Saturday, September 10, 2011

Race and Masculinity, Sports and Swagger -- Second Thoughts after Justin Timberlake

One day I was watching C-Span's Book TV. Toni Morrison was speaking to a room of librarians. She read from the first pages of her then-new novel, Love. When she finished, she closed her portfolio and said: "This is from the new novel, Love, which--as you can tell--is perfect."

I hollered.

The combination of audacious pride and irony tickles me to this day. But if I like pride and audacity, why was I so repulsed by Punk'd and then, again, by Timberfake's and Fallon's History of Hip-Hop (the topic of last week's thoughts on the Timberlake phenomenon) ? Why do I find it ok for the senior black diva to show this arrogance and not the junior white boy?

Well, to start, I'd have to say I consider the artist's back story. I know that Morrison didn't just waltz into her position in national (not to mention global) arts and letters. Her success came relatively late in life -- she was nearly 40 when her first novel was published. The acclaim for her work was not immediate and universal. She paid dues. And, to this day, some cultural critics take it as a badge of honor to despise her writing.† So, I like her for the same reason I like the way Navratilova and Boris Becker played tennis. (Schiavone has the mantle now). I admire people for whom it doesn't come easily, but who persist and excel nonetheless. I admire people who take a risk and leave it all on the court (or on the stage). Conversely, I also admire those--like Morrison and Roger Federer--who can produce magic, seemingly at will, yet have a humility about it, even if slyly expressed.*

But the obligation to work hard and the freedom to express self-satisfaction often get distributed unevenly in a race-and-gender matrix--especially in an economy that sells us fantasies of race- and gender-specific properties (see: the Jersey Shore, or, actually, nearly any reality show where there is no task at hand). So, in the interest of taking a risk of my own, I am going to step down from my academic pedestal and try to explore the roots of my contradictory distaste for white braggadocio and admiration of the diva mode... but through autobiographical rather than sociological means. Of course, I don't think that social and historical forces can be taken out of the picture, but those can be delivered via pronouncement or implied in a narrative. I'm going to try the latter as an experiment.

I grew up in an era when MTV wouldn't even play Michael Jackson. This is long before The Real World remade MTV into a reality-based network that was supposed to represent all the "ethnicities" -- suburban white boy, Southern white girl, black, Asian, gay, lesbian. Growing up in Cincinnati, most of my white classmates were unaware of and uninterested in hip-hop. I watched Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld (never Friends) but they did not watch any shows with predominantly black casts except The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In those days, there was a kind of hesitancy. A classic apology before venturing an opinion might be: I don't know what it's like to be black. I could never understand the pain of being enslaved/lynched/etc.... but...

It got a little irksome, because I wanted people to get to their point. Some of you might recall that in making an argument, you can appeal to logic (logos), emotion (pathos), or your own authority as a speaker (ethos). To me, the "I don't know what it's like to be black" statement was a dodge--an attempt to substitute ethos for logos, an attempt to replace I don't know what I'm talking about (and therefore should be silent) with I'm really apologetic about choosing to remain a know-nothing (and this apology restores my absent authority).

I would prefer that whoever is talking just try to learn something about what they're talking about instead of apologizing and carrying on speaking from ignorance.

I remember being impressed with one of my professors, a white Africanist historian who spent no time apologizing to us for being white. He knew that he knew more African history than any student in that room, and so he taught from his expertise. It was much more efficient than having to use class time to conduct therapy sessions for him--ritual reenactments of the Middle Passage, culminating in his composing Amazing Grace and our forgiving him for he knew not what he did. Umm, could you do that on your own time? I'm here to learn.

On the other hand, we have a longstanding problem: whiteness is the presumed color of the knowledgeable, dispassionate, eloquent speaker (and his comportment is manly). Another way of putting this would be that in elite schools, white people (men, especially) are taught more than subject matter. They are taught to project an air of knowingness. I know this because I was schooled alongside them in the very same techniques. My high school, God forgive them, was so careless as not to change the informal instruction in arrogance when the school integrated. And so they wound up creating (or, at least, abetting) the formation of some uppity negroes such as yours, truly. If you don't like Aint Studying You, you could start the blame train at my high school. For my part, though, I do make a donation to the alumni fund when I can, because the academic education was top-notch, and the informal education in swimming with sharks has turned out to be indispensable.

