Collins says he is happy to begin the conversation about gay athletes in sports; the conversation, however, cannot be contained by the sports arena. The sports arena simply serves as another conduit through which we can discuss matters of sexual orientation, sexuality and masculinity. And to those ends, Jason’s announcement caught the ears of some of my peers who would normally resist discussions of homosexuality and masculinity. But, because they are sports fanatics – and strict adherents to sports talkshows like First Take, Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption – they couldn’t escape the abundance of attention that Jason has received since Monday. I learned some pretty interesting things about my friends. About myself. I learned that I have a visceral reaction to men dressed as women. I learned that some believe, as one of my colleagues put it, that “Homosexuality is some white shit. Black folks didn’t play that before slavery.” And, of course, there was the admonition from one of my most pious of friends who believes that homosexuality is a sin against God and, while she could overlook an active, penetrating homosexuality, she could never see eye to eye with men who are passive homosexuals. I left my friends, feeling not so much upset, as confused. With them. And with myself. Some issues where in need of investigation: Why do cross-dressing men engender a visceral response in some heterosexual men? Is there any truth to homosexuality, at least among African American men, originating with contact with European civilization? Can we/should we allow for different types of homosexuality? Does it matter?
The idea that homosexuality among African American men began with and was influenced by contact with European civilization, more specifically the idea that American chattle slavery engendered homosexuality among black men, is nothing new. I have heard such an explanation of black male homosexuality while a member of many African American communities throughout my lifetime. What has surprised me over the years has been the fact that it has usually been African American women who posit such a claim. African American men rarely speak on issues of homosexuality with what could be acknowledged as any kind of depth. And, African American women writers have been even more graphic and forthcoming about
interracial homosexual bonds between white men and black men in their literature. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs hints of the sexual horrors suffered by a male slave at the hands of an overly-sexed homosexual master:
... when [the young master] went north to complete his education, he
carried his vices with him. He was brought home deprived of the use of
his limbs, by excessive dissipation. Luke was appointed to wait upon his
bed-ridden master, whose despotic habits were greatly increased by exasperation at his own helplessness. He kept a cowhide beside him, and, for
the most trivial occurrence would order his attendant to bear his back,
and kneel beside the couch, while he whipped him till his strength was
exhausted. Sometimes he was not allowed to wear anything but his shirt
in order to be in readiness to be flogged.
More recently, Toni Morrison, in her highly acclaimed novel Beloved, writes of the damn near rape of Paul D as he is forced to perform fellatio on white prison guards while in the Georgian coffle. Indicative of the common sexual exploitation of African American women by white men, the suffering of Paul D in the coffle in Alfred, Georgia, where the guardsmen’s ritual exploitation each morning of their black captives - fellatio at gunpoint – was one of many atrocities to be survived, Paul D’s plight reminds us that black men too suffered sexually at the hands of white superiors.
If we are to believe, as Pauline Hopkins reminds us, that fiction serves as a record of the inmost thoughts and feelings of a people, then both Incidents and Beloved would serve to underscore the belief held by some that homosexuality among African American men is in no small measure due to influences by and contact with white Americans of European descent. The history of cultural practices among Africans in the New World suggests that there is reason to reevaluate such a stance.
I want to make it clear that I am aware of white masters, and some among the white male population in general, who took sexual liberty with their slaves. In Tropical Versailles, Kirsten Schultz writes of slaves, male adolescent slaves, accosted and molested on the streets of Brazil by random, recently arrived Portuguese men. When one considers the fact that a master’s sexual liberties with his slaves were only limited by the master’s imagination, then it is not hard to imagine that a master with homosexual desires would act those desires out with his male slaves. But, the point that I want to make here is: some black men displayed sexual proclivities deemed other than normal outside the presence and authority of white masters. And under such circumstances we must acknowledge that homosexuality and homosexual acts were not always forced by a superior authority. Sometimes, as a result of unfavorable sex ratios in the slave setting and sometimes, as a result of institutional gender inversion in Africa, black men participated in consensual same-sex relationships.
