Interrogating Constructions of Blackness and Masculinity(ies) – A Comparative Approach
Aleah Ranjitsingh, Borough of Manhattan Community College and Brooklyn College (CUNY)
Keywords: gender, sexuality, discrimination, racialization
In the Center for Ethnic Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY), I teach a cross-listed Africana Studies and Sociology course – AFN 129 The Black Man in Contemporary Society. I began teaching this course in the fall semester of 2015 and I conceptualized the course as focusing on the Black man in US contemporary society. US focused and given the present moment as movements called (and still call) for Black lives to matter, I created the course to explore the historical, social, economic, political and psychological forces affecting the lives of black men in United States society today. Therefore critical to interrogating the Black Man in the US today would be a theorizing around race and gender and critical to this, an understanding of how bodies are raced, sexed, gendered and are ascribed cultural, social/socio-economic, political and historical meaning. As I would tell students on the first day, the class would first take a historical approach looking at the legacy of African slavery, Reconstruction, Civil Rights and Black Power for instance, and then take a sociological approach looking at topics such as Black men, masculinity and fatherhood, sexuality, education, sport, hip-hop etc. and ending at the current moment – the presence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is how I taught the course for almost two years (almost 10 sections of the course) until the Building Asian American Studies Summer Institute.
While the concepts race, racialization, gender and sexuality are central in the course, being a participant of the Building Asian American Studies Summer Institute allowed me to introduce Asian American Studies content into the course. At first, I questioned how I could achieve such given a class on Black men and masculinity but Asian American studies allowed me to introduce comparative and transnational content which I hoped would allow students to better understand for example; constructs and understandings of race; the process of racialization in the United States in terms of the construction of Blackness, Black bodies and its cultural, social/socio-economic, political and historical meanings and; the constructions and understandings of Black masculinity(ies) vis-à-vis Asian/Asian American masculinity(ies).
I therefore introduced new sections to the class schedule, one being Understandings of Blackness – A Comparative Perspective: India. This class is now scheduled after classes on The Politics of Slavery and Reconstruction and Civil Rights and Power. My aim for this new section was to show students how Blackness may also refer to “a projection onto certain peoples who are deemed Black,” (Prashad 2000, 159) in addition to the embedded racial, historical, political and social meanings in the US. Taking a comparative approach, the class turned to India and the experiences of race and caste and particularly those of the Dalits there. As seen in the attached document on one of my keywords – racialization, readings used for this session were: Vijay Prashad. 2000. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 159 – 183 and Nico Slate. 2012. “The Dalit Panthers: Race, Caste and Black Power in India.” In Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement, edited by Nico Slate. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan. 127-146. Prashad’s text was instrumental in allowing the class to understand understand the construction of Black bodies and Blackness. Similarly, Slate’s reading allowed for the class to see how the Dalit Black Panthers borrowed from an ideology of Black Power because of understandings and experiences of Blackness. In addition, I showed two short documentaries: India’s Dalit Revolution – Al Jazeera English 101 East and Black Panthers Revisited, Op- Docs. New York Times.
Teaching this session for the first time in the Spring 2017 semester, I attentively looked at the students’ amazed expressions as they watched the ill-treatment of Dalits and the discrimination they face daily because of their caste and skin color. This allowed us to have a discussion on racism especially using Prashad’s text where he describes racism as existing in structures of exploitation and referring “to the historical appropriation of values and the monopolization of power by an elite that is wedded to class privilege and white supremacy” (pp. 164). It is then that some students began to grasp constructs of race as being embedded with meaning, Blackness as being appropriated a value of inferiority, and race having an intimate relationship with power. As stated before, it was my first time teaching this session and I have already begun to think of ways to improve the session but I believe that my initial goals were met.
In another session I call Sport and the Construction/Performance of Masculinities, a session where I usually look at how African American boys are socialized into sport and where I question whether such is instrumental in constructions of Black masculinity(ies), I included Stanley Thangaraj’s Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity. The aim here is to again be comparative – interrogate and compare the constructions of Black masculinity to Asian/Asian American masculinity in sport. The second reading used for the session is:- Johnson and Migliaccio. 2009. “The Social Construction of an Athlete: African American Boy’s Experience in Sport.” The Western Journal of Black Studies. 33 (2). After looking at the article by Johnson and Migliaccio, conversation centered on Jeremy Lin, the Asian American NBA star of Taiwanese descent, who in 2012 during his time with the New York Knicks, sparked what is known as Linsanity. After a lot of back and forth conversation, one student said, “Jeremy Lin is only exceptional because he is Asian American.” I pushed him to say more, to explain, to dig deeper. Then he explained, that Lin was only seen as exceptional because he is Asian American, what he does, Black players do all the time and better. Thus, the class began to discuss how Lin’s non-Black body amid Black bodies was viewed and constructed. To aid in our conversations, we looked at the New York Times, news short When Linsanity Happened and articles such as Sefan Bondy’s 2017 New York Daily News article Jeremy Lin addresses stereotypes, emasculation of Asian men.
I was happy to hear students refer to the Dalits and the construction of race in later classes and also refer to Jeremy Lin and Asian American masculinity and sport in final papers on Black Masculinity and Sport. I am still trying to improve these sessions and I am also looking to see where else I can bring in more transnational and comparative Asian American studies content. So far, I am considering adding the following readings: Deepa Iyer’s chapter “Ferguson is Everywhere” from her 2015 book We Too Sing America. South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multiracial Future and; Vivek Bald’s chapter Between Hindoo and Negro from his 2013 book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.