates and Cobb discussed, I can say that these essays are masterpieces by two very thoughtful Black scholars.

It is worth mentioning that Coates noticed a definitive and more negative shift in the manner in which some members of the Right viewed and spoke about Obama once he came out and stated that if he had a son that son would look like Trayvon Martin.  He also stressed that the President did not point accusatory fingers at anyone, but simply asked for a thorough investigation of the killing of the unarmed teenager.  However, Cobb beautifully and uniquely compared Obama to the late Malcolm X.  Once Malcolm X returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca and reappraised his approach to dealing with America’s racial problems, he was confronted by many people, Black and White, who were not prepared to accept his evolution into an activist that would and could build multiracial coalitions to fight for racial and economic justice.  Cobb underscored that like Malcolm X, Obama simultaneously represents different things to different sets of people, almost none of who are prepared to grant him much wiggle room to change.

In both essays Obama appears as much set free by his racial identity as he is boxed-in by it.  Although Coates and Cobb’s commentary was deeply moving, I noticed how their and others’ discussions about President Obama and the death of Trayvon Martin have so rarely focused on gender, on the very idea of manhood and even Black manhood itself.

As a self-designated Black man—and please, let us not discuss the fantasy that Black Americans are racially pure because miscegenation, during and after slavery, ended that purity—President Obama has, according to many pundits, simply not been able to publically show anger because, God-forbid, he might appear to White voters as the stereotypical angry Black man.  Black male aggression (and violence) is fine on a football field or against other Black people or in the movies.  Yet, such imagined or real aggression is not acceptable in the Whitehouse or on a street in a gated suburban enclave: that is, if you believe the late Trayvon Martin was the aggressor against neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman who pulled the trigger on Martin allegedly in self-defense.

For Black men, any demonstration of a more forceful masculinity is fraught with dangers.  If Black men act angry and are loud, they risk stigmatization as “thugs,” or worse they might conjure up that age-old stereotype, the “Black Buck.”  The “Black Buck” was almost always a villainous rapist and/or thief and/or murderer or all of the above.  The stereotype is almost as old as the American slavery that allowed White southern slave holders to manufacture it, in part, to justify Whites’ continued enslavement and persecution of Black people.  Black people en masse, but Black men in particular, Whites reasoned, needed supervision.

President Obama knows this history of Black America.  Was Trayvon Martin familiar with this history?  Does George Zimmerman know anything about this narrative?  We do not know.  We also cannot know if Zimmerman saw (or sees) himself as somehow having transcended that category known as “person of color” due to his having a Jewish father.  The media first described George Zimmerman as, “Hispanic White” or “White Hispanic,” to the surprise and confusion of many enlightened members of an ethnically and racially diverse Hispanic American population, many of who have some African and/or Amerindian ancestry themselves.

When protests over Martin’s death became a national and then an international cause célèbre, the media pivoted and identified Zimmerman as the visibly brown-complexioned man of Peruvian extraction on his mother’s side that most of us already assumed he was.  So, what does all of this mean?  Well, it means that President Obama and George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin have much in common, even if their commonality is not strikingly evident.

Obama, Martin, and Zimmerman are (and were) manipulated and trapped, by real and perceived definitions of masculinity—masculinity viewed through the prism of race and certain inter- and intra-racial expectations.  All three males are confined not only by their own definitions of manhood, but also by classifications that come from others who place certain expectations on them for reasons that have everything to do with their race and gender.

Zimmerman has a police record.—He once fought a police officer that tried to arrest one of his friends.  Such a brawl appears, on the surface, as one example of swaggering male bravado.  If Trayvon Martin did in fact confront Zimmerman—the man who was following him—he probably did so in order not to appear weak or afraid.  Remember, Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend, a young woman who told him to run.  How many boys, to say nothing of men, want to appear weak or afraid in front of women who are important to them?  While we will never have a complete account of that tragic night in February 2012, it is plausible that Martin’s flawed teenage wisdom incorrectly told him to “Stand His Ground,” pardon the pun.  How many fathers and men (and mothers for that matter) have you heard tell sons, nephews, and any male friend or family member to, “Protect yourself; protect your mother, your sisters, your girlfriends, your wives.  Do not start a fight, but do not allow anyone to push you around or run you away.  BE A MAN!”  For most of us, the opposite of being a man is to be a coward.  And then…

