Too many people within the African American community, church, and black theology believe that gender concerns only women. When the gender issue becomes the center of discussion, most black men, for example, assume a position as if they were corpses in a morgue. Their tongues grow silent; their bodies drop to a limp posture; and their lives fade into a ghost-like absence. Gender, from this vantage point, relates only to black women. If this logic is true, then it would be another example of black male sexism to enter the conversation and dominate what is said and not said. The flip side of this belief is that African American men do not have a gender. In contrast to this false view of life, this essay offers an interpretation of what it means to be, have, live out a new heterosexual black male gender.2 Black men have a gender. We have a male gender; so gender refers to men and women.3
Gender, in this essay, differs from sex and therefore, opposes the popular idea of gender which makes sex and gender the same. However, in fact, sex speaks to human biology, the genitalia with which each person is born, while gender is defined and determined not by nature but by human culture. Usually, sex cannot be changed by human nurturing. Yet, gender construction remains a socialization process influenced by child rearing and parenting models, peer pressure and positive examples, movies and the media, educational institutions and training organizations, and biblical interpretation and faith communities. Human beings make other human beings into specific male and female genders. On the other hand, nature creates each person with the physical characteristics of a sex.4 Sex exists as a biological category including reproductive capabilities, specific biological organs, and certain chemical balances. Sex is a neutral existence at birth; we are given our sex definitions when we come into the world; we do not define it at the point of birth delivery.
Restated, gender represents both a cultural category and a dynamic process of socialization. Culture includes a total way of life; that is, every aspect of a person's way of believing, thinking, judging, saying and doing in the world. Culture, moreover, indicates a communal existence. There are no cultures of individuals, only cultures of people, groups, and communities.5 As a result, we identify an individual based on his or her relation to and interaction with a group. Group culture contains certain rituals and myths which glue the culture together and help to distinguish one type of culture from another. Furthermore, culture always carries a specific language spoken by a group.
As a process of socialization, gender is not formed over night, nor is it ever a completely finished product. As a vibrant creation, gender follows the ongoing formation of a culture. It changes in the sense that cultures of groups do not remain static. In the process of cultures modifying themselves continually, cultures also modify the definition of gender. Consequently, gender becomes a liquid category. It is solid like ice and liquid like water; and it evaporates like mist. Furthermore, socialization tells us that there exists no absolute identification of gender. From this perspective, there are no right or wrong definitions of gender because gender results from how each society socializes people into gender roles.
For black theology of liberation, whatever type of gender relationships take place in a community, the key is not the description of the genders but the presence or absence of liberation and the practice of freedom. In other words, socialization states that when babies are born, they can become any gender that society socializes them to be. This suggests a radical possibility because, if the privileges that come along with being male over against women are created by human beings (who go against the spirit of divine liberation), then human beings (who work with the spirit to practice freedom) can bring about social change to remove these privileges from the male gender.
Human societies use various ways to produce a desired gender (that is, this cultural category and dynamic process of socialization). The family remains the basic unit for modeling male and female genders. Other factors of influence are schools, sports, visual and audio entertainment, sex roles, jobs and professions, church and other faith institutions, news media, languages, myths, rituals, laws and race. Especially within the United States of North America, the capitalist system sets the broader context for all definitions and formations of gender. This political economic structure maintains a bottom line culture of profit making at the expense of the majority of the people. The root of the profit culture is private ownership of capital and wealth by a small elite group of families headed by men.
Even more specifically, capitalist democracy means putting the minority of certain males of a certain race as the primary occupants of power positions and owners of wealth and capital. Immediately, we notice a hierarchy of gender, as well as class and race. This capitalist democracy hierarchy of the minority over the majority thrives on seeing another human being as someone to be used and dominated for profit and the accumulation of more wealth. From the arrival of the first permanent, English speaking European colonies in Jamestown, Virginia (in 1607) to the 1787 U.S. constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, every foundation of the U.S.A. is based on male superiority. This male gender hierarchy has become so ingrained in both women's and men's hearts and heads that no one even questions the pervasive reality of power positions and wealth ownership belonging to a minority U.S. population--men of a certain racial grouping. From 1607 to the 21st century, voting and laws have not dislodge this entrenched capitalist, democratic minority of men.6
In this process of socialization, black men experience a double male gender reality; and both are negative. On the one hand, the larger culture of white society defines black men as subordinate to white men. African American men are socialized as a male gender, but as men who are subordinate to the racial supremacy of another male gender. On the other hand, within the African American community, black men are socialized to adopt the normative definition of the male gender which is established and defined by the larger white male culture. As a result, black men strive toward and enjoy male privileges over black women and children within the African American family and community. When black men adopt and implement the patriarchy of the larger white male culture, they can act out a very sinful and potentially deadly force on those around them. Specifically, too often, African American men store up both their frustrations and anger against white men with power and then release these two demons onto the women, children, and other black men within their families and communities.7
To sum up, the white male culture gives the norm for what it means to be a black man; and therefore African American men pursue this norm. But to imitate this goal outside of the black community and family means accepting one's black manhood as subordinate to white manhood. At the same time, problems with white men with power and wealth outside of the African American context lead black men to see their home or their community as their royal domains where they are king and everyone else serves as their subjects. In a word, black men experience a state of victimization by white male superiority; and they simultaneously enjoy male privileges at home and in their neighborhoods.
