Black Men’s Studies

Black Manhood and Masculinities in the U.S. Context

by Serie McDougal III (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXXVIII, 468 Pages


Black Men's Studies offers an approach to understanding the lives and the self determination of men of African descent in the U.S. context. It not only frames their experiences, it also explores the multidimensional approaches to advancing the lives of Black men. Particular attention is given to placing Black men in their own unique historical, cultural, and socio-political contexts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Trying to See Black Men and Boys
  • Wiping Our Eyes
  • Seeing the Humanity and Personhood of Black Men and Boys
  • Seeing Black Males in Historical Context
  • Pre-Colonial Black Male Life Cycle Development
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 1 Black Male Culture
  • The Meaning of Culture
  • Elements of the Surface of Culture
  • Deep Structure and Black Male Culture
  • Cultural Relevance
  • Culturally Determined Definitional Systems and Cultural Misperception
  • Cultural Appropriation
  • Cultural Over-Attribution
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 Black Males, Racial Identity, and Anti-Black Maleness
  • Black Male Unique Experiences with Racism
  • Racism as Terrorism/Warfare
  • Reasons it is Important to Study Racism and Black Males
  • Racism, Power, and Types
  • How Racism has Changed from the Past to the Present
  • How Black Men Experience Race Differently
  • Consequences of Racism on Black Males
  • Liberatory Responses to Racism/White Supremacy
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3 Black Males, Gender, Manhood, and Masculinities
  • The Meaning of Gender
  • Manhood and Masculinity
  • Black Manhood in Historical Context
  • Gender Socialization
  • Gender and Identity
  • The Uniqueness of Black Male Perceptions of Manhood and Masculine Roles
  • Gender and Power
  • Evading Black Male Vulnerability
  • Popular Scholarship About Black Males and Gender
  • Black Feminism and Advocacy for Progressive Black Masculinity
  • Supporting and Advancing Healthy Black Manhood and Masculinity
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4 Relationships and Intimacy
  • The Legacy of Black Brotherhood
  • Peer-Group Influence on Black Males
  • Black Males and Gang Involvement
  • Friendships Among Black Male Youth
  • Romantic Relationships
  • Black Male Mate Selection
  • Impact of Class, Race, and Sexism on Black Male Relationships
  • The Affirmation of Black Males in Relationships with Black Women
  • Pre-colonial African Conceptualizations of Sexuality
  • Black Male Sexual Activity
  • Stereotype Driven Research About Black Males’ Sexuality
  • Black Male Sexual Identity
  • Pre-Colonial African Sexual Fluidity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Black Community Tolerance and Respectability Politics of Black Gay Male Identity
  • The Development of Integrated or Compartmentalized Racial/Sexual Identities
  • Impact of Parents on Gay Black Males
  • Black Male Sexual Risk Behavior
  • Rape and Sexual Assault
  • False Allegations and Different Treatment of Black Males Accused of Rape
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Fear of Black Male Sexuality: Myth and Fantasy
  • Sexual Objectification of Black Men and Boys
  • Rape and Sexual Abuse of Black Men
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5 Black Men in Family and Community
  • African Conceptualizations of Family
  • Black Men in Families During Enslavement
  • Black Fatherhood During Enslavement
  • Post-Enslavement Socio-Political Factors and Black Men in Family Life
  • Contemporary Factors Influencing Black Male Involvement in Family Life
  • Black Men in the Extended-Family System
  • Black Father Types
  • Marriage and Black Fatherhood
  • Impact of Parenting Styles on Black Boys
  • The Quality of Black Father Involvement
  • The Impact of Black Father Involvement
  • The Adultification of Black Males
  • Black Males in Foster Care
  • Enhancement and Preparation for Black Fatherhood
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6 The Education of Black Males
  • Pre-Colonial African Educational Systems and Philosophies
  • Purpose of Education for African Americans During Slavery
  • Free Black Schools
  • Pre-Civil War Black Male Teachers and Students: Teaching and Learning Under Attack
  • Post-Civil War Black Education
  • Black Male College Attendance and Graduation
  • Community Colleges
  • Black Male Students at HBCUs
  • The Achievement Gap, and the Framing of Black Male Achievement
  • Swords and Shields to Ensure Black Male Success in K–12 Education
  • Strengths of Black Male Students (K–12)
  • Theories on College Persistence and Success
  • Key Factors Related to Male College Successes
  • College Demographics Change What Black Males’ Need from Their Peers (PWI vs. HBCU)
  • Black Males in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
  • Who is Teaching Black Male Students?
  • Black Male Dropout Rates: The Silent Epidemic
  • The Beautiful Struggle of Black Parent Advocacy for Black Males’ Educational Attainment
  • Academically High-Achieving Black Males
  • Key Factors Influencing the Success of High Academically Achieving Black Males
  • The Importance of Career and Technical Education and Social Studies for Black Males
  • Black Males and Reading and Literacy Curriculum
  • Black Male Health and Physical Education
  • The Black Male Student-Athlete Experience
  • School Disciplining
  • Race/Sex Profiling of Black Males in Special Education
  • African-centered Schools
  • Single-Sex Solutions for Black Males
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7 Black Men in Politics
  • Classical African Philosophies of Politics
  • Black Political Action During Enslavement
  • The Politics of Black Male Movement
  • The Politics of Black Male Culture
  • Black Males and Abolition Politics
  • Black Men and Emigrationism
  • Black Male Leadership in Armed Struggle
  • The Shaping of African American Political Ideologies
  • Black Male Politics in the Context of Power: Power and Disempowerment
  • President Barack Obama and Interest Convergence
  • International Relations
  • The Political Spectrum
  • Black Male Political Assertion After Enslavement
  • Black Male Political Consciousness and the 1960s
  • The Politics of Black Theology
  • The Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party
  • Religion and Resistance: NOI and Black Male Political Consciousness
  • Malcolm and Martin’s Spiritual Philosophies and Political Responsibility
  • Black Male Leadership and the Church
  • Civic Engagement
  • Barriers to Black Male Civic Engagement
  • Black Male Military Involvement
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8 Black Men in Economics
  • Pre-Colonial African Cultural Markets
  • Black Male Labor During Enslavement
  • Free Black Male Labor During the Period of Enslavement
  • Systematic Removal of Black Males from Skilled Labor
  • Black Male Labor from Emancipation to the 1890s
  • 1890s to 1950s: Black Male Employment, Skills, and Labor Market Institutional Racism
  • Modest Gains and Challenges in the 1960s
  • Economic Growth and Black Males in the 1990s
  • Black Males in the Great Recession: 2000 to the Early 2010s
  • Globalization and the Economic State of Black Males
  • Applying Theoretical Frameworks to Black Males in the Economy
  • Contemporary Economic Challenges for Black Males
  • Job Market Discrimination and its Impact on Black Males
  • Approaches to Job Market Preparation, Training, and Creation: A Focus on Black Males
  • Black-Owned Institutions and Businesses
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 9 Black Males, Crime, and Justice
  • African Legal Philosophies
  • African/Black People’s Relationship to American Legal Philosophy
  • Norms and Deviance and Decency
  • Race, Identity and Anti-Black-Male Racism in Criminal Justice System
  • The Role of Major Social Institutions in Black Male Incarceration
  • Crime, Violence, and Aggression
  • Black Males as Both Victims and Perpetrators of Violence and Crime
  • Politics and the Criminalization of Black Males
  • Racism and Missing Law Enforcement Data
  • Masculinity, Crime, and Risk Behaviors/Manhood as a Problem
  • Measures to Reduce Police Abuse
  • Prison Rehabilitation: Channeling Black Male Energy and Transforming Consciousness
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 10 Black Male Health and Well-Being
  • The Meaning of Health and Well-being
  • Black Men and the Western Medical Science Establishment
  • Power and Privilege Affects Health
  • General Health Status of Black Males
  • Pathways, Barriers, and Bridges to Black Male Health
  • Impact of Homophobia and Racism
  • High Levels of Trust Lead to Good Outcomes for Black Men
  • Black Males are Viewed and Treated Differently by Healthcare Professionals
  • Black Males’ Lack of Trust and its Consequences
  • Areas of Black Male Wellness
  • Black Male Mental Health
  • Stress/Mental Health
  • Incarceration and Stress
  • Depression (How Men Express it Differently)
  • Black Male Suicide
  • How Black Males Approach Maintaining Their Mental Health and Well-being
  • Individual as Solution to Stress
  • Fighting for Liberation as Healing
  • Approaches to Enhancing the Overall Well-being of Black Males
  • Black Men as Enhancers of Black Male Health
  • Black Families as Enhancers of Black Male Health/Especially Black Women
  • Spirituality as a Source of Health Enhancement for Black Males
  • Conclusion
  • A Final Note
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


