Tommy J. Curry made headlines and received death threats after comments he made about race and violence during a 2012 podcast were published, out of context, by The American Conservative this spring. Safe to say Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, would have preferred chatter to be about his new book, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Temple University Press). Less controversial than Curry’s alleged podcast comments, the book is nevertheless provocative and worth a read by those who want to know Curry’s actual thoughts on race -- or anyone else generally interested in how race intersects with gender and philosophy.
The book is dense but well written and notable for posing the concept of the “man-not.” It’s a framework for thinking about the black male experience that Curry says has been misrepresented at best, and at worst ignored, by critical theory.
Curry participated in a written Q and A with Inside Higher Ed about his book. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: “They shame me when I speak about black men and boys … I write this book to give voice to the black male coerced into silence …” These words from the opening of The Man-Not, written before the recent controversy, seem prescient, considering what you’ve experienced in the last few months. How do you think what happened to you in relation to the American Conservative piece fits into what you’re talking about here?
A: Despite the pretense of many liberal arts disciplines as being open to new ideas and critical thought, the censorship of positive scholarship concerning black males is actually quite prevalent. Questioning the assumptions many gender theorists make about black men and boys with empirical evidence is usually met with labels accusing one of misogyny or being a hotep scholar. These character attacks have never been accompanied with counterevidence but are often used to dissuade white liberals and others of the worth of studying black males.
So when I say I write to give voice to the black males coerced into silence, I am speaking of the multiple kinds of violence -- be it rape, intimate partner violence, or homicide and suicide -- that remain unacknowledged throughout various liberal arts disciplines. Journals routinely refuse articles, conferences often deny panels on black males, and scholars, both black and white, reject the idea that there should be theories about black men and boys beyond the accounts offered by various feminist or intersectional accounts.
This particular passage refers to the power others have to construct black men as threats … Rod Dreher [of The American Conservative] simply manipulated the fear Americans have of black men to fuel the paranoia right-wingers and alt-right nationalists have of black militancy and armed self-defense. Dreher claims that I am spouting dangerous ideas, but [he] did not call for a debate of these ideas but demanded my censoring. He demanded the university silence me and my work because he did not like my tone. I suppose black men who speak quickly or with passion are too aggressive for him. This is how black men are silenced. You claim they are dangerous. You claim they are threats to women and children, or want to kill groups of people. These charges activate the fear whites have of black men and allow their lives, their livelihoods and their reputations to be threatened by anyone at any time, because black men are thought of as living terrors.
Q: You write about the failure of theory -- especially feminist theory and, to a lesser degree, emerging masculinities studies theory -- to explore the experiences of black men. That’s a controversial idea, given that many scholars of gender also consider intersectionality. How do theory and, more broadly, the disciplines, minimize, erase and/or “get wrong” the experiences of black men?
A: One has to consider what it is we think we know about black males through intersectionality. When we survey the literature on black men and boys from intersectionality theorists, we get the same thesis over and over again, namely, while black men may be oppressed by racism or white supremacy, they are empowered by their masculinity in a Western patriarchal society. This is often articulated as black males being a privileged disadvantaged group. The work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Frank Rudy Cooper, Paul Butler and bell hooks have been taken to be the final word on this issue. It functions as an intuitive calculus where black males, who suffer from overwhelming disadvantages when compared to their female counterparts in rates of homicide, incarceration, unemployment or college degree attainment, are said to be privileged despite their actual disparities because they are male.
Social dominance theory is a major alternative to intersectional theorizations about black males specifically, but subordinate males within patriarchal systems more generally. Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto authored Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression in 1999. These authors have given an account of patriarchy in Western capitalist societies that see outgroup males as threats to the dominant group’s endogamy. Said differently, in patriarchal societies, in-group males and females see outgroup males as cultural and biological threats to their group. These subordinate males then become targets of the most extreme forms of lethal violence and discrimination because their oppression is linked to extermination rather than coercion or control.
Ironically, intersectional invisibility theory was actually created as a response to the weight of empirical evidence showing that subordinate males were primarily the targets of lethal violence and discrimination in patriarchal societies. In an effort to reinterpret the findings of social dominance theory, intersectional invisibility suggested that the violence and death imposed upon black males is an indication of their privilege as men in patriarchal societies, or their prototypicality. Valerie Purdie-Vaughns and Richard P. Eibach, in their 2008 article on intersectional invisibility, explain “the oppression of subordinate group men as a reflection of the general tendency in an androcentric society to view all men -- both those of dominant groups and those of subordinate groups -- as more important than women. It is this marginalization of women in an androcentric society that causes subordinate women to be relatively ignored as direct targets of oppression compared to subordinate men.”
