Black Identity and the Mythical Norm

After winning the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers in January 2014, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was interviewed by Fox Sports correspondent Erin Andrews. When asked about his reaction to the game, he replied, “I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like [Michael] Crabtree that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me.” His response took the reporter by surprise and sparked an immediate flood of racist responses on Twitter consisting of, but not limited to: “Richard Sherman’s an ignorant ape,”  “I can’t wait till manning [sic] and the rest of the [Denver] broncos [sic] light Richard Sherman up# shut up you dumb [n–ger]” and “Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the [f–king] head. Disrespectful [n–ger].” The responses, more severe than Sherman’s initial rant, reduced the elite cornerback from Compton (with a BA in Communications from Stanford) to a “cocky [n–ger].”

Later, when asked to respond to his postgame comments, Sherman answered, “It was loud, it was in the moment and it was just a smart part of the person I am. I don’t want to be a villain because I’m not a villainous person.” The fact that Sherman admits he was reacting to the emotions of the moment should not be the takeaway, but rather, how quickly a black male can go from an athlete hero to an athlete villain. This is merely the newest episode in a long history of public backlash directed at black male athletes. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after openly refusing to enlist in the Vietnam draft; Tommie Smith and John Carlos received crushing criticism after their black power salute during a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony (the immense lack of support locked Carlos out of job opportunities and resulted in his wife’s suicide); and Curt Flood, the first baseball player to openly push for free agency was demoralized by the media and forced to flee the country. Even Hank Aaron received loads of hate mail and death threats as he passed Babe Ruth’s homerun record.

Sherman’s comments may not have been political, but his display of confidence is because it points to a black male identity that is not full of humility or subservience. There is a larger framework at play that says black athletes are not smart players; they are freakishly talented. They should not be outspoken; they should all be students of Jackie Robinson, the quintessential cheek-turner (who was anything but passive in his personal life). Black athletes are heroes only when they conform to parameters set up by white patriarchal society. This translates into everyday life: black male identity is defined by white patriarchy. In order to talk about this identity more clearly, it will be useful to analyze two rape scenes in The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams and Lonely Crusade, by Chester Himes. Through these scenes, the root of black male identity will be investigated; additionally, Ruth’s character in Lonely Crusade will aid in the exploration of black female identity.

In order to begin, it is important to locate identity in American patriarchal society. According to Audre Lorde’s essay, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” she identifies what she calls a “mythical norm,” describing it as a norm “which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In america [sic], this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure.” This norm is more exclusive than inclusive, but it is also a norm that black male identity is in constant conflict with because it is impossible to achieve.

Both male characters in The Man Who Cried I Am and Lonely Crusade attempt to reach this “mythical norm” and fail. Max cannot be a successful black writer and be allowed to live out his years in a healthy marriage with a black woman (Lillian) or a white woman (Margrit). He has to fight other black writers for notoriety; he is locked out of promotions and livable salaries as a news correspondent. Even at the pinnacle of success (becoming one of three speech writers for the president) he is held back from attempting to gain progress for black people. He is told to wait, that real success comes from politics and manipulation. Max’s mentor, Harry Ames, gives him nuggets of advice at the beginning of the novel. He encourages Max to push the envelope in his writing; the very act of a black man writing is political because it is an intellectual act that challenges white notions of blackness. It challenges that mythical norm:

“It must be pretty awful for a white man to learn that one of the things wrong with this society is that it is not based on dollars directly or alone, but dollars denied men who are black so dollars can go into the pockets of men who are white. It must make white men ponder a kind of weakness that will make them deny work to black men so that work can be done by men who are white. How it must anger them to know finally that we know they deny women who are white to black men, while they have taken black women at will for generations.”

Max’s success reaches an impasse when he realizes he can no longer function as a black man in the United States. His paranoia hits critical levels when he uncovers King Alfred, a government plot to deport all black persons back to Africa. White men will not share success or wealth with black men; the only solution is to physically force them out of the country. With this new knowledge, Max is chased down by FBI agents and shot while at the same time dying from prostate cancer.

Lee in Lonely Crusade comes up against similar barriers. He is a college-educated black man who cannot find work and as a result, he is unable to support his wife, Ruth, and she is forced to seek employment. This generates resentment inside Lee, who fails to fill the role of provider. His marriage to Ruth continues to suffer even after being offered a job as a union organizer. He is unable to reclaim male dominance in the home, so he seeks it out with a white communist woman, Jackie, but it is short-lived. In the end, he fails to organize black workers and is wrongfully charged with murdering a cop. Earlier in the novel, he is offered a job by the company owner Louis Foster. The job pays well, but also requires Lee to sellout to the union. Lee refuses the opportunity for success at the expense of being subservient to whites. Even before meeting Foster for dinner at his outrageously lavish plantation-style home, he asks himself what kind of black identity he should present to this rich white man:

“How should he act in Foster’s presence? –like the timid Negro son of domestic servant parents; or the reserved and quiet Negro college graduate, picking his chances to speak, weighing his words for the impression they might make; or as the blustering unioneer, walking hard and talking loud and trying to give the appearance of being unafraid?”

