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A black-and-white image of a man holding a large gun
"In the history of American social imagination, the violent man using the gun to defend his family, his kith and kin, becomes the suitable metaphor for the notion of manhood." (2:37)

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Three black men posing and wearing jackets, basketball jerseys and sweatbands
"You just have to have your game face on all of the time. Like you can’t just cry in front of your boy. You can’t just do it." (3:32)

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  A black man looking into the camera with a hood pulled over his head



Deadly school shootings and street shootings have put young men and boys in front of—and behind—the trigger. Meanwhile, news reports proclaim a “classroom crisis” in which boys are being left behind in American schools. Are boys really at risk, and could masculinity itself be the culprit?

 

Violence and Hypermasculinity
In HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, author Kevin Powell says, “We live in a society where manhood is all about conquering and violence…. And what we don’t realize is that ultimately that kind of manhood ultimately kills you.” But this preoccupation with violence is not unique to hip-hop culture. As author, teacher and radio host Michael Dyson says, “When you think about American society, the notion of violent masculinity is at the heart of American identity.” From the outlaw cowboy in American history to the hypermasculine thug of gangster rap, violent masculinity is an enduring symbol of American manhood itself.

A black man in a gray hoodie holding a gun

This scene from a hip-hop video shows the gun as a symbol of masculinity and power

Such violence has become so pervasive—not just in popular culture forms such as music, movies and video games, but also in military culture and sports—that many Americans have become desensitized to it, supporting violent culture through consumerism, even unwittingly. “America is a very hypermasculine, hyperaggressive nation,” filmmaker Byron Hurt says. “So it stands to reason that a rapper like 50 Cent can be commercially palatable in a nation that supports a culture of violence.”


Black Masculinity

Hip-hop culture itself was born out of the devastated South Bronx ghettoes, where thousands of residents, mostly poor and black or Latino, were all but abandoned by the city. Music, dance and rapping became not only a way to respond to violence in the community, but also to reflect what was happening within it. As many poor neighborhoods of color became further devastated in the 1980s and 1990s, gangster rap lyrics proliferated, echoing the proliferation of guns, gangs and prison culture—mentalities stemming from what Kevin Powell refers to as a “forced environment.”

For many young men and boys, hypermasculinity is inextricable from race and class. Anti-violence educator Jackson Katz explains it: “If you're a young man growing up in this culture and the culture is telling you that being a man means being powerful… but

A shirtless and muscular black man with tattoos on his arms, wearing heavy chain necklaces and a white headband

50 Cent embodies the stereotype of hip-hop masculinity

you don't have a lot of real power, one thing that you do have access to is your body and your ability to present yourself physically as somebody who's worthy of respect. And I think that's one of the things that accounts for a lot of the hypermasculine posturing by a lot of young men of color and a lot of working class white guys as well. Men who have more power, men who have financial power and workplace authority and forms of abstract power like that don't have to be as physically powerful because they can exert their power in other ways.”

The Public Enemy logo with a black male figure within the target of a gun

The Public Enemy logo depicts a male figure at the center of a target

The images of hypermasculine men of color, in hip-hop culture and elsewhere, play into both myths and realities. Professor and writer James Peterson uses the example of the Public Enemy logo—a black male figure within the target of a gun—as one way in which black men navigate the inner city. Hypermasculine posturing can also serve as a defense mechanism. As history professor Jelani Cobb explains, “The reason why braggadocio and boast is so central to the history of hip-hop is because you’re dealing with the history of black men in America. And there’s a whole lineage of black men wanting to deny their own frailty. In some ways you have to do that… like a psychic armor.”

Beyond Stereotypes
One method of countering limited modes of masculinity is to create more diverse ways in which young men and boys can communicate—ways that might include, but also go beyond, traditional notions of what it means to “be a man.”

Grandmaster Flash

Aspiring rappers at BET’s annual Spring Bling

Author William Pollack blames these stereotypical expectations of what it means to be male for punishing boys that do not conform while demanding “stoicism and silence at an enormous emotional cost.” This either/or scenario leaves few options for young men and boys to act beyond stereotypes of hypermasculinity and violence.

What’s the solution? HIP-HOP: Beyond the Beats and Rhymes filmmaker Byron Hurt mentions that getting “men to take a hard look at [them]selves” might be one way to reach beyond the limits of stereotypical masculinity. “We’re in this box,” he says, “and in order to be in that box, you have to be strong, you have to be tough, you have to have a lot of girls, you gotta have money, you have to be a player or a pimp, know you gotta to be in control, you have to dominate other men, other people, you know if you are not any of those things, then you know people call you soft or weak or a pussy or a chump or a faggot and nobody wants to be any of those things. So everybody stays inside the box.” Through introspection and an opportunity to engage in dialogue around what masculinity means, young men and boys could find ways to move outside of the box.

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