While a number of African American women in the race movement have accused their male counterparts of sexism in recent years, few have done so as authoritatively as Hazel Carby in this groundbreaking book. Critiquing the role of masculinity in the work of such progressive historical figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, Leadbelly, and the biographer C.L.R. James, Carby constructs a semiological and historical context for understanding both the inherent “male centeredness” of black race leaders in the 20th century and the ways in which such repressive methods of thinking and acting continue to undermine the cause of black liberation.
Carby believes that many of these men were driven by a lust for the patriarchy that underwrites white power. This desire ultimately alienated them from women and gay men in African American intellectual and cultural life—in other words, their most powerful and committed allies in the struggle against white racism. Carby traces the roots of this thinking to Du Bois. Despite his association with a number of black women intellectuals, Du Bois placed the future of the race in the hands of black men. He viewed black women as pawns through which the white patriarchy further oppressed black men. “The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race,” Du Bois concluded, fell upon the shoulders of black men, who had to carry “the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers.” It was the responsibility of the black male leader to jealously guard the power and purity of his masculinity, even if this meant denying women a primary role in the movement. The exemplary race leader had to be a highly educated male, dressed not in overalls or work clothes but in a three-piece suit that would accentuate his importance in the world—an archetype of masculinity that Du Bois believed placed black men on a more even footing with the white patriarchy.
Rather than writing a polemical tract about the present, Carby uses history to make an implicit critique of contemporary African American affairs. She tracks the insidious trajectory through the 20th century of this Du Bois–ian model—an insular, patriarchal ideal that was ultimately disempowering because it seduced black men into believing they could fairly compete with white men. In a particularly moving chapter she analyzes the collapse of Paul Robeson’s mainstream career in the United States. Ultimately, Robeson was acceptable to the white liberal bigwigs of America’s cultural institutions as long as he remained a model of modernist “inwardness,” a figure who was physically beautiful and strong but passive and discreet about his feelings or political beliefs. When he evolved into the quintessential Du Bois–ian “race man” who used his potent masculinity—his good looks, imposing presence, and formidable talent and mind—to publicly advocate radical race and class politics, he became intolerably dangerous and hence unemployable in the mainstream entertainment industry.
Even the most progressive depictions of racial harmony in American culture rarely present the image of black men and women bonding in the struggle against oppression. When latter-day Du Bois–ian race men are accepted by their white peers, as Carby observes about the characters played by actor Danny Glover in a recent spate of action films, they are in contexts that render women irrelevant. In Lethal Weapon and Silverado, Glover is cast as the charismatic black hero who, both as partner and healer to his white brothers, and entirely independent of women “annihilate[s] what ails this nation and resolve[s] our contemporary crisis of race, of nation, and of manhood.” The media as well as most contemporary race leaders (Carby singles out Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.) tend to focus on the dilemma of the “endangered” black male, further disaffecting women from the discourse of black survival and liberation. It is here that Carby may overstate her case somewhat. There is no question that mainstream black culture is male-centered, but it is often female scholars and critics—bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Patricia J. Williams, Tricia Rose, Valerie Smith, Michele Wallace, and Carby herself—to whom young intellectuals turn for direction, methodology, and ideas.
Race Men is ultimately a meditation on power—the power that black men have had over black women; the power that white people have had, and will continue to have, over African Americans as long as the black patriarchy goes unchallenged. If Carby’s meticulous analyses of these power relationships are the book’s strongest feature, her inability to sum up her brilliant observations into a fully developed conclusion is its weakest. Other than suggesting that the “intellectual work” of black women and gay men must become more central to the black male establishment, Carby offers few practical solutions for defying the status quo. While she sees the work of gay novelist Samuel R. Delany as a kind of paradigm for challenging the black patriarchy, her discussion of his empathetic depictions of the deeply vulnerable bodies of blacks, women, and gays in a bigoted society remains cursory and inconclusive.
Yet Carby’s own book is a pioneering model of this kind of empathy and intellectual largesse. Race Men reads as a blueprint for a new and more potent identity based politics—a bold warning about the perils of delimiting our sense of who we are.