Essex Hemphill was an American poet and activist in the late 20th century. In his poem “Heavy Breathing,” he states, “I am eager to burn this threadbare masculinity, this perpetual black suit I have outgrown” (Hemphill). The quote is a metaphor of how inscriptions are similar to clothing. I would use this quote in a lecture addressing black masculine representations by showing the similarities and differences between how a legacy is assumed from clothing versus from the body. Then I would employ ideas from this quote to show how assumptions can be problematic when based on the “stock figure.” Overall, it is important to instill that this assertion is played out by the duplicity and complication of black masculine gender representation.
Hemphill is angry and annoyed at the unreasonableness of ideologies. He says that he is “eager to burn this threadbare masculinity.” In the context of the course, this quote expresses irateness from assumptions and monolithic scripts of black masculine gender representation. Hemphill refers to the assumptions and oversimplification of black masculine identities as “threadbare masculinity.” Threadbare describes something as “Having the nap worn off so as to lay bare the threats of the warp, as a fabric, garment” (Collins English Dictionary). In this sense, black masculine gender representation is not a full fabric or garment, but is missing substance. The quote continues, “This perpetual black suit I have outgrown.” The “perpetual black suit” continues the metaphor for representations of black men, which are continuously held. Hemphill’s indignant tone indicates the problematic nature of representations, which Alain Locke defines as “[the Old Negro] a stock figure perpetuated … more of a formula than a human being – a something to be … ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’” (Locke 1). Monolithic representations do not account for complexities, but create the stock character, which functions to tell people who black men are.
Furthermore, James Baldwin expressed his feelings on constructs in his essay “My Dungeon Shook.” He references the fixed nature the stock figure in terms of the machine-like slave. They are physically beastly, but not intellectually. They are more emotional and less rational. As Alain Locke indicates in “Enter the New Negro,” black men cannot work out of the myth formed from a long history of racial inscription and they have become the myth. The perpetuation of the stock figure as a historical fiction turned into a formula for a human being.
In addition, the lecture would communicate that the construction of black masculinity works in opposition to white supremacy. Black masculinity is the product. Whiteness is invisible and unmarked. In this way, blackness is othered, while whiteness is normative (Jackson 15). This ideology is normalized, which means that it makes people believe that these scripts are commonsense and, in turn, forms a set of beliefs and practices. These are not ideas that are being debated and ultimately accepted by the general public. Repetitive images form ideological constructions. I would use Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization as a scholarly example to demonstrate how this theoretical assertion is being played out. She communicates that manliness is constantly a pose, so it is not natural because natural identities are shaped by numerous experiences and spaces (Bederman). Identity cannot be so simply reduced. However, the pose is naturalized to make it appear as “the real,” meaning that it is passed off as truth and deemed natural.
Then I would show that the “stock character” needs to be worked out because it creates misinterpretations of who black men are. Roland L. Jackson II supports this claim in Scripting the Black Masculine Body because he explains how racist information could be passed off as common knowledge (Jackson 55). This scholarly text would lead to a discussion about how the meanings of black people are bounded in the context of slavery and not fluid. In addition, this quote aligns with the ideas expressed by Mark Anthony Neal in New Black Man. Policing around minorities in public becomes a daily experience in black men’s lives (Neal). The linear constructions of black masculine gender representation are problematic.
I would ask the audience to give examples of how one may read inscriptions on black masculine bodies and assume a legacy of criminality. This discussion would illuminate the problematic nature of black masculine representations because they put bodies under attack with policing in all forms. This idea incorporates my peer group project, Murder to Excellence: Trauma to Transcendence in the sense that it analyzes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s use of historical allusion in “Murder to Excellence,” recalls the memory of Danroy Henry, who is a traumatic part of the black collective memory (White, Gillingham and Mincey). This traumatic and violent event took place in Westchester County, New York, a black lower class community. Danroy Henry was shot and killed by police. For many, the case represents a stand against police, “who think they can kill our men, women, and, children” (Paye). This means that this case is larger than just Henry and his family. It is symbolic of police brutality against black men, which is based on monolithic scripts.
I would conclude my lecture saying that looking for a way out of scripts is inherently necessary, as markable bodies are visible and subjected to increased policing. This stems from what makes Essex’s quote truly beautiful, his metaphor linking inscriptions on the body to articles of clothing. “Threadbare,” “suit,” and “outgrown” are examples of apparel diction. This link illustrates that clothing is tied to this assumed legacy, as well. For example, the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin was a basic of construction for his criminalization. In Murder to Excellence: Trauma to Transcendence, we noted how clothing is tied to identity, as well (White, Gillingham and Mincey). Kanye West and Jay-Z use vivid imagery to show collective identity. Jay-Z says, “Success never smelled so sweet, I stink of success, the new black elite” (Carter and West). The vivid imagery along with alliteration of the “s” sound creates a pattern for the audience. The audience hears the same sounds repeated describing Jay-Z’s expensive cologne, but this pattern is broken as the line ends. This serves to highlight “the new black elite” (Carter and West). It stands out after the neighboring words, which have the same consonant sounds, showing that “the new black elite” is something different from existing stereotypes. Jay-Z and Kanye West inhabit this class through expensive clothes and an elite lifestyle. I would use two visual examples of Jay-Z to demonstrate these messages (see figure 1).
Figure 1 These images show Jay-Z dressed in two different ways. What do the two outfits say about him? Keep in mind that he is one person and his identity is a complex range (Biography) (Heritage).
“I am eager to burn this threadbare masculinity, this perpetual black suit I have outgrown” (Hemphill). Hemphill offers a powerful quote. On the surface, it indicates his indignant feelings toward black masculine representations. However, closer analysis reveals connections to the works of Alain Locke, James Baldwin, Gail Bederman, and Ronald L. Jackson II. The quote metaphorically alludes to the negative effects of scripts. In essence, this powerful quote and its important ideas could lead a discussion, which illuminates the problematic nature of black masculine representations and how they are played out in Urban America.