These authors held as their central thesis that “Findings demonstrating that the greater oppression of subordinate males compared to subordinate females, which has been cited to support the [social dominance theory’s subordinate male target hypothesis] can be reinterpreted as an outcome of the non-prototypicality of subordinate females. For instance, ethnic minority women and white lesbian women, by virtue of their non-prototypicality, may escape the more active forms of discrimination ethnic minority men and gay men face.”
Black men are crammed into these configurations of race and sex where their experiences of higher levels of lethal violence, rape or domestic abuse are never thought to be significant or prevalent enough to reorient their allegedly privileged male status. Of course when we read literatures outside of intersectional feminism, we find a rich exploration of the disadvantages of subordinate males in patriarchal societies. When we look at Sidanius and Pratto’s work on social dominance theory, Raewyn Connell’s explanations of racialized subordinate masculinity in the global South, or even Anthony Lemelle Jr.’s account of black masculinity within racial capitalism, we find vastly different (and more empirically based) accounts of the position males of racially subjugated groups suffer under. However, most theoretical engagements with black males not only do not cite these works, but have no knowledge these works even exist.
Black males suffer higher rates of domestic violence, intimate partner homicide and child (physical and sexual) abuse than many other groups of men, but their suffering is thought to be irrelevant to theory. There are no theories of female-perpetrated violence against black men and boys, nor are there theoretical accounts of the vulnerability black males have to sexual assault. All these realities remain invisible, so to speak, under the category of gender in the various gender literatures.
Q: What is the “man-not,” and how can be it used as a framework to analyze what you call the reality of black maleness in an anti-black world?
A: The Man-Not is a theoretical starting point that tries to capture the history of black males being killed, mutilated and raped beyond simply saying it is racism that causes this violence … History has shown black males are eroticized in an anti-black world. Their genitalia has been imagined to be at odds with the endogamy of the white races of America and Europe, so our attempts to study black males must take into account this specific sexual targeting, be it phobic as in the case of the rapist or philic insofar as black males are imagined to be sexually insatiable. This is what black male studies scholars mean by anti-black or racist misandry, or the cumulative assertions of black male inferiority due to errant psychologies of lack, dispositions of deviance or hyperpersonality traits (e.g., hypersexuality, hypermasculinity, etc.), which rationalize the criminalization, phobias and sanctioning of black male life.
Drawing from social dominance theory, we see that subordinate males, or in this case black males, in patriarchal capitalist societies are targeted for lethal violence more so than their female counterparts. Homicide, incarceration, unemployment and under-caste status peculiarly target black males in America. Black males have the lowest life expectancy in this country. In the academy, they are the most underrepresented group of professors and students next to brown men, but we have very few conversations that speak about their marginality as a function of their race and sex. Unlike the white majority, black males have always been outnumbered at both the undergraduate and graduate level in American universities. Does their underrepresentation not affect the production of theory and the thoughts we have about this group more generally? We are told that underrepresented groups in society, or the academy, are marginalized and misunderstood, so why are black and brown males thought to be well-known despite their absence amongst the ranks of the professoriate?
Q: What is black male vulnerability?
A: As I argue in my book, black male vulnerability is a term I use to capture the disadvantages that black males endure compared with other groups; the erasure of black males’ actual lived experience from theory; and the violence and death black males suffer in society. It expresses the vulnerable condition of being black and male -- the sheer fungibility of the black male as a living terror able to be killed, raped or dehumanized at any moment, given the disposition of those who encounter him. We do not think of black men as victims of statutory rape or suffering from the trauma of past abuse. We do not think of black males as suffering from depression or the psychological burdens of their existence. It is asserted in our theories and our practical lives that they are always fine, and any deviant behavior is a product of their errant masculinity rather than the denial that they live in pain, with histories of trauma, because they are oppressed racialized men.
Q: How does sexuality factor into your proposed paradigm? How does death factor in?
A: I argue that blackness negates or transfigures what we often mean by gender or sexual orientation, which are markers for identity, or more appropriately one’s claiming of identity. The Man-Not suggests that all sexualities (heterosexual, homosexual, etc.) are defined, not by one’s agency or claiming of sexual practice, but the imposition of (white) phobias concerning the black body. From slavery to our present day, black male sexuality is configured as pathological -- as literally the spreading of pathogens and disease. Black male heterosexuality is hypersexualized and associated with rape, the proliferation of bastard children, poverty and superpredators, while black homosexuality is stigmatized as abnormal, diseased and deviant. In both cases, no identity is fixed. During slavery and Jim Crow, black male bodies were configured by the desires a white man or woman had for the body before it.
Black males are death-bound. Life seems to flee from them. Because black males are perceived as terrors (e.g., rapists, murderers, criminals and sexual deviants), there is a consensus amongst many Americans that the only way to control -- and deter -- the propagation of this group is through death.
