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From MLK to Jay-Z

An attempt at understanding contemporary black male identity

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DECONSTRUCTING TYRONE: A NEW LOOK AT BLACK MASCULINITY IN THE HIP-HOP GENERATION | NATALIE HOPKINSON AND NATALIE Y. MOORE (CLEIS PRESS)

Black men are simultaneously the most fetishized and despised group in American history. So in Deconstructing Tyrone, their recent study of contemporary black masculinity, Natalie Hopkinson and Natalie Y. Moore pledge to find the middle ground. "The positive-negative thing? We are so over that," they insist.

But while evenhandedness can be a virtue, it can easily tip over into a bland refusal to explore difficult positions--or to take any position at all. Tyrone's authors are journalists (Moore teaches at Columbia College and writes for, among others, the Chicago Tribune; Hopkinson is a staff writer at the Washington Post), and they've essentially stitched together a book from a bunch of moderately insightful feature stories. There's a chapter on Kwame Kirkpatrick, the young, black, and (allegedly) hard-partying mayor of Detroit, another on being black and gay, one on female strippers and their dads, one on buppies raising boys, and so forth. The style is chatty, informed, and ultimately positive, mining the middlebrow ground shared by All Things Considered and Oprah. There are a few forays into more "literary" territory--in describing video performer Melyssa Ford, for example, the authors inform us that "Her long ponytail sways gently like spring leaves on a maple tree." Luckily, these moments are rare.

Though the book isn't exactly thoughtful, it does contain a lot of suggestive tidbits. It's interesting to hear, for example, that black gay male style is much more typically masculine and less stereotypically gay than it was a generation ago. It's interesting to be introduced to Etan Thomas, a professional basketball player who has also made a name for himself as an activist poet. It's interesting to learn that Jay-Z tells white people in his audiences not to chant along to "Nigga What, Nigga Who." It's interesting to find out that black men with high incomes are less likely to marry than middle-class black men. And of course the interviews with strippers and video chicks are interesting--or, at least, even in the authors' studiously unexploitative prose, they make sensational copy.

But though the authors raise good subjects, they leave them dangling, without analysis and without acknowledging that analysis might be necessary. They discuss, for example, media representations of men living on the down low, but there's no discussion of homophobia in the black community, nor of how important the closet has been to black cultural expression (closeted men have long been a staple of gospel choirs, for example). Similarly, the book makes several offhand jabs at feminism without exploring the ways feminism has (or hasn't) failed blacks, or vice versa. And in the chapter devoted to black female strippers and their dads, the strippers' stories of abuse, impoverishment, and easy money seem like they could come from sex workers of any race. The black sex industry may well reflect on black masculinity, but you'd never know how from reading this.

Theory--or at least trying to make a point--gives a book like this focus; it helps to determine which details are important and need to be developed and which ones should be chucked. More than that, though, it gives a work coherence and meaning. Hopkinson and Moore do seem to sense that they're adrift--the evidence is their ostentatious claim to be deconstructionists. According to them, deconstruction as a philosophy is meant "to take apart fake constructions to reach a greater understanding." In other words, Derrida--an abstruse aesthete who spent his life generating impenetrable prose about unknowability--is here rejiggered as some sort of muckraking newspaperman, battling falsehood in the interest of uplift. What next? Foucault as advocate of safe sex?

Hopkinson and Moore aren't using deconstruction or any other critical lens. They do occasionally express opinions--they dislike sexist rap videos and they really enjoyed the 1994 "Black Male" exhibit at the Whitney. But without any intellectual framework, each contention boils down to little more than personal preference. The clearest reason the authors can provide for liking the Whitney exhibit is that they believe it was among the first museum shows to place film stills and news photographs on a gallery wall.

Even when Hopkinson writes about a family friend who was convicted, probably wrongly, of murder, she can't get any moral traction. Instead the narrative gets bogged down in the familiar minutiae of true-crime drama--efficient, entertaining, but not particularly passionate.

In the not too distant past, any book that treated black men as human could have claimed a righteous, even subversive, agenda. But that's no longer the case. American institutions--schools, housing, prisons--remain racist and discriminatory. Yet the rise of a fairly stable black middle class has meant that African-Americans are now simultaneously an oppressed minority and just another demographic marketing niche. Race sells, at least to a certain audience. It's a product as well as a problem.

Hopkinson and Moore probably wouldn't explain the transformation of racial discourse in quite this way. But they do recognize the changing cultural landscape and are as enthusiastic about it as they are about anything. Thus, they earnestly praise the Million Man March because it was a media circus rather than an actual political movement. The march, they say, "launched a new front in black politics in which battles are waged in the realm of perception." This is a comforting thought: changing the world doesn't require contemplation, or sacrifice, or discomfort. With apologies to the Beatles, all you need is a PR campaign. Or a 200-page sound bite.

Perception and the media were important to the civil rights movement, of course. Martin Luther King and his colleagues were brilliant at manipulating images of both blacks and whites and then beaming them around the world via television. Civil rights protesters weren't focused on the images themselves, however, but on what they could get from them--on how they could leverage the perceptions their leaders created into concrete political gains. It didn't always work the way they intended, especially in the north, but still--you can't get anything if you aren't willing to figure out what you want and develop a strategy for getting there. Hopkinson and Moore seem to think that if they just say something then they're a force for good. But while such preaching may entertain the choir, it's unlikely to do much more.

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