Lee is aware of the role he will have to play to impress Foster, but he cannot allow himself to accept a job that would deny him his male pride. This is the kind of decision both Max and Lee are forced to reconcile with: black male success only comes at the hands of white manipulation. Both men, who are college-educated and capable human beings, are unable to achieve a life of self-earned success as heads of households. They are only presented with two options: poverty or emasculation.

These feelings of emasculation are important when discussing black male identity because they directly affect both men’s relationships with women. Max and Lee each commit rape. For Max, it happens as a soldier in WWII, cruelly eliciting sex from an older, starving Italian woman. For Lee, it occurs in the opening chapter of the novel; racism denies him his manhood, so he sought it out by raping his wife. However, these men are also chasing a myth in the act of rape by attempting to possess a manhood that does not exist. They are performing the role of the black rapist, a role that Angela Davis criticizes in her essay, “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist.” She argues that the role of the black rapist must be seen through a historical lens, that this identity was created at the height of lynching just after the Civil War: “lynchings were represented as a necessary measure to prevent black supremacy over white people—in other words, to reaffirm white supremacy.” However, in order to keep this power structure intact, a myth needed to be created. The most successful myth consisted of protecting white women’s bodies from black rape. Davis goes on to explain that “the majority of murders did not even involve the charge of rape. Although the cry of rape was involved as the popular justification for lynching in general, most lynchings took place for other reasons.” What were these other reasons? According to Davis, “whoever challenged the racial hierarchy was marked a potential victim of the mob…from the owners of successful black businesses and workers pressing for higher wages to those who refused to be called ‘boy’ and the defiant women who resisted white men’s sexual abuses.” The accusation of rape became a justifiable reason to punish blacks who refused to exist within the framework of white supremacy.

In the examples of Max and Lee, their desire to reclaim manhood through rape is a conditioned desire that forces them to believe that in order to achieve male dominance, they must rape. As a result, they are acting within the parameters of white patriarchy. For Lee, his problems stem from the fact that “he always found it more satisfying to reject the conditions of existence prescribed for him by white people than to accept them” but he could not stop himself from “…conjuring up visions of rebuffs, humiliations, sneers, scorn, rejection, exclusion—all the occupational hazards of a black face.” For him, the hostility of whites, “their antagonisms [felt] hard as a physical blow…their vile asides and abusive epithets…cut like a knife” and become the main source of self-hatred and feelings of emasculation. His inadequacy is fueled by white society and so is his desire to rape Ruth.

For Max, however, the situation of rape is much more complicated. His rape act occurs in Italy during WWII. As a black officer, he is constantly emasculated by the white military authority, but he is also surrounded by young black men who are constantly dying: “man after man was killed and replaced. Another Jones, another Jackson, another George Washington Roosevelt Brown; another Chicago accent, another Alabama accent, and the days humped together.” Black soldiers were not trained as well as white soldiers and died more frequently and they were not permitted to be treated for battle fatigue. Additionally, any mistakes made during battles could be pinned on black soldiers: “the ugly word cowardice began to sweep into the testimony and a chorus was taken up. The Buffaloes were cowards…A number of Negro  officers were broken and stockade when the verdict, Guilty of Cowardice in the Face of the Enemy, was handed down by an all-white panel of officers.” Max often used black frustration to motivate his soldiers by telling them that:

“What you got to remember is that nobody here likes us; nobody here wanted us. If you’ve read the papers, you know that our own colonel can’t make up his mind about us. And if you haven’t read what the General said, I’ll tell you: niggers ain’t shit. You remember that; otherwise you’re going to end up in some American cemetery laid down in the middle of the pretty green hills and your name’s going to be in a three-by-five index file—and that place might be segregated. Let’s go.”

To get soldiers angry about their demoralized role in American society is to get them to fight to stay alive, but also to fight to prove that they are worthy of being alive, of being men.

Consequently, Max succumbs to these same frustrations. He approaches a large, older woman in desperate need of food and offers to pay her for sex: “he didn’t know what was wrong with him. Battle fatigue, maybe, but that only applied to white soldiers…Maybe, Max, thought, what I need right now is a great big whopping piece of pussy.” His solicitation of sex is verbally abusive: “roughly Max thrust cigarettes at her. ‘Amore. Love. We make-a da love, hah, fatso?’” When they agree on five dollars as the acceptable price, the woman covers her face and “Max smiled. Let her be ashamed. She needs the money. I need the pussy. Capitalism in action.” Max is familiar with the exploitive nature of white capitalist society and he uses it to his advantage in this moment:

“‘Tuo nome?’ the woman said. She didn’t know whether to keep her eyes open or closed now.