The initial idea for this research grew out of my attendance at several conference presentations dealing with topics on or related to Black men and/or boys. Although intriguing, so many of them painted remarkably similar pictures of Black males. So much appeared to be missing; historical context, social and cultural context, variation, diversity, and the voices of Black males themselves. This experience sent me searching through library databases for books and articles related to Black males. The available body of literature on Black males was like an exciting and provocative box of puzzle pieces. But alas, it was as if half the pieces were missing. Part of my existence I owe to my father, yet there are few reflections of men like my father in the vast body of literature on Black males. He was not alone—the fullness of most Black males’ lives is seldom reflected in most literature about Black males. What emerged was an awareness of the need for a systematic approach to studying the lives of Black men and boys.

The process of developing the systemic approach laid out in this text was aided by many conversations with my family, friends, colleagues, and students. First and foremost, I must thank my father Serie McDougal Jr. and my grandfathers, Serie McDougal Sr. and Will Ellis. This book is dedicated to these men. I would like to thank my editor, Sean Dennis. I owe a great deal of gratitude to my Black male mentors Molefi Asante, James Earl Davis, Daniel Johnson, Marc McConney, Wade Nobles, and Oba T’Shaka and others who have at critical times in my life seen potentialities in me that I was unable to see in myself. I also owe a great deal of thanks for the support of my brothers who repeatedly had critical conversations with me about this project, including John Adams, Eric Durnell, Paul Easterling, Justin Gammage, Clarence George, Le’Shaunte Le’Flore, Orron Marshall, and Michael Tillotson. This work benefited greatly from critical dialog with Tanisha Burke, Ifetayo Flannery, Crystal Guillory, Sureshi Jayawardene, Natalie Lewis, Patricia Nunley, Dorothy Tsuruta and my mother and sister Anne and Shannon McDougal. Lastly, throughout this process I have benefited from the love and support of my dear Precious Zamaswazi Dlamini.


