Transcending America: How Russell Westbrook, Odell Beckham and Cameron Newton Have Changed Black Masculinity

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It’s time for a new black male aesthetic.   Especially one that captures decolonized postmodern black masculinity as well as one that has ontologically transcendent capabilities.  In simpler terms, an aesthetic that allows for black masculinity to not be defined by archaic norms in the realm of fashion, black male-to-male relationships and how one images themselves for the sake of respectability politics.

The year 2012 was significant for black male masculinity on several fronts, far too many to discuss here, many of which were around how black men were entering public conversations about black women and black male privilege in social media spheres, to the way that black urban fashion had shed much of its nascent hip hop bagginess trading it in for fitted and skinny jeans, Obama was running for re-election, same-sex marriage in black religious circles was a hot-button topic as the president came out in favor of it, more and more young people were freer to talk about sex and sexuality and at the same time the demographic remained woefully ignorant as new concepts, phrases and theories around this topic were conceived almost every other week.   For the sake of this piece, first (1) I’d like to specifically highlight the fashion aspect because it’s so readily outward; it functions as a extension of one’s self be it conscious or even more intriguing when it’s subconscious, in the personhood of Russell Westbrook.  (2) Odell Beckham challenges our notions on how black men are allowed to enter not just conversations about sexuality but what is displayed in black male-to-male physical contact.  (3) Cameron Newton, ultimately, I think is the most complex because he embodies both the unique respectability performances of Westbrook and Beckham, but after his post-game presser ultimately does what many black men are simply afraid to do in public–even our beloved Obama: to be angry.

It has been fascinating to see how these young black men have performed in the spotlight over the past eight years.  Westbrook was drafted in 2008 and landed at the new Oklahoma City Thunder expansion team and as the Thunder established themselves as championship worthy, we suddenly began to have conversations that had absolutely nothing to do with the metrics of sports, but actually fashion.  In 2012, Westbrook famously came out in red glasses, and wore form-fitting clothes that depending on the eye were extremely fashion forward or just simply tacky.  For me, that was the hallmark of a new era of black men in sports.  Famously, the then current NBA commissioner, David Stern, had implemented the dress rules about what athletes could and could not wear as they arrived for games.  The authoritarian flexing of autocratic power reminisced of the perennial slave-master relationship that has often been used to describe the relationship to players and their, well, owners.

Russell Westbrook

The reason I chose Westbrook as opposed to some of the other NBA players who have an avowed predilection for fashion is because Westbrook is among the more famous ones and that pedestal on which he sits makes him a different kind of target and ultimately he’s required to wear it different.  Below are a mere sampling of clothes that Westbrook has worn:

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When I wrote about this phenomenon in 2012 it was still relatively new and I was merely joining the chorus of those who had much of the same observations I had.  Nearly four years later, where’s the commentary on this very same topic?  It’s mostly silent.  Why?  Because it’s been normalized.  And not just normalized, but actually celebrated.  From Westbrook’s first appearances in loud and garish fashion up until now, this country has seen same sex marriage as the law of the land, we’ve been introduced to transgender(ed) persons and we are outright challenging the norms on gendered clothing.  It’s one thing when Jaden Smith, the 17 year old son of famous actors Jada and Will Smith, is seen wearing what archetypically would be seen as women’s clothing, but it’s another thing for a grown man like Westbrook to even challenge sexuality norms by wearing form fitting clothes.

For me, Westbrook redefines black male masculinity by being comfortable in his own body and exercising personal agency in the physical extensions thereof–the clothes he chooses to wear.  What’s key in all of this is his own ability to define for himself what’s comfortable for him.  Its the metaphorical equivalent of talking softly yet carrying a big stick.  For him, his fashion is his big stick.  He doesn’t need to announce that he’s swagged out because everyone sees it and knows it.  By him exercising his personal agency it offends the sensibilities of many–black and white–who have sought to keep him in a certain category and in turn, the redefinition occurs.  Westbrook’s star power as an athlete now serves as a archetype of many black youth who no longer have the image of a Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen wearing oversized suits with shoulder pads so sharp you could split a hair on the corner of it, but rather that of black man who isn’t afraid to show off his physique–in form fitting pants, shirt and blazer–for whomever may look.

One’s masculinity in the hip hop era from the late 1980s through the early 2000s was often dependent on just how oversized one’s jeans were and how oversized one’s shirt was.  The number of XXXL shirts that were sold during that era has yet to be calculated.  The insular norms of the established African American culture associated this fashion with inner-city gang culture and the violence often times accompanied hip hop culture.  This is to say that to dress like that was to be a “thug” and many of the same racial profiling charges that blacks accuse whites en masse for were also committed by other blacks as well.  It manifested itself in respectability politics that said “pull your pants up” and “why are the clothes so baggy.”  The irony is that now, many of the same folks who passed judgement on baggy clothes will see those in fitted jeans now, and through a lens of judgment they will tsk-tsk amongst themselves and ask are they gay.