At the all-boys' high school I attended, eloquence was the intellectual currency. It wasn't the rich get richer but instead the eloquent seem smarter. If you could locate the accurate word or the revealing metaphor, you could win an argument, regardless of whether you had any actual knowledge backing it up. In the face of a large number of white classmates who wanted to touch my hair, accused me of being there through affirmative action rather than grade-point-average, and called me a flamer (a word I'd never heard and that didn't describe my dating life), I developed the capacity to activate the intellectual swagger. I squashed all that with ruthless efficiency. It wasn't terribly difficult: 1) This is not a petting zoo. 2) Show me your report card and I'll show you mine and we'll see who deserves to be here. 3) You're the one with a notebook full of your drawings of naked muscle men.

Why is it, then, that I find it so difficult to deal with the physical equivalent of intellectual swagger? Well, part of it is that I had the intellectual snot knocked out of me in graduate school. I realized how much work has to be done to start talking about "knowing" something -- and that even that much work doesn't yield perfect Truth. So, like most converts, I am intolerant of the way I used to be. But there is more.

I was trying to figure out why Justin Timberlake rubs me so raw--why I can't deal with what strikes me as his his shtick: a white-hat, frat party-boy on a stick with the chocolate sprinkles, such as the one black frat brother, the few black teammates, Bob Marley's Legend, and a couple of hip-hop records.

I will admit that the fault is not all lodged in this archetype I think I see. It's our interaction, and therefore some of the culpability is mine. I simply don't know how to respond to this guy, because the only response I have is one I don't want to use. You want to use my back as a stepping stool and demean me for the service, so now I have to lay you flat (see 1, 2, and 3 above).

I suppose it's that I am an inhibited person in some ways. Now, before you go thinking the only kinds of inhibitions are sexual, I'm talking about something broader than that. I like to pride myself on being a nice guy. I guess another way of putting it is that I am very suspicious of the exercise of power. I don't like to have it leveraged against me and so I also can feel queasy about exercising it against others unless I am sure it's justified (no JT reference, there).

Now, the matter is a bit more complicated, because I am one of those oldest children who was left at home in charge of my younger sibling. I was also the "second oldest" among my cousins and on my street. These two scenarios left me seeking to have authority. I was the kid who wanted to be left in charge when the teacher left the room. I also thought, wrongly, that the only power the teacher had was the power to punish. I was probably more strict--writing names on the board and putting punitive check marks next to them--than my third grade teacher herself. She didn't play, but still I probably outdid her. I wanted to be like my idea of her, and that included catching everything. I've chilled on that in my adulthood. I am still eagle-eyed: I was once called hyper-observant, or something like that. But I have learned the boundaries of my institutional power. There are certain things I demand (and students have been known to say I have a "host of pet peeves"), but those are for my psychological comfort and convenience. (I think it's perfectly within my rights to specify the font and spacing of an essay and to mandate that it be turned in stapled. Considering the work I have to do, these are minor acts of consideration for the student to undertake. So, my rule is that I can be as particular as I want as long as I communicate what I require clearly and in advance).

But beyond that, beyond the disciplinary function, I am nervous about modes of persuasion. People have a tendency to do things to please others and then rebel or resent. So I'd rather that a person doing something for me does it of their own volition. This means I usually don't ask for something more than once. It is exceedingly rare that I'll ask more than twice. I'm not going to wear you down or wear you out. I'll just look elsewhere. The same is true about intimidation. Since I'm 6'6" and lift weights, I guess it could be said that I am already intimidating without trying. This is not to mention my baritone voice, which dropped precipitously (though late) from a range so high I used to think Chaka Khan had a *low* voice.

Because I was a very skinny kid and never one who instigated fistfights, I don't walk around with the physical carriage of someone who is about to whoop your ass. I remember meeting a very masculine woman a few years ago at a conference. She looked like a linebacker. Because she carried her body in that swaggering way, I felt small. The force of her size and personality seemed to push me back. Even just standing across from her, I felt intimidated. I stood my ground and stayed in the conversation, and it turned out she wasn't a bully at all, but I did have that instinctive response to her.

I have never wanted to provoke that response in other people. I want to be seen as approachable but not vulnerable. That's a terribly hard balance to strike when your strengths are intellectual--a dead giveaway of failed or substandard masculinity. Within a middle class world, a sort of default neutrality (neither aggressive nor passive) is your passport through social space. Become too aggressive--especially if you're not white--and you will become a target of security/law enforcement. On the other hand, in less genteel settings, the failure to project strength (and the latent potential to do harm) can be taken as inviting attack.

Then, there are those hybrid spaces, where economic elitism and macho collide. Timberlake is one of the representatives of that in a pop music scene that has finally been fully saturated with hiphop (and I'm very concerned that the incorporation of black style seems to have been solely to license white male fantasies of a return to the days when white women could be treated as mere sexpots and not colleagues or bosses).

