Even though he is walking through our biggest cultural minefield, Herman Beavers, director of Penn's Afro-American Studies Program, is calm, soft-spoken, and, as he puts it, "a pretty straightforward guy."
Beavers, you see, has made it his scholarly business to examine how we explain and define what it means to be black and male in America.
"When we talk about black men, we conflate masculinity and race in very tangled ways," Beavers explained in the course of a wide-ranging conversation about his research findings and views about race.
"What goes on between black men and white men is not so much about race as about masculinity and gender. For instance, when you lynch a black man for 'reckless eyeballing' and cut off his private parts"--as happened in the post-Civil War South--"it's about gender."
Acts like this illustrate a recurring subject in American culture: the fear of black male sexuality. Beavers traces the rise of this fear to the moment just after the Civil War,"when entire counties of young [white] men were wiped out, and there were all these freed slaves walking around."
White Southerners reacted by arguing that white womanhood must be protected, and literature advocating lynching as a means of doing so soon followed, Beavers said.
Circumventing due process of the law required a strong excuse.
"[White Southerners] needed to construct the black man as a monster to justify such actions," he said. The effects of this construct reverberate to this day. Our incarceration policies reflect this demonization and anxiety over "a people seen as interlopers" in America, Beavers said.
Our popular culture does show signs that this fear is diminishing. "When you look at Hollywood cinema," he said, "we see that Wesley Snipes stars in an action film, survives and gets the girl at the end. In a 1940s film, he would have been the first to die."
But even though he studies just these kinds of textual materials looking for cultural clues, he doesn't take the movie depictions too seriously. "The fact that he gets the girl in the end suggests that public policy will change to make black men's lives better--and that won't happen," he said.
Beavers was raised on Cleveland's east side, in a neighborhood made up largely of blacks who migrated from the rural South in search of industrial jobs. While his father did not finish high school, his mother, who did, insisted that he get the best education possible: he holds a B.A. from Oberlin College, an M.A. from Brown, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Yale.
His career as an academic means that, like most successful blacks, he spends most of his time in a largely white world. This carries with it its own set of risks. "Others may want to see you as the exception to the general rule--and [some people] may want to be seen as the exception," he said, because of the way our culture defines black manhood. Beavers rejects both this idea and the thinking behind it.
"In the community where I grew up," he said, "there are a lot of black men who could be sitting in [my] chair right now. For some reason or another, they didn't get here."
One reason may be the way that our understanding of black masculinity has overemphasized physicality. "I couldn't care less whether we have another Michael Jordan, or whether black men play better basketball," he said. "I'd rather have a Michael Jordan of physics."
The glorification of black athletes, he said, distorts our sense of what's possible as well. "A white kid in suburbia can look at [Jordan] and say, 'I wanna be like Mike,' but he won't say 'I wanna be like Cornel West [a noted African-American intellectual].' Of course, there are very few black kids who say this, either."
As a result of these emphases on the physical aspects of masculinity, Beavers said, "we have a very circumscribed notion of what it means to be a black man." And that notion doesn't make much room for successful black intellectuals or professionals such as Beavers. It also has dire consequences for black youth: "A 13-year-old kid in school, thinking about going into the college-prep track, but resisting it because he thinks it's 'white'--that's [a] real tragedy," he said.
Because Beavers feels that "there ought to be as many varieties of masculinity as there are of men," he does feel a personal responsibility to act on his ideas, and makes himself available to young black men at Penn for advice or conversation, even on intimate subjects. "In my role here, I want to be nurturing," he said.
But he does not want to be seen as a spokesperson for the race, and he shuns the limelight: "My doing work on black men and masculinity doesn't mean I want to be on 'Nightline' or 'The Charlie Rose Show,'" he said.
And just because his work focuses on masculinity does not mean that he ignores women. "We [as black men] also need to be talking to women about their lives," he said. "Black masculinity should engage with black femininity because it can put us in touch with a side of ourselves we have lost."
Originally published on February 25, 1997