‘Nome?’ Max said. ‘Name, oh, name. Aw, what the hell do you care,’ he grunted, unbuttoning his pants and pushing them partway down. ‘Just call me Joe. Joe!’

Hurt, the woman turned her head and closed her eyes. Why did he have to be so cruel? He didn’t look like a cruel man. Wars, they did that to men…and to women. She put her hands over her ears and bit her lower lip as the black American plunged brutally into her.”

Max’s rape act is a psychological response to cruelty that has been done to him as a black soldier just as Lee’s rape act reflects his feelings of self-hatred from living in an oppressive white world. However, Max takes these injustices further when he recounts the same experience in a war novel that brings him his first bit of literary success. However, the story changes: “the fat woman became a young, almost innocent farm girl with whom the hero of the novel, a corporal, had fallen in love. The novel ended with the white MPs catching the corporal and the girl in a barn and killing them and covering them with hay and horse manure.” It is imperative that we take a moment to analyze what has just occurred in Max’s reimagined war story.

Before we examine the reasoning behind the changed story, let us take a look at the story itself. The main character is a low-ranking noncommissioned officer who becomes enamored with a young white farm girl. From his experience as a black man in American society, Max knows this story will not end well. His character and the lover are both killed by the Military Police and buried, not in dirt, but horse manure. If we translate this story into an American narrative, it might look something like this: educated unemployed black man becomes romantically involved with virginal white girl, is wrongly accused of rape and is lynched by a white mob and castrated. Max transforms a common reality into a tragic war story, but what is also interesting to note is that in Max’s version, the white girl is killed too. In war, her purity is not protected. She is the enemy to the white military authority because she is not American and she has lost her innocence to blackness. In American society, her purity would have been defended and upheld.

Now, let us examine the changes that were made. The fat woman is turned into a young, white, innocent farm girl. This fictional girl does not coincide with Max’s war experience of unattractiveness, starvation and desperation, but it fits into the white woman trope more relatable to American readers. Max’s character is heroic, but as we have seen from the initial scene, there is not much that is heroic about Max’s actions. However, hero implies an inner-goodness; Max wants his readers to see his black character as honorable. Lastly, in the reimagined story, the character and his lover are killed not by MPs, but white MPs. In this version of the story, white authority is the villain. They destroy both lovers and humiliate them in their death by burying them in horse manure. In the initial story, Max is not harmed. In fact, he urinates in the abandoned house after he is finished with the Italian woman, discovers blood in his urine and is discharged after being diagnosed with jaundice, in which he says to the other black soldiers: “I’m out of this shit, make it on your own.” Max is not interested in heroics and he is not interested in the unity of a larger group of disenfranchised black men.

This new story actively follows not only a false reality, but a false black identity. Max’s character is innocent, but this does not coincide with what it means to be a black man in American society. In the real version of the story, Max is implicated at the start because he is chasing an identity already defined by white patriarchy. His rape act is an extension of that implication. After reading the novel, his editor called the story “Daring. Honest. Dynamic.” Max sees this glowing response as “all the words and phrases that would be sent to echo in his ears for all the years he would be writing.” His altered narratives play into a larger body of expected literary narratives, but more importantly, they fall right into an expected black male literary narrative: black man as victim. As a result, Max implicates himself twice over, first, by rewriting a personal experience to fit a more ideal storyline and again by publishing yet another story about a victimized black man.

If these rape acts point to a black male identity that is reinforced by racism in American society, how does black female identity fit in to these oppressive parameters? As much as black men chase a false identity that keeps them subservient and criminalized, what does that mean for black women? In the introduction to Lonely Crusade, Graham Hodges gives a quick analysis of the opening rape scene by stating that “the violence of her life has given Ruth a ‘beaten whorish look.’ But Ruth withstands the beatings, ‘allowing him to assert his manhood with this queer, perverted way, because all of the rest of the world denied it’” and he follows this explanation with a sentence at the beginning of the next paragraph that proclaims: “Ruth is an heroic woman.” This raises the question: what makes Ruth heroic, the fact that she endures rape or the fact that she sticks around long enough for Lee to realize she is his “true life-partner?” For Max, in The Man Who Cried I Am, his heroic war story character is dependent on innocence, but for Ruth, her heroic nature is dependent on her ability to endure sexual abuse long enough for Lee to accept her as a life-partner.

