MAXWELL:  Black maleness is undergoing redefinition

12/3/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Shortly after becoming Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich proclaimed that men hunt giraffes. He was attempting to distinguish men from women and wound up flubbing the effort. In effect, the speaker was defining maleness in the old way, emphasizing the Anglo-European concept of brute force and slavish worship of secular ideals.

What Gingrich didn’t know, obviously, was that maleness has been undergoing a redefinition since the 1980s. The new definition began as a marriage of American Indian traditions and the mythologies of various times and cultures. Suddenly, American men were heading off to woodlands for the weekend.

Like many other people, I was smug in my false knowledge that these men hugged one another, held hands, chanted, played harps, beat drums, kissed one another _ and God only knows what else _ out there in those woods. I laughed and referred to them as sissies.

After observing one of these events in the Ocala National Forest as a reporter, however, I had a change of heart. Immediately after leaving the campsite, I read John Bly’s 1991 Iron John and realized that I, too, needed to start looking at maleness in a new light. The book elevated the dimensions of the men’s movement, making spirituality a major ingredient in the new definition of maleness.

Even though the movement contained a lot of mythology, paganism and fluff, many officials in mainline religious organizations saw its power to galvanize thousands of men in a short time. They also recognized the zeal and sincerity of the participants. For church leaders, these men, the faithful in a captive audience, were one step removed from religiosity, perfect candidates for proselytizing.

One of the first to tap this new population is former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. Taking movement of the woodlands and into some of the nation’s largest stadiums and arenas, McCartney established Promise Keepers, the 800,000-member strong, all-male evangelical movement in which participants worship and rededicate themselves to their families. Because of Promise Keepers, a new mantra emerged: “Real men pray.” They don’t have to hunt giraffe, guzzle beer, watch football all weekend and abuse their wives.

Although McCartney and his minions have failed to win many friends among most women’s and liberal men’s groups, they are, in my opinion, filling a critical void. Promise Keepers gives men a non-judgmental environment where they can learn to be more human, compassionate and responsible. Many even learn that personal vulnerability is a natural part of being a man.

Fortunately, the spirituality and fervor of the men’s movement have not been lost on African-American men. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan clearly recognizes the movement’s potential, as demonstrated in the Million Man March that he organized for black men only. The march initiated what I believe will be a lasting redefinition of black maleness. It was, in Farrakhan’s words, “a national day of atonement and reconciliation.”

Less than a month after the Million Man March, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the nation’s largest black church, convened the first meeting of The Trusted Partners, an all-male ecumenical organization that helps Christian men become positive forces in their homes, churches and communities. About 4,000 men, most of them Baptists, attended the convention.

For two days, they listened to music and rousing speeches and sermons. The camaraderie was infectious, and many of the men developed lasting friendships. Perhaps to its detriment, though, The Trusted Partners does not equivocate about its mission, for its handbook clearly distinguishes the roles of men and women in the lives of young African-American males:

“Too many young men grow up without . . . role models, or with poor ones. A woman can tell a boy what a man is but cannot show him. . . . Men and women think differently about moral issues. Men have one way of thinking about things and women have another. No wonder a boy during adolescence stops trusting his mother’s thoughts about morality. She does not speak his language. It is too feminine for him. He needs to be exposed to a man’s conscience, a man’s way of solving problems and handling moral questions.”

Although Lyons’ words may sound harsh or even anti-woman, they place the black male at the center of a world that he has permitted to implode. Lyons’ mission is a long overdue call for the black male to reassert himself, to take responsibility, to teach his son as a man should. If harsh words are needed to present this message forcefully, so be it.

Lyons, too, has redefined black maleness, and if members of The Trusted Partners understand and act on the message, everyone benefits.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.