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By Stephane Dunn, PhD. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009.

Oprah’s show has rarely attempted to provide a platform where intimate portraits of black men and radical dialogue about black masculinity with black men take place nor of course, do we see this often enough in popular culture and mass media. But two recent shows-dialogues with former infamous heavyweight Mike Tyson do a lot towards making up this deficit.

On the first show, Mike and Oprah sat and talked-Oprah in typical form anticipating some answers, but the allure of the show weren’t in the answers to burning questions like why Mike bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear or quintessential philosophical Oprah guru questions: ‘what have you learned’ from this or that. No, it was simply the unadorned humanity of Mike Tyson.

Like the recent documentary Tyson (2008), in essence a long commentary on his life by Mike, it was almost too uncomfortable to watch, a former symbol of tough American and especially black American masculinity, naked to the world in a way that supposedly true men are not supposed to be. With his powerful punch and that seemingly unwavering scary demeanor, Mike was the last true American heavyweight celebrity when he became the youngest heavyweight ever at age twenty.

After his fall from being a three hundred million dollar media darling, including that marriage debacle with actress Robin Givens, a rape conviction and three year prison sentence, divorces, and that ear biting episode, Mike seemed bound to be written off as yet another former great performer turned into a tragic black male, social monster-public joke.


But Mike is having his most raw public showing yet. Without his gloves and that menacing mask, “iron” Mike’s words and tears, his obvious confusion and that painful desire to be free of suffering and his accompanying demons (drugs, womanizing, anger . . .) has the potential to earn him a new audience and a new public role. Ironically, as Mike made clear on the second show with Evander Holyfield, fame is the least thing he seeks.

Most striking was Mike’s inability to fully articulate his pain and the demons he does battle with daily including at that very moment. His ‘I don’t knows’ in response to such topics as the recent death of his young daughter highlighted his struggle not only with words but within himself. That continuous break in his voice suggested the telling tears that seemed to threaten to overtake Mike at any second.


He was so extraordinarily stripped of any subterfuge, of the willingness to lie or seemingly of knowing that most men, indeed many women and men would have clung to the mask rather than sit their fully clothed but soul naked on a show that has become sort of an ultimate way that men jokingly [and seriously] distinguish men and masculinity from the so-called soap opera-like feminine emotionality that they equate with Oprah’s female dominated viewership and show style.

Mike humanized not only himself but the emotional vulnerability that we are not often privy to viewing through the prism of America’s heterosexual tough guy masculine ethos. In admitting that he is a hurting, struggling, but feeling human being and man, Mike provides a more powerful entryway into deconstructing narrow images and narratives of masculinity than any academic theory ever could.


Furthermore, Mike, ironically, is actually a useful model for the black masculine street codes that require young black men to adapt a cool, dangerous posturing that’s wreaking havoc on themselves and their community.

With Mike so obviously involved in the greatest fight for his life, one can’t help but to hope that this broken brother can be rebuilt into the new man, the new being that he so desperately wants to become. For Mike’s sake, here’s hoping he gets enough rounds to truly, in his words, “win.”

With thanks to New Black Man

Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, MFA, is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008).

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