Blackness is a fluid and complex identity, yet American society constructs black male identity through stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness. Black men must navigate this prepackaged identity in a “performance” of blackness, which has evolved through the literary periods of Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.
During the Afro-Modern period, the performance of blackness was largely an unconscious act, which is perfectly embodied by the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Afro-Modernism centers on feelings of dysphoria and displacement brought on by changes in science, technology, and industrialization within society; it is a struggle for identity in the midst of becoming an automaton. On addition to this, the Afro-Modern period must also deal with the historical realities of slavery and racism in the United States.
The protagonist of Invisible Man is naïve and inexperienced with the ways of the world. The novel begins with the protagonist reflecting on his experiences, explaining that he is invisible to others:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you sometimes see in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me. (Ellison, 3)
The nameless narrator feels helpless because his identity is beyond his control; people never see his true self because they are absorbed in their own perceptions of his blackness. To white characters (and even some black characters) the protagonist is perceived as a caricature of blackness. Without realizing it, the protagonist is participating in a performance of blackness. This performance typically results in the protagonist being exploited for others’ purposes; they use him as a puppet for their own means. He is the object, never the doer, in these various situations throughout the novel.
During the course of the novel, the protagonist is haunted by historically important memorabilia; these items reflect the racist realities for African Americans in the early 20th century:
Then near the door I saw something which I’d never noticed there before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. (Ellison, 319)
This early Americana coin bank is a racist caricature of African Americans. The protagonist of Invisible Man senses the racist nature of the bank and he inadvertently smashes it to pieces. He then tries to get dispose of the bank, but to no avail. He puts the broken pieces in his briefcase and tries to drop them into a trashcan on the street, but the owner of the trashcan forces him to remove the package. Then, he attempts to leave the package in a pile of snow at a stoplight. The protagonist feels immensely relieved until a man catches up with him a few blocks later and tries to return the package to him. The protagonist simply cannot get rid of this thing.
This “Dancing Sambo” doll makes an appearance in Invisible Man when the protagonist spots Brother Todd Clifton peddling these dolls on the street. Upon seeing the crowd around Clifton, the protagonist looks at what is being sold and thinks, “I’d seen nothing like it before. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face” (Ellison, 431). The Sambo doll troubles the protagonist; he cannot figure out what makes it dance. Frustrated, he says to the doll:
Go on, entertain me. You entertained the crowd. I turned it around. One face grinned as broadly as the other. It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death. It still grinned when I played the fool and spat upon it, and it still grinned when Clifton ignored me. Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the frilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton had been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible (Ellison, 446).
The invisible black thread is indicative of the white characters of Invisible Man, particularly the Brotherhood who have used the protagonist for their own purposes. They have been controlling him and making him perform without his knowledge. The protagonist eventually realizes both his invisibility and how the Brotherhood exploited him: “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude… The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool. A tool just at the very moment I had thought myself free” (Ellison, 553).
The Negro coin bank and “Dancing Sambo” doll are significant for the protagonist’s black identity. He cannot escape the fact that objects such as these exist in the world and that they will affect his existence as a black man in American society. The protagonist looks up to the white characters of the novel such as Mr. Norton and wants to please these men; he wants to be the ideal black man—polite, respectable, educated, and most importantly, a man who “knows his place” (i.e. his racial inferiority). In reality, the white characters see him as a stereotype—a mindless, groveling entertainer, much like the Negro bank and Sambo doll.
The literary successor of the Afro-Modern period is the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement was the sister to the Black Power Movement. The BAM valued blackness; it emphasized racial pride. The protagonist Dan Freeman in Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door is proud of his blackness, but he still must navigate stereotypes about black individuals. Freeman, unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, is well aware of the stereotypes he’ll encounter; his performance is polished and deliberate.
Below is the trailer of the film adaptation of The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It gives a great sense of the tone of Spook and outlines Freeman’s character well:
To “whitey,” Freeman is the ideal black man—a prime example of success for his people. Freeman thinks, “It was not difficult to conform to the image whites desired, since they did most of the work. They saw in most Negroes exactly what they most wanted to see; one need only impressionistically support the stereotype. Whites were fools” (Greenlee, 32).
A brilliant example of the calculated race relations between Freeman and “Whitey” occurs when Freeman is meeting with the Senator who was responsible for the integration of the CIA. He says to Freeman, “Tell me, Mr. Freeman, do you like working for the agency?” The senator had found that calling Negroes “Mr.” often had a magical effect on the relationship,” to which Freeman replies, “Yes, sir.” Freeman used “sir” with whites as often as possible. He found that it had a magical effect on the relationship” (Greenlee, 45). This interaction demonstrates how both Freeman and the senator are attempting to manipulate the other through their navigation of stereotypes. If this interaction had been with the senator and the protagonist of Invisible Man, the protagonist would have been flattered to be addressed as “Mr.” Freeman, however, knows better.
The video below features the entire film adaptation of Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door:
The scene from 20 minutes and 11 seconds to 21 minutes and 36 seconds shows the CIA’s thoroughness in ensuring that Freeman is a “good” and “safe” black man to have in the agency—a radical of any kind is unacceptable. Freeman though, has a pristine cover and keeps his black nationalist identity to himself. Freeman restrains himself in the presence of whites; a great example of this is his interaction with the senator from 28 minutes and 4 seconds to 28 minutes and 52 seconds. The senator tells Freeman that he is a “credit to his race” and makes insulting statements about black people being natural-born athletes. The senator is quick to comment that black people are still primitive though—“there is a cultural gap.” Freeman responds to all of this with a smile and a “yes, sir,” despite Freeman’s true thoughts on the condescension of this white man.
