American Manhood

James Baldwin has taught me a lot about being a man. More specifically he taught me how to be a man who is whole. This has not come without great pain, sacrifice and loss. Along the way to wholeness the stupefying effects of my attempt to live into the American idea of masculinity, which by the way is inextricably connected to the American dream, led me to falter and often fail.

Drugs, domestic violence, delusion, homelessness, and a self-effacing reasoned piety left me innocent of being the villain guilty of my own undoing.

Because of this, in retrospect, I once thought I lost the battle when the truth is I actually gave up fighting. I gave up fighting against the ever-changing tide of masculinity. It seemed once I reached what I understood fulfilled my role as a son, brother, husband, father, child of God the pendulum of masculinity swung a bit further out of reach. It was only when I realized I needed to take of hold of the pendulum or as James Baldwin says finding a “gimmick” that would stop it from swinging.

With that revelation I began to turn the cumulative effect of losing the many battles trying to prove my masculinity in the war to become a man, into forgiveness. Yes, my losses became a powerful source of forgiveness: forgiveness for me failing myself, failing others, and others failing me. Only when I was able to forgive myself was I able to become the son, the brother, the father, the husband, the scholar, the child of God I am today. This is my gimmick!

I am writing this as a man who knows all too well what not understanding masculinity and manhood can do to a black man in America and how the inability to forgive ourselves for losing the battle to learn and master that hard lesson can often lead, as Baldwin reminds me to “drug, piety, madness or death.”

Born black, male, and with a desire to love men sexually and non-sexually put young James Baldwin in peril and made him vulnerable to the violence in spaces where desire roams on the margins of the world. Most men, especially those of color always have at least one foot in that space and the other toeing the slippery slope where the thin line upon which the hope of fulfilling the whole of our desire rests. Baldwin reveals that this is not a segregated space: it is where all men meet avid, desperate and seeking the validation of desire to be a whole man.

It is a difficult space with all black males share a triple jeopardy, indicted by our blackness, our maleness and our desire. However, desire is the most difficult of them all. Baldwin reveals that in spite of race and gender we desire to be whole. Yet, we think we remain broken by race and gender, when we in fact remain broken because of unfulfilled desire. Say amen!

James Baldwin reveals to us how our desire for acceptance in the world (of men) can lead to the difficult bottom of the American idea of masculinity. I am using the term bottom as an internal reference only. The “bottom” is more a spiritual location than societal. At bottom, in my spirit, is where I was able to assess my blackness and maleness. What makes the bottom difficult is not the view, but the avid desperation that comes along with the clarity gained, however oddly derived of the absurdity of the American idea of masculinity. The idea of engaging in, supporting and perpetuating the absurdity – to pass it along to our children – or to have our children witness our failing to achieve it is what drives many to “drugs, piety, madness, or death.”

I have yet to meet a man who is without desire. We desire to be able to keep our promises to our children, we desire to be respected by the world, and we desire to be loved. The desire to love drives us to be whole and if that desire goes unfulfilled we are left void. Into the void we pour cheap beer, wine, her’on (heroine), crack, sexual perversion, sexual rage, hysteria, homelessness and death. We reach “bottom”, which is just another word the world uses to describe a life in which desire is left unfulfilled.

The bottom goes by many names – skid row, the low end, Harvard Square!, but one constant is that you will find broken people there, especially men. And though I am speaking directly to men, this does not preclude the fact that women can be found there; dare I say it is the American idea of masculinity that has put them there as well!

The bottom is world where the American idea of masculinity has gotten the better of men, but the desire to be seen as a man still persists. Addiction, homelessness, not even hysteria can relieve a man of being subject to masculinity. Race, sexuality, and economics remain in play and determine the chances of “recovery” of one’s humanity.

What James Baldwin reveals to us is that recovery is dependent on the acceptance of the whole of who we are as men, as human beings. At bottom is the recovery of the spirit and the understanding of how difficult it is to attain and sustain the madness of the American idea of masculinity: this is what liberated me from drugs and homeless.

I think it at bottom that Baldwin understood this in his spirit, became unwilling to walk into the punches and learned how to give as good as he got! Baldwin shows us a way to regain the spirit of wholeness, which in the end is the only thing that can save us from the American idea of masculinity.

James Baldwin is one of the first to articulate the problem of the American idea of masculinity without any sort of compromise.

Being a black male who openly loved men both sexually and non-sexually, James Baldwin understood the “guilt and terror” in not living into the concept of black heterosexual masculinity. In a community that has looked towards the black male as savior of families and communities and derided him for failing to fulfill those aspirations, Baldwin’s prophetic voice gets lost in the homophobic rhetoric of religion and community.

Yes, James Baldwin loved men sexually and non-sexually; but I have come to understand he loved being a man more than anything else. He lived determined to liberate men from the American idea of masculinity and the painful march towards oblivion many men undertake. If Malcolm X represents, as Ossie Davis said our “shining manhood”, then James Baldwin is the source of its light and its spirit. We can learn a lot from Jimmy if only we can forgive ourselves and fight on to fulfill our desire to be whole.

-Dr. EL Kornegay, Jr.



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