You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 33: Black Masculinity & the Wage Earner Ideal

Black Masculinity & the Wage Earner Ideal

Amidst the long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism in the US and globally, an area of study that focuses on the lives of Black people and seeks to more fully share a totality of Black experience has gained increased attention. In this episode, SIS professor Jordanna Matlon joins Big World to discuss her research on one of these areas: Black masculinity.

Matlon explains why individual Black men who garner great wealth or celebrity status become performing commodities in popular culture (1:53). She also describes her fieldwork in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, where she found that global media depictions of Black American artists have impacted how Abidjan street vendors view their roles as men (5:28).

The patriarchal idea that the sole measure of a man is his capacity to earn money—the wage earner ideal—is not specific to any one country. Matlon breaks down how this idea impacts Black men across the African diaspora worldwide (10:07) and shares why she uses scare quotes when describing a “crisis” of Black masculinity (15:33).

In a nod to the unusual life of an enthnographer as compared to other academics, Matlon reveals what was it like to record two songs with a former street vendor and her research assistants while she was in Abidjan (17:16).

Finally, the year 2020 spurred a level of activism not seen in the US in decades. This activism mostly was aimed at redressing the country’s systemic racism. Looking forward, Matlon shares what she thinks success looks like for this generation of activists (21:06).

During our “Take Five” segment, Matlon states what five things she would do to disassociate Black masculinity from “crisis” (13:35), once and for all.

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is a Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Amidst the long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism in the US and globally, has arisen an area of study and interest that focuses on the lives of Black people and seeks to more fully share a totality of Black experience. Acknowledgement and appreciation of Black joy comes to mind, so does the idea that Blackness informs so many parts of our culture and our world.

0:39      KS: Today, we're specifically talking about Black masculinity. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Jordanna Matlon. Jordanna is a sociologist researching race and belonging in Africa and the African diaspora. She also studies the ways that Blackness—as a signifier and the intersection of Blackness with gender, class, and national identity—illuminates our understanding of the world. Her book, A Man among Other Men: The Long Crisis of Black Masculinity in Racial Capitalism, currently is under contract. Jordanna, thank you for joining Big World.

1:12      Jordanna Matlon: Thank you so much for having me, Kay.

1:14      KS: Jordanna, in your work, you showcase that when individual Black men garner great wealth or celebrity status, they become performing commodities in popular culture. For example, in a Boston Review article of yours, you state that "Michael Jordan's repurposing as a commodity, one aimed at compelling consumption by other Black men, renders his remarkable athleticism as secondary to his power as a commercial object." First of all, what does it mean to commodify someone? And why do you think such commodification of Black men like Jordan occurs?

1:53      JM: Thank you for that question. Why do we commodify people? Commercial objects sell, right? And ultimately, when we look at not just sports, but any level of performance on the level of the individual, the team, entire leagues, this is about how we can sell things, right? How we can commodify sport, how we can commodify talent. Specifically with Black men, what is significant for the work that I'm doing and arguments I'm making is that commodification has a deeper history when it comes to Blackness. Blackness itself is an identity that emerged from the slave economy.

2:32      JM: Blackness is or was form of flattening the diversity and the humanity, in fact, of what it meant to be African. With contact between European slave traders and Africans, there was a huge amount of diversity on the continent. There was a huge amount of history, a huge amount of culture. How do you legitimize that you are rendering these human being slaves is you erase all of that. And this is something that took centuries to do, but in its place, it became Black. That diversity of what it meant to be African became Black. That was an erasure

3:12      JM: that was in the purpose of commodification. So, that commodification, that's really important when it becomes this kind of like ingrained register of what Blackness is. And another point to consider is that because of this kind of negating effect that Blackness had and just quite simply the role that slaves had in the economy and then after manumission, the role that Black people have had, it's been one of marginality. For a Black man to have a good job, one that brought status, one that brought dignity, one that brought a good income,

3:49      JM: that was something that was just quite simply shut out from the traditional wage economy. Athletes, performers, these identities that have kind of stood outside of this traditional means of income have always been outsized for Black men. This was a way to become a breadwinner, a producer and a provider in a way that... working as a cleaner or as a porter at a hotel—these were the other jobs that were available to Black people.

4:20      JM: You think about that together and then you think about how these registers of Black men as these very commodified performers, athletes that you see, and there's this long history.

4:31      KS: Yeah, the greatest basketball player of all time and that most men, Black men, white men, anyone can't do that. But for Black men, it puts this out as this is the only way to be meaningful in this society. And it's so rare that you'll never get it.