Trying to See Black Men and Boys

In Malidoma Somé’s book, Of Water in the Spirit, the second chapter is titled “Trying to See.” The author details his experience being led by elder men through a Dagara initiation process for young males. The Dagara are an ethnic group found in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire. One part of this initiation process is dedicated to the development of sight. Without sight, Somé and the other initiates could not go through the other trials and lessons in their route to manhood. On page 203, an elder addresses the young males:

“Tomorrow we will begin working with your sight,” the coach continued. “You must learn to see. Without good sight, you can’t continue with the other sessions. When you have learned to see well, you will journey one by one to your respective places in this world and find every piece of your self. For now, I want you to sleep. Put your weary bodies to rest for the night and put your spirits in a state of awareness. There will be no further pause in this instruction until it is all over.” (Somé, 1994, p. 203)

The elders leading the initiation explained it is not possible to have knowledge without sight. For the Dagara, seeing goes beyond visual acuity, which is the narrowest level of perception (Somé, 1998). It is the development of spiritual sight that expands a person’s vision, making more of the world knowable. In Somé’s (1998) words, “We perceive the world based on our expectations, which are heavily determined by our context” (p. 65). The historical and contemporary social context in which Black males live, interacting with themselves and others, includes certain expectations. How do expectations of Black males shape the way people perceive and interact with them? How do they shape how people casually think about Black males? How do these expectations shape the way professional researchers study and write about Black males?

As thinkers, our choices of what we think about are, in part, shaped by what we already know plus our presumptions, beliefs, frustrations, passions, curiosities, and fascinations, etc. These drivers are important because they motivate us to learn—but they can stand in our way, too. In Of Water in the Spirit, young Malidoma Somé struggles to learn to see (based on the Dagara meaning of sight) because ←xiii | xiv→he was limited by what he already knew or thought he knew. He and the other initiates were given a task requiring them to tap into their sight, as Somé explains:

When we arrived back at the initiation camp, it was almost deserted. Those present were being given the assignment of the day: tree knowledge. I had expected a general meeting of the type we had the night before, but nothing like what happened. Instead, we were placed in groups of five to fifteen and asked to walk a distance away. Each initiate should select a sizeable tree. We were to sit, stand, or kneel about twenty meters from the tree and look hard at it. We were supposed to see something but were not told what. Each elder was assigned a certain number of students. Apparently, his task was to supervise this boring training and to make sure that we saw what we were supposed to see. (Somé, 1994, p. 206)

Somé found the process frustrating and boring because he believed he knew all he could possibly know about trees. After all, trees are physical objects that are everywhere and can be seen every day. What more could there be to know about them? Somé grew frustrated and wanted to say he had seen something. His fellow initiates begin to see something in the tree, and he could not. The elders began to discuss him as he began to fall behind the group:

Another elder joined my supervisor and they began to discuss me. I listened carefully. “How is he doing?” the newcomer asked. “In his belly, he is a full-bred White. He can’t see,” my supervisor replied. “The White man’s medicine must have damaged vuur [spirit]. But his soul is still in him. That’s why I said a year ago that for his own sake he should not be involved in initiation. But Kyéré silenced me as if I were speaking nonsense. Now, if this boy cannot wipe his eyes, how do you think he is going to clean his body? We are barely a day into Baor and he is trailing behind … Whatever he learned in the school of the White man must be hurting his ability to push through the veil. Something they did to him is telling him not to see this tree. But why would they do that? You cannot teach a child to conspire against himself. What kind of teacher would teach something like that? Surely the White man didn’t do that to him. Can it be that the White man’s power can be experienced only if he first buries the truth? How can a person have knowledge if he can’t see?” (Somé, 1994, pp. 208–209)

Something that set Somé apart was his attendance at a Jesuit mission school, where he was taught to view traditional Dagara culture as backward and inferior. Clearly, this damaged his vision. During the tree exercise, he even tried to lie, and say that he had seen an antelope. The elders knew he was lying and laughed. The next day he approached his task with a new determination. He began to feel a part of his mind that he had not used before. Still frustrated, he began to cry, yet keeping his focus on the tree, began speaking honestly to it, explaining his frustration and sadness at his failure. He once again focused and felt what seemed like lightning going through his body and into the ground. He felt weightless, the trees began to glow, and he lost all sense of time. Where there once was a tree he now saw a woman standing before him with a radiating energy. He embraced the woman and felt immeasurable love from her as she spoke to him. When he opened his eyes, he was embracing the tree. He heard the elders speaking:

They are always like this. First, they resist and play dumb when there are a lot of things waiting to be done, and then when it happens, they won’t let go either. Children are so full of contradictions. The very experience you reject before with lies, you are now accepting without apology. (Somé, 1994, p. 223)

As the elders claimed, Somé essentially had to overcome what he already knew. How often do we ask questions about Black males and never investigate them because we assume that we already know the answers? How often do questions never get asked because we believe that we already know? We engage in study and research because of our interest in expanding and challenging what we already know—to learn. Like the Dagara initiates, we must acquire new skills and thought processes in order to expand our vision. Similar to Somé’s experience, studying Black men and boys requires learning to see beyond what mainstream society teaches us to see and think.

