What a passionate exchange at a protest for civil rights tells us about the performance of Black masculinity as sincere investment in the Black community.
In a viral Instagram video, the Black activist Curtis Hayes Jr. expresses emotion during a protest for civil rights incited by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. His public display of emotion in front of a crowd of onlookers in Charlotte, North Carolina, diverges from hegemonic gender norms. Hayes confesses that his generation was unsuccessful in defending the Black community while addressing two other Black men: one of them, 16-year-old Raymond Curry. Hayes pleads with the teen to “find a better way” to fight for the Black community. Both Curry and the other man maintain a firm frown and accentuated chest. Hayes holds the posture with the men until his voice cracks, and his vulnerability is displayed. The crowd gasps. His expression of vulnerability is widely shared on social media.
The African American studies scholar Patricia Dixon (2017) has suggested that men in the United States, including Black men, often desire to follow a script of being strong protectors of their community and the women in it. Speaking about the protest episode on Good Morning America and describing the values that he instills in his children, Hayes said, “…a Black woman in the world [is] the most important thing that God has ever placed on this earth.”
Many Black men self-identify as protectors of their community, among their other identities, gendered and otherwise. This protector trope of Black masculinity is enforced through social rules such as “Black men don’t get emotional in public,” humorously captured on ABC’s hit show Black-ish when coworkers discuss what Black men do instead of crying when they are emotional in public. This trope is also apparent through the social media trend, #protectBlackwomen. These performances construct a perceived reality within the Black community that Black men protect Black people. Conversely, disproportional police brutality toward Black men is a different perceived reality and creates conflicting expectations of the place and role of Black American men to their nation and to themselves: both protectors of their community and unequipped to protect themselves. Despite these contradicting social inputs, Black men have not abandoned their role as community protectors. Many choose to take on this responsibility and refuse to submit to circumstances of vulnerability despite grossly inequitable resources to do so compared with their White counterparts (see Dixon 2017 for a more extensive discussion).
To defy structural neglect and racism of all kinds by remaining strong and maintaining an appearance free of vulnerability is a difficult task, one that is hard to uphold consistently. It is natural to temporarily waiver in the face of adversity, especially when the adversity is as horrific as the broadcasted killing of George Floyd. Internationally respected religious leader Michael Todd spoke for many Black men during a sermon at his church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31. Reflecting on his experience watching George Floyd die, he told the congregation, “When I saw the execution of George Floyd…all I could picture was my face in the ground, asking for my mother as a grown man.” Todd identifies with Floyd; he described how he was haunted by the discrepancy between the public “execution” and his accepted role “as a grown man.” Black men who watched the video saw police officers—Derrick Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao— challenge their identity and social role. These Black men who accept the social responsibility to protect their community watched a Black man die, unable to protect himself, many while knowing that police brutality is the sixth leading cause of death of Black men in the United States.
In the midst of such a wrenching moment in history, it is understandable if Hayes’s heart was heavy and his defiant mask of insusceptibility became too much additional weight to bear. On June 3, broadcaster Robin Roberts (a Black woman and the show’s host) asked Hayes to explain such a deviation from the “normal” guarded presentation of Black masculinity in an interview on Good Morning America. Roberts’s first question was, “Your passion is so apparent. Tell us, what came over you to speak out as you did in that moment, Curtis?” Hayes explained, without showing emotion, that he thought about how long Black people had been fighting for equal safety in the United States and how they still do not have it: “… it just overwhelmed (me) with anger, and hurt, and …frustration, and confusion.” He had too many emotions to suppress them. His emotional upheaval, confusion, and agitation—his disorientation influenced by the intense and emotional environment he was in—could explain his divergence from hegemonic gender norms. His performance of an “authentic” trope of protector flipped to a sincere expression of the Black masculine experience, as the anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr. discusses in “Race and the Social Science of Sincerity.”
Roberts goes on to comment on the juxtaposed images: Curry with his face grimaced and scrunched, and the elder Hayes, his hand on his heart and eyebrows furrowed with desperation. Roberts notes that the men were “coming at it from a different direction.” She goes on to say, “It was beautiful…how respectful [Curry] was to you.” She poignantly and correctly interpreted Curry’s “aggressive” posture toward Hayes as a sign of respect, which sometimes gets oversimplified as toxic hypermasculinity.
This interpretation is culturally consistent. D9 (historically Black fraternities and sororities) fraternities structure their probates (induction ceremonies) as rites of passage. The ritual involves elders (big brothers) publicly presenting betwixt-and-between neophytes (the people becoming members of the fraternity through the rite of passage) as community members. The inductees maintain a firm frown while their elders address them, even with praise.
In a casual conversation in Rush Rhees library, former University of Rochester Black Student’s Union leader Dekovas Fenly explained to me that when he calls home to speak with his father, he deepens his voice (exaggerating his masculinity and perceived strength), which he does “out of respect” for his father. The timber of one’s voice is a feature that Hayes touched on during the Good Morning America interview, explaining how he teaches his son “to fight at all times…make them fear you. Make them feel you in your voice.” “Them” referring to those who oppress Black people.
As fraternity elders entrust the future of their organization to neophytes, fathers entrust the future of their family to their sons; Hayes entrusts the future of the Black civil rights movement to Curry (as a symbolic gesture expressing that the younger generation will determine the future). Hayes reports that he coaches Curry on how “to get change” and “fight” for the rights of Black people in the United States. In June, I interviewed Jewel Holt, a University of Rochester student and hip-hop artist, about experiencing racism as a Black man. He told me that he sees himself in Curry, as Todd sees himself in Floyd. He commented on Curry’s posture, saying that to surrender is “too painful.” Instead, as a Black man he must actively resist the lack of security experienced by Black people. He went on to explain that Curry’s silent grimace as Hayes spoke to him was “an unspoken affirmation that ‘you can trust me to pick up where you left off’…there is definitely a cycle.”
Too often, people view the performance of the hard exterior of Black masculinity as guarded and emotionless. I argue that the performed hard exterior of authentic Black masculinity is informed by a sincere emotional investment in the Black community and being trusted by Black folks. It is a genuine offer to comfort others and a gift to serve and protect to the best of one’s ability. Despite conflicting information, men will continue to express the masculine ideal. A sign of hope. Hayes and Curry have shown that the protector tropes of Black masculinity are not delusions; they are aspirations.
Yaa Baker is a sophomore at the University of Rochester. She is a religion major, American Sign Language and Spanish double minor.
Cite as: Baker, Yaa. 2020. “Black Masculinity in the United States.” Anthropology News website, August 14, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1477