4:47      JM: Yes, absolutely. And it's something, right, it's not just ideological, but you can see that play out in the modern day with many Black communities, Black neighborhoods where the school system is not good. Kind of like the classical idea of the inner city neighborhood that doesn't have the funding, that doesn't have the budget for public services, right? There becomes this idea that the only way to succeed is outside, but there's also kind of a realistic fact that there's not a lot of other opportunities, right?

5:20      JM: That you have to be almost equally remarkable to get into a good university as you would to get into a good basketball program.

5:28      KS: Right. Jordanna, you've done a lot of your research in Cote d'Ivoire. And during your research in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, you spoke with male mobile street vendors, and they identified with Black male celebrities that rose from difficult circumstances to global renown. And the late rapper Tupac Shakur, for example, comes to mind. How did or do global media depictions of Black American artists impact how the Abidjan vendors view their roles as men?

6:00      JM: Abidjan was known for a long time as the Paris of West Africa. And that's significant because it was a place where breadwinner norms, the kind of like what it meant to be modern and urban in a global imaginary were very strong. It was a very strong neo-colonial state after independence was achieved in 1960, and it was considered the Ivorian miracle. There was this term called évolué that I write about, and évolué, it's literally translated from the French's “evolved.” It was a designation for a type of man, and this was in French and Belgium West Africa.

6:44      JM: To be évolué, to be “evolved” was a category that had certain rights and entitlements that allowed you to put your child in the French school, that allowed you to live in certain areas that were the settler city that had good infrastructure, that had plumbing, that had potable water. This was actually quite tightly linked to your ability to live well. The first point of entry to évolué identity, and I write about évolué masculinity, was wage labor, to basically be in the formal regulated economy. This was never the norm.

7:21      JM: This was only a very privileged elite, but it became normative. It became aspirational, and it became an expectation of what a real man is. And so, street vendors, this was work that people did if they had no jobs, and you were dealing with an economy where 75 percent of work was informal. These men were really at a loss because there was this normative idea of what it was to be a real man that was tied to wage labor and very strongly in Abidjan vis-a-vis other countries in West Africa.

7:53      JM: What I would hear every time I would ask a man, for example, if he was married or not, and every single Ivorian who I did fieldwork with would give me the same response, which was "je n'ai pas les moyens"—"I don't have the means. I don't marry because I don't have the means." And they would say, "What I do is not real work." They would reject that this was a job. What it did was it left them in kind of permanent junior status, a social junior status. They weren't real men because to be a real man, they were supposed to marry.

8:22      JM: They were supposed to have children. They were supposed to pass along their name, their legacy. They were searching for other ways to identify. And here were men who were like them in a lot of ways, right? Who often came from marginal circumstances and who had risen to global renown. And this was something that excluded from their own society. They looked globally. You certainly saw plenty of local musicians, local athletes who had gone on to play for European teams, soccer—football as they would call it. It wasn't only Americans, right?

9:01      JM: It was these kinds of global personalities but all ways that just like I was describing for many inner city communities that don't have the opportunities and they don't have good enough schools, they don't have other ways that they can get out, this was the same for these men. It was as improbable, maybe it wasn't realistic, but it was as improbable as being able to find salaried work, which was really through connections and a certain education level, and these things anyway.

9:35      KS: There is a patriarchal idea that the sole measure of a man is his capacity to earn money. This is, of course, an idea that harms men and women globally. But specifically for our conversation, how does this idea that a man is defined by whether or not he can earn money, how does this impact Black men across the African diaspora worldwide? And how has this idea played a role in what you deem a “crisis” of Black masculinity?

10:07      JM: Before I had conducted my field work in Abidjan, I had actually received my undergraduate degree in urban studies based in the US. I studied these kinds of tropes of the inner city and inner city poverty. When I came to Abidjan, I was struck by how much of the conversations were the same, how much of the conversations about marginality, about men who weren't marrying, about absent fatherhood, this idea of this “crisis” of masculinity just kept coming up, and it came up in ways that were strikingly similar to what I was seeing in Urban American sociology.

10:47      JM: What it led me to do was think larger about how we can construct this as kind of a theoretical framework of the marginal position of Blackness in a global economy. Obviously that's different in Urban Africa than it is in Urban America. This patriarchal idea of money making a man, it's interesting because it's a little bit paradoxical. That I think is actually a quote that I use from Bell Hooks, who's a famous Black feminist. What she talks about in that context is that this was actually an opening.

