NPR's Michele Norris hosted a fascinating discussion on Black men and "hyper-masculinity" on Thursday with Duke University s Professor of African & African American Studies Mark Anthony Neal. Listen to it HERE.
Neal is the author of the newly-released Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, which analyzes how high profile Black men such as Jay-Z and Barack Obama frame our perceptions of Black masculinity in America. The "Leroy" in the title refers to the character "Leroy Johnson" played by actor Gene Anthony Ray in the iconic 1980s film and television series Fame. Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities was released in late April.
[I] watch[ed] Fame on television as a high school student in the Bronx and [became] fascinated by this character. The cornrows, the way his body moved, the way he dressed, the way that he dealt with the black world, the way he dealt with the white world - particularly in the arts school that he went to, and I was just fascinated by this character.
But as of 15 and 16 year old, I also thought this was a character that was gay, and we hadn't seen an out gay character on television in the early 1980s, and nothing about the show even suggested that he was an out gay character, but there was just some way that I read the character that struck me as interesting.
The passage on "basketballs vs violins" and hip-hop is particularly insightful.
The example I always use is if we see a black man with a basketball, we don't even have to process that. We've seen it so many times in our lives, we know exactly what that means. If we were to see a black man with a violin, that gives us reason to pause, right? We have all of these questions that are now attached, you know, how did he get the violin? Does he know how to play the violin? How can he afford the violin? I mean we can go on and on.
Hip-hop becomes a very interesting space in this conversation because it [has] monetized the image of black masculinity, and made several of these figures incredibly wealthy - the Jay-Zs and the Snoop Doggs and the Will Smiths But it's also a space that limits our understanding of the range of possibilities of what black masculinity can look like.
It's a terrific interview and definitely worth the time to listen.
Among other credits, Ray also danced in The Weather Girls' music video for "It's Raining Men". The song and video have became in gay and Black gay pop culture. Ray later struggled with addictions and homelessness and died from HIV/AIDS-related complications in 2003. He was only 41-years-old.
On a personal note: Professor Neal is spot-on with his take of Leroy. I was a pre-teen and teenager during the television run of Fame in the 1980s. Leroy was fearless, fascinating and all kinds of sexy. It was one of the very few television shows that I watched during those years.