All too often, the images that come to the minds of Americans when thinking about Black males are images of criminals and violent street thugs. In 1998, Melissa Barlow stated that "talking about crime is talking about race" (Barlow, 1998, p. 151). Her statement highlights that presumptions about the racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race needs no mention for a connection to be made between the two. My acknowledgement of the association of crime with the African American community is not to suggest it as new; however, it is imperative to note that it is a connection that has perpetually plagued the Black population throughout history, Black men in particular. So, in thinking about contemporary Black masculinity, it goes without question that we must comprehend, historically, the circumstances which have created the image of the "criminally predispositioned" Black male today.
The pages to follow outline a historical framework for thinking about Black masculinity today. I briefly review major historical eras which have had significant impacts on African American men and the larger African American community, such as enslavement, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the contemporary war on drugs. Following such periods, Black men face a world infused with challenges to the structure of their lives today. Thus, I also highlight additional significant factors impacting Black men's lives today--i.e. family, work, and prison. I conclude by discussing the ever-present threat of incarceration on Black men and the issues that formerly incarcerated Black men face during reentry and present the potential impact of these factors on constructs of masculinity post-incarceration.
Black Males and Enslavement
Any discussion of Black masculinity must consider the impact of enslavement. Black male identity is a product of an American history that has been saturated with the unequivocal impact of enslavement, combined with narrowly defined understandings of masculinity--i.e. power, dominance, along with educational, economic, and social advantages. Unlike their White counterparts, Black men, both presently and historically, have had fewer economic and social privileges.
During enslavement, African bodies were equated to property and denied participation in public life. Thus, social identities for enslaved Africans were non-existent, as far as being socially recognized by non-Blacks. However, enslaved Blacks found ways of maneuvering such restrictions. David Johns (2007) pointed out in his investigation on the "problems" surrounding the construction of Black masculinity in America that "the transition of enslaved Africans into freed people ushered in a bifurcated Black/White social schema. Subsequently, preserving the socially constructed category of "Whiteness" required of Whites, the categorization of "Blackness" in opposition to the purity, entitlement, and moral hegemony associated with Whiteness.
As such, anything identified with Blackness was fixed within a contradictory and flawed notion of inherent deficiency--based primarily on the construction of the word itself' (Johns, 2007, p. 2). The power of land owning European Protestants power to create, validate, and sustain notions of Black masculinity that began during enslavement cannot be emphasized enough here. Pejorative images of Black males as lazy, violent, and disengaged, which were first offered to justify enslavement, continue to impact the ways Black males are represented, understood, and in many ways understand themselves (ibid.). Black men construct their identity through and against a cultural, economic, and historical backdrop that has limited their participation in public life. Moreover, Black men's contemporary realities are bound in their histories and inextricably connected to its historical production.
The historical realities of enslavement deeply impacted Black families. From the perspective of southern slaveholders, slaveholding was a most Christian act and during wartime, Southerners grew more comfortable with the idea that all of the world's lesser peoples should find their way into God's community through enslavement (Fox-Genovese & Genovese, 2008). However, the reality of enslavement did not allow enslaved men (and women) the ability to always protect and/or financially support their families. Black men have been a subject met with disagreement over the years. The earliest work in the area of the impact of enslavement gave rise to theoretical perspectives that depicted the Black male as a docile personality whose will had been broken by enslavement. In an opposing view, the adaptability and flexibility of Black families to either be headed by a male or female has been cited as "a source of strength and stability" (Hill, 2003, p. 11).
Black men's emasculation during enslavement, and its lingering contemporary impact, has often been cited as one of the causes for the high rates of female-headed households, single-parent families, and divorce rates within the Black community (Jones, 2009; McWhorter, 2011; Staples, 1982; Stevenson, 1996; Wilson, 1987).However, despite multiple structural and psychosocial barriers, historical accounts have shown that even in the worst conditions--i.e. enslavement and poverty--Black abolitionists, and the African American community in general, have managed to develop a sense of dignity and self-worth, they connected to their families, and provided for them as best they could (Bowman, 1989; Cazenave, 1979; Feagin, 2014; Hunter, 1988; Mitchell, 2005 Stevenson, 1996). However, because we associate masculinity with being the economic provider and as head of the family, what Black males are and what they should be is measured against the status and privilege of White males. This comparison, which is infused with unacknowledged inequality, has impacted their community, their sense of self-worth, and their ability to embody dominant practices and conceptions of masculinity. Many of these contemporary stereotypes of African American men developed during the bellum period and continue to impact the lives of Black males (Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2011).
In sum, I do not want to imply that Black people in general and Black men in particular are not active agents in the construction of their selves and their identities. However, Black masculinity has been intimately shaped by enslavement and by abolition. Understanding how Black men performed masculinity during enslavement is instrumental to conceptualizing Black masculinity today.
Emancipation/Reconstruction Era [1865-1877]
If we view enslavement as a form of social death for African Americans, then emancipation, or the Reconstruction era as it is also known, alludes to a social rebirth with enfranchisement and other rights bestowed on Black people (Franke, 1999). However, for many emancipation appeared to just be a theme of this era, or civil war tactic (Schwartz & Schuman, 2005). This time immediately following the abolition of enslavement was critical for African Americans in relation to civil rights and state regulation. During this period, just after the Civil War, Blacks celebrated the right to own property, to alienate or exercise control over their labor, and to participate in institutions of civil and public life that were considered essential to a good and free life (Johnson, 2004). As this post antebellum period progressed, African Americans quickly learned that just because they were gaining civil rights did not mean there would be absence of restrictive state regulation. The relationship between Blacks and state regulations changed because they were not seen as capable of fully handling autonomy, independence and full citizenship immediately, with that they remained under close scrutiny (Franke, 1999; O'Brien, 2009). The childlike Sambo image of Black masculinity during enslavement was met with a more evil incarnate construction as tactic used to uphold White supremacy post-emancipation (Thomas, 2013). More simply, they had to be "domesticated" into citizenship.
The acquisition of rights during reconstruction was a two-fold battlefield of victories and defeats. For the formerly enslaved, rights were a source of emancipation, but entrusting rights was a source of social power for Whites as it gave them the tools to naturalize their dominant positions with regards to and social power (Ortiz, 2005). For example, marriage is a domestication of more "primitive" sexuality (Franke, 1999). It is a site for the transformation of behavior and a placing of men and women as husbands and wives in society. This "domestication" of formerly enslaved persons is crucial in understanding the rights of Blacks during this time because it was one of the most important ramifications after emancipation. For a large number of the formerly enslaved, legal marriage was not experienced as a source of validation and empowerment, but rather a source of discipline and punishment (Franke, 1999). The inauguration of Blacks into the institution of marriage can be understood through the converging interests of Black and White males. On the one hand, for the African American community, the ability to marry was important because it signified freedom and acceptance into civil society; on the other hand, for White males, it had powerful economic undertones and was a way to maintain control over Blacks (ibid.).
The enforcement of bigamy, fornication, and adultery laws served to "domesticate" Black people, whose sexuality was seen as outside the normative Victorian matrimonial customs of the time (Ryan, 2014). Once emancipated, Black people were in violation of marriage laws for a number of reasons; for instance, it was not uncommon for a man to marry a woman and then be sold under enslavement. Subsequently, they would marry another spouse believing they would not see each other again. Franke (1999) argues that African Americans were...