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Re-defining Masculinity

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

…if we want humanity to advance a step farther, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries…

For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.

– Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask.

The Martiniquan psychologist Franz Fanon, made his call for a new man because he understood that it would not be possible to create a world free from the oppression of colonialism and racism without such a transformation. The “old man” Fanon sought to do away with was a product of a colonial system, and he understood more than most that colonialism was more than merely a system of economic exploitation. He also saw it as a system of psychological and ideological control, premised on the notion of the inherent inferiority of the colonial subjects. Fanon recognized that until that distorted image of self could be rejected and replaced by a new personhood, the bonds of colonialism would remain intact, long after the formal system had ceased to exist (Fanon 1967).

Though it may not have been Fanon’s intention, the quote and the idea behind it is also fitting as a call for a new conceptualization of masculinity. For Black men particularly, but men generally, it is increasingly clear that the old conception of masculinity, the one that has been linked inextricably over generations to cultural systems of patriarchy and its attendant violence and domination, has long outlived its usefulness. That version of masculinity is at least partially responsible for the astronomical homicide rate among Black men; a rate that is ten times higher than for White men (Violence Policy Center 2007). In almost every case the perpetrator is another Black man, and more often than not, the cause is trivial. The old version of masculinity is at least partially responsible for the large number of absentee Black fathers and for the phenomena of Black men who father children with multiple women without accepting financial responsibility. Today, seventy percent of Black children reside in a home where no father is present and research shows that the absence of a father is correlated with a host of social hardships, from increased likelihood to dropout of school to higher rates of incarceration (National Fatherhood Initiative 2012). At least indirectly, the old version of Black masculinity which made seeking help seem like a sign of weakness, may also be a contributing factor to the high mortality rates among Black men for illnesses such as colon and prostate cancer, and even hyper tension and other forms of heart disease (Office of Minority Health 2010). Today, Black men are the only segment of the US population with a declining life expectancy (Office of Minority Health 2012).

The old masculinity is literally killing us, but despite the evidence it is clear that it will not be cast aside easily. In part, this is because the old masculinity was tied to power and privilege, and even if the only power a man could exert was over his woman or children, it was a form of power nonetheless.

The old masculinity also had its redeeming qualities. It was tied to the notion of man as provider, the “bread winner” who sacrificed body and soul to support his family. It was tied to the idea that men should be guardians and protectors; warriors who could be counted on to demonstrate courage when they or their loved ones were confronted with threats of violence.

As noble and even praiseworthy as such ideals might seem, for those who aspire to live up to them they may be an unbearable burden. Being a provider has become a daunting challenge during this prolonged recession that has taken a devastating toll on the employment prospects of Black men. Protecting loved ones has become nearly impossible for the large number of Black men wallowing behind bars in prisons and jails, who have been subjected to America’s unofficial policy of mass incarceration (Alexander 2010).

Under the old masculinity, real men were expected to overcome obstacles without complaining, and to endure pain without whining. Power, strength and courage are the qualities we admired in our men and sought in our boys. This continues to be true today for the men we venerate: our athletes, politicians, entertainers and war heroes. Even when we have learned that the image was only a facade and that those we placed on pedestals were actually nothing more than flawed human beings, we held on to the old masculine images anyway. We held on because we had nothing to replace it with and because our greatest fear was that if it became known that those we held up as heroes were nothing more than ordinary men, with frailties and “feet of clay”, it would undermine not just the hero and his image, but the construct of masculinity itself that we had so assiduously erected.

But the truth is, most men fail to measure up to the image, even those we have seen as embodying it perfectly. According to the biographers, Martin Luther King was a womanizer (Branch 1986), Malcolm X may have had intimate relations with other men (Marabel 2011), and the great Jackie Robinson was so imprisoned by his image as a ball player who never complained, even when he had to endure all sorts of cruelty and ridicule, that it may have contributed to his early death (Rampersad 1998). In real life, most of us fail to measure up to the image; we are not consistently strong or courageous, and many of us are unable to consistently provide for those we love. We must reject the old masculinity construct because it is not an ideal to which we can aspire, rather it is a cage that traps us, and to the degree that we subscribe to it, it invariably prevents us from experiencing what it means to be fully human.

To a large degree, the women’s movement succeeded in freeing women from the construct of femininity that had been foisted upon them over centuries. Of course, the vestiges of the past never fade completely, but if you survey the typical girl between the ages of five and eighteen and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, chances are you won’t hear teacher, nurse or secretary listed as the predominant choice for occupation. With respect to occupations, girls today think they can be presidents, generals, airplane pilots, lawyers, doctors or anything else they want to be. The hardships of sexism, gender inequity, male violence and those inflicted by patriarchy generally, continue to constrain the lives of women and thwart their aspirations, but there is no question that a new sense of what it means to be a woman has emerged.

