Black Men’s Voices

A collection of stories breaks new ground, but still falls short.

By Kai Wright Jan 07, 2008

Trying to understand Bob Johnson’s perspective on life as a Black man is like playing Twister—it’s exhilarating to track the billionaire’s lurching logic, but you’re more likely to fall down laughing than make any sense of it. His interview with The Washington Post’s talented Joe Davidson is nonetheless a highlight of the paper’s Being a Black Man collection. The book represents an unprecedented effort from mainstream media to explore Black-American manhood that is at times as surprisingly engaging as Johnson and Davidson’s dialogue, but is often as frustratingly limited as the news media’s more routine efforts to cover race.

In 2006, the Post decided to put the familiar debates about Black manhood on pause and, in editor Kevin Merida’s words, to instead “allow [Black men] to be seen and heard in uncommon ways.” The series broke new ground in both volume and style: the Post ran 15 print stories accompanied by an impressive suite of multimedia Web features. Rarely has a news organization spent such substantive time on Black folks, and perhaps never have Black men been featured in so many of the sort of personality-driven profiles that can transform “issues” into relatable stories.

Readers’ tremendous responses to the series prompted the Post to fashion it into a book, adding a few essays and interviews. These add-ons stand out as the collection’s most innovative pieces, and Davidson’s provocative sit-down with BET founder Johnson is among them.

Johnson was America’s first Black billionaire, who by his own reckoning got rich peddling often-demeaning music videos to what he and Davidson call “the booty shakers.” He’s equally unabashed about having strong-armed labor and penny-pinched his network’s investment in content. But Johnson dismisses the criticism he receives for these deeds as racist cant. He insists he’s been made a foil for liberal, white journalists who “do not believe in Black wealth creation” and self-serving Black reporters “who wanted to prove that they could be tough to their white editors.” To Johnson, America is racist because a Black man can’t be greedy. Yet, Johnson’s greed also informs a refreshingly forceful argument for state-led efforts to create equal opportunity.

Having parlayed BET into an empire that includes an NBA team and 120 hotels, he sees how white the upper echelons of corporate America remain and bluntly describes the structural racism that creates that reality. “People always ask: ‘Why do [B]lack people buy Cadillac cars when they don’t have a house?’ Well, you could get financing on a Cadillac car,” Johnson quips. “You couldn’t get it on a house.” He calls for outright racial quotas on any public investment—from divvying up the airwaves to handing outmining rights.

Being a Black Man offers other engaging pieces as well. Columnist Gene Robinson dissects the meaning of Barack Obama’s lolling, downbeat gait—a dip and stride that few Black men haven’t at least tried out. Robinson points to the Obama walk as a sign that he shares a defining trait of Black male life: the awareness that you’re always on stage, constantly being watched and judged, feared and fetishized.

Donna Britt expands on the idea in an essay about the affectations of “brothercool.” “Cool looks instinctive,” Britt writes. “But growing up with three brothers and raising three sons taught me something surprising: Cool is learned. Studied. Perfected.” And it’s about more than style. The ability to mask turmoil with controlled ease has throughout history been an essential element of Black male survival. But it’s a double-edged sword, something Black men both control and are controlled by. As Britt eloquently explains, “Black men’s dual mastery of the hidden and the flamboyant became so compelling, it evolved into something
people unconsciously sought from them.” And to Britt, those seekers have become predators, be they peers enforcing a newly violent “brothercool” or corporations profiting off of it.

The bulk of the collection, however, is turned over to the series’ original profiles. In these articles, the Post tried something few other major dailies even consider: abandoning caricatures for genuine explorations of Black men’s lives. The book is a must-read for that reason, if no other. Still, the profiles will leave many readers longing for more.

The collection explores absentee fathers, for instance. But it doesn’t stop to question America’s obsession with twoparent, opposite-gender child rearing, or to consider ways in which nontraditional family structures work just as well in Black communities—and have, in fact, been a necessary innovation since slavery. Black male sexuality—and the broader culture’s imposition upon it—is always implicit, but never explicitly addressed; being a gay Black man doesn’t come up. David Finkel’s recounting of one young man’s struggle to hold a job is a rare instance in which the profiles stress the dynamic relationship between structural racism’s booby traps and Black men’s emotional defeat.

These human stories are a triumph in that they finally give Black men a chance to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, those men’s stories are too often pinned in by the same limited frames the series seeks to escape.