11:22      JM: If you have this idea of an évolué and a civil servant as being the only kind of dignified man or the breadwinner, this kind of traditional wage labor, proletariat or middle-class, bourgeoisie even, as being the ideal kind of man— opening it up to just money....When she discusses this, she talks about gangster culture as being opening up, right? That the illicit economy is a way for people then to be men. That if you can just make money, that makes you a man.

11:53      JM: So it's actually something that becomes democratized, if you will, on an individual level, not on the structural level. You can't actually separate capitalism from racism, the way it's been founded, the way it's been established materially and ideologically. When we think about it that way and we see that you have the Michael Jordans, you have the Jay-Zs, you have in Cote d'Ivoire the Didier Drogba, who's a famous soccer player—they can make it, but structurally, Black men are not making it. Structurally, they are so marginalized, and we don't see that changing.

12:29      JM: That's one point. And then the second point that's introducing the gender literature is that Black men are Black and male. And that many see liberation as equal access to patriarchy, not again questioning these structures that are inherently dispossessing. You mentioned women, but also of other Black men. But just "if I get mine" and "I'm able to assume that patriarchal role," then the system as it is, the structures as they are of global capitalism that are dependent on some form of dispossession, those will remain unchanged.

13:16      KS: Jordanna Matlon, It's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to blue sky it and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. What are five things you would do to disassociate Black masculinity from “crisis”?

13:35      JM: All right. The first thing that I would address is the male breadwinner role. That would be disassociating masculinity itself from producer/provider norms. The second, and this is somewhat related, is achieving gender parity, right? That small little thing. So to degender the material conditions for being and social registers of worth. The third thing is racial parity, another small change in the world. Address the material conditions that perpetuate the exploitability and excludability of Blackness.

14:12      JM: The fourth is actually thinking even more broadly about worker rights and protections. Make the economy work for people rather than people working for the economy. This is a domestic and an international effort that involves shifts in government regulations of capital, the role of global financial institutions, certainly not to be part of the problem, but actually part of the solution. And the fifth, which is a little bit separate from the four that I mentioned before, is the role of advertising.

14:43      JM: How value or how we make value accord to certain professions has so much to do with what the media has to say. How can we disseminate different types of images, different types of ideal masculinities that influence hugely the things that people want to be, that they aspire to.

15:05      KS: Wonderful. Thank you.

15:05      JM: Thank you.

15:12      KS: Jordanna, words matter, and I know words are really important to you and the work that you do, and how we use language matters quite a lot. You've used the word “crisis” when you're describing this “crisis” of Black masculinity in quote marks or scare quotes, as they're sometimes called. And I was just curious, why have you done this? Why have you set that off that way? What does that mean when you do that?

15:33      JM: There is a real “crisis,” right? In that you do have a form of dispossession. You do have this long entrenchment, but “crisis” also gives a sense of temporality.

15:46      KS: Like a fire. If we can just put it out, we'll be good.

15:48      JM: Yeah. This is something that is entrenched, right? The subtitle of my book is The Long Crisis of Black Masculinity in Racial Capitalism, and that's to indicate that just that incorporation of Blackness that I mentioned in the beginning from the slave economy, that was already a “crisis,” right? It's always been a “crisis.” The kind of ideological point, and this is actually drawing from a well-known anthropologist, Janet Roitman, who studies Urban Africa and “crisis.”

16:23      JM: She writes in one article that “crisis” implies a telos, this teleological idea that there is a progress, that there is something that we're aspiring to. To use the scare quotes is to say, "Well, should we be aspiring to patriarchy?" Right? The “crisis” of Black men is that Blackness and the masculinity don't work well together, in that this assumption about privilege, masculine, male entitlement, up against the marginalization that Black people have faced so long.

16:57      JM: When these identities clash, it's about Black men not being able to achieve that kind of like dominant patriarchy that white men have, but should we be aspiring to that? Is there a way that we can actually imagine a world where men aren't assumed to be dominant, that money doesn't have to make the man?

17:16      KS: Jordanna, on a slightly lighter note, I always envision academic research as something fairly circumscribed with maybe not a lot of room for creativity in the day-to-day. However, during your time in Abidjan, you recorded two songs with a former street vendor and your research assistants, which sounds, I have to say, like more fun than academics are supposed to have. What was that experience like? First of all, how did you come to do that and what was that like?

17:44      JM: Sure. Fun if you're not shy because then I was also performing with them on stages. I mean, I even caught myself up just saying that, being able to enunciate it, right, in a podcast. It was very awkward for me. There's a joke kind of in sociology circles that ethnographers are supposed to be the cool people more than the other methodologies because we have to put ourselves out there in a way that people doing certainly quantitative field work don't necessarily have to do.