←xiv | xv→

Wiping Our Eyes

It is not possible to be knowledgeable about Black males without developing a certain sight to see the fullness of their humanity. In this text I argue that, like Malidoma Somé looking at the tree as hard as he could, in the American context, most people’s perceptions of Black males are compromised. We do not look at them with the guidance of elders who are present to make sure we see them properly. Like Somé, our vision is distorted by what we already know: knowledge shaped in an institutionally and culturally anti-Black male society. To develop a true awareness of Black male realities, people must wipe their eyes beginning with the acknowledgment of their presumptions or biases. The purpose of this introduction is to identify the key concepts and information that represent bridges and barriers to perceiving and understanding the humanity and personhood of Black men and boys.

At the heart of Africana Studies is the Africalogical perspective which, represents a certain sight, a way of seeing peoples of African descent as self-conscious human beings grounded in unique histories, cultures, and identities. In the current text, this sight will be applied to the exploration of the lives of Black men and boys; how they relate to and influence themselves, others and their environments throughout time (roots, contexts, futures) and space (geography). The approach of this work is informed by Bush and Bush’s (2013) African American male theory, Nobles, Goddard, and Gilbert’s (2009) culturecology theory, and Margarette Beale Spencer’s phenomenological variant of the ecological systems theory.

Seeing the Humanity and Personhood of Black Men and Boys

Seeing Power as a Guidance System for Thought on Black Males

Power-centered or asset-based approaches to studying Black males focus on the examination of strengths, resilience, and success (Bonner, 2014; Howard, 2014; King, 2014; Mitchell & Stewart, 2013). This kind of research is geared toward the development of policy initiatives and successful institutional interventions that lead to positive Black male outcomes. It operates from a position that interventions must be driven by males’ strengths and potential, instead of problems and failures (Howard, 2014).

The opposite of the strengths-based approach is the problem-based approach. When Black males are defined as problems to be solved, what goes missing are their strengths, successes, and solutions that deserve attention, investigation, and expansion. Stereotypes can be a sort of navigational and guidance system for scholarship on Black males. Because researchers are not immune, stereotypes influence their choices of topics, approaches to studying, and the conclusions they reach—reifying longstanding received ideas about Black males. This is sometimes called problem orientation that manifests itself in the tendency for researchers to focus on underachievement, calamity, depravity, deficiency, failure and other dysfunctional patterns of behavior. The tendency to view Black males as problems leads to problem-solving approaches focused on “fixing” Black males instead of examining the social institutions that shape their realities (Howard, 2014). This problem orientation or pathology-driven approach does not emerge in a vacuum; it is a manifestation of the cultural deficit paradigm, the view that Black people in general are an American product alone, with no historical or cultural continuity from Africa as the basis for any unique identity (White & Cones, 1999). Cultural deficit paradigm began with colonial conceptualizations of Black males as childlike, lacking the intelligence, discipline, and values to live up to social expectations (White & Cones, 1999). According to Parham, Ajamu, and White (2011), its proponents cite poor cultural traits as the sources of presumed Black deficiencies. The paradigm emerged from social scientists’ assumption that inadequate exposure and internalization of White American values by many Blacks left them culturally deficient, and in need of cultural enrichment to be properly integrated into society (Parham et al., 2011). Indeed, an additional problem ←xv | xvi→with the cultural deficit perspective is that it reduces Black male culture to a reaction to racist White Eurocentric cultural imposition, rather than preexisting cultural styles independent of forces of cultural assimilation (Kambon, 2006). Politically, the paradigm is used to discourage government social service interventions, positioned as the cause for marginalized families’ failure to teach proper values. The cultural deficit paradigm is known similarly by phrases such as cultural disadvantage and cultural deprivation, which includes the assumption that African American males experience social dilemmas based primarily on their own internal failures, unrelated to social and historical context.

An example of problem orientation is the stereotyping of Black males as hypersexual. Thus, a great deal of recent scholarship on Black male sexuality (Dancy, 2012) has been focused on hypersexuality, which reduces the broader topic of sexuality to conversations about sexual deviance. The supposed legitimacy of this sort of research, just like in stereotypes, is that it draws on something real—but it also greatly exaggerates reality when applied to Black males in general. Deviance is a valid topic, yet because so much of what is known and studied about Black males is fixated on it, the overall body of research on sexuality is like a distortion or carnival mirror which shows us images which exaggerate or diminish parts of who Black males are. The same applies to the great amount of research reasserting age-old notions of Black male hypermasculinity, propensity for violence and criminality, and ignorance. These topics are important, however, the sheer volume of research concentrated in these few problem areas is a reduction of Black male humanity. Black male life is more than these narrow categories, and the scope and depth of what is investigated needs to be broadened. The tendency to focus on problems also creates a poverty of solutions. Although some who conduct research primarily oriented toward Black male crime, drugs and violence may do so to bring attention to important issues, this strategy may ultimately be counterproductive by making service providers (nurses, teachers, psychologists, etc.), more apprehensive and/or apathetic about Black males (Smiley, 2011).