As celebrity culture swallows tennis, it is becoming another hybrid space where great socio-economic privilege and seemingly misplaced street swagger consummate an unholy marriage (see: Donald Young).

One of my most embarrassing experiences was at my first tennis tournament. I was playing a young white guy whose name I had heard before as one of the local stars. I was already intimidated by that. No one knew my name. And I assumed that having your name known meant you were especially talented. It was very easy to detect my insecurity as I came onto the court. And so he started, nicely and insidiously, asking me questions about where I took lessons. Well, he knew I wasn't a member at any of the local racquet clubs. And so there he was, in my head. I was defeated there before we hit the first ball: I didn't have his top-tier preparation; I didn't have his name; and I didn't have the audacity to start a prying conversation with a total stranger. If we had just played the match, I might have done alright. As it was, I lost in humiliating fashion.

I guess that's the thing. I've always had a commitment to playing the game as it is supposed to be played. To my mind, that means strict adherence to the rules and no mind games. It's an impossible standard and, surely, sometimes people psych themselves out (as I already had begun to do in my tennis match). Still, it's what I strive toward. Transparency and rule-following. It's not the most fun, I suppose, but it's fair.

And so, at long last, that's why I can't stand Justin Timberlake. When I watch him, he reminds me of that kid I played. I don't know how I would respond to someone like him. In my mind, the baseline presumption is that we're all equal. By that, I mean everyone has a right to be present in a space and treated with courtesy and respect until they fail to provide those to others. So when I meet someone cocky, someone (especially a white male) who seems to think himself better than me, the game changes. I have no problem with someone who thinks we are equally intelligent and capable. But the presumption that I'm hysterical, incompetent, illogical... those are things that incense me, because I've walked the halls of very prestigious institutions with a large number of white boys who would have never made it in on their abilities alone or even their supposed integrity. So, whence the swagger, blanco? If I hold myself within certain bounds, play it a little small, a tad bit deferential, to keep from knocking them over, then why can't they return the courtesy? After all, in the academic settings where I'm usually found, I'm as qualified as any and much more qualified than some.

The game (athletic or otherwise) is smooth and easy when there is a presumption of equality. But when one side presumes it is better than the other, then things get very ugly. I've concluded that, unfortunately, the only way to disabuse someone of the notion that they are better than you is to outdo them. Parity won't get it. You actually have to dominate them. This rattles them to the point that you are no longer either overlooked (or looked on only as prey). I have to sort of get my dander up to do it, but I'm willing to do so. I suppose they call this putting someone in his place. I prefer not to have to do it, but I won't shy from it if necessary. I've paid too many dues at this point to have my knowledge and talent played cheap at this late stage.

I wonder, though, if I could get a rematch against that tennis player.

† I certainly don't object to those who dislike Morrison. I never connected with Hemingway. But I don't make a huge point of announcing that every time his name is mentioned. Nor do I claim that this is an objective failing in his writing. As writer and reader, we are not a good match. But pay attention to how the mere mention of Morrison's name sends some critics (who are white, male, or otherwise self-declared cultural guardians) into paroxysms of incoherent rage: Oprah... Hershey's chocolate... navel-gazing... Maya Angelou... Tolstoy... deconstruction... Zulus.... Cormac McCarthy. One wonders why something as personal and subjective as literary taste has to become a front in a militarized campaign for cultural re-education.

*Morrison, it should be noted, has also talked about how difficult it is to write. I'll never forget her saying that the awards and honors are nice but they don't make it any easier to do her work, which is to write the next novel.


  1. Good read. There is a lot to take away from it. Of the many points I suppose I could address, I'll probably jus respond to the last one for now.

    I'm learning more and more that understanding right from wrong is becoming irrelevant. Right and wrong are often very subjective. And even when objective (such as cold hard facts), the interpretation of right and wrong is still very subjective and thus it is much more important to understand is and is not. Will and will not.

    Essentially, it's more important to understand actions, consequences, results. Of course, this is nothing novel, but I don't think we're as active in applying this understanding as we should be. What I'm saying is that doing the right or wrong thing is not nearly as important as knowing what will and won't happen as a direct result from choosing either option.

    I understand what you're saying, but at the same time, you have to respect the "unwritten" rules, even if you don't agree with them. That is of course, unless the rules are insignificant to you. Therefore, while you may not like the mind games, the fact remains that if you don't respect them, you will lose.

    It is for precisely this reason that I love them (mind games, swagger, etc). There are so many social rules and practices that I choose not to accept or abide by because I know that the consequence of my dissidence is nothing that I can't live with.

