To become American is to do violence or to be groomed to do violence to another person, particularly one who is of a less unprotected class.

-Daniel Johnson

by Daniel Johnson

James Baldwin’s January 1985 essay for Playboy, ““Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”, engages with a discussion on androgyny and the American idea of sexuality in which he raises questions about the American idea of masculinity. In the essay, Baldwin affixes violence as the key to the (white) American imagination of masculinity.

“The American idea of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity. Idea may not be the precise word, for the idea of one’s sexuality can only with great violence be divorced or distanced from the idea of the self. Yet something resembling this rupture has certainly occurred (and is occurring) in American life, and violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence, furthermore, is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.”

RELATED: #MeToo era sees surge in colleges tackling toxic masculinity on campus

In becoming American in some aspects, or rather being underneath the thumb of Americanism, or being colonized to aspire to some kind of Americanness, Black people are not immune from becoming socialized to employ these exact same violences in the pursuit of being seen as American. For Black men, such assimilation might help us to be seen as an American men worthy of respect and fear. 

I believe that this connection is apparent in the relationship between Black and white fraternities. At times, it almost seems as though Black fraternities, though culturally distinct and distant from their white counterparts, partake in the same kinds of acts of violence—both to men seeking to join their ranks and to the women who stand outside of their ranks.

If, as Baldwin presumed, violence is the key to the entire imagining of a thing called being American, then it stands to reason that to become an American is to do violence or to be groomed to do violence to another person, particularly one who is of a less unprotected class.

The white American fraternities have been doing this in spades essentially since the days of the American “founding fathers” who, for lack of higher education institutions, instead engaged in fraternity through the likes of the Freemasons, eventually going on to create a Constitution and systems that refused humanity for Black people and Native Americans. A uniquely pathological kind of violence where all of those white men who were legally and culturally considered human had both the capacity and the power to create violent oppression over the “others”.

It is this capacity and power which is on full display in past rash of hazing incidents inside of Black fraternities, which can rightly or wrongly be read as Black men trying to grasp onto this violent Americana, in an attempt to attain in our in-group what the larger American society will never let us have. Power. Specifically, power to oppress other people. It is quite simply the replication of what is created and sustained by the system of white supremacy, which has long worked in competition with varying groups of white people, but ultimately serves those white people with the most ability to oppress the most people at one time.

Writing for the Atlantic in 2014, Walter M. Kimborough attempted to bring the issue of hazing in Black fraternities to a larger audience as he detailed incidents which lead to several arrests, ultimately surmising that the issue at hand for these Black fraternal organizations is different than that of their white counterparts, but rooted in much the same things that drove the abused pledges to join the organizations—they want to feel a modicum of control over their lives.

Kimborough describes these men as “extended adolescents”, but I would instead say that these men are simply chasing an elusive categorization. Having been indoctrinated into the American belief that power and control can and should be gained through abusive means and that “real men” engage in the destruction of other men in order to prove the strength of their masculinity.

RELATED: Black men, we need to acknowledge that we are the problem. Let’s talk toxic masculinity.

Of course, at some point, Black men who are embroiled in the struggle between being American and being Black—and yes those are two distinctly different identities—are going to have to come to grips with both the ways that we perpetuate violence and the white supremacy that informs these violent tendencies.

We are going to have to take a long, hard, difficult look at what being considered or socialized to be an American man is and what it has done to us as men, as well as to the larger Black community. We are going to have to decide that belonging to a fraternity or a group of Black men means something more than the ability to bring the oppression we experience outside of the halls of power to other oppressed Black people, even other Black men.

Daniel Johnson studies English and creative writing at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to trap music. His work can be found at The Root, Black Youth Project, Racebaitr, Those People, and Afropunk.