What happens to Black males who do not fit the narrow lens of problem orientation? They are rendered invisible to those who adopt this orientation. For education research, this manifests as a tendency for scholars to focus on underachievement while leaving high-achieving Black males under-researched. Regarding Black fathers, it manifests as a tendency to study father absence, leaving fathers with positive parent–child relationships also an under-researched population. It would be easier to create change and develop solutions if researchers spent more time studying what is working, and why, in the lives of Black men and boys. Solution-oriented research is present, but underdeveloped and underrepresented in the literature on Black males.

In recognizing the challenges that problem-oriented research presents for understanding of African American culture, Majors and Billson (1992) state that “efforts toward broadening research or writing new social policy must be clear about several issues. First, exploring Black responses to oppression must be cast in terms of cultural distinctiveness, not cultural or individual pathology. Second, recognition of cultural distinctiveness cannot be construed as a way to avoid making substantial changes in the structure of our society. And third, social policies and programs must have the full support of all segments of society, not just those who have fallen victim to its fundamental failings” (p. 116). The solution to the deficit paradigm is not to avoid analyzing problem behavior and thinking, but to avoid fixating on them (King, 2014). Ironically, a heavy focus on problem behavior and thinking undercuts the development of lasting solutions.

Some well-intentioned researchers, affected by the problem orientation, engage in a kind of thinking that is closely related to what some researcher call risk factor research (RFR) (Seixas & Wade, 2014). Dupree, Gasman, James, and Spencer (2009) assert that everyone experiences risk or vulnerability; it’s a part of the human experience. Risk is not something that is a fundamental part of Black maleness. Some Black males experience greater levels of risk than other demographics in various segments of society and at various points throughout the life course (Dupree et al., 2009). According to ←xvi | xvii→Seixas and Wade (2014), RFR is research with the purpose of identifying various socio-environmental factors that lead to problem behavior and outcomes. One of the limitations of RFR is that the interactive effects of risk factors across different social systems are rarely studied. Another limitation of RFR is that insufficient attention is given to cases where Black male youth are resilient despite their exposure to risk factors. Research models need to examine the role that protective factors (family and community relationships and personal coping skills) play in moderating the relationships between risk factors and social outcomes. Protective factors can, in some cases, decrease the likelihood of or prevent poor outcomes. Without an understanding of protective factors, well-studied risk factors are of no practical use to change agents or service providers who work with Black males (Seixas & Wade, 2014). However, an understanding of risk and protective factors expands our sight because it can be used for the purposes of designing interventions and better institutional services. This is the strength of using power as a guidance system for research on Black males.

Importance of Social Context

Perhaps the most devastating feature of the problem-oriented approach to scholarship is that Black males themselves can start seeing themselves through this lens as promoted in media as well as gender literature (Ford, Marsh, Blakeley, & Amos, 2014). Even service providers of Black men (teachers, doctors, police, and politicians) can engage in deficit thinking. Deficit approaches routinely avoid discussions of socio-environmental constraints and fantasize the existence of a post-racial reality. But there are deficits that lie in social structures, policies, and institutional practices (Howard, 2014). For example, if Black male students did poorly in all schools, the problem might be sought in the Black males themselves (Jackson, 2008). But, because they do well in good schools, the problem must also be sought by examining the educational system itself.


The philosophy of Ubuntu offers some guidance for research on Black males. The term itself is a verbal noun referring to human beingness as a process by which one’s humanness is constantly unfolding (Ramose, 2002). Per Ubuntu, people are being human when they affirm their own humanity by maintaining humane relationships with others and their environment (Ramose, 2002). Ubuntu philosophy suggests that knowledge in the hands of a human being must be used to affirm humanity. Maat, in Kemetic cosmology, is the concept that governs what Nobles (2006) describes as the relationship between the knower and the known. Similarly, Maat refers to truth, justice, cosmic regulation, universal balance, order, and moral uprightness (Obenga, 2004). Thus, the purpose of knowledge (in the classical African sense of the word) is to affirm humanity by advancing the condition of the collective (Nkulu-N’Sengha, 2005). As such, knowledge about Black males should affirm their humanity and the humanity of people of African descent in general. Affirming Black male humanity means conducting research that is ethical, and that Black males are worthy of research, grounded in valid inquiry about their lives. Moreover, it means they are worthy of research that can be used to better understand and enhance their own lives and the lives of the Black community. Morial (2007) wrote that empowering Black males to reach their full potential is an economic and civil rights challenge that must be solved to ensure the well-being of the African American community and the nation.

