Ever since my formative days in undergrad, I have long been enamored by the clout associated with the name bell hooks, particularly in my Political Science classes which sought to reframe the political dialogue of African Americans to include voices present within the Black Liberation, Feminist, and Womanist movements. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity has long been on my list of books to read. The title in conjunction with my limited knowledge of bell hooks promised to render a fresh assessment of the state of black manhood and ways in which black men can move from woundedness to wholeness.
hooks offers ten chapters that systematically expose the ways in which “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture” have attacked the life possibilities of black men and boys and prevented from being able to construct more holistic and healthy expressions of black masculinity. Specifically, in this treatise, hooks discusses the ways in which current notions of black masculinity affect the way black men relate to each other (often through a “gangsta culture” that requires violence to assert control), to black women (too often in violent and abusive relationships out of a fear of a loss of status), in sexual relationships (where hooks describes the ways in which black men have internalized the sexualization placed upon during slavery and associate sexual dominance as a sign of masculinity), to their families (who are often the recipients of the lack of emotional connection and aloofness commonly associated with popular notion of manhood), and to the larger society (often internalizing the own hate placed upon them by society.
In the end, hooks seeks to offer ways through which black men can move from woundedness to wholeness through a commitment to “being real.” hooks frames being real as a complete reframing of notions of manhood the commonly associated such as a lack of emotion, disproportionate relationality between one’s body-self and mind where the body is valued more than the mind, and a lack of desire to be a nurturing parental figure along with other “suspect” behaviors. She issues a challenge for black men to reimagine was of expressing black masculinity in broad terms that allow black men and boys to be themselves within a culture that currently attempts to stamp out the nuances of “self” in favor of a homogenous and stifling definition of black manhood. She advises that black men externally process and speak to their hurts, broken dreams, and the “intense loneliness” in order to facilitate the first steps of “being real” and moving towards healing.
While I can applaud hooks’ desire to speak to a broad spectrum of black masculinity, I am appalled at the way she engages the queer community. Throughout much of this book, the queer community is non-existent. The few times that she mentioned queer men, it seems to be in her references to “suspect” behavior found in black boys and in the few black queer scholars that she uses to buttress her own argument. The culmination of her superficial engagement of the black queer voice occurs when she quotes James Beam, author of In the Life, an anthology of black queer men. Beam writes
I dare myself to dream… I dare myself to dream of a time when I will pass a group of brothers on the corner, and the words “fucking faggot” will not move the air around my ears, and when my gay brother approaches me on the street we can embrace if we choose.
There does not seem to be an intentional engagement of the queer voice within black masculinity which ostensibly reifies the notion that somehow black queer men are not really men at all. Although hooks claims to speak from a liberated black feminist point of view, her refusal to engage the queer black male voice only speaks to her collusion with current heterosexist and heteronormative hegemony.
While this book offers a critique of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture” and strategies for black men and boys to overcome the nihilistic threat this culture produces, the lack of black queer male voices leaves this book incomplete not only in its scope of black masculinity, but also in its strategic engagement of “soul murdering” culture. The reader should engage this book knowing that this is an incomplete analysis of black masculine culture and reflect on ways to broaden this discussion to include more voices and experiences. She ends this book discussing the Egyptian myth of Isis reassembling the dismembered body of her brother/lover Osiris in order to facilitate his resurrection and posits that this is the way in which black man and boys and those who love them should engage in the task of reassembling black masculinity; however, by negating to include the voices of black queer men, the body of black masculinity can never be fully reassembled.