    A bit of a tangent perhaps, but it's very relevant to your point about transparency and rule following. As for Justin Timberlake (and you should stop calling him Timberfake because it weakens your argument, the reader can already sense your bias and thus may not respect your subjectivity, but maybe you CAN or CANNOT live with that...), I'm not sure if you give him enough credit. For all of his swagger and acceptance (I guess), he is very respectful and he knows which lines not to cross.

    First of all, my guess is that you wouldn't have as much an issue with JT if he wasn't so heralded among the black community. And not that he is as revered as say, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or even Robin Thicke, he has obtained the "black pass", or at least a probationary black certificate.

    But contrast JT to someone like John Mayer. I'm sure you recall the Playboy article where he one, specifically stated that he had not jus a black pass, but a nigger pass; and two, that his dick was a white supremacist (or something like that). Ummm, he lost a lot of clout in the black community after that because he crossed a line that he didn't respect. Now, I guess he's still okay after it, but I know a lot of black women that might have found him attractive, no longer do.

    Let's also look at Jennifer Lopez. She's Puerto Rican. And from what I understand, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans are essentially one in the same in NYC, which means they're all "niggas" (not a word I like to use, but for argument sake, it is what it is). But J-Lo got chastised for saying "my niggas" in a song that even featured Ja Rule. Contrast the fans reaction to her to someone like Fat Joe, or even DJ Khaled (which makes no sense), and they unapologetically use the N-word with no consequence.

    JT, for as much swagger as he has, knows the line. If he crossed it, there would be problems. As for his unapologetic performance with Jimmy Falon, that is as much hip hop's fault as it is JT's. Blame hip hop for commercializing itself and wanting more money, but don't blame JT for catering to his audience. I'd expound on that last sentence, but I actually don't think I need to. I'd rather jus read your response.

  2. Thank you, as always, for reading and responding. A few quick thoughts: 1) Fans of Prince, Janet, and Michael may feel very differently about your conclusion that JT knows where "the line" is. I don't think dropping the dreaded N-word is the only way to cross lines (and your run-down of J-Lo, Fat Joe, et al suggests there is no one line).
    2) I'm not too concerned about the repercussions of the occasional "Timberfake."
    3) Although I agree about your focus on consequences, I can't fully get behind a "there is no right or wrong." I might say that, theoretically, there are no universal moral absolutes. However, there are certain things that will make me close a door on somebody.
    4) I wouldn't say that Puerto Rican and Af-Am New Yorkers are equivalent. I wouldn't say they are always entirely distinct, either.

  3. 1) JT doesn't need to worry about fans of Prince, Janet, and Michael. JT needs to worry about fans of JT.

    2) Nice :)

    3) It's not that there is "no right or wrong", I'm jus learning that it's often irrelevant. Very much, the mental game we play is what we must confront the most. And when confronting the game that is life, knowing how your opponent (or your teammate) will react to your actions is often more important than making the right or wrong action. Of course, it has to do with what consequences you're willing to accept. So for instance, if you saw a woman getting raped, you would think it right to help her and impede on the injustice. But if she's getting raped by five physically imposing men and you're by yourself, the right thing to do is to still assist...but potentially at the cost of your life. I realize that is an extreme example, but the same logic applies to very simple situations (like when I got respectfully dismissed from a church because I refused to take off my hat when said church did not require the same of its female members. Right or wrong was inconsequential to me knowing that they would ask that I leave church, which I was fine doing, but were they fine with me leaving? Maybe. Maybe not).

    4) I agree with you. I'm simply repeating what resident blacks (African-American actually isn't accurate for the particular friends I'm talking about) of NYC have told me. This would have been the same crowd to weigh in on J-Lo's use of the N-word.

  4. PS: One of my favorite games is to have a bit of fun with singers' names. Some of them I like (and just like to clown them sometimes); others have moments when I respect them but generally irk me. Some favorite improvised names from over the years: Whitney Used-ta, Celine Peon, Mariah Scarey, Phoney Braxton. So, Timberfake is a mere addition to the fun I like to have with words and sounds. Not much ill will intended.

  5. It is always interesting to learn new things about my high school experience more than fifteen years after it ended. The Bomber attitude has been a source of grief at times when I've been amongst the plebes and proles.

  6. This may be the rose-colored glasses of memory, but I recall our interactions--even though we were on entirely opposite ends of the political spectrum--as characterized by mutual recognition and respect.

    As for your post, I am wondering if the air of omniscience was a source of grief for you or for them!

  7. What a wonderfully well-written Sunday afternoon introduction to your blog; I look forward to enjoying your posts old and new!

  8. Thank you very kindly Middlemyatt. Very pleased to have a new reader. You might enjoy the pieces on Tyler Perry, the topic that (to an extent) introduced us. -- Cheers