There was President Obama’s polished and fact-filled, but rather lackluster, performance in the first Presidential debate of 2012.  Critics rightfully thought he should have hammered away at some of Mitt Romney’s falsehoods.  Instead, Obama seemingly held back, and people on all sides of the political spectrum saw Romney as the winner.  The president appeared to many people as weak.  Was he tired?  Maybe.  Has his notoriety as being cool and level headed, restricted his responses?  Perhaps.  We do not know.  Yet, there is such a thing as being too calm or even too cautious.  I would not wish the balancing act that the President has performed for nearly four years on anyone.  However, there was something about the glee coming from many folks on the Right, that made Romney look like the Great White Hope—all puns intended—a man that had the stamina to beat a Black man.

I do not know what may happen in the next debate or in November 2012.  Perhaps everything I have written here will become obsolete in just a few days.  Yet, I do know this.  At this late stage of the game, President Obama has little to lose if he shows a flash of righteous anger.  In fact, I believe he is entitled to it.  And here is why: In a gated community in Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman might not have followed a Black female for no other reason than her being Black.  It is easy to dismiss a Black female as harmless even when they often are not. Zimmerman did not follow Trayvon Martin because of something Martin did or was doing.  He followed Martin because of what he thought Martin might do.  And Black males always might do something, right?

I do not want to give the impression that we Black females have not been and are not subjected to some of the worst brutalities and indignities.  Yet, Black females, are too often dismissed as non-threatening simply because we are women.  WE Black women fight for our personhood, not our womanhood.  And because we are often dismissed, those of us with brains can use our inconsequentiality to get away with any number of things that Black men might be reprimanded for or killed for attempting to do.  It is no accident that it was Black females who first refused to relinquish their seats to White passengers on those buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 (and there were several who did it before Rosa Parks).   A Black man or boy might simply have been killed.  WE sisters have always known how to use our persecutors’ varied and negative definitions of us against those same persecutors.

Now, too many folks followed President Obama in the mistaken belief that the sheer virility of his Black manhood, with all of its alleged hyper-masculine implications, would cause the earth to spin in a different direction and the “Magic Negro” would appear and solve everyone’s problems.  Throughout history Black folks have often been viewed simultaneously as having some special qualities all the while being villainized, often by the same people.  This is not new.  When folks on the Left and the Right discovered the President to be a mere, albeit talented and highly intelligent, mortal Black man, the disappointment resonated everywhere.  How dare he defy that racialized masculine stereotype of what Black manhood must be, should be.  George Zimmerman bought into the flip side of this fallacy and followed and subsequently shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager in alleged self-defense.  He has arrived at this tragic moment in his life precisely because he mistakenly believed that the boy needed to be followed in the first place.  Yet, Zimmerman himself could not/cannot escape the stigma(s) that follow “men of color” either.  He was first conveniently a “White Hispanic.”  He became a “Brown man” the moment public opinion turned up the heat about the killing of Trayvon Martin.  So here is my message to President Obama:

Your enemies will not acknowledge your triumphs no matter how gracious you are, no matter how genteel you are, no matter how big the victory, no matter how much you love and respect your wife or spend quality time with your daughters.  Some of your allies worry that if you show any anger you will frighten someone–mainly some already nervous White folks.  But here is the dilemma, you already frighten a lot of people for reasons we all understand.  No matter how skinny or seemingly innocuous or peaceful or tempered your demeanor and responses may be, you remain a threat, a Black male threat.  (WE also know that if you had been 17-years-old in Florida and walking back from the store wearing a hoodie, you too probably would have been followed or worse.)  Now, I am not suggesting that you show up at a campaign rally or a staff meeting or a debate and punch somebody’s lights out.  I have no desire for you or any other Black man to be violent, loud or profane.  I expect decorum at all times.  However, since you are already perceived as a threat, you might as well turn up the heat.  History has shown that turning up the heat is all our enemies truly respect.  WE, your sisters, know what real dignified Black manhood looks like. WE have been warmed by it, loved by it, respected by it, protected by it and defended by it; and WE have your back!