In many locales throughout the New World, due to the intense labor demand, more male African slaves were imported than females resulting, at times, in a great disparity between the number of female slaves and male slaves on a given plantation, or arena of labor. Sometimes the ratio was as high as ten to one (male to female). It should not surprise us that male slaves sought out other males to satisfy their sexual impulses. Since the personal and private lives of slaves remained largely hidden from the master class, few of these homosexual encounters were ever recorded; yet we should not let the silence of the records keep us from asking how gender-isolated men either maintained or reformulated their sexual and gender identities. Some no doubt remained “heterosexual,” perhaps resorting to celibacy and/or self-gratification. Others became so desperate in their quest for sexual satisfaction that they resorted to bestiality – recall the scene that Morrison paints in Beloved. Before the arrival of Sethe, the men were found “fucking cows, dreaming of rape.” But I would suggest that, because the male slaves faced such isolation, some did recast their sexual identities as they reached out to their male peers for a combination of sexual and emotional sustenance. We see the phenomenon played out daily in America’s modern prison system and we saw it played out for entertainment value in the motion picture Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Consider the relationship between Jangle Leg and Biscuit. Jangle Leg! Jangle Leg!
Records of slave societies, particularly in South America in places like Portugal, reveal several instances of same-sex behavior on the part of male slaves in the New World. For example, in Brazil, between 1591-1769, eighty-five sodomites appeared before authorities; thirty three were of color. The use of such historical records can give us some insight regarding the nature of same-sex relationships among male slaves in the New World.
The case of Joane, a “Negro slave from Guiné.” Joane and another Negro of Guiné were witnessed as they entered Joane’s place of work in the middle of the night. The unidentified Negro reported that Joane brought him to the place to sodomize him. It was later discovered that while Joane did wish to have sexual relations with the man, Joane preferred to be acted upon rather than do the acting. Joane was accused of seducing another man of African lineage, a Duarte. Upon questioning, Duarte acknowledged that he and Joane were partners; but, he was quick to boast that he, Duarte, was the active partner while Joane was the passive partner. Other incidents of cases of consensual same-sex behaviors have been recorded, mostly of peoples from Central and Western Africa. One of the more famous of these cases involved two slaves, Antonio and Frances. In his testimony Antonio describes how he and Frances met. He says that around June of 1647 Frances propositioned him, asking if he wanted to spend the night with him. Antonio accepted his offer, and the two had sex with one another. According to the record, this relationship continued, with the two men having sex on several occasions. It appears that their relationship ended only when the religious authorities stepped in and had Antonio sold off.
Even though some same-sex relationships were clearly enduring emotional attachments, others had less to do with loneliness and the search for affection than with flexible gender categories that apparently existed in various parts of Africa. The narrowness of Western gender constructions did not , and still today don’t, recognize this third gender category that some African men brought with them to the New World. As a result, men adhering to the flexible gender categories of some African societies were categorized as sodomites, as homosexuals. Men like Frances believed that they had the orifice (buraco) of a woman. He reports that there “were many in his country who had the same buracos who were born with them.” In addition to the buraco, Frances took on the dress and mannerisms of a woman. His admission suggests that there were many like him (back home…in Benin? Angola?) who were endowed with buracos and who dressed and acted as women. Frances’s gender and sexual choices were apparently an accepted part of his African society, an integral part of Frances’s identity which the New World sought to erase because he was a sodomite. In many New World societies, acts of sodomy had long been punishable by death, but in some locales the worst punishment was reserved for partners like Frances, the rationale being that masculine male penetration was a natural act, while feminine male reception was not. Such social and cultural vacuums in the Western mentality affected Africans and their descendants in the New World in profound ways, confining them to sexual, gender, and family categories that were alien to them…and confining…and constraining…and suffocating.
These cross-dressing men were so prevalent in some Central African societies that there was even a word for them in the language of Angola and Congo: jinbandaa. The term jinbandaa in Central Africa did not carry the same negative moral connotations that the term sodomite carried in the New World. Jinbandaa was significant in Central African religious beliefs. The stem of the word means medicine man and throughout Central Africa words similar to jinbandaa imply religious power. In fact, several revealing descriptions from the Angolan coast in the seventeenth century suggest that jinbandaas were a discreet and powerful caste in Angolan society. As early as 1606, the Jesuits in Angola described jinbandaas who were
extremely great fetishers, and being men went around dressed as women and they had by great offense called themselves men; they have husbands like the other women, and in the sin of sodomy they are just like devils.
…all of the pagans respect them and they are not offended by them and these sodomites happen to live together in bands, meeting most often to give burial services…This caste of people is who dresses the body for burial and performs the burial ceremony.