Odell Beckham, Jr.

Odell Beckham, the wide receiver for the New York Jets ups the ante for challenging what it means to be black and male in this country.  More than enough think-pieces have been written about this as the conversation reached a fevered pitch in the middle of the 2015 season.  However, I think few, at least the ones that were circulated widely, went far enough as to suggest that Beckham’s image had the leveraging power to redefine something as major and complex as black masculinities.  Beckham, as a case study, is more about how African American culture has chosen to see Beckham, not so much the larger American culture.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28: Odell Beckham #13 of the New York Giants reacts against the Philadelphia Eagles during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – DECEMBER 28: Odell Beckham #13 of the New York Giants reacts against the Philadelphia Eagles during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Almost all of the conversations around Beckham have been written and voiced by black folk.

His biggest “offense” was that he was found guilty of engaging what’s colloquially known as suspect behavior.  There have been a long list of euphemisms to describe anything that didn’t fit into a particular sexuality norm of a given community.  The gossip website Bossip posted a mashup of Odell Beckham in social media pictures full of these alleged suspect moments with him dancing with various teammates and old friends, multiple instances of pictures as benign as selfies with another man, all the way to seeing him shaking his head at something (none of us know but the perception is that he was looking down at a teammates butt and shaking his head and moving along), this was all suddenly worthy of a wide swath of social media (namely Black Twitter) calling him gay.  The internet was ablaze.  The conflagration, however, went more in his defense than not.  The only ones who were hell bent on calling Beckham gay were mostly those who were of the “hotep Negro” persuasion and who frequently attend Umar Johnson lectures and seminars.  The conversation around Beckham was further flamed when actual charges of anti-gay slurs by the Carolina Panthers players surfaced.  Even though no one officially came forward, not even Beckham himself, to address the anti-gay slurs, the mere rumor of them and subsequent news stories by reputable outlets about the possibility of slurs was yet more fuel to the fire around Beckham’s sexuality.

And what I never saw dealt with in the numerous think-pieces and blogs is the fact that we, as black men, don’t know how to publicly embrace male-to-male physical touch.  I really think it’s that simple.  Outside of familial relationships (fathers, sons, brothers and uncles), to see another black man interact physically with another is gay.  To use Riley Freeman’s character from “The Boondocks” contextual application of gay, this word in this context contains all of the homophobia and slur-like qualities of prejudice and bigotry as well as the sheer ignorance of someone who simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to express feelings of discomfort and novelty at something that is unfamiliar.  I’m not sure what’s more depressing: the fact that black male interaction–dare I say intimacy–is so rare that it’s a novelty or the fact that my people don’t have the vocabulary to express their emotions making it easier make someone the Other.  In reductionist terms, to use the word gay in this context make one worthy only of a fictional cartoon character who’s seven years old.  Somehow the stigma of being physical with another male outside of a contact sport like football or one that has a lot of physical contact like basketball is simply seen as gay.  That’s it.  Nothing more in-depth to it than that.  As if the capacity to explore deeper is wholly non-existent.  It is inextricably linked to the fact that black men don’t talk about feelings, that black men historically have not been affectionate towards their own sons, and that ultimately black men need to make their boys “man up” and “be a man” even when they’re barely potty trained.

Thankfully, that old model of parenting is dying with the last generation that passed it down. This dogged death-grip some within the black community have on pushing a traditional black masculinity is smothering us.  Beckham seemingly doesn’t give a damn.   I wonder in part what does his growing up in New Orleans have to do with that.  The gender binary has been challenged in the streets of New Orleans for at least a generation dating back to the time of Beckham’s birth.  While bounce artist Big Freedia has some household recognition, she is merely one of many in New Orleans who are extremely well known in the southeastern Louisiana region.  Although Beckham went to a parochial school in the city, undoubtedly he was influenced by New Orleans culture and going to school 45 minutes away at LSU he was still under the sway in which black men in New Orleans interact with each other.   Without going on too much of a tangent, New Orleans was the first place I ever saw heterosexual black men dance with the use of their butts and it was considered social acceptable.  This was directly due to bounce music and its influence in local culture.  It also brought gay and straight folks together in social settings and clubs where it would be almost unthinkable in other black urban locales.  Rather than just give kudos to Beckham and his own liberation (which we should), the redefinition doesn’t just hang on his personal agency, but it rests rather in the performance of it and how the public perceives it.  It’s almost as if he dons white boy drag and New Orleans bounce.  To be fair, I’m assigning these qualities to Beckham and these are mere speculations from an outside observer, but it’s almost as if he picks and chooses some of the qualities of white maleness that are attractive and he put them on, grabs a set of crayons, adds dat BEAT, colorizes it in a unique New Orleans and African American cultural aesthetic and makes it uniquely his.  Blogger Rafi D’Angelo wrote that

White men are allowed a greater range of expression before they are automatically considered gay. The boys in Marvel movies are always flirting and nobody cares. Matt McGorry can say his male co-star has a pretty mouth and nobody cares. Channing Tatum “vogued” and nobody cares.

