Mark Anthony Neal, a 'New Black Man'

In his new book New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity, cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal describes how the "Strong Black Man" — an ideal championed by generations of black leaders — may be at the heart of problems facing black men today.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The images of black men in popular culture still occupy a narrow range: hustler, thug, suit, action hero and clown. In his new book, cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal describes how he became a new black man. I asked about about the way he challenges men like himself to think differently.

You talk about black feminist manhood: That's black feminist manhood. What the heck is that?

MARK ANTHONY NEAL (NPR Contributor; Author, "New Black Man"): Well, you know, so much of this book is about--20 years ago, you know, when I was 19, 20 years old in college, you know, I was one of those brothers that's running around, you know, criticizing Alice Walker for "The Color Purple," you know, thinking that she was doing this, you know, irreparable harm to African-American men by depicting them the way that she did in her novel and then later in the movie. And 20 years later, you know, here I consider myself a black feminist male, and the book's about how I got there.

And there are really two forces that helped me rethink my politics around gender and sexuality. One was Masani Alexis DeVeaux. She was my intellectual mentor when I went to graduate school at the University of Buffalo. And here I was the only black man in this class--this class on black and red women feminism--and really being in this class with all of these women caused me to rethink my gender politics and opened me up to all these wonderful women writers who were writing about race, who were writing about sexism, who were writing about patriarchy. And it's in that process that I began to become more sensitized to the reality of what it means to be a woman in American society.

The real other force that helped me go from my paper, you know, feminist to a real-world feminist is really fatherhood and the challenge that I face, you know, trying to be a good father to two young African-American girls, now aged six and two. Their concerns are rarely heard in a kind of way that society will take them serious, and I wanted to help them navigate the realities of race and gender in our society.

CHIDEYA: What would you like to transmit both to boys and girls about viewing the world through a pop culture lens?

NEAL: I'm not one of those folks who say that, you know--when my six-year-old becomes 13 and she's going to want to watch some of these videos and listen to some of these songs, I don't want to just say to her, `No, you can't watch this because these videos depict black women in a negative way. These videos depict men in certain kinds of damaging ways.' I want to be able to sit down and have the kind of relationship with my daughter wheres I'm watching these music videos with them, where we're buying the music and listening to the music together, and have them--have her respond to what she's feeling--what they're feeling when they hear certain kinds of songs, and then try to find a context in which we can talk about that from my vantage point, you know, as an adult and as a father, and from her vantage point as a young girl.

CHIDEYA: Let's just talk about R. Kelly for a minute. You...

NEAL: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...take a little detour into R. Kelly land in your book. It was astounding to me how many women supported him. What's the female fascination with a R. Kelly type?

NEAL: R. Kelly's an alluring figure for lots of reasons. Obviously, are women who find him attractive. Whatever you want to say about his private practices, musically he's really the genius of the last generation of R&B music. And he's always actually made music that I think also has spoken very specifically to the sexual concerns of black women.

What's really problematic for R. Kelly around me, and why so many women embrace him, is that, you know, if he's with this 13-year-old girl, where are the parents? You know, shouldn't she have known better? And it's just kind of politics that's widespread, I think, in the African-American community that doesn't want to hold patriarchy and men accountable for the things that they do to women. Ultimately in the case of Mike Tyson, it was, `What was she doing in the room?' In the case of this, you know, purportedly a 13-year-old girl with R. Kelly, it's like, `Where are her parents?' And the thing that was so fascinating to me about the R. Kelly situation, there was very little concern for who this girl was. And whether or not it was R. Kelly or not--Right?--it was clearly an adult having sex with a 13-year-old. And all those folks who bought videos and all those folks who downloaded links were trafficking in child pornography, which on some level really makes them no different than R. Kelly.

CHIDEYA: You have a section on black male feminist heroes of yours, including the author Kevin Powell, who has been a very searing critic of his own life...

NEAL: Yes. Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...and talks very openly about his own emotional development. Do women really want to hear that? What...

NEAL: The deep point is that I don't think we're yet at a place where lots of black women want to embrace this notion of a feminist man. But I think we need to find a space to have these conversations. I mean, what I've been saying about this book, you know, thus far--I mean, for me this is not just the selling of a book. This book, for me, is a long haul, right? It's about having an ongoing conversation about how we rethink gender and sexuality and patriarchy within the black community.

CHIDEYA: Mark Anthony Neal is a NEWS & NOTES contributor and the author of the book "New Black Man."

Thank you for joining us, Mark.

NEAL: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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