IUPUI professor explores evolution of black masculinity in new book

Nov. 18, 2013


INDIANAPOLIS -- A new book by Ronda Henry Anthony, associate professor of English and Africana studies in the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, examines black masculinity and looks at modern black male and female feminists who are reshaping the ideals and values commonly associated with black men.

"Searching for the New Black Man: Black Masculinity and Women's Bodies" studies such texts as the slave narratives of Henry Bibb and Frederick Douglass; the work of James Baldwin, Walter Mosley and W.E.B. Du Bois; and even the writings of President Barack Obama to understand how women’s bodies are portrayed in African American literature to construct and empower black masculinity. Henry Anthony also discusses how black men’s identity struggles are tied to issues of patriarchy and normative notions of masculinity.

“The book is a love letter to black men as I try to understand them better -- where they come from, what it’s like to be a black American man in the 20th and 21st centuries, the challenges and conflicts they have -- and to think through how to produce better relations between black men and women,” Henry Anthony said.

It was Richard Wright’s "Native Son" that triggered Henry Anthony’s journey to understand black masculinity.

“To me that was the beginning of an understanding that black men and black women weren’t always natural allies in the battle against oppression,” Henry Anthony said. “Black men represented black women in a lot of texts as enemies, potential enemies, or as Wright does as dangerous quantities in their knowledge and their power to influence black men and black culture."

Henry Anthony, who is also public scholar of African American studies and undergraduate research at IUPUI, feels that current gender debates between black men and women intensified during the emergence of third-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early '70s. Before that, black male voices dominated the literary scene. But the '60s and '70s brought female writers such as Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gayle Jones and Alice Walker to the fore.

"(They) talked back in conversation with black men and defied them by airing the dirty laundry of the black community about patriarchal abuses,” Henry Anthony said.

Feminism led to an explosion of black female writers whose work created conflicts and debates with black male writers and black patriarchal texts, according to the professor.

The last chapter of "Searching for the New Black Man" focuses on Obama, exploring the idea that he is more of a black feminist than many of the men before him. Henry Anthony compares Obama specifically to Du Bois because Du Bois set the tone for masculinity in the 20th century.

“Obama is the 21st-century embodiment of that,” she said. “He pulls from Du Bois, a literary father, and constructs a new configuration of respectable, middle-class, politically empowered black masculinity. However, he does it without trying to represent women in ways that always come back to men. In other words, women serve as critical voices that help him to understand better who he should be.”

"Searching for the New Black Man" was recently published by the University Press of Mississippi as part of its Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies.