BOOK REVIEW | winter 2003
We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity
by bell hooks
What does it say about many young black men that “Scarface,” at once a paean to and a cautionary tale about the cocaine trade, is an all-time favorite? Recently rereleased in a special 20th anniversary DVD edition, “Scarface” can’t stay on the shelves in many urban neighborhoods. The tale of blood, lust, misogyny and drug commerce is revered by many rappers and rap aficionados for its “real” portrayal of black life. Way too many young black men use it as inspiration for “keeping it real.”
According to bell hooks, they don’t know from real—and that’s the genesis of myriad woes that beset the black community. hooks’ latest book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (the title comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem) goes beyond the Thug Life stereotype that continues to make many people, including some blacks, cross the street to avoid black men, especially young black men. hooks’ essays examine coolness as the black male response to overt racism as well as the oppression of a society based on white supremacy and patriarchy. Ironically, hooks writes, “By the time slavery had ended, patriarchal masculinity had become an accepted ideal that would be reinforced by Twentieth Century norms.”
Instead of choosing a paradigm based on gender equality, which had existed in some of the African societies from which they’d been stolen, many black men chose to adopt a system of values they had abhorred in their years of bondage, hooks says. It’s a choice that continues to reverberate through the centuries.
hooks has scant patience and little love for the (often middle-class) manufacturers of the current “black reality”—a reality steeped in the misogyny and swagger of rap music videos, ablaze with the “bling” of material possessions. She throws down with Todd Boyd, Ph.D., one of the foremost authorities on hip-hop and film, for insisting that hip-hop (quoting Boyd) “was packaged by the sentiments of black nationalism.”
hooks dismisses Boyd’s theory as “the stuff of pure fantasy,” pointing out that much of hip-hop is rife with “capitalism, the support of patriarchal violence, the conservative approach to gender roles”—which all mimic “the ruling values of imperialist and supremacist patriarchy, albeit in black face.”
Despite—or maybe because of—that, hooks says, there’s an interesting parallel; “in today’s world,” she asserts, “most upwardly mobile educated black males from privileged class backgrounds share with their poor and underclass counterparts an obsession with money as the marker of successful manhood…since the plantation does not exist anymore, the everyday work world becomes the location where that dominance can be acted and reacted against.”
If we accept hooks’ premise, then the boys who desire to drop out of high school so they can play pro for the NBA, the boys on the block who practice their raps, intent on stardom—these boys’ thirst to “get paid” independently of a white overseer (who may be resolving his own issues through traumatizing them) makes as much sense as a black Wharton MBA wanting his own venture capital firm.
“Gangsta culture,” hooks writes, “is the essence of patriarchal masculinity.” When film, books and music are marketed to a target audience, the unmistakable message is that the strong survive, and the weak are their breakfast. Or words to that effect.
The antidotes to this poison are not magic; they can be achieved, hooks says, through hard work. hooks urges adult black males to try to connect with their fathers or, lacking that, to serve as a father figure to a fatherless boy.
Showing by example that it is not enough to make a child, that one also must raise him as the surest way to produce a new generation of healthy black families, hooks points to black men who are real in the realest way: loving, supportive, critical of a racist society and protective of their young ones. Muhammad Ali is one of her favorite examples; on her dresser hooks keeps a picture of the former boxing champ hugging his mother, a daily reminder that this can be achieved.
Black women have work to do too. hooks admonishes them to stop spoiling their sons. A whiny, self-centered boy may well grow into whiny,
self-centered man—which makes meaningful relationships difficult if not impossible, and accrue to the disservice of their potential mates.
Despite the problems, “I have not given up on black men,” hooks insists, “and black men have not given up on me.” We Real Cool is a slim book, but it’s fat (or phat) with ideas on how to encourage black men to be their real selves in the truest sense of the word.