Thelma Golden’s BLACK: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art— Elsie Campbell

In her writings in BLACK: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art Thelma Golden explores the ways in which the intersectional identities of black men in contemporary American are portrayed and perpetuated. The idea of the “black male,” says Golden, is an concept of conflicting stereotypes that has risen in the twentieth century. It is contradicting because it hold the aspect of black, which for a long time (and arguably still today and moving forwards) contains negative social implications, carries stereotypes of ‘dirtiness’ or ‘lesser-than-ness.’ This view of African-American’s has been present in american society since the earliest years of slavery. Along side this identity that is wrought with oppression and negative social value, the black male also has the ‘male’ identity. The ‘male’ identity is one that has for thousands of years in western culture been one that carries with it power, authority, strength, leadership, and truthfully dwelled at the top of the social, political, and economic strata. Thelma Golden alludes to two ideas that I find very important: first, the growing awareness of intersectionality. Second, not only does the intersection of the two identities (male and black) creates a new identity that is stigmatized in different ways than the two distinct identities, but the qualities of the individual identities perpetuates the stigmatization of the intersectional identity.

In art with a sociopolitical agenda that we have seen thus far, there is often a one track identity being promoted or explicated. For example, the art work that we studied regarding second-wave feminist art (for the most part) was only focused on women’s problems. Not on the problems of black women or lesbian women or disabled women. Though second wave feminist art like that of Hannah Wilke, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Shapiro had a clear, progressive political agenda it did not take into account the differences of overlapping identities. Art during the 70s and 80s that commented on Gay rights movement and AIDs began to see signs of intersectional awareness, for example the overlapping identities of gay and black in reference to the aids crisis (ex Maplethorppe’s work.) However, the art that Golden outlines takes intersectional awareness to a different level. A good example of this is her discuss on Adrian Piper’s work; Piper, a woman, cross dressed as an african american male and recorded her experience, the reactions she received and peoples reception of her. Looking into “extreme otherness” Piper says. This is a clear cut artistic investigation into the two identities of male and black. This intersectional awareness is something that is extremely current in todays discussions of political and personal identity, so I find Thelma Golden’s discussion on this particular degree of emergence important and enlightening.

Before reading Golden’s investigation into black masculinity I never really thought about how the male identity, an identity I always associated with highest privilege, paired with black identity could actually negatively perpetuate the particular stereotypes of black masculinity. By this I mean traits of masculinity such as strength and power, that are seen as positive in white men, paired with the stereotypical traits, that are seen as negative, of black people as unruly, less refined or civilized, animalistic, or dirty actually creates a ‘person’ who can be even more greatly stigmatizes. The idea of someone who is uncivilized (black stereotype) and strong (male stereotype) is more dangerous, threatening, or problematic than one of those qualities individually. The stereotypes of black masculinity follow this quite naturally: sexual, criminal, athletic. Golden mentions the issues that arise when real-life instances instantiate these stereotypes. This issue can be undermined by using art as a method of critiquing this intersectional stereotype. Lorna Simpson’s piece Gestures/Reenactments (1985) has this effect. The subject of the photograph is a black male, dressed simply, with no face showing, arms crossed over his chest. The words “sometimes Sam stands like his mother” is written below the image. In many ways this picks at gender and race. The faceless aspect makes it clear that this piece is made to represent a group more than an individual. The written portion clearly points to gender-role transgression and the race of the subject points to racial-stereotype transgression.

I think that the ideas in this article about intersectionality are important to understand not just art of the late twentieth century, but also important to understand the way our world is structured and the struggles each unique individual faces.

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