Hopefully, the use of the word drag does a bit more than just conjure up images of men in women’s drag at disco clubs in the 1970s, but also recollect the ways in which we dress up the parts we choose to wear in our lives.  So while drag is usually reserved for clothing and how said clothing articulates one’s life, we can see drag in how we perceive one’s masculinity performance and how they choose to act in public.  With Beckham still outwardly displaying tenets of African American culture–being ontologically black–does this mashup of African American cultural nods (the way he dances, the dances themselves, how he wear his hair) with this possible New Orleans bounce aesthetic and white boy drag, he inhabits, to put it differently, in a queer space.  And that’s okay.  Being in that queer space doesn’t make Beckham gay or same-gender loving, but it does put him in a rarified space that not many people accept.  However, the very next question should already be forming: to what extent has Beckham normalized this queer space, thereby not making it queer but rather mainstream?  I still think the jury is out on that one, but I do think that, like Westbrook, having such fame does give one the image-power to force a significant type of redefining of black masculine space.

Cameron Newton

cam newtonWhen it comes to the black male masculine aesthetic, Cameron Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, breaks the rules when it comes to respectability politics.  Primarily, he’s just too big.  He’s too big and black.  In much the same way that Tamir Rice and Michael Brown suddenly had these superhuman and overly grown and larger-than-life physical characteristics, Newton’s physical existence has the power to offend and challenge sensibilities.  Seeing America’s professional sports athletes, such as a Newton who stands 6’6″ and 245lbs, wearing fitted designer pants and suede slippers does not jive with our accepted image.

As Newton and subsequently the Carolina Panthers steamrolled their way through the regular season and playoffs.  His on-the-field celebrations drew the ire of the losing teams’ fanbases and those who stand outside of African American and hip hop culture had their senses assaulted as they watched Newton “dab” his way to the Super Bowl.  It climaxed when a soccer-mom decided to say Newton was an unfit role model for the youth of America.  It immediately following that letter-to-the-editor that the dab, this singular dance move, was politicized.  What gravity does one hold where a dance move becomes a form of social resistance against respectability politics?  It was yet another reminder that much of the black physical body is political: our hair has the ability to make political statements before we open our mouths, and our skin color has the power to make us instant criminals in the sight of many.  All of the mainstream media conversation about Newton in the games leading up to the Super Bowl and certainly the Monday-morning-635857097673583596-USP-NFL-ATLANTA-FALCONS-AT-CAROLINA-PANTHERS-78271682after conversations surrounding him told me everything I needed to know: this was never about football nor his athletic abilities.

I had been wrestling with this particular triumvirate of black male professional athletes, all who are younger than me–the age gap between Beckham and myself is enough for him to have been a student of mine in the college adjunct classes I’ve taught–and just how they have chosen to be black men, define masculinity and manhood in such a public arena.  I’ve wrestled with this because while only four years separate Westbrook and myself, at times the ways in which they perform African American culture in what author M.K. Asante, Jr. says is post-hip hop, the separation gap seems to be by an entirely different generation even unfamiliar to me at times. I struggled because it seemed that this three in particular had affected how I saw black men acting different, dressing different and knowing that for hundreds of thousands of young black boys in America, those three are held in high esteem the way Dr. J and Kareem Abdul-Jabar functioned for my older cousins.  All up until yesterday, I was frustrated at these thoughts rolling around in my head.  I wasn’t sure how I felt and interrogating my mind and feelings weren’t leaving me with much to work with. It wasn’t until I saw the video of  Newton getting up from the post-game press conference, sullen, and well angry that it clicked for me: whether intentional or not, Newton told us it’s okay to be angry despite the gaze of others.  And that that was something worth talking about.