Freeman then moves back to Chicago to be a social worker. He plans to “reach out” to a local gang, the Cobras. He is really recruiting them as a guerilla army against “whitey.” The scene begins at 34 minutes and 57 seconds to 35 minutes and 57 seconds; Freeman assaults the Cobras and asks them, “Do you really want to mess with whitey? I can show you how.” This Freeman in this scene is in direct contrast with the earlier Freeman in the scene with the Senator. Freeman is performing his model blackness perfectly; whites trust him. Yet his true self emerges in his relationship with the Cobras. Eventually, Freeman trains the Cobras to become trained killers on the streets of Chicago; their skills are highlighted at hour, 31 minutes, and 39 seconds to 1 hour, 32 minutes, and 35 seconds.
The climactic ending of the film at 1 hour, 35 minutes, and 26 seconds shows Officer Dawson’s surprise at Freeman being behind the guerilla warfare. He says to Freeman, “Cool Dan Freeman, the South Side playboy, nothing on your mind except chicks, clothes, good whiskey and sports cars. A beautiful cover, now that I think about it” (Greenlee, 241). Freeman understands how the world operates and he uses it to his advantage; he knows how to play the game.
Following the Black Arts Movement, blackness as a performance becomes even more convoluted and complicated with the Post-Soul Aesthetic. While Afro-Modernism and the Black Arts Movement focus on black male characters who, for the most part, emulate white masculinity in hopes of being accepted by American society, the Post-Aesthetic, specifically Paul Beatty in The White Boy Shuffle, shows the fluidity of blackness and acknowledges how the performance of blackness has become more complex.
Beatty explores this performance of black masculinity through his characterization of Nicholas Scoby. Scoby embodies the ideal black masculinity: he is a basketball star. After playing a few games with Scoby, Beatty’s protagonist, Gunnar, explains why Scoby is held in high regard on the court: “He never missed. I mean never” (95). Scoby’s perfection of black masculinity is illustrated through his perfection on the basketball court–a stereotypical domain for black males. This perfection, however, becomes burdensome to Scoby and it begins to consume him:
“It’s not fair. I wasn’t born to make them happy. What I look like, motherfucking Charlie Chaplin?” Scoby’s eyes reddened and he started to sniffle. I could see that he was cracking under the pressure. Watching his hands shake, I realized that sometimes the worst thing a nigger can do is perform well. Because then there is no turning back… American society reels you back into the fold. “Tote that barge, shoot that basketball, lift that bale, nigger ain’t you ever heard of Dred Scott?” (Beatty 119)
When his fame becomes too much for him, Scoby rejects basketball and seeks other outlets for his identity. He listens to jazz music constantly and is particularly drawn to the music of Sarah Vaughan:
Scoby’s interest in jazz is about destroying stereotypical ideas about his masculinity. Vaughan’s music is sensually feminine, emotional, and contemplative–everything that stereotypical black masculinity is not. When Gunnar asks why Sarah Vaughan is so special, Scoby says, “Sarah’s not one those tragic niggers white folks like so much. Sarah’s a nigger’s nigger, she be black coffee. Not no mocha peppermint kissy-kissy butter rum do-you-have-any-heroin caffé latté” (Beatty, 194). To Scoby, Sarah Vaughan is the real deal; she is not pretending to be anything or anybody else. Her identity is pure because it is authentic and this is what Scoby desires because he feels trapped within the stereotypes of black masculinity.
Scoby is drawn to the freedom that death gives. Japanese love-suicide plays indict society for the act of suicide, not the individuals committing the act, which is the opposite of Western thought on suicide. Because of this, Scoby’s suicide should be read in the same way. As Gunnar reads the love-suicide play to Scoby, he observes, “Whenever the sake dealer and the loyal courtesan cross the bridge and start looking for a place to kill themselves, Nicholas weeps with the star-crossed lovers. “I know what it feels like to live in a world where you can’t live your dreams. I’d rather die too. Why won’t they leave us alone? They fuck up your dream. They fuck up your dream” (Beatty 194). American society is too constrictive about identity and forces black men into prepackaged identities and Scoby hates this. For Scoby, death is the only way to escape these stereotypes.
“I’m beginning to see the sheer casual genius of Chikamatsu writing for the puppet theater. If I blur my eyes I can see the black strings attached to my joints and stretching up to the skies… Nicholas sees the strings, but he spends all his time looking for a pair of scissors. Every now and then the puppet-master hands him a pair of wooden scissors—Sarah Vaughan, an open jump shot—and Scoby thinks he’s free, thinks he’s clipped his strings. The slack string is just a slack string” (Beatty, 194).
Blackness is a performance that matters. The progression and evolution of this performance adapts and changes with each new literary period: the performance found in Afro-Modern texts demonstrates that the performance was, on the whole, unconsciously done. In the Black Arts Movement, blackness is overtly valued, but stereotypes are still present and must be navigated; individuals must outwardly perform a particular kind of blackness to whites. The Post-Soul Aesthetic shows the fluidity of blackness and the detrimental pressure of the performance of black masculinity. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness will continue to impact black men no matter what the time period; the performance will go on.
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