1 This chapter was originally prepared for the Theological Commission meeting of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 28-31, 2000.
2See Dwight N. Hopkins, "Black Women's Spirituality of Fund," chapter 2 in his Shoes That Fit Our Feet (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993); Garth Baker-Fletcher, "New Males? Same Ole, Same Ole", and "Taking Sisters Seriously", chapters 2 and 3 in his Xodus: An African American Male Journey (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996); James H. Cone, "Black Theology, Black Churches and Black Women," chapter 6 in his For My People: Black Theology and The Black Church, Where Have We Been and Where are We Going? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984); and James H. Evans, "Black Theology and Black Feminism," Journal of Religious Thought 38/1 Spring-Summer, 1981.
3Since I'm mainly concerned with black heterosexual males in this essay, please refer to the following essays by Horace Griffin, a self-identified, African American gay, Christian: "Their Own Received Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches," Journal of Theology and Sexuality (Spring, 2000); "Revisioning Christian Ethical Discourse on Homosexuality: A Challenge for the 21st Century," Journal of Pastoral Care (Summer, 1999); "Giving New Birth: Lesbians, Gays and the 'Family': A Pastoral Care Perspective," Journal of Pastoral Theology (Summer 1993).
4See Roger N. Lancaster & Micaela di Leonardo, eds. The Gender Sexuality Reader (New York: Routledge, 1997); Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, eds. Mapping the Subject: geographies of cultural transformation (New York: Routledge, 1995); Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology (New York: Routledge: 1995); Ruth Frankenberg, The Social Construction of White Women, Race Matters (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Sherry B. Ortner, Making Gender: the politics and erotics of culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996); Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, eds. Race and the Subject of Masculinities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); and Robert J.C. Young, Colonial Desire: hybridity in theory, culture and race (New York: Routledge, 1995).
5I am not referring to the turn of the self of modernity which arose with the Enlightenment in Europe. Indeed, I am arguing in radical contrast to this idea of the self. See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: an interpretation (New York: Vintage, 1968); Antony Flew, An Introduction to Western Philosophy: ideas and argument from Plato to Popper, revised edition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989); Jonathan Barned, The Presocratic Philosophers (New York: Routledge, 1993); David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: in search of a fundamental theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder, eds. A Companion to Continental Philosophy (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1999). For my purposes as it pertains to the lifestyle of the self, here I am particularly drawing on African understandings of culture as "I am because we are" and "Without community, a person is an animal." See Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed. Postcolonial African Philosophy: a critical reader (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1997); Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed. African Philosophy: an anthology (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998); Tsenay Serequeberhan, ed. African Philosophy: the essential readings (New York: Paragon House, 1991); P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux, eds. The African Philosophy Reader (New York: Routledge, 1998); and Jacob K. Olupona, ed. African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society (New York: Paragon House, 1991).
6See Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Equality (New York: Routledge, 1995); Marcellus Andrews, The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: race, wealth, and social policy in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1999); and Nelson W. Aldrich, Old Money: the mythology of America's upper class (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1988).
7 Examine William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968); Ronn Elmore, How to Love a Black Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1998); Phillip Brian Harper, Are We Not Men?: masculine anxiety and the problem of African-American identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Marcelus Blount and George P. Cunningham, eds. Representing Black Men (New York: Routledge, 1996); Iyanla Vanzant, The Spirit of a Man: a vision of transformation for black men and the women who love them (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996); Beth E. Richie, Compelled to Crime: the gender entrapment of battered black women (New York: Routledge, 1996); Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, Cool Pose: the dilemmas of black manhood in America (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1992); and Ernest H. Johnson, Brothers On the Mend: understanding and healing anger of African-American Men and Women (New York: Pocket Books, 1998).
Rev. Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins is an ordained American Baptist minister. He is Associate Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Dr. Hopkins received his M.Div., M. Phil., and Ph.D., degrees from Union Theological Seminary, New York and also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Hopkins has published several books including Introducing Black Theology of Liberation; Down, Up and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology and he served as editor of Black Faith and Black Talk: Essays in Honor of James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are used by permission.