Perhaps, cross-dressing men elicit a feeling of the uncanny in me (like the Jewish character Shylock engenders a feeling of the uncanny in Harold Bloom). Perhaps, I have internalized America’s fascination and idealization of middle-class patriarchal masculinity with its attendant visceral reactions to anything that seems to contradict middle-class patriarchal masculinity. I am still working through it. What I do know is: there were no such things as heterosexual sex and homosexual sex before the advent of the middle-class. All of this is spelled out very clearly (well, maybe not so clearly) by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Before the rise of the middle-class (think French Revolution, American Revolution), societies were generally divided into the upper-classes and everyone else. No one cared what kind of sex another person enjoyed (except the Church). If you were born into the upper class and the aristocracy, then you were always an upper-class aristocrat. If you were not born into title, then you would most likely never transcend your social class. The French Revolution screwed this manner of social organization all up. With the advent of the middle-class, the entrepreneurs, the New Men – those new to entering a new sphere of life – needed new ways of distinguishing the middle-class from the lower-class people from whom they had just escaped association. So, in the legal (penal and civil) sphere and the social sphere, new edicts and expectations regarding behavior were established. Some of these codifications pertained to sex. Around the end of the eighteenth century, marital sex between a man and a woman was defined. All other forms of sex (which had been practiced as long as man had been on Earth) were outlawed and deemed improper. Just think about it: there are U.S. laws still banning sodomy, in 2013. The middle-class, with its doctors and lawyers and orators and philosophers and…and..developed the discourse of sex and sexuality and what is permissible and proper. And any sex which does not lead to procreation is bad sex! Any concept of femininity which does not lead to procreation is bad! Any concept of masculinity which does not lead to procreation is bad! Middle-class conceptions of sex and sexuality not only suggest that any sex that Jason Collins has as a homosexual man is bad, but immoral (Church), illegal (law) and disgusting (social). And not only that, Jason’s masculinity should be in question for he does not fit the middle-class patriarchal conception of masculinity. I know what you are asking yourself: what the hell is middle-class patriarchal masculinity?
Middle-class patriarchal masculinity reflects the following criteria: nobility, intelligence, strength, articulateness, loyalty, virtue, rationality, courage, self-control, courtliness, honesty and physical attractiveness as defined in white Western European terms. Men, masculine men, reflect these criteria. If one is lacking in any of the above, then one may be lacking as a man. I find it ironic that Jason Collins, a member of one of the most respected African American, blue blood, upper middle-class families, feels confined, constricted by the demands of middle-class patriarchal masculinity. I mean, does Jason not reflect all of the above criteria? Yes and no. He was not honest with himself for fear of what others may have thought of him. Does that make him any less of a man? Yes, according to the above criteria. And that is what I detest regarding middle-class patriarchal masculinity. The criteria, especially for African American men, is damn near impossible to live up to. Jason had more access to the development of the criteria than most African American males and he found it stifling, suffocating. For African American men middle-class patriarchal masculinity is problematic; black men, at best, have a tenuous hold on these definitions. Few of the elements of middle-class manhood can be attributed to blackness. Especially if you have any kind of rhizomatic connection to the jinbandaa, which could live spiritually in your makeup. Attempting to live according to the principles of American middle-class patriarchal masculinity often leads to spiritual demise. Just ask Jason.
Nevertheless, middle-class patriarchal masculinity has been used as the ideal criteria by which America raises her young boys to men. And, as a result, African American men are trapped in cyclical, overdetermined roles of dominance, which have, at times, led to feelings of failure or feelings of lack. The failure of the folk spirit to embrace modernity during the Migration involved the failure of black male entelechy to carry that spirit as revealed in art – song and music, literature, drawing and painting - to Northern environs. Not hearing or seeing or feeling that spirit as expressed in art, some African American men seem to suffer from forms of impotence, from a kind of generalized inadequacy that speaks to aimlessness. To combat such impotence, we need to develop concepts of masculinity that work for us, in the twenty-first century. And in doing so, let us not forget that the travail of black mothers should be the conduit through which black sons acquire an understanding of masculinity that is at once both sexual and political, and impediments to this mean a confusion that could lead, at least, to spiritual demise. Thank you, Jason, for providing an avenue to present such a position to those in my peer group.