When I was younger, I always wanted to play football. I had no idea of the sport and just like any other five-year old, I only dreamt of participating in such an alternate fantasy. Growing up, I always said, “Moma, I want to play in the NFL one day.” She would reply by always giving some words of encouragement and tell me to “always do my best.” Well for “Moma”, a single parent raising twins on her own while working multiple jobs, was essentially the most accurate advice she could give since she always did her best to support us. Although I was always encouraged to excel in school, I was still determined to make a living by playing football. Where did this fantasy of utilizing my physical nature to excel come from? All throughout elementary school up until high school, my goal was to earn a scholarship to play football in college and ultimately play professionally. Although my grades were mediocre, I realized earlier on in my development that having both the academics and physical capabilities was needed to earn a scholarship and admittance to a university. Elders would always tell me to keep focused on school and to not let sports be a hindrance, and although I believed it, I took their advice with a grain of salt.
As I began playing high-school football, I would see college coaches come to practices to recruit players for their respective programs. My schools top athlete, Jerome Jackson, was often admired on how “Big and Strong” he was in comparison to peers his age. As I watched this senior super-star continuously invest his time into the sport, he never once mentioned the word “academics.” When report cards came around, Jerome, the school’s top athlete, was academically ineligible and was “suspended” from the team. Was this a major concern to him? No. Because he knew that he was the center of attention and that a coach would “pull some strings” for him, he knew he could be careless in regards to his studies. As the season continued and the superstar known as Jerome continued to boast about his athletic prowess, the sports fallacy known as an injury quickly humbled him. “The State’s Top Football Recruit, Junipero Serra’s Jerome Jackson Endures A Season Ending Injury” was the title of story in the local newspaper that stunned the community summing up the previous nights’ game results. As the high school senior tore a ligament in his knee while playing in Friday’s football game, there was the inevitable speculation of his worth as a top tier athlete. When he stopped receiving visits from coaches and was no longer a prospect, his hopes of receiving a scholarship quickly diminished. Jerome had neither the grades to be admitted into a top tier institution and could no longer rely on his athletic ability to just “get him by.” When graduation finally came along, he received many accolades regarding his athletic performance at the high school but did not receive a single scholarship. While this story is all too similar amongst high school athletes, this scenario is the often plight of young African American males in urban cities throughout America.
For me, I too, was like Jerome, but in my case the advice that I received by my elders was ingrained in my mind after seeing what had happened to him. I was a top athlete that was recruited to play college football, but in my case, I still focused on my studies in preparation if such event as an injury would occur. Although playing football was a great character builder and provided me with many life lessons, I bring to question why specifically in the African American community do males look for sports towards avenues of success? Although sports indeed keep many children out of trouble, and can help mold them into positive characters within the community, it can only suffice as a temporary goal that merely relies on physical ability. While the goal of playing a sport in hopes gaining access to perform, as a professional athlete is a dream for most, the reality is, is that it can only reached by two percent of high school graduates. While the majority of underserved students who use sports to make it out the “hood” spend their time solely on the extracurricular activities of sports and neglect the primary goal of attaining an education, while being a student, this only results in a lack of education thus ousting them from the path to success in higher education. To answer such questions, I argue that because African American males internalize the white male gaze, this has ultimately constructed their racialized psyche to underachieve based on the merits of their physical ability rather than mental ability.
In order to understand how this dynamic was shaped, the internalization of the white gaze by African Americans, it is important to look at the role that slavery had in the creation of the black male identity and resulting his role in America. The first idea to understand about how the black the black male identity was created, on has to understand how the black male was conditioned to be simply a masculine commodity. In Willie Lynch’s letter How To Make a Slave, the slave owner explains how to keep a slave for over three hundred years and advocates that by shifting the dependency of the African woman from the African male to the slave owner, one is ultimately able maintains control over them. Lynch argues that beating and humiliating the male in front of the female achieve this and as a result, one is able to destroy the male image:
“By her being left alone, unprotected, with the male image destroyed, the ordeal caused her to move from her psychological dependent state to a frozen independent state. In this frozen psychological state of independence, she will raise her male and female offspring in reverse roles. For fear of the young male’s life, she will psychologically train him to be mentally weak and dependent, but physically strong. Because she has become psychologically independent, she will train her female offspring to be psychologically independent.”
Lynch continues to state that this is a perfect situation to maintain control and that while the female teaches her offspring “To be like herself, independent and negotiable, she will raise her “nigger male offspring to be mentally dependent and weak, but physically strong, in other words body over mind.” (Lynch) Through the reversal of these familial roles, W.E.B Du Bois argues in his book, Souls Of Black Folk, that this tragedy was one of the major factors that devastated the black family. Because this psychological manipulation encouraged slaves to believe the value of family was of no importance, this as a result reversed the power dynamic within the slave psyche in regards to the stability of their family unit. Conclusively, due to the breaking down of the negro male mentality and thus rendering him as dependent and powerless, this loss of self identity, serves as an important precursor to the hypermasculinization and commodification of the black male body in regards to its importance of the white gaze.
With such knowledge of how the mentality of the negro male was manipulated through the destruction of the familial unit, one can now understand how the process of hypermasculinization of African American male was created, and then perpetuated through the white male gaze. In the article, The Construction of Black Masculinity: White Supremacy Now and Then, the author Abby Ferber defines hyper masculinity as the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, primarily focusing on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. (14) The author continues to argue that through the definition of black male being viewed as a savage, unruly, animalistic, and hyper-sexual being, he was a threat to the white society and thus as a result, proved to be s reason for such objectifications. To explain the phenomenon of how the detrimental effects of hyper-masculinity affects black males through the white gaze, the author George Yancy explores the negroe identity within the context of whiteness in his book, Black Bodies, White Gaze: The Continuing Significance of Race. Yancy deconstructs the white gaze and demonstrates how it operates in the daily lives of blacks in the United States, and by doing so, he shows how the power of the white gaze is a continual oppression for African Americans (27). The author continues to state that whiteness is derived from the idea of hetero-normativity thus giving it the ability to operate invisibly. Additionally, because whiteness is a social construct, it can only be defined by itself and its relationship to the black body. As a result, because Yancy believes that whiteness is not a physical trait, but a culturally defined one , it has played an important role in the socialization of the dominant society thus as a result producing the ideals of the white male gaze.