Black female identity is an inauthentic identity because it is tied up in an inauthentic black male identity. This is true for Ruth, who Lee deeply resents because she has to work to support them. Therefore, he has to rape her to maintain dominance over her. Interestingly enough, Ruth is more than willing to accept this abuse because she knows that white patriarchy has left her husband impotent. The real problems between Ruth and Lee occur when she refuses to quit her job after he is hired as a union organizer. The relationship becomes more troubled when Lee does not take the better job offered to him by Foster that would allow her to quit her job and become a proper wife. Ruth is not able to uphold her female identity if Lee is not willing to let go of his pride for the good of the marriage. Again, Ruth’s identity is dependent on Lee’s decisions. Additionally, Ruth believes in a different false black identity. She imagines “a tall, strong, handsome Negro, as brave as any knight, who would come to her and take her and love her and cherish her and protect her; who would make his way through the world with her always at his side and never be afraid of white people.” This imagined black identity is the polar opposite of the black identity created by white patriarchy and just as unrealistic.

As their relationship continues to deteriorate, Ruth attempts to return to the power structure she has grown accustomed to in her marriage to Lee. She cannot quit her job to make him feel like more of a man or transform into a white woman (later, she puts on white powder to make her complexion look whiter); instead she offers herself up as an object for him to take his frustrations out on. She tells him “you can beat me, darling, if that will make you feel any better.” Lee does not accept this proposition because abuse no longer satisfies him. However, Ruth does not realize this until the end of the novel:

“There had been the sublime joy when she had first learned that she could absorb his hurts—the great feminine feeling of self-immolation when he struck her, the sharp hurt running out of his arms and into her body.

Then came the slow knowledge that this was not enough—that what she could give him as a sponge for his brutality to rebuild his ego would never be enough.”

Ruth fails as a wife, not because of her inability to boost Lee’s ego through abuse, but rather, because the system set up by white patriarchy does not allow her husband’s identity to function the way it should. He cannot make it as a black man, therefore, she cannot make it as a black woman and being a black woman means being an heroic punching bag.

To understand how black female identity functions, it will be useful to return to the act of lynching. In American Anatomies, Robyn Wiegman sees lynching as a moment of feminization by saying that “in the lynch scenario, the stereotypical fascination and abhorrence for blackness is literalized as a competition for masculinity and seminal power” so that in order to successfully demoralize the victim, he must be feminized. As a result, castration must happen so that “the mob aggressively denies the patriarchal sign and symbol of the masculine, interrupting the privilege of the phallus…” and in this way, the victim is no longer a man or a citizen. This means that black women, who are not capable of being masculine, mean even less to white patriarchy. According to Wiegman “…it is in this context that we can understand the absence of the African American woman from the culture scripting of the rape mythos, for her reproductive value, historically appropriated as part of the master’s property rights, reconfigured into the post Emancipation era into no white phallic value at all.” If black female identity does not figure into white patriarchy, it could be argued that their identity falls to the mercy of black male identity. This means that in order to uplift themselves, they must help uplift black men.

One of the ways in which black women worked to uplift black men was to campaign against lynching. Angela Davis credits black women as the group that pioneered the anti-lynching movement long before the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching was established. Black women understood their lack of value long before white women realized their passive role in perpetuating the black rapist myth that resulted in numerous lynchings. Davis goes on to ponder why so many instances of rape go unreported by arguing that “many of these unreported rapes undoubtedly involve Black women as victims: their historical experience proves that racist ideology implies an open invitation to rape.” Ruth understands that her role as a black woman is invariably tied up in abuse because black female identity is tied up in abuse. Moreover, according to Audre Lorde, because black women have understood this better than any other group “we have recognized and negotiated these differences, even when this recognition continued the old dominant/subordinate mode of human relationships, where the oppressed must recognize the masters’ difference in order to survive.” Ruth accepts abuse because she sees it as a tool for survival. If her identity means nothing else, it at least requires her to do what is necessary: to function in a world that attributes no value to her as a human being.

The claim has been made that, as Americans, we live in a post-racist society. However, in this supposed post-racist society, housing projects still exist (Diana Ross was born into a project home and Ludacris was born into one 40 years later). White flight still exists; Quicken Loans owns the majority of downtown Detroit as white businesses continue to vacate the city. In a post-racist society all-white grand juries do not elect to indict white cops who murder black citizens (Michael Brown, Eric Garner). Audre Lorde feared that “our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” This is not a fear that should exist in a post-racist society, or any society. Professional football players who raise their fists in solidarity with Michael Brown protestors should not be publicly intimidated into apologizing by an over-militarized police force. In a post-racist society, the white response to a black kid being shot several times by a cop in broad daylight should not be a resounding: if you don’t break the law you won’t get killed. We will not live in a post-racist society until we start examining the larger system at hand, a system that says, according to Chris Rock: “if you fraudulently sell cigarettes the cops will literally kill you but if you fraudulently sell mortgages you will get a bonus.” A post-racist society starts by eradicating the problems of living under an oppressive society, not by blaming racial violence on worn-out black stereotypes created by a white patriarchal system; it is a problem we still have not properly tackled.