If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing
–– Malcolm X
There’s a scene in D.W. Griffith’s racist epic “Birth of a Nation” that takes place in the South Carolina Senate chamber during the Reconstruction period when, for the first time in history, Black men were able to vote and hold public office in the former slaveholding south. The scene depicts these newly enfranchised Black men as barely sentient savages, eating fried chicken, butchering the English language, dressed in torn clothes or outlandish costumes in pathetic imitation of their former masters.
Another scene in the film portrays a newly freed sexually aggressive Black soldier stalking a white woman, who chooses suicide over the threat of interracial violation.
No one who saw these images in 1915 could mistake the message: Black men are ignorant children at best, and uncontrollable sexual beasts at worst, only fit to live if subjected to the hard power of physical white discipline or the soft power of white guidance. Those images of Black men existed long before the movie was created but were amplified by a new form of mass media with speed that took the previous methods of terrorism and propaganda centuries to spread.
This propaganda has been refined but it still exists. Online forums, the tone of cable news crime reporting, scripted content and academic curriculums all conspire to perpetuate the fear of the indeterminate Black masculine shape that lurks in the American imagination.
The coarser version of these stereotypes are normally confined to the media outlets of the far right but now they’re making a return to mainstream platforms, most recently when Vanity Fair published an essay ostensibly about the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s special “The Closer,” but was really yet another retelling of an enduring American myth — the legend of the subhuman Black boogeyman.
In the mind of the anti-Black misandrist, Dave Chappelle currently serves the same function Emmanuel Goldstein did for The Party in George Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four“: a vague figure of fear and subversion that can be used to channel the frustrations of a population onto a hated enemy. In a society with a long history of hatred of Black males like the United States, Chappelle also serves as a highly visible Black boogeyman for people who claim to be anti-racist to express that hatred. Chappelle is guilty of two major social crimes — challenging the self-image of those “good white folk” and refusing to submit to their censure. Specifically in “The Closer,” Chappelle teases out the truth that the power structure of American LGBTQ organizations is overwhelmingly white and male, and that other ethnic groups are able to achieve political gains faster than African Americans. Saying this out loud enraged those organizations and when he didn’t offer the customary apology expected of celebrities, the anger against him turned into an obsession.
Like Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick before him, Dave Chappelle represents the “uppity negro” who refuses to bow to white psychological dominance and has enough money to ride out the consequences. In America, that has always been dangerous, but not just to white America. For the writer of the Vanity Fair piece, Dave Chappelle is a convenient hook on which to hang classic stereotypes and “big lies” about Black males. For a class of people paid to compromise on behalf of Black people, he represents an even bigger threat.
The term “the big lie” was coined by Adolf Hitler. Originally, Hitler meant that phrase to refer to Jewish people, accusing them of having used a “big lie” to blame the German army for its own defeat. Ironically, the Nazis, via Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, used their own version of the “big lie” to perpetuate the “stab-in-the-back” myth — the idea that Germany hadn’t been defeated on the battlefield but by a shadowy cabal of communists and Jews that had to be removed from influence in German society. This lie would be particularly useful to help demonize Jews in the German public’s mind in preparation for the genocide to come.
Adapted by Donald Trump and the far-right to attack the mainstream press, the concept of the “big lie,” now known as “fake news,” worked to convince his die-hard supporters that he was being undermined by a shadow government from the moment he took office until his defeat in the 2020 election, culminating the events of Jan. 6, 2021. The writer of the Vanity Fair piece uses the term, “The big Black ass lie” to refer to the truth that African-American men are at or near the bottom of every American socioeconomic success indicator, signaling to Vanity Fair’s white liberal readership that they should regard it as untrue also. Associating that truth in the American public mind to the lies spread by the Nazis and Trump, as well as linking Chappelle to notorious Black male offenders like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, further reinforces the idea that the critical issues affecting Black men and boys can be ridiculed and ignored.
Two ideas have taken root regarding Black masculinity in academic and activist organizations. One is that “the cishet Black man is taking up too much space and taking attention away from other marginalized Black groups.” The other is that “straight Black men are still toxic patriarchs despite their oppressed status,” a concept that gained traction in academia via the fifth Chapter of Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” and Michelle Wallace’s “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman”. It’s an idea that spreads easily online among people who haven’t done research or those who use those false narratives to pander to those who haven’t.
But the data doesn’t match the rhetoric. Professor Tommy J. Curry teaches philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He holds a professorial chair in Black male studies and is the author of “The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemma of Black Manhood,” which won the American Book Award in 2018.
“As a group,” Dr. Curry says, “Black men are not shown to have resentment of Black women’s issues as Lemieux claims. In fact, more than any group of other men and most groups of women in the U.S., Black males show overwhelming support for women’s rights and acknowledge the role sexism plays in the oppression of Black women. This however cannot be confused with the reservation that working class Black men and women have towards bourgeois Black feminist politics that insist Black men are violent and dangerous, or bad fathers and partners.”
Unfortunately, Black men and Black women experience nearly equal percentages of intimate partner violence. But on the positive, Black fathers are the most involved with their children out of all racial and ethnic groups.
The data shows that even with the massive societal disadvantages of mass incarceration, employment discrimination and negative health outcomes, most Black men are loving husbands and fathers and mentors to children and teens outside the immediate family unit when they’re allowed to be.
But those facts don’t matter. With America’s history of pathologizing Black masculinity, a handful of problematic Black male celebrities can represent the totality of Black manhood. It’s intellectually lazy to build theory on so tiny a group and wouldn’t be taken seriously when discussing any other group of oppressed males but when it comes to Black men, it’s not only accepted in academia and media but considered an article of faith.