To ensure the future of Black men, researchers should engage in self-reflection and question their own motivations for conducting research (Hsin-hsin & Coker, 2010; Nápoles-Springer et al., 2000; Parrill & Kennedy, 2011; Strauss et al., 2001). Researchers should (1) be prepared to explain how their research might benefit Black males and the Black community; (2) examine whether or not they are conducting research for money, status, or privilege, and how that might affect the validity of their research; (3) be aware of the interacting roles that race, class, sex, and gender oppression play in their research; and (4) be aware of the history of research with African American men and African Americans ←xvii | xviii→in general and their legitimate concerns, and; (5) identify their own preconceptions about Black males, how they acquired these ideas, their validity, and how they might affect the quality of their research.

Seeing Black Men and Boys’ Experiences as Unique and Multidimensional

This book’s focus is on investigating what is unique about being male and of African descent. This focus is necessary, in part, because research that compares Black males’ experiences with those of White people and Black women sometimes misses the unique experiences of Black maleness (Strayhorn & DeVita, 2010). Moreover, researchers risk reaching false conclusions that what benefits or harms Black women also harms or benefits Black men. Not all Black men share the same experiences, or at the same levels, and all have unique intersections of factors in play, different than for non-Black males. Littles, Bowers, and Gilmer (2007) explain:

A concrete example of this dilemma is the initiative, Moving to Opportunity, which gave mothers vouchers to move from areas where the poverty rate was 40 percent to areas where it was 20 percent. The moms did better, the girls did better, but the boys did worse. Moving to opportunity and countless similar efforts demonstrate the need to develop research specifically targeted to the unique situations of Black men and boys in the United States. (p. 14)

Although there is a significant body of historical research on Black men, it has seldom been studied from a clearly defined sex/gender perspective (Clarke-Hine & Jenkins, 1999). The sex/gender perspective is key because sex and gender are fundamental parts of how human beings organize and make meaning of their social realities (Hoppe, 2002). Building on the work of Dancy (2012), this chapter explores the interactive experience of being Black and male at the intersection of history, culture, family, sexuality, politics, economics, education, health, and justice.

Black men’s studies is the systematic, culturally and historically grounded study of the lives of Black men and boys for exploring, describing, explaining and advancing Black communities. It includes the study of Black manhood and masculinities. Some use the terms Black manhood and Black masculinity interchangeably. Recognizing that there are numerous definitions of each, there is a generally qualitative distinction between the two (Dancy, 2012). In this text, manhood refers to the principles, values, and beliefs that men develop or accept, while masculinity refers to the observable actions that men use to express or manifest manhood. Therefore, Black masculinity lends itself more easily to the study of performances or behaviors and other material manifestations of manhood. According to Williams (2014), Black manhood is related to Black masculinity studies but goes beyond fixating on outward behavioral expressions, enactments, and performances (Williams, 2014). Instead, Black men’s studies makes Black males’ humanity and personhood the point of departure for scholarly investigation. Its objectives are:

To guide the development of holistic and balanced information for a better understanding of the diversity and multidimensionality of men and boys’ humanity

To humanize men and boys through approaches to studying their lives that provide context to their thought and action

To offer an approach to studying their lives that affirms the self-conscious ways of addressing and creating their owned realities

To offer a supplementary lens of analysis to further enrich the critical study of Black women, families, and communities

←xviii | xix→

To inform the development of thought, practice, and institutions to help males protect themselves against anti-Black male forces in all forms

Ultimately, to guide the development of knowledge that advances men and boys, their families, their communities, and peoples of African descent in general

A holistic framework for studying Black males (and Black life in general) recognizes the intersection of multiple and varied aspects of their identities and experiences. This intersectional framework includes the interactive effects of multiple forms of identity and oppression—people of multiple identities experience oppression differently because racism, sexism, and classism do not operate in isolation. However, the intersectional framework is rarely applied to study the lives of Black men. The consequence of the selective suspension of intersectionality is that much of the breadth and depth of male experiences is missed (Howard, 2014). Lacy’s (2008) critique of the use of the intersectional framework lies in the fact that it is used to examine the lives of some subordinated groups, such as Black women, while Black men are often excluded from intersectional analysis despite the fact that they suffer the interactive effects of race, sex, and gender in unique ways. For example, in some school districts, the dropout rate for boys is twice that of girls. Race alone doesn’t explain this and other Black male realities; the combination of race and gender must be accounted for. Intersectional approaches could provide context and challenge crude generalizations about Black male attitudes and behaviors. Applying this approach requires seeing the unique intersection of different aspects of the identities of Black men and boys. Failure to recognize the roles that class plays can lead to too much focus on low-income Black men or heterosexual Black men, leaving middle and upper-income Black men, and gay, bisexual, or transgender Black men, under-researched (Dancy, 2012).

What some see as the selective suspension (or the strategic choice) to drop intersectionality in the analysis of Black men leads to an approach to studying Black males in gender as participants in a standardized project of universal male domination. Failure to see Black male uniqueness leaves one blind to how being Black can undermine privilege and change the experience and expression of patriarchal oppression. Ignoring this reality makes overgeneralizing about Black male patriarchal oppression easy, or at least more likely. It facilitates polarized images of Black men in America, and Africa, as dominant actors who collude with sexist racism against Black women (Cornwall & IAI, 2005). Failure to see Black male uniqueness supports the notion of universal patriarchal oppression, and projects the idea that Black men who are not patriarchal subjugators of Black women are mere exceptions to the rule. Without an intersectional analysis of Black males, Black women are positioned as without agency and as passive victims of Black male oppression. This logic is easy but it sacrifices nuance and accuracy. Such an analysis makes it impossible to imagine instances of Black women participating in patriarchy, much less any involvement in the oppression of Black men.

