MAXWELL: A way out for black men 

2/29/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

BOOKS

WE REAL COOL:

Black Men and Masculinity

By Bell Hooks

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

When anyone besides a black male writes about black males, my BS detector, like that of most black males, flashes and buzzes. Even when a black male writes about us, our detector lights up because we know that black men are not a monolithic group. We range from Afrocentric to Uncle Tom and to all the hybrids in between.

So, when I got a copy of Bell Hooks’ latest book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, I read the first page of the preface holding my nose because I am sick of listening to others tell me who I am. I am out of patience with being the topic of someone’s ill-informed master’s thesis, dissertation, newspaper feature and magazine article.

As I read on, though, Hooks put me at ease with her insight, honesty and clear prose.

A respected cultural and social critic of the feminist persuasion, Hooks borrowed the title of her book from the opening line of Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 poem, “The Pool Players: Seven at the Golden Shovel.” The entire poem is worth quoting: We real cool./We left school./We lurk late./We strike straight./We sing sin./We thin gin./We jazz june. We die soon.

As Brooks does, Hooks expresses personal concern for the black male condition in a land that is hostile to his presence.

“Sadly, the real truth, which is a taboo to speak,” Hooks writes, “is that this is a culture that does not love black males, that they are not loved by white men, white women, black women, or girls and boys. And that especially most black men do not love themselves.”

From the outset, Hooks shows that she cares deeply about black men, viewing them as worthy human beings in crisis. Many writers write to showboat, to one-up others in the field, but Hooks writes to bring attention to the crossroads at which the black male stands. On one side is his very survival and perhaps his redemption. On the other is his enduring marginalization and even extinction.

“As a black woman who cares about the plight of black men, I feel I can no longer wait for brothers to take the lead and spread the word,” Hooks writes. “I have spent ten years waiting. And in those years the suffering of black men has intensified. Writing this book I hope to add my voice to the small chorus of voices speaking out on behalf of black male liberation. Black women cannot speak for black men. We can speak with them. And by so doing embody the practice of solidarity wherein dialogue is the foundation of true love.”

Unlike other writers who mine the usual triad of the troubled childhood, poverty and white racism to rationalize the black male’s dire condition, Hooks argues, from a feminist perspective, that patriarchal beliefs and practices have prevented black males from developing healthy self-esteem _ the key factor in forging a positive place in society.

“Black males who fully embrace the patriarchy will always be wedded to self-destructive behaviors, will always court death,” she writes.

In 10 short chapters, while summarizing the thoughts of other influential writers on the subject of black male masculinity and showing where these authors erred, Hooks offers viable correctives for black men.

Above all else, black men must become loving individuals. To do so, thus transforming themselves, they must accept total responsibility for their destiny, which includes their current relationships. Blaming racism, “The Man,” evil “black bitches” and other scapegoats will not help. The phony “cool” that Brooks speaks of in her poem will not do. Acceptance of hip-hop’s patriachally inspired violence will continue to destroy.

Anything besides looking inward and taking positive action is a diversionary tactic that allows black men to avoid assuming responsibility for themselves.

We Real Cool has enriched my understanding of black male masculinity. It is must-reading for anyone _ especially brothers _ who want a solid framework for erasing many of the self-destructive problems black males face in America.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.