How does one frame Black masculinity in the age of Barack Obama and Chief Keef? Does Black masculinity fall within the framework of masculinity in general, or is it an outlier seeking to find a home? In Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Dubois purports that due to the irreparable damages of slavery and institutionalized racism, it is nearly impossible to conceptualize Black masculinity without juxtaposing it to that of White masculinity. However, Dubois offers a nuanced answer for Blacks to rise out the abyss of subjugation while still asserting their manhood. Dubois posits that the history of the American Negro is the longing to attain self-conscious manhood. It is difficult to fulfill the traditional roles of manhood when institutions and legal codes have systematically emasculated you. In this post I’d like to take a step back, and examine how we, as a society, understand the plight of the Black male in the age of what hip-hop scholar, Byron Hurt, calls an era of ‘dueling images of power’.
We are living in a time where the denizens of the most coveted residence in the United State of America are Black. The leader of the free world, himself, is a classic American success story. He is a product of that melting pot we Americans like to talk about so much. Seeing him, and his family, at the White House, allows us to soak in an image that personifies a country that may well live up to its billing as a place for that freedom and equality. It certainly means a lot just to know that when our kids, and kids in the future, look at the succession of presidents, they will see a different colored face smiling back at them compared to all the similarly complexioned men that came before.
However, in 2012, 505 Chicagoans were murdered and 108 were youth of color. How does a young person with bleak employment opportunities, living in a neighborhood surrounded by nihilism rise above all of the obstacles facing them to become President of the United States of America? It can certainly happen, but it is much easier said than done. President Obama and Chief Keef are both sons of Chicago. Most importantly, they both depict opposing images of achievement in Black male bodies. Both claim an unwavering allegience to Chicago and both purport to represent their city well. What’s so fascinating is that they both pay homage in extremely different ways. What Obama calls “Sweet Home Chicago”, Chief Keef calls “Chiraq”. President Obama is treated like a celebrity when he comes home to speak about violence and Chief Keef is treated like a celebrity when he is released from jail on a gun charge. Many young people feel that they can relate to Keef more because he represents what they see on a day-to-day basis. His ‘gun-toting’ lyrics weren’t birthed from some imaginary lifestyle that he read about; these are the lived experiences of him and many kids in communities of color. When you see other people that look like you earning money, power, and respect from brandishing a weapon, it is easy to believe that gang banging is your only means of earning some kind of honor .
Chief Keef is a voice of a generation who feel failed by institutions. Their distrust, and many times, disregard of law enforcement is not simply teenage angst, but willful act of resistance against a machine that only nominally “protects and serves”. It is difficult to rationalize violence, and even harder to comprehend the mindset of a killer, but when you feel like your humanity has been stripped and harbor an empty, cold feeling inside, violence is just another way to gain back what you feel society has taken from you.
How is a child suppose to feel about his future trajectory when he is scared to walk home, because he fears for his life? How can a child think about becoming President when he feels forced to join a gang for protection? How can a child dream of bettering his life through education when his neighborhood school is closed down during the middle of the semester? Black and Brown boys are living in the best of times and worst of times. The dueling images of power inspires and undermines their very humanity on a daily basis.