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Zealous Watchmen: Racial Authenticity, Masculine Anxiety and the Black Arts Movement


This project complicates and deepens black feminist and queer critiques that the Black Arts Movement (BAM) deployed misogyny and homophobia in the service of a masculinist vision of black liberation. Specifically, emphasizing the role of homosocial discourse in marshaling intraracial terms of black (in)authenticity. Zealous Watchmen proposes that key themes that mark Black Arts works—homophobic language, accusations of race treachery and of mimicry of purportedly white literary style, ambivalent observations of the “misguided masculinity” of black street hustlers—mutually constitute one another’s meaning around a common axis: the intent of the Black Arts authors not only to discipline but to emasculate other black men. I argue that bold proclamations regarding one’s status as a real black man were coupled with habitual accusations of failed black manhood articulated through a range of literary signifiers.

Taking on the Black Arts’ most bombastic assertions of masculinity, as well as some of its more subtle rhetorical formulations, my analysis of textual discourse takes seriously the colloquial plea of “that’s not what I mean by that word(s),” probing it further, then, to ask what they did mean. Why use that word, towards such an end? What other words did BAM writers use to a comparable end? From what referential framework does this network of words and refrains draw? Zealous Watchman seeks to define and interrogate terms taken up by key Black Power/Black Arts intellectuals meant to signify black male failure. I do so in the interest of teasing out how seemingly disparate terms of disparagement intersect in their intent to define and police the boundaries of black masculine authenticity. In each chapter I orient my close reading of a canonical BAM text through one of the following key themes: homophobia, race traitorousness, authorial angst, and ostensive misguided masculinity and show them to be wedded in a mutually constitutive semiotic discourse. My study complicates how what can be read as distinct rhetorical challenges to authentic blackness and masculinity, should be understood as co-constitutive. I will argue this concentricity resulted in emasculative claims doubling as claims of racial failure and vice versa. While racial authenticity was the ultimate issue in Black Arts literature, I argue an unsteady and anxiety-ridden discourse of masculinity mediated and made legible compliance or disobedience to real blackness.

Chapter 1 considers James Baldwin’s curious usage of homophobic epithets in No Name in the Street in response to Eldridge Cleaver’s notorious personal attacks to posit the discursive figure of the “faggot” as a non-sexual specific signifier of male abjection. Chapter 2 reads Amiri Baraka’s landmark play, Dutchman, to explicate the figure of the “Uncle Tom” as illustrative of the symbiotic relationship between tropes of interracial heterosexual desire, racial traitorousness, and effeminized white maleness. Chapter 3 uses the formative anthology Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro American Writing to survey the seemingly banal designation of “authorship” as a threatening abstraction from virile manhood that manifests as an articulation of racial angst. Chapter 4 steps beyond paragons of Black Arts and considers the virtual silence of Black Arts toward the alleged “misguided masculinity” prominent in the urban realism of pulp fiction novelist Donald Goines.

Engaging with scholars across the fields of African American Studies, English, cultural history and gender and sexuality theory Zealous Watchmen contributes to the emergent interdisciplinary sub-field of Black Masculinity Studies. In the words of influential male feminist scholar, Michael Awkward, Masculinity Studies problematize the “unproblematized perceptions of monolithic and normative maleness.” In the case of Black Masculine Studies this entails the specific problematizing of, to borrow the phrasing of Darieck Scott, “blackened” maleness. The thematic focus of my project interrogates and disassembles notions of, or expectations for, a singular authentic black masculine identity within a cultural site where authentic masculinity was a core ambition. Zealous Watchmen shows that the reiterations of black masculinity set in dialectical relationship to those of negated black masculinity, and the fact of their chronic reiteration, serve as evidence that the Black Arts black masculine ideal was not, nor ever could be, realized.

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