At the core of intersectional analysis of Black males is the idea that they are privileged by their sex (male) while being disadvantaged by their race (African American) (Dancy, 2012). However, real life contradicts this binary logic. For example, one might struggle to understand how being Black and male makes Black males privileged in the criminal justice system relative to women. Criminal justice statistics tell a vastly different story. One might find it bizarre to read any privilege onto the dead bodies of Black male victims of police violence. Indeed, racial profiling happens because Black men are both Black and male (Mutua, 2006b), privileged by neither in the events leading to their killings. However, intersectional approaches often ignore the situationality of advantage and disadvantage based on race, sex, or gender, and other aspects of identity (Mutua, 2006b). Black males can be more or less advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the situation, position in society, and identities, and other theoretical frameworks such as multidimensionality theory acknowledge this. Black males are unique compared to other males. Seeing this allows one to appreciate the nuance and complexity of their lives.

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Seeing Black Men and Boys’ Lives as Worthy of Systematic Investigation: More than Impressionism and Anecdotal Approaches

Some who write about Black males lean heavily on impressionistic and anecdotal approaches: largely unsystematic, relying heavily on authors’ personal opinions, casual observations, and autobiographical experiences with Black males (Sommers, 2013). These approaches lead the researcher to psychoanalyze Black males’ thinking and behavior, typically based on personal ideology. While impressionistic and anecdotal accounts can have their place in research, their prevalence can devalue systematic approaches that center on allowing Black males to interpret their reality on their own terms.

Seeing Black Males as Possessing Voice

Deeper insight into Black males’ lives not only humanizes them but provides critical insight into how to offer them more opportunities and disrupt the processes that may lead to social problems (Spates, 2014). Black males themselves are the best prepared to do this by describing and explaining their lives. However, Spates (2014) asks the question, “are we more comfortable constructing meanings for Black men’s behavior from within the racialized and gendered frameworks given to us?” (p. 137) In other words, do researchers recognize Black male voices, diverse and multilayered, as a necessary part of research about Black males? Spates poses this question because much of what is written generally lacks firsthand accounts from Black males about their own lives (Howard, 2014; Oware, 2011). Allowing Black males to be the authors of their own experiences is the only way this centering on a personal, self-interpreted reality can be accomplished (Howard, 2014). For example, presumptions about Black male criminality have resulted in research that is unreceptive to the voices of men who commit crimes (Spates, 2014). Neglect of their voices can lead to surface-level descriptions of their behavior, reinforcing assumptions of innate criminality. However, listening to firsthand accounts from Black males can provide more insight into why some may engage in criminal behaviors and the factors that may lead to criminality. Methods of gaining these firsthand accounts might include interviews, autobiographies, and narrative analyses, ultimately resulting in a more humanizing understanding.

Hearing Black Males

Even when Black males are allowed voice, that doesn’t mean they are being heard. Mainstream definitions of hearing refer to the ability to perceive sound. In Ebonics or Black English Vernacular (BEV), the meaning of hearing involves more depth; to hear also means to understand. This is important because even when Black males are heard in the most basic sense, i.e., the sound of their voices is perceived by listening ears, they may still go unheard.

For example, research that includes interviews with Black men should be a way for male voices to be heard. But, researchers can frame and interpret Black men’s words based on assumptions of their hypermasculinity, patriarchy, and presumptions of dishonesty. In a casual sense, Black male speakers are not heard because their words are easily preempted—intended meanings and messages are distorted by biases and assumptions of the listener. This is because some listeners are coached by the anti-Black maleness of mainstream society to interpret those messages in ways that confirm their stereotypes. In Ebonics or BEV, hearing is inseparable from feeling. Feeling means understanding and relating to or empathizing as in the response, “I feel you.” Empathy is a part of the human experience. But culture shapes not only how people express empathy but what or who they express empathy for. Anti-Black maleness not only distorts sight and hearing by preventing the understanding of Black male lives, it also blocks people from expressing the human act of empathizing with Black males. What are the consequences? Black males are ill-positioned to experience humane treatment casually or professionally as long as they are unseen and unheard.

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Seeing the Agency, Self-Definition, and Determination in Black Males

Africana Studies involves investigating the self-consciousness of African people, or how they go about shaping and protecting their own lives, interests, and destinies. As an extension of Africana Studies, Black men’s studies looks at both agency and experience. According to Karenga (2010a), agency refers to African peoples’ initiative or what they have done and do, while experience is more about what has been done to them, what they undergo and live through. In the following chapters, there will be an emphasis—beyond relaying experiences—on how Black men and boys have used their thought, action, and creation to engage in problem-solving, generate change, and generally leave their marks on the world.