Q: The Man-Not reviews sociological data to refute the notion that black men aspire to patriarchal and/or “white” notions of maleness. Can you talk about some of the sociological evidence regarding black men’s conceptions of maleness? And why do you believe this evidence continues to be largely ignored by academics (you write, in fact, that “academic theory has a passion for black, male mimeticism," so much so that it is analytic, a property of black maleness itself)?
A: In liberal arts fields, it is assumed because black and brown men’s gender is masculine, there is an innate advantage they have over all women and are patriarchal. This has not been empirically bared out in any of these analyses, so we have not had any opportunities to really interrogate how black men think about masculinity. Largely driven by the popular acceptance of psychoanalysis and Connell’s work, black men are asserted to exemplify hegemonic or toxic masculinity, which is a version of masculinity that rejects the feminine and homosexuality. The problem of course is that racial/ethnic men are not defined as hegemonic masculines in Connell’s work. They are subjugated/subordinate masculinities, which are, according to Connell, more equitable and egalitarian in their gender orientations.
Hegemonic masculinity is ruling class, includes both men and women, and encourages emphasized femininity, which is the idea that ruling-class women buy into and legitimize patriarchal norms through vulnerability and acquiescence. This nuance has not yet been introduced into conversations concerning black men and boys. Black males are stereotypically defined as misogynists and [homophobic], so toxic/hegemonic masculinity become the label associated with them, despite [that] the actual theory being utilized makes no such general claim about black males.
I simply decided to test the claim. I wanted to know if black men had historically had sexist attitudes, as hegemonic masculinity theory would suggest. Since the 1970s, there have been case studies and survey data showing black males to be more gender progressive than white men and white women, and just as equal to, and in some cases more progressive than, black women in the U.S. Authors like Noel Cazenave, Kathleen Blee, Evelyn Simien and Catherine Harnois have done some really interesting work on black male attitudes. These works, however, are never taken up in liberal arts disciplines and are often denied as authoritative once introduced.
I believe there is a market, so to speak, based on the condemnation of black and brown men in the academy that mirrors the various industries we see in society dedicated to the same goal. We know the media, the prison-industrial complex and various internalized biases present black and brown men as violent and disposable. It just so happens that the politics of the liberal academy allow these racial stereotypes to be accepted as theory when coded as a gender proposition.
Q: You’re a philosopher by training. You proposed an interdisciplinary approach to the study of black maleness, but how, if at all, should philosophy respond to the gap in theory/literature you highlight in your book?
A: Philosophers should read beyond their particular specialization. At conferences, philosophers often joke about having to read very little beyond their chosen figures, such as Hegel or Dewey, to have a successful career. What philosophers do read is grossly overspecialized and concerns primarily those debates concerning the interpretation of a said author’s work or a set of debates about a problem of language or logic. Said differently, as a discipline philosophy has remained satisfied with its assertions about the world rather than the facts -- imperfect as they may be -- we can know or observe in the world. Too many “facts,” be they historical or sociological, makes philosophical research less philosophical to many scholars. I am of the view, however, that thought -- the product of theorization -- should be contoured if not completely reconfigured by what we can know and learn of the world around us. Far too often being a good philosopher is based on the devaluing of evidence and the primacy of argument.
Theories about black maleness [are] overly analytic and intuitive. There is no effort to empirically verify what many gender theories actually claim dictate the character and motivations of black males. Often the desire to dominate others stands in for an actual study of black males. This is why I argue that black masculinity theory often revels in stereotypes rather than study. Complex problems like intimate partner violence or homicide require careful study that traces ecological circumstances (e.g., neighborhoods, previous trauma and substance abuse). Under our gender frames, the disproportionate rate of intimate partner violence is just patriarchy.
At a disciplinary level, black men should be engaged within debates about their actual status and disadvantage, not as objects of other groups’ theories. The work of early black male studies scholars such as Robert Staples, Clyde Franklin, Anthony Lemelle Jr., Calvin Hernton and Lawrence Gary is key in this regard, because these scholars are having debates with Connell and men’s studies more generally. These authors need to actually be read and dealt with as serious theorists, especially given [that] their analysis is being driven by the same problems that we credit for sparking discussions of double jeopardy and, a decade later, driving the coining of intersectionality. There should be conferences, panels and jobs encouraging the interdisciplinary empirical study of black manhood, boyhood and the various masculinities of the global South, instead of assertions that allow racialized maleness to become the depository of phobias and negativity, as is currently the case throughout the academy.
The emergence of white supremacist propaganda focusing on the criminality, violence and the propensity black males have to rape women, as well as the #MenAreTrash hashtag being endorsed across various social media platforms, show that there is much more effort required to combat the dehumanization of this group. The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood is a small building block towards a black male studies that deals with the conundrum of racially subjugated males the world over.