18:15      JM: And when I arrived in the field, I actually started playing Capoeira, which I played in California when I was in grad school, and that's an Afro-Brazilian martial art. It was a big part of my life. I joined a school there and I met another Capoeirista who had friends who were these aspiring hip hop artists. And often with ethnographers, you have kind of the insider, the person who becomes kind of like your closest informant. My research assistants and informants were Tino and MC, and those were their stage names.

18:50      JM: There were a lot of ways that I influenced their world. For them, what they wanted to extract...I was extracting knowledge from them and they wanted actually to be able to perform with me and to record because there was cultural capital in my ability to speak English and to be able to write lyrics and things like that. For them, they were very ardent about, "We have to perform, or we have to practice. We have to do all this." And we did record a song, which...

19:21      JM: I mean, I could go into detail about that, but it was all very fast in a studio in kind of like an outer periphery, which had its own local renowned artists. For them, it was a really big deal. I mean, the street vendor who is actually the one person I'm still in touch with on a regular basis from my field work, he had a classic story of disappointment up to that point in his life. He had been abandoned from his family. His mother had passed away when he was a child and he was kicked out of his home.

19:58      JM: He was not able to finish his education because there was a civil war going on when I was there, and he was from the North, which became the rebel capital. So all of these disappointments that he'd faced in his life and here was a record, right? Here was quite literally a record that he was able to have and hold and possess of something that he'd accomplished. And then for Tino and MC, this was a way to make real kind of their ambitions of being artists, right? They were artists when they recorded. They were artists when they performed.

20:32      KS: Jordanna, last question, I think there's a rule that we have to ask about 2020 whenever we do any kind of interview now. I think we're going to be doing that for a number of years. So 2020—it's left a lot of people shellshocked for good reasons. It's also spurred a level of activism not seen in the US in many decades. It's been activism aimed at redressing foundational systemic racism in the US. And in your opinion, looking forward and from your vantage point as a scholar studying Black masculinity, what does success look like for this generation of activists?

21:06      JM: The first thing I'll say is that the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? These struggles have been ongoing ever since that first African was kidnapped, right? There have been slave revolts. There have been uprisings. And much of the kind of dominant historical narrative has acted to try to silence those and to suppress those. A lot of the work that we do I feel like as academics, that's urgent, is actually recovering different stories.

21:35      JM: In that sense, I feel like a lot of the activists are fighting for the same thing that we've been fighting for for forever. For equality, right? Equal opportunities, dignity—human dignity. But in this generation, the Black Lives Matter movement, this was actually something also, right? There's a shorter history, but it's not from 2020, right? It's been going on for several years. And what I'll draw attention to that of this generation of activists and the platform for Black Lives Matter and the leadership is that it is hugely intersectional, right?

22:16      JM: That's something that's really significant, that you had maybe prior movements where it was easy, for example, to confuse Black liberation for the equal access to patriarchy, right? There may have been a silencing of the needs of Black women. The movement for Black Lives platform is—the demands they make are really for uplifting conditions for everyone. And when you had the labor movement earlier in the 20th century, that pushed aside the needs of Black workers, right? The New Deal was a racialized New Deal.

22:56      JM: Black people, Black workers were largely excluded. It wrote out of the New Deal farmers, domestic workers, right? We certainly see now that the essential workers, the people on the forefront, these are feminized jobs, these are racialized jobs. That attention to the intersectional dimensions that we can uplift everybody when we pay attention to these needs are actually so urgent. And so yes, an intersectional movement for future generations I think is really maybe the key thing that I would say, but also to emphasize that these struggles aren't new.

23:36      JM: I mean, I don't want to say I'm happy that they've been getting this attention because obviously the reasons they've gotten this attention is because of tragedy. And certainly I do not think that we would have seen the same level of enragement and global activism if you didn't have so many people who were pent up from being in lockdown and from losing their jobs and not being able to be at work so they could be on the streets, right? There were conditions that were already tragic beyond the horrible killing of George Floyd, right?

24:19      JM: This was within a backdrop of a huge loss of life for Black and Latinx populations, indigenous. So yeah.

24:28      KS: Jordanna, thank you for joining Big World to talk about Black masculinity. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

24:35      JM: Thank you, Kay.

24:37      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like finding out your favorite book has a sequel, and it's actually good. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Jordanna Matlon,
professor, SIS

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