So how does this entire argument tie into the appropriation of the white male gaze by African Americans? George Yancy states the return of the negroe body in terms of the structure of the white gaze, which over determines and humiliates the black body, views it returning as “distorted which ad verdantly is a powerfully violating experience” (66) Simply put, the appropriation of the male gaze is a rendition W.E.B Dubois concept of the Double Consciousness. Double consciousness, the notion of continuously looking at one’s self through the lens of others, is the embodiment of the male gaze. This notion of “two-ness, being an American and a Negro; having two souls, two thoughts, engaging in conflicting ideals in one dark body” was the basic the premise argued by Du Bois explaining the shortcoming of African Americans. Du Bois also states that because negroes live in a state of confusion in relation to their legitimacy in American society due to double consciousness, they are as a result hindered in reaching their full potential. By measuring oneself through the lens of the white male gaze thus constructed through the ideals of whiteness, African Americans will never able to fill the void in which was created to oppress them. By understanding these concepts, does the question of “Why specifically in the African American community do males look for sports towards avenues of success?” still hold truth? Although there are multiple factions that help answer such complicated question, the ultimate answer is yes.
In order to first understand why this culture of physical performance exists in the African American community, it is imperative to understand how such socializations occurred. In the article Are Sports Overemphasized in the Socialization Process of African American Males? A Qualitative Analysis of Former Collegiate Athletes’ Perception of Sport Socialization, the author Krystal K. Beamon argues that the over socialization of sports in African American communities comes from multiple factors that include the media, the actual community that individuals are subject to, and the imitation theory is what contributes to the influence of young black males to actively pursue sports rather than academics. (296) The author continues to state that because of the lack of positive African male figures outside of athletics and entertainment, young African American males tend to look at what the media produces and as result, they imitate what they consider success. Moreover, because of the constant reiteration of sports by parents and the surrounding community, the embodiment of the hyper masculine role as a site of resistance to the dominant culture has proves that the African American community keeps recreating such ideologies thus perpetuating the stigma of how African American’s can achieve success. Although this provides a cultural analysis as to why sports are such a faction in the community, the reason why these realities exist is because of what was implemented through the narrative of the white male gaze and the surrounding history that perpetuate it.
With such understandings of how the culture of participating in sports aim to provide black males the means for success, understanding why this culture is being perpetuated among the black community is the next question at hand. In the article Gender and Race Patterns in the Pathways from Sport Participation to Self-Esteem, the authors Allison J. Tracy and Sumru Erkut argue that participation in sports help increase the self-esteem of those who participate in such extracurricular activities. The authors found that African American boys had the highest level of self-esteem out of the tested subjects in regards to the improvement of the overall sense of wellbeing, although they were not as successful in their academic works compared to their peers. Furthermore, the authors argue that out of the all the test groups, the positive effect arose from such physical capabilities contributed to the construction and idealization of their masculinity. (459) Because African American men are hyper-masculinized in America, these striking ideals influences young African American men to pursue masculinity in terms of creating a sense of male identity whereas their Caucasian counterparts earn additional self-esteem in acquiring educational opportunities. Educational opportunities, a hetero-normative characteristic of whiteness, alienates black males due to their inability to view themselves as participants of whiteness through the constructed lens of the white male gaze.
With such information, it is clear as to how African Americans males are influenced to pursue goals oriented around masculinity. Through the history of slavery, the identity of the African American male was lost. As a result, because the destruction of the familial unit was used to manipulate to roles of the male and female negro, a sense a dependence was instilled in black men thus rendering them powerless. Due to their loss of power and identity, and the reemergence of their identity seen as “violent and animalistic, the ideal of hyper masculinity was then attached to them through the lens of the white male gaze. Though this embodiment of the male gaze, a sense of “two-ness” or double consciousness was created and as a result, black males compared themselves to the ideals of whiteness that inadvertently was used to oppress them. Furthermore, because the ideals of masculinity has matriculated into the culture of black community equating it with the reclamation of oneself and success, African American males pursue a path of athletics as result of its masculine traits. W.E.B Du Bois argues in his book, Souls Of Black Folk, that African Americans suffer an inferiority complex that is essentially hidden sub-consciously. Because this is partly due to the disconnection of self-identity as a result of slavery, the continuous physiological effects that linger in racialized institutions still alienates the self-esteem of African Americans. Conclusively, because of this factor, African American males must rely on their masculinity to lessen their inferiority complex that has accumulated over the past four hundred years in order to find success.
Beaman, K.K. (2009). “Are sports overemphasized in the socialization process of African-American males? A qualitative analysis of former collegiate athletes’ perception of sport socialization.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol.41, No.2 , 281-300.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1903; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/114/. [Date of Printout].
Ferber, A. L. (2007). The construction of black masculinity: White supremacy now
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Freeman,Kassie. “Increasing African Americans’ Participation in Higher Education: African American High-School Students’ Perspectives.” The Journal of Higher Education. Vol.68, No. 5 (September-October., 1997) , pp. 523-550
Tracy, Allison J. Erkut, Sumru. “Gender and Race Patterns in the Pathways from Sport Participation to Self-Esteem.” Sociological Perspectives. Vol.45, No.4 (Winter 2002), pp. 445-466