The New Black Man Unveiled
Saturday, May 26, 2007.
Review By Malcolm Womack
Advertised on the back cover as "part memoir, part manifesto," Mark Anthony Neal's New Black Man is an exploration of modern black masculinity put into conversation with progressive ideas of feminism, fatherhood, and antihomophobia.
"I am not the New Black Man," Neal writes, "but rather the New Black Man is a metaphor for an imagined life—strong commitment to diversity in our communities, strong support for women and feminism, and strong faith in love and value of listening" (159). The bulk of this book is then taken up discussing moments from modern culture that exemplify the antithesis of the New Black Man, moments of sexism, homophobia, and violence, which Neal elegantly contextualizes and analyzes through an impressive variety of critical lenses.
This slim book begins with a rehearsal of the African American cultural ideals created in response to white racism, the Talented Tenth and the Strong Black Man, and exposing the patriarchal notions embedded within them, and he follows that by devoting a chapter each to feminism, homophobia, fatherhood, and the hip-hop community.
This last topic also threads its way through the preceding chapters and it is in this area that Neal is most compelling, addressing the generational schism between African Americans of the Civil Rights era and those of the hip-hop generation as well as how the issues and goals of the two groups are dissimilar and misunderstood.
He sees the assault on the misogyny of hip-hop music and videos, often from the pulpit, as a device intended to deflect from the embedded patriarchal privilege of older blacks, and he calls into question the structures of various religions that attempt to make their followers equate support for the African American community with an adherence to the notions of male dominance.
Neal is not a hip-hop apologist, though, and he discusses several embarrassing and problematic recent incidents including the R. Kelly trial, the fallout from Nelly's "Tip Drill" video called to account by some Spelman College students for its arguably misogynistic imagery; the singer cancelled a much-anticipated bone marrow drive on campus, raising questions of the greater good.
He also describes Dr. Dre's shameful attack on Denise "Dee" Barnes, and he uses these moments to highlight the tendency of the black community to rally behind the perpetrators rather than the victims of black-on-black violence, and of the white media to quickly ignore such stories altogether.
As might be expected from a work that is advertised as "part memoir," Neal is a very active presence in the work, whether discussing his family life, his health problems, or his pedagogic style. His "thug-nigga-intellectual … homeboy-feminist" (29) persona, while engaging, occasionally serves to undercut the points he is making.
His arguments against homophobia, for example, would be greatly strengthened if he were less concerned with repeatedly reminding the readers of his own heterosexuality, but even here he is canny, acknowledging and disparaging his need to do so.
Perhaps of greatest value in his more personal writing is Neal's rehearsal of his extraordinary education at the hands of his mentor "Mama Soul," Dr. Masani Alexis DeVeaux. Neal is fluent with a great variety of significant cultural critics, and New Black Man is in conversation with the most recent writings on a wide range of works on feminism, queer theory, and popular culture from scholars, artists, and journalists.
For readers whose knowledge of African American feminism begins with Sojourner Truth and ends with bell hooks, the breadth of Neal's scholarship will prove very useful.
With thanks to the University of Wasington's The Journal of Popular Culture of which Malcolm Womack is a contributor.
Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. New Black Man is published by Routledge Books. It is available online and at all leading bookshops.
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