I can’t tell you what I wished you would be doing. I can’t redefine masculinity. I can’t redefine Black masculinity certainly. I am in the business of redefining Black womanness. You are in the business of redefining Black masculinity…I don’t know how much longer I can hold this fort, and I really feel that Black women are holding it and we’re beginning to hold it in ways that are making this dialogue less possible. –Audre Lorde, from “Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde,” 1984.
I found something unexpected in James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” I knew Baldwin as the writer and speaker of restrained, not open, fierceness. When he is denied service in a de facto segregated New Jersey restaurant 1943, then sits down at another and is denied again, a different Baldwin emerges:
“Whatever I looked like, I frightened the waitress who shortly appeared, and the moment she appeared all of my fury flowed toward her. I hated her for her white face, and for her great, astounded, frightened eyes. I felt that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worthwhile.”
Baldwin hurls a glass of water at the waitress, barely missing her, then runs and narrowly escapes the police.
I had seen this same moment in so many other works of fiction and non-fiction written by America’s other sons, from Ralph Ellison to Malcolm X to Piri Thomas. I had assumed, foolishly, that Baldwin somehow transcended this. As a gay man, perhaps he would not have identified with the machismo and violence straight men are taught, or maybe the quiet warmth of his prose indicated to me he had let go of his rage.
But in a sense Baldwin’s internal life was irrelevant. Whoever Baldwin was, for a moment in that restaurant in New Jersey, the only thing that mattered was the terror and loathing his male blackness inspired in that waitress, and how it provoked him into playing that prescribed role.
The experience grants Baldwin a better understanding of a significant straight man in his life, his father, whom he knew as “certainly the most bitter man I have ever met.” Baldwin’s hatred of the waitress “for her white face” must be some of the same rage his father felt towards the only white people in his life: welfare workers and bill collectors. His father’s “temper, which was at the mercy of his pride, was never to be trusted”; that pride, in turn, was constantly affronted by his inability to provide for nine children and a wife.
In the aftermath of the restaurant Baldwin realized: “My life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.” Not everyone comes to this conclusion. The rhetoric of black power often uncritically turned those feelings of hatred into righteous anger and violence.
Sixty years later, we are witnessing writers peel back the cover of their hatred into this thing called maleness. It is a sort of coming out as straight men: admitting to an intensely hurt and confused inner self. It is an admission that, by its nature, is not ‘masculine.’
We realize, like Baldwin, that this hatred is not something to be celebrated. It was killing him.
Straight men of color burn with the friction between sexuality and race, in a position to both reinforce chauvinism and suffer racism. The temptation is, and has been, to cling to our maleness, to assert ourselves over women and queer people as a way of forming self-respect. Feminists, in particular black feminists, understand this from the other side: that maleness compounds, not eliminates, the damages of racism. Though the lives of men are at stake here, the havoc male rage has run on the bodies and minds of women is incalculable.
This is a small group of people, to be sure; the mainstream male politics of pop music, buddy movies, sports, and other sectors of American culture haven’t progressed since the 1950s. There are no immediate rewards to excavating one’s masculinity. Indeed, there are risks to relationships and career in giving up the assertiveness and emotional repression that we are told will set us ahead.
In his personal narrative “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” Kiese Laymon finds a woman outside his friend’s apartment, naked, raped, and severely beaten by three men, one of whom was her boyfriend. He looks at his friend, and:
“Without saying anything, we know that whatever is in the boys in that car has to also be in us. We know that whatever is encouraging them to kill themselves slowly by knowingly mangling the body and spirit of this shivering black girl, is probably the most powerful thing in our lives.”
The event comes on the heels of Laymon contemplating suicide and being thrown out of his home, and just before being accepted into a faraway college allows him an out. The stories Laymon tells are devastating but not despairing, honest but not for the sake of self-indulgence.
The forces he resists, that he sees destroy the people around him, also well up within him at times. Earlier in the story, a white cop who, for sport, screams “Nigger lovers!” at a car full of his friends, pulls them over. Laymon finds his heart “pounding out of my chest—not out of fear, but because I want a chance to choke the shit out of [him].” His impulse is to strangle, to perform the most intimate act of violence. Baldwin chose the same weapon in that restaurant: “As the waitress backs away I felt I had to do something with my hands. I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands.” To strangle would be to reclaim power, to wrap their hands around the abstract structure of white supremacy.
A strange color line was broken in 2007 when Seung-Hui Cho committed the deadliest school shooting by a single gunman in American history at Virginia Tech. When Cho took that role, reserved for white men, most Americans were shocked and few, least of all Asian Americans, knew what to say about his identity.