The large majority of the Negroes who have put on the finishing touches of our best colleges are all but worthless in the development of their people.
— Carter G. Woodson
There’s a social contract that white liberals adhere to when dealing with the Black underclass. When they’re unsure how to engage, they rely on unofficial ambassadors to relay the wishes of the Black masses up to them and back down again. In the early part of the 20th century they were called “race men” and “race women” but now they fall under the term activists or advocates. I call them “Negro whisperers,” the striving, appointed spokespeople of the Black masses. Increasingly, these Negro whisperers are disconnected from the Black masses and have more in common with their white handlers and benefactors than they do with the people they claim to represent. And like their behavior models, they are ruthlessly individualist and careerist.
The outsourcing of anti-Black misandry has fallen to this cadre of amoral, opportunistic Black careerists. It would be politically dangerous for good white liberals to voice anti-Black misandrist narratives themselves, but a Negro whisperer properly indoctrinated in the Firestone/Steinem/hooks school of feminist theory is a useful tool that allows them to do so while appearing to support Black progress.
On social media platforms, especially on Twitter until very recently, hateful anti-Black misandrist narratives go viral on a weekly basis. The likes are filled with white people who hold positions of power in institutions as well as Black people in graduate programs being groomed to occupy those positions. These hateful statements aren’t the work of anonymous bigots and cranks, but of prominent academics and pundits, many of them Black. Many members of the Black striver class make these statements to signal to the white liberals who hold institutional power that they are willing to slander the male half of their ethnic group in exchange for a job. The Vanity Fair article being published is proof of the success of that strategy. It’s deeper than mean tweets. Academia is full of these people, and they are indoctrinating Black and white students with their bitter virulent hatred of Black men. That should keep us all up at night.
In a cruel irony, these narratives began to gain traction in the wake of worldwide protests against the police killings of Black men. The August 2014 killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. sparked more than nationwide uprisings. For the first time since the beating of Rodney King in 1992, world attention focused on American police brutality against Black men, and for the first time in a half century, mainstream media attention shifted to the point of view of the Black street protester and away from the academic. Before long, the negro whisperers were on the scene, this time wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Armed with radical feminist theories and establishment connections, their mission was wrestling the bullhorn back from the brothers and sisters on the block.
A narrative began to form that too much attention is given to Black men killed in police encounters. While this affects Black people of all genders, The truth is Black men make up the vast majority of Black people killed by law enforcement in the United States. A second vague narrative was that straight Black men should be removed from leadership and spokesperson positions because their inherent privilege as patriarchs makes life dangerous for gender non-conforming people. One of the claims made in the Vanity Fair article is that straight Black men on the ground in Ferguson would have attacked the LGBTQ individuals alongside them had their attention not been focused on the police. Tory Russell is the director of Black Organizing for the International Black Freedom Alliance and an activist from Ferguson, Mo. As part of one of the first groups of protesters on the ground after Mike Brown was killed and a protest leader in the following months, he was well placed to witness everything that occurred.
“Contrary to what journalists, academics and activists misled by Black Lives Matter have said, Ferguson was not this revolutionary moment steeped in patriarchy and transphobia,” says Russell. “These lies were based on the grassroots rejection of certain individuals who happened to be LGBTQ and their white-centered ideologies of what Black freedom is. This negation of individuals cannot be taken out of context, nor can it become so personalized that it becomes mainstream rhetoric by Black feminists to further bash Black men.”
To shift the conversation to gender and away from state-sponsored brutality, radical feminists had to separate Black men from Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people, then position themselves as the spokespeople for all these groups, when before, the common denominator was outrage against anti-Black injustice. Ferguson, and the later murder of George Floyd, provided excellent opportunities to put this into effect. From the streets to the tweets and mainstream media C-suites, Black opportunists organized to marginalize Black men in the eyes of the power structure in exchange for social influence, book and content deals and political access while their Black brothers and sisters of every sexual and gender identity remained powerless.
“Black trans, Black LGBTQ+ folks and Black women are catching hell everyday with no relief from their so-called advocates in sight,” says Russell. “Here in Ferguson, we call this ‘how to kill Black revolution.’”
No one can deny that there are serious community issues between Black men, Black women and Black LGBTQIA people that must be worked out. We are all dealing with the trauma of being America’s underclass and as happens all over the world, the oppressed often oppress each other. Vanity Fair is an extremely influential magazine that is widely read by America’s white liberal elite, people who only engage with the Black public through pop culture and appointed gatekeepers. What outcome will delivering an essay demonizing straight Black men into the hands of these elites have for the millions of Black men and women whose lives they will affect?
The biggest and longest-lived lie in American culture is the myth of the Black boogeyman. It’s a lie with more mutations and virulence than any disease. A lie that has been used to lynch Black men, incarcerate Black men, and demonize Black men since we were brought to these shores.
It’s a myth that appears at every forward step of Black progress and will be with us for a long time. The tragedy is that so many skinfolk in positions of power have been indoctrinated into perpetuating that myth too.
Torraine Walker is the founder and editor of Context Media Group and a writer, journalist, and social media influencer with over 50 bylines in publications including Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Splinter (formerly Fusion), and RaceBaitR. He is the producer and director of the documentary “Five Years: Mike Brown & Ferguson Now” and the creator and host of “Wednesday Wisdom,” a news and information webseries. Torraine is currently writing a book on the intersections of race, gender, power and culture in American society. Twitter Facebook
Image provided by Torraine Walker
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