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Male Models

Reviewed by Adam Bradley
Sunday, May 22, 2005

WHO'S AFRAID OF A LARGE BLACK MAN?

By Charles Barkley. Penguin Press. 236 pp. $24.95

NEW BLACK MAN

By Mark Anthony Neal. Routledge. 182 pp. $25

Retired NBA star Charles Barkley has always appeared, by turns, hostage to age-old black male stereotypes and freed from race entirely. Like Michael Jordan or Colin Powell, he at times enjoys an oddly raceless image afforded certain black celebrities.

Few of these personal tensions are in evidence, however, in the pages of Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? Instead of revolving around Barkley's outsized personality, the book encompasses the lives and opinions of others. Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon writes in the introduction that Barkley wanted to confront this country's oldest problem -- racial prejudice -- by inviting prominent people to talk about "how they feel about where we're going, what's good, what's bad, what smart people ought to be thinking." Motivated by a desire to reach a consensus on America's racial agenda, Barkley interviewed 13 people, including Bill Clinton, Ice Cube, Jesse Jackson and Morgan Freeman.

While the book succeeds as a kind of enlightened entertainment, it falls short as social commentary. Rather than adjusting to the complex realities of our post-civil rights society, it replicates old patterns developed when black men and white men did all the talking. Barkley includes only two women (Marita Golden and Marian Wright Edelman) and only one non-black minority (Chicano comedian George Lopez). With America becoming increasingly multiracial -- Latinos now outnumber blacks -- such limited discussions of race seem outmoded.

Barkley nonetheless has something to contribute. The book's strength is directly proportionate to the force of his voice as an emerging leader of racial healing. "Because he is