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All rights reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

 

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The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

by Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                      Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison.  I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix.  This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.

However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora).  Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake.  He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid.  He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage.  No more martyred Black folks, he said.  Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?  Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day?  He made his point.

He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying,  stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary.  He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall.  He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage.  While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.

After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people.  I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group.  I am not kidding; I mean this.  Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes.  They are so hell bent on proving that they are not racist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well.  Blackness and Black people become a fetish.  One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest.  Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be.  It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.

Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw.  According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store.  In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift.  However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on.  Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism.  Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.

When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with.  I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time.  However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say:  Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.

While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things.  When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model.  After that, they can get away with anything!  And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people,  the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.

The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints.  If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions.  Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

A Stranger in the Neighborhood – The Worse Case Scenario

by Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

*

(Update 6-24-2013: When I wrote this blog last year the public only saw a photo of George Zimmerman in an orange prison suit where he clearly weighed roughly 250 pounds.  When he finally appeared in public, I, like everyone else was shocked to see that he had lost weight. (Of course he appears in 2013 to have gained much of it back.  I mentioned Zimmerman’s size in this blog and have left it as it is because I think it is important to note that our impressions are based on the kind of information we have access to.  My opinions have not changed and neither has the blog below.

*Update 3-29-2012:  When I wrote and published the piece below on March 25, 2012, news reports stated that there had been a physical altercation between Martin and Zimmerman in which Zimmerman had a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head.  A new video obtained by ABC news showed Zimmerman being brought into police custody, also showed that he had no signs of physical injury or blood anywhere on his person.  Then in a couple of days there were new accusations that the video had been doctored–a new video showed Zimmerman with gashes on the back of his head.  I am, however, leaving the contents of this blog “as is” because there are some questions that need to be answered that have little to do with how badly Zimmerman was allegedly injured by Martin.  A hyperlink to the “first” ABC video is provided at end of this blog.*)

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I will not bore you by retelling what has already been reported about the fatal and tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  If you have been anywhere near a television or the internet, you know several stories about this already.  I would like to share my take on what questions need to be asked about this case and to share my own personal experiences with fear.

I remember the first time I called the police because I saw a person walking around my neighborhood who I had never seen before.  The person stopped at every house, looked in a few neighbors’ windows, and they did not seem to be selling anything.  I called the police, looked out my window at the person and wrote down everything from what they were wearing to how old I thought they were.  I have done this a couple of times, once when the person was Black like me and another time when the person was White.  As a police officer once told me, “You ladies should not be taking chances.  Call the police when you see anything out of the ordinary.”  In each instance the person had a legitimate reason for being in the neighborhood, but I let the police question these individuals and then waited for the police to stop by my house to let me know what they discovered and to assure me that I had nothing to worry about.

Right now George Zimmerman is under fire for his fatal shooting of Black,17-year-old,140 pound Trayvon Martin whom Zimmerman claims attacked him from behind.  Most people are reasonably having a hard time understanding how Zimmerman, who weighs 250 pounds, was over powered by what is obviously a slender teenage boy.  That Zimmerman had a bloody nose when police arrived on the scene does raise the possibility that Trayvon might have, at some point, hit the man in the face.

Friends of Zimmerman have come forward to paint him as someone who was certainly not racist; someone who mentored a young Black boy; and a man who has been crying and feels very bad about what has transpired.  He should feel bad, because if the police had properly conducted their investigation, Zimmerman might be in a jail cell where he would probably feel much safer than he feels right now.  He and his defenders understand his suspicions about Trayvon Martin, but there has been no statement from Zimmerman or anyone in his camp that suggests he has the faintest understanding that his actions probably frightened the hell out of Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman and all other parties also need to understand that even if he is not a racist as he and some of his defenders have claimed, that many people who are not Black and who bear no particular ill-will against the Black community often harbor some dangerous and downright stupid stereotypes about Black people.  You do not need to be a virulent racist to harbor stereotypes about any group of people.  I have met many White and allegedly non-racist liberals who have assumed certain things about ALL Black people, only to embarrass themselves when they discover their mistake.