Counternarratives and Beyond

One of the responses to the deficit approach is the counternarrative approach. This approach focuses on the factors that lead to Black male success and resilience instead of failures. Spates (2014) points out the importance of counternarratives that oppose anti-Black male depictions of Black men and boys in the media, because racism shapes dominant narratives. Dominant narratives are the perspectives of those who hold disproportionate shares of power and privilege. They typically involve biased, yet institutionalized perspectives about those with less power and privilege. Stanley (2007) defines counternarratives as the:

deliberate, yet meaningful, intent to position the voices of marginalized groups as ones of authority and privilege and give them an opportunity to resist dominant academic discursive practices. It is an opportunity for individuals to contribute with dignity to theorizing about the world in which they live. (p. 23)

Counternarratives are intended to restore voice and dignity to subjugated people in dialog and scholarship about their lives. According to Akbar (1991), in an environment where Black male humanity and manhood is under constant attack, Black male self-definition is automatically oppositional. Many researchers of Black masculinity have characterized Black male culture as something formed out of opposition to or rebellion against society’s norms and customs because social policies and norms are in many cases detrimental to them (Grier & Cobbs, 1968; Majors & Billson, 1992). According to the oppositionist lens, inner-city males form their own norms and values because of an alienation from mainstream society (Anderson, 2000; White & Cones, 1999). As the theory of oppression goes, society has little investment in them as evidenced by institutional race/gender-based discrimination and lack of economic opportunity (i.e., police brutality). Black males in turn have little investment in conventional norms and social institutions (i.e., lack of faith in police).

However, from a different perspective, the oppositionist/counternarrative approach can be troublesome. When researchers become fixated on countering dominant narratives, writing about Black males can become caught in a cycle of reacting. Black males’ voices can be misclassified as mere reactions to the experience of oppression. Black men have always countered dominant narratives, yet their manhood and masculinities should not be limited to the quality of only being counternarratives to something else. Critics of the oppositionist perspective, like Kambon (1985), point out that African American culture is distinct and affirmative, yet also oppositional. African American culture, for example, doesn’t only differ from Euro-American culture because of racism, it is also different because it is an extension of African culture and unique African American cultural forms in the American context. To reduce it to a reaction to racism is a reduction of African American culture.

According to Lipsitz (1997), the oppositional character of Black culture makes it a source of education and inspiration to other populations who feel alienated from mainstream society. But the reactionary posture of oppositionist writers can be quite limiting. This aspect of the counternarrative approach is noticeably similar to the hundreds-of-years-old racist notion that Blackness was fashioned ←xxi | xxii→negatively in opposition to the positive qualities of Whiteness. This paradigm exists presently in the form of contemporary theories like Ogbu’s (1978) oppositional theory. According to some critics of it, the language of the counternarrative approach involves the use of classist, elitist, and hierarchical language to describe Black male cultures, such as “oppositional,” “alternative,” and “counter-culture” (Harrison, Martin, & Fuller, 2015).

Another critique of this lens is in the question of what voice is truly central in the oppositional framework. If Black male culture is always described in opposition, then what is it being described in opposition to? Typically, it is Whiteness. Based on this critique, describing Black male culture as oppositional is an indirect way of, perhaps unintentionally, centering or privileging Whiteness as the point of departure in the study of Black men. If Black male culture is “counter-culture” or “oppositional culture” or even “unorthodox,” then Black masculinity and manhood are reduced to being responses to Whiteness (the implied orthodoxy). Similarly, Ogbu (2004) makes blanket descriptions of Black American collective identity as oppositional. Fordham and Ogbu (1986) attribute Black students’ academic underachievement to their oppositional culture. Sweeping generalizations using Ogbu’s theory of opposition (Ogbu, 1978) renders invisible those aspects of Black male culture which lead to success. According to Noguera (2014), Fordham and Ogbu fail to examine Black male resilience and the ways that Black males resist divorcing their ethnic and scholarly identities. Understanding Black male culture should not come at the cost of reducing it to an opposition to the mainstream.

The larger point is that Black males do more than counter and oppose. For example, in Coles (2009) research on single Black male fathers, some of her participants stated they were good fathers not simply to counter negative stereotypes, but to make it known their values and beliefs mattered. Nevertheless, they were hopeful that the truth of their reality would challenge the stereotype. This is indicative of some Black men’s concern that their thoughts and behaviors not be reduced to reactions to racism and oppression. Researchers who study Black male culture, including their beliefs and attitudes, or styles of expression, must be careful not to reduce Black male cultural expressions to reactions to oppression or dominant narratives. Doing so situates oppression as the over-determining force in the creation of African American male culture. Lastly, the oppositional lens of Black male culture simultaneously obscures African cultural continuity in the African American cultural experience, and African American cultural continuity in Black youth culture—irrespective of oppression. For example, if this oppositional lens is applied to hip-hop music, the emergence of the art form might simply be attributed to urban decay and socioeconomic marginalization during the 1970s while ignoring hip-hop as an African/African American cultural product reflecting ethnic continuity and adaptation.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXXVIII, 468 pp.

Biographical notes

Serie McDougal III (Author)

Serie McDougal, III is a professor in the Department of Pan African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. He received his B.S. in sociology from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Additionally, he has an M.A. in Africana studies from the State University of New York at Albany, New York, and a Ph.D. in African American studies from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Serie McDougal is also the co-director of the Afrometrics Research Institute.


Title: Black Men’s Studies
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508 pages