Respectability politics functions so that others are pleased.  (Others in this context is not to be confused with The Other.)  The reason I say others plural is because in just the same way that Rob Lowe could tweet that Newton isn’t being a role model or Bill Romanowski referring intentionally to Newton being a “boy” in a tweet that went ’round the world, there are just as many black folk saying that his behavior in the post-game moments were unacceptable.  Referring to him as a “sore loser” or being “unsportsmanlike” are fine in situations where everything else is equal, but in a league where one’s fashion sense gets questioned in the same press conference as questions about throwing interceptions and opening up a passing lane tells us that all things aren’t equal.  Those are all respectability norms.  Some of which we almost universally are okay with, and other times we aren’t; some times it works for our advantage, some times it doesn’t.  Whether it be because another Broncos player was talking loudly in the chaotic space that was the post-game presser or because Newton’s emotions got the better of him, he chose to wear his emotions on his arm even though respectability dictates otherwise.  Just ask Obama.  Even when someone to his face called him a liar, Obama still kept his cool.  Newton on the other hand visibly was rattled.  Frustrated, I’m sure.  Angry, no doubt.  And that’s fine.  Those are all human emotions.  I don’t think the NFL requires its players to sign a contract that asks them to be perfect and lay aside every human emotion they have.

Many forget the cloud of foolishness under which Newton entered the NFL.  One of the positives of Newton was the fact that he had this clean image sans tattoos and piercings.  The owner, Jerry Richardson, was so caught up in appearance that even when Newton alluded to growing out his hair, his owner emphasized how nice his hair looked short.  Only Newton and Richardson know just how much his starting QB position straight from the draft was dependent not on his athletic ability but whether he looked the part.  Resisting fashion norms, it seems, has the power to reify normative aesthetics and sensibilities to the point of redefinition.  Owning clothes was about the only piece of property enslaved Africans on North American shores had any agency over and all of the post-slavery history has shown that black Americans have consistently had their own unique style of clothing that consistently challenges Eurocentric standards of beauty for both women and men.

As final thoughts go, I’m not even sure if we, as black men, are the point of transcending our ontological settings as black men.  Too often many of us grew up wehre manhood was something you became by being masculine and doing socially ascribed masculine things such as going to work all day and “bringing home the bacon.”  It also allowed one to be violent if necessary, by “doing what had to be done.”  It also meant never showing emotion thereby reducing love to things you could to for others through caretaking and provision and not through emotional support.  It even meant not acknowledging physical or mental weakness foregoing mental health.  For many of us black masculinity was all about being a man while focusing on things to do rather than persons to be.  Far too few of us saw mutual black male-to-male love in the form of friendships and familial bonds and the display of black male self-love usually looked to much like arrogance, pride and domination.  What many of us did see was a lot of white male patriarchy historically mimicked in past generations displayed as dominance over another male and certainly dominance over black women–both of which had largely terroristic and violent capabilities.

What I see in the trinity of these three black men, Westbrook, Beckham and Newton, is an image of black men who love themselves and (presumably) love the partners that are in their respective lives.  The redefinition of black masculinity is best displayed in an ethic of self-love and self-care.  Irrespective of the labels of “white boy drag” and “queer” and “performance” and “aesthetic,” seeing black men produly love themselves is a redefinition because I’d contend, historically, as a whole, we never loved ourselves.  We were never taught to love our bodies, our voice and our righteous minds.  Instead we learned how to be celebrated.  By adolescence, it was no longer cool to even tell you mom “I love you” if you were in front of your other 11 and 12 year old friends.  Do you know what that does to a black male psyche in these yet-to-be United States?

This trifecta of black men, whether subconsciously or intentionally have made a permanent step forward toward that point of transcendent racial and social norms.  Black men have to begin to embrace this change.  When we hold onto these anachronistic notions of manhood, what are we really holding on to?  The times, they are a’ changin’ and the more stubborn we choose to be the more and more ill-prepared we are making our sons.  There’s a whole new generation of black women who aren’t putting up with this shit anymore, so who will our sons marry then?  Much of what justifies some of these old ways of doing things are rooted in a plantation culture that was birthed before the Great Migration, so why do we think it should work in a world where Twitter, Facebook and a myriad of dating apps are at the fingertips of the 12 year olds we give smart phones?  No, I’m not expecting a major call to arms or a revolution, but I am expecting us to do better one person at a time.  We have to get to a point where we get past America; always finding the next post- movement.  Staying static is lethal.  Going backwards is suicide.  The American brand of oppression has addled our minds.  We don’t think straight and every approach requires shape-shifting to even attempt an answer who’s reach is perpetually to short, filling a glass that can never be filled and casting out one rope trying to save the masses.  Transcending American won’t happen overnight, and it would be useless to require an immediate change because that would result in more frustration.  While one dab of paint in another does not automatically make a new color, the composite characteristics, nonetheless, have been irreversibly changed.  We’re not there yet, but with each step there is a new quality that is added and a new hue is rendered–one dab at a time.

 

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