Five years later, One L. Goh shot and killed six people at the Korean Christian Oikos University in Oakland, where he had studied English alongside other immigrants. No one wanted to connect the shootings until Jay Caspian Kang’s piece in the New York Times Magazine. Kang wrote that the shooting “is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way.” But Korean communities, Kang finds, refuse to discuss the link openly for fear that all Koreans will be implicated, stereotyped.
One psychiatrist points Kang to the notions of han and hwabyung in Korean culture, the idea of feeling rage and “entrapment by suppressed emotions.” The two shooters shared an extreme inability to relate to their peers, an inability that went unnoticed or ignored by those peers and their communities.
Kang’s friend, who first connected the two shootings, admits over drinks that “he felt violently angry nearly every day but couldn’t understand why. He wondered if Cho had felt the same way.” Later on, Kang admits to himself that he has the same feelings, though he didn’t say so at the time. Expressing empathy is a decidedly un-masculine practice. It is also something the shooters could not cultivate, creating an emotional expanse in which their feelings of isolation and futility grew.
Junot Diaz’s stories show men at their cruelest. At the same time, Diaz uses his public appearances and interviews to explain and analyze the behavior of his characters, their patterns of loneliness, abuse, neglect, and violence. His surrogate, Yunior, acts out and names Diaz’s internal struggles, while Diaz comments in the vocabulary that Yunior doesn’t have.
In the short story “Drown,” Yunior’s male best friend comes on to him. After they engage in two sexual experiences, Yunior admits he is “terrified that I would end up a abnormal, a fucking pato.” This is the same character who pulls up to the local “fag bar” with his friend who pulls a fake gun “just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” In another story, Yunior is molested by an older man on a bus. These experiences form the backstory for Yunior abusing, cheating on, and leaving women.
When asked by critic Hilton Als about “Drown” and machismo, Diaz responded: “When I think about the political unconsciousness of masculinity, it’s queerness.” He goes on to discuss how, in some Dominican circles, just being seen with gay men implicates one as gay. This creates an intense homosocial bond among men, where wrestling and touching are still “straight.”
Like all these writers, I have my own collection of stories, diamonds hardened by hatred, unblemished by the years, collected into a box I carry everywhere. Each time it opens—and I do not always choose when that is—I fell that upwelling of humiliation and malevolence, wishing I had acted but knowing it wouldn’t have done me any good.
I have been called Johnny Chan or chink, neither of which is my name, from car windows in New York or on campus at my “liberal” northeastern college. I have watched people speak impatiently to my immigrant mother because of her accent, have seen the same abuse towards scores of immigrant mothers who must face the disdain of grocers, bank tellers, and DMV lines in order to live in America.
There was the time my father discussed, in a taped speech, how Asian and Latino immigrants are treated differently in political discourse than European immigrants. Right-wing blogs picked it up and for weeks he received death threats calling him, among other things, a “FISH-HEAD MARXIST CHINK.”
In each moment I was overcome with a blinding, unwilling vision of myself slamming into the other person, throwing something at them, hurting them in a way commensurate with the humiliation of their insult. To be clear: I have not physically harmed someone since roughhousing in elementary school (the training ground for male violence). But this rage works like an addiction, a constant presence that is not defeated simply by ignoring it. Keeping my hands in my pockets is not enough: that I felt the rage was a defeat.
We are each taught rage in different ways. For Laymon, male blackness not only invites the abuse of police but compels him to fight back. For Kang, the stoniness of Korean machismo is both his link to the shooters and the force that prevents him from articulating and severing that link. Dominican peers taught Diaz and Yunior to avoid and hate their queer Dominican brothers, to unleash their vulnerability on women. And there are just as many stories as there are men of color in America, tens of millions struggling with unnamable but irrepressible feelings.
What binds these stories is the moment when the pride and shame engendered by our cultures collide with the inner male voice that says: do something about it. Profiled or stereotyped or harassed or isolated for long enough, there are few available roles besides that of the violent, broken man.
Our respective ancestries, and the cultures that grow from them, are built upon masculine pride as survival, as a way to combat white patriarchy. They also tell us that whatever problems exist in those cultures should be handled within those cultures, behind closed doors—lest we invite more racism and stereotyping, lest the outside world think us all killers.
We are all obsessed with these moments because we have survived them and many others—especially women—have not. We are writing about them because to do so is to release some of what is destroying us.