There has been no men’s movement aimed at re-constructing and re-defining what it means to be a man. There are some who argue that we should embrace feminism (Neal 2006). Though I support the sentiment behind the assertion and agree that we should defend the rights of women and speak out against sexism in all its forms, to claim to be a feminist seems at the minimum presumptuous. I readily admit that I cannot know what it is like to be a woman. I have not experienced the hardships and constraints that women, especially Black women encounter, throughout their lives. I could no more aspire to be a feminist than a White person could claim to know what it means to be Black; to express solidarity does not entitle one to claim membership in a struggle that is intimately and existentially tied to who were are as people.

No, I believe we need a new definition of masculinity that does not deny our maleness but does reject the forms of masculinity and patriarchy that produce violence, exploitation and domination. We need a new definition of masculinity that makes it possible to reassert our humanity, our membership as equals in the human race. A membership that is not shaped by the desire or expectation that men must be masters, captains, chiefs or kings. It must be a membership that allows us to exist as brothers, fathers, husbands, friends, co-workers, mentors, partners, colleagues and lovers, who can be in relationships that are not premised on domination or hierarchy, or distorted by outdated notions of what it means to be a man.

I must admit that as I attempt to put forward my own re-definition of masculinity I find myself struggling. My experience has been distorted by the old image, and while I clearly see its limitations, I know that I have not arrived at a new state of masculinity, either in theory or practice.

I recently saw a sign in a men’s room hanging above a changing table that read: “Men who change diapers will change the world”. I laughed and thought how simple but true this is. We don’t have to claim to be feminists, or reject manhood to assert a new masculinity, to find a way to be nurturers and comforters, diaper changers and doers of all things domestic. We can take on these roles without losing our masculinity or clinging to the hope of dominance. To get there we must think critically about who we are as men, and what it means to be a man in relation to women and other men in everyday life.

The sociologist Michael Kimmel reminds us that men perform masculinity largely for other men (Kimmel 2009). I was reminded of this a few years ago when celebrating New Year’s Eve with my family. It was about 11:30 p.m. and we were preparing for the countdown to midnight when my father, who was 78 years old at the time, announced that he was leaving and would be back soon. We all thought this was odd given the late hour, but he didn’t pause to offer any explanation. About two hours later he returned, glassy eyed, to join our family party. My mother immediately asked where he had been and he responded curtly “I went out”. Not satisfied with his response she asked again: “Where were you?” This time he replied even more adamantly “I said I went out.” Unrelenting my mother said again “But where did you go and why were you gone for so long?” Irritated my father explained: “Listen, I’m a big boy and big boys don’t have to tell. Unlike my sons who let their wives rule them, I don’t have to tell.” And with that, he got up to get himself a drink.

My three brothers and I all laughed and realized that we were not like him. Even though we too were “big boys” – grown men with our own families, none of us felt it would be responsible or appropriate to take off for a drink with our friends. We stayed, not out of fear but because our emerging sense of what it meant to be a man, a father, a husband and a son, included a simple sense of respect and sensitivity toward those we love.

This may not seem like a fitting example of the new masculinity, but as I stated earlier, I don’t think I am up to the task of offering one. However, the example does suggest that maybe a generational shift is occurring, and maybe a growing number of men are willing to embrace a new definition of manhood and to reject the old. Who knows? In the absence of a social movement aimed at truly challenging patriarchy, change will in all likelihood be very slow. It is hard to imagine a movement will emerge by men who are ready to give up power in public and private spheres but I believe that ultimately, this is what it will take.

For those of us committed to creating a more just and egalitarian society, the need for such a movement is clear. I conclude with the two quotes from the Argentine revolutionary (most often associated with Cuba because of his role in that country) Ernesto Che Guevarra, who like Fanon, calls for the creation of a “new man” as part and parcel of the effort to forge a new society:

What we must create is the man of the twenty-first century, although this is still a subjective and not a realized aspiration. It is precisely this man of the next century who is one of the fundamental objectives of our work...

... At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.

Man and Socialism in Cuba

 Published in In Motion Magazine August 6, 2013.


Alexander, Michelle (2010) The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.

Branch, Taylor (1986) Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Quill Press.

Fanon, Franz (1967) Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press.

Guevarra, Ernesto “Che” (1965) Socialism and Man in Cuba. New York: Ocean Press.

Kimmel, Michael (2009) Men, Masculinity and Violence. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.

Marabel, M. (2011) Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Penguin.

National Fatherhood Initiative (2012) Facts and Figures. Washington, D.C.

Neal, Mark Anthony (2006) New Black Man. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Office of Minority Health (2010) Men’s Health 101.

Rampersad, Arnold (1998) Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Beacon Press.

Violence Policy Center (2007) Black Male Homicde Victimization in the United States.

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