Critics of Vanity Fair’s Jordan and Coogler photo reveal black masculinity is still enslaved
“I doubt that Americans will ever be able to face the fact that the word ‘homosexual’ is not a noun. The root of this word, as Americans use it — or, as this word uses Americans — simply involves a terror of any human touch, since any human touch can change you.” – James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket
In a recent article for Vanity Fair, actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler — who worked together on the critically acclaimed films Fruitvale Station and Creed — posed for a glamour shot that disturbed a number of people. The shot portrays a kind of intimacy between the two men — the two black men — that seemingly betrays the rules of patriarchal masculinity.
In an attempt to open a dialogue about this, and explore the anxiety; I posted the image on social media. It didn’t take very long for the comments to pour in. The majority of the comments were positive. As expected, there were a range of opinions, but one thing seemed almost unanimous among them: As long as Jordan and Coogler were not gay, as long as the photo conveyed a brotherly vibe rather than a homoerotic one, then there was nothing wrong with it.
That raised a question for me: What if Jordan and Coogler were gay? What if the photo did convey a homoerotic vibe? Then what?
The answer I received, in no uncertain terms, was that the photo then becomes a politicized item, a gay-agenda/white-supremacist plot to emasculate black men; the opening salvo in the destruction of the black family. It would evoke a sexual relationship between the two that not only doesn’t exist but would be disgusting if it did. Some commenters implored us not to “read too much” into the photo, which was just another way of silencing any opinions they didn’t like. But before any of that, what they wanted was to assure everyone, especially themselves, that neither of the photographed men are queer or feminine and that affection between men, platonic or not, is a sign of weakness and vulnerability. It didn’t matter to them that the very state of humanity is one of weakness and vulnerability, and the fear of facing this very existential fact is precisely why we’re on the precipice of self-destruction. Many commenters believed this plot to be as real as the bombing of Black Wall Street or the Tuskegee experiments.
This is nonsense, of course; a careless, cherry-picked understanding of human existence designed to give certain segments of our communities an inflated sense of self-importance. Human sexuality is much more complex than they will ever admit, and the ranges of genders and sexualities expressed in humankind pre-date any attempt at supposed sociopolitical manipulation. But I’ve been told that it’s natural for black men, in particular, to panic about their manhood and masculinity given America’s perennial violence against us. Perhaps there’s some truth to and justification for that. But I wonder if we’re allowed to interrogate that idea a little more. What I’m interested in knowing is whose notions of manhood and masculinity we’re trying to emulate.
I posit that when we say “be a man,” what we actually mean, the only thing we could possibly mean, is “be a white man.” That is to say, we covet the power of the white world. We, too, want to be able to demonstrate strength through violence, wield power through coercion, gain respect through fear. We want to be able to rule over others as white men have ruled over us. We, too, wish access to the pleasures of unlimited materialism. This is why robber barons, rapists, and murderers are all idealized under this philosophy, revealing the true goal to be control of the system rather than destroying it. This leaves no room for warmth, especially between men. And this ideology is inextricably tied to the violence we see in black communities, where black men — primarily, but not solely — replicate the viciousness of white supremacy against black women /queer people, and ourselves, all while calling it “Afrikan.”
We’ve inherited hypocritical Puritanical values of our colonizers. We’ve gone on to police each other just as much as we have been policed by them. Like any appointed overseer, we take pride in being able to note when a girl is “fast” or a boy is a “sissy.” For breaching the boundaries our masters have set in place, for daring to step foot off the plantation, we wish to see each other punished, even if by our own hands. And there is too much glee in our hearts when we tell each other that we deserve whatever happens to us next for not heeding. And this we call love.
Here, in these United States of America, our captors have corrupted human touch, made every caress a precursor to violence, regarded all sexuality (except that which is in service to heterosexual male fantasy) with contempt, produced a culture out of rape, and declared death-wish as the essential nature of men. So when actual tenderness shows up — like what we see between Jordan and Coogler — we‘re indoctrinated to regard it with suspicion before attempting to neutralize or sanitize it altogether.
And this is largely because we don’t understand the value of black queer love. We don’t realize that black queer love gave pleasure to our secret places, reached deep inside itself to give us culture, saved the black church from ennui, cherished black children when nobody else would (uncled, auntied, and godparented them into a balanced existence), held families together when straight love failed to, lit fire to the creative imagination, distracted master’s whip, and even allowed itself to be the receptacle for our pain. The great silence of our time is that black queer love is the only thing standing between black people and oblivion even as it’s mistaken for oblivion itself. I feel sad for people who refuse to see beyond their own hurt to recognize this gift, but what makes me shudder are the possibilities lost because of it. And don’t blame God for your ignorance; it’s you, baby; all you.
Whether Jordan and Coogler are “just boys” or something more; whether the photo signifies platonic friendship or romantic love: It shouldn’t matter. Love between black people should always be celebrated given how much violence between black people is always encouraged.
Or perhaps I simply don’t know what it means to be a man. But what I do know is that if involves being terrified of every display of affection, then I don’t want to be one.