A Black guy and a Jewish guy walk into a bar … or, Reflections on masculinity in a multicultural society
Not too long ago, at my other blog, I wrote a short post about the rapper DMX. Some of my fascination with DMX, I suggested, had to do with his talent, and with the contrast between his feral aspect, the unchecked masculine aggression, and the unusual vulnerability he allows himself as an artist.
I also slipped in that another reason I liked him so much was probably “the typical white liberal Jewish psychosexual fascination with Id-y, feral-seeming, angry, good-looking black men.”
I was hoping to provoke someone with that comment. That no one was provoked is evidence, most likely, of the fact that nobody reads the blog. It may also be evidence that people feel that Blackness and Jewishness are hard subjects to talk about without accidentally saying something that’s interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as racist or anti-Semitic.
So when I say that I’m uncomfortable, as a Jewish guy, taking on the subject of Black masculinity, well, it’s not true—I talk about the subject all the time—but I feel as if I should be uncomfortable, as if my sense of entitlement to pontificate on Blackness is unseemly.
Maybe a better way to put it is that there’s a tradition of Jewish men speaking with great authority, and too little humility, about the Black experience, and I’m genuinely wary of being associated with, or subsumed into, that tradition. I’m also tired of the particular conversation on the “Black-Jewish relationship” that for the last few decades has served as a drawn-out and painful post-mortem on the death of the political alliance between black and Jewish civil rights activists and organizations that held, more or less, from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 through to rise of black power and SNCC’s expulsion of its white members in 1966.
I wrote my senior thesis in college on the topic of the Black-Jewish relationship, and by the end of it I’d come to the conclusion that it was time to stop writing and talking about it—that it was mostly a self-satisfied endeavor for the Jews (and few Blacks) who kept the conversation going, a way to pump the corpse of the Civil Rights Movement for a few last dregs of moral elixir (‘Hey, remember when we walked with King in ’63!’)
Not that there wasn’t a distinctive relationship between the two ethnic communities that was grounded in the related but distinct histories of racism and anti-Semitism in America, in the ways that the Biblical narrative of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt was entwined in the African-Americans’ liberation from slavery and segregation, in the history of the encounter between Blacks and Jews in the big cities (in New York above all), in the Jewish involvement in both the Civil Rights Movement and then, later, the Neo-conservative movement. But most of that connection, now, is gone.
What’s left, I fear, are just remnants—a disproportionate number of Jewish men working as academics and journalists who write about Blacks, the significant Jewish involvement in the hip-hop industry, the fringe Black Nationalist groups in America who manage to be both anti- and philo-Semitic at the same time, the preoccupation that certain Jewish conservative activists (David Horowitz, above all) have with race issues, the competition for premiere victim status within American culture.
And also, and in this I don’t know that Jews are all that different from the rest of White America, there’s the unconscious psychosexual fascination with the supposed virility, authenticity and spontaneity of Black men. There’s the contrast, as Leslie Fiedler wrote in his 1966 essay “Negro and Jew,” between “the Negro as the embodiment of ?impulse and irrationality, and the Jew as the incarnation of ? sublimation and rationality.”
I can’t be DMX—or I’ve chosen not to be DMX—but I can be fascinated by him. I can write and think about him, and intellectualize him. I can fantasize about the hedonistic, brutal, hypersexual, survival-of-the-fittest life that he and his friends, as depicted in his music videos, apparently live, the life that I’ve given up in exchange for the comforts of bourgeois existence.
That poverty and prison life—worlds from which he draws a lot of his imagery—are awful is mostly beside the point. That DMX is, literally, mentally disturbed, is fine by me because it’s not his real existence that I care about but his existence as a psychical object in my mind. That I need an angry Black man in my head to embody my fantasies and fears is evidence of a certain dysfunction, an inability to integrate certain aspects of myself, but it’s manageable (at least in the sense that it’s a dysfunction that is also writ large in the mainstream culture and therefore accepted and sustained by it).
For the Black men who are haunted by this vision of Black masculinity—which is to say, it seems to me, most Black men in America—it’s a different story. For them, it must be a terrible burden to live in a culture that expects them to be poor, angry, imprisoned, hyper-sexualized, and hyper-spontaneous, that in many ways wants them to be this type, and that at the same time condemns them and punishes them for being this type.
And then, at the other end, they have the upright, church-going bourgeois elements of Black culture telling them, with an intensity that’s understandable but surely also oppressive, to be the opposite of this type—to be controlled, inexpressive, careful, stolid, strong, silent, etc.
It sounds like an unpleasant vice to be caught in. That’s not to say that we should pity Black men. We all have our vices we’re caught in, after all, and I don’t hear anyone asking for pity. But compassion and understanding are in order, and for the Jewish men like me who continue to write about and care about Blackness, perhaps a certain code of conduct needs to be established as well, a commitment a) to stop using Black men as a canvas onto whom we project our own shit, b) to be honest with ourselves about the degree which we can’t help but do that, and c) to talk about, depict and deal with Black men as people rather than types, whose existential dilemmas are as real, complex, and tragic as ours.