There are some questions that should plague everyone about this fatal shooting.  First, let us suppose a HYPOTHETICAL scenario where Trayvon Martin jumps George Zimmerman from behind and actually physically gets the best of him.  If this scenario is true then the next question is what motivated Trayvon Martin to attack in this way?  What would you do if someone continued to follow you and you were not near your house?  If Zimmerman was safely driving in his SUV with a loaded gun, following Trayvon Martin, then why did Zimmerman not just crack his car window, say, “Hello” to Trayvon and then calmly ask the boy what he was doing in the neighborhood or if he lived in the neighborhood.  And if the person walking in your neighborhood seemed so threatening, why not follow from a safe distance and wait for the police.

I remember driving one night, with a car following me; the experience was unbelievably frightening.  I drove until I found a well-lit parking lot, populated with several people.  The car followed me into the parking lot, made a U-Turn and then quickly sped away.  My heart raced with fear, but I hurried home glad that nothing happened.  I do not know what I might have done (or might do) if I were out walking and suddenly discovered someone was following me in a car.  If you are walking, you cannot outrun the vehicle.  Then, what would you think if the driver exited the car?  Certainly, I might be convinced that the person was trying to harm me in some way.  Being followed also provokes feelings of vulnerability and anger.

George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin when he did not have to do so.  WHY SHOULD ANYONE EXPECT A BOY WALKING DOWN A STREET TO STOP FOR A COMPLETE STRANGER  THAT THE  BOY BELIEVES IS FOLLOWING HIM?  If Zimmerman’s account of what happened is correct: that Trayvon Martin jumped him from behind, then Zimmerman should be prepared to explain why he thought Trayvon Martin did this, and how such a small framed boy managed to over power a 250 pound man.  I must admit that when you think your life is threatened, fear will make you much stronger than you ever knew you were.  If Zimmerman’s account is correct then he needs to explain his role in provoking such a response from a boy who was a good student and who had no criminal record.  The key word here is “boy.”

We probably will never know exactly what was said by Zimmerman or Martin.  It is always possible that a nasty verbal exchange took place between them; this would not come as a surprise.  However, that Trayvon Martin told his girlfriend over his cell phone that he was being followed is frightening.  She too is an adolescent who told him to run.  He said he would just walk fast.  Black boys who “walk fast” are not always doing so because they have done something wrong or fleeing the scene of a crime.  But anyone who is afraid will walk fast or possibly run.

Even in the worst of all possible–not actual–scenarios, no matter how mature or responsible Trayvon Martin might have been in his too short life, his ability to reason like a mature adult was still a year or two away.  Some maturity comes with time and experience.  Some mistakes in judgment are expected when you are a teenager; and no one expects a 17-year-old boy to never make the wrong decision.  At the risk of invoking a stereotype about all adolescent males, can someone tell me whether they have ever met a young teenage boy who has not had at least one fisticuff over something silly or even something serious?  Yet, it was completely rational to try to walk or run away from someone Trayvon believed was following him.  For Zimmerman to assume that his following someone walking down the street would not be frightening to that person is about as absurd and irrational as anyone can get.

The public may never know the exact details of what transpired on that tragic night in February.  I freely admit my anger over this boy’s death.  Yet, no matter what happens next or whose story becomes the narrative of this tragedy, there is still one clear fact that no one can escape or ignore, and that fact is that George Zimmerman was not/is not a teenager, but A GROWN MAN who should have known better.  Trayvon Martin left this world, his family, and his friends while he was just a boy.

(*This is a hyperlink to the surveillance video of George Zimmerman being taken into custody by the Sanford, Florida police on the night he killed Trayvon Martin: http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/trayvon-martin-case-exclusive-surveillance-video-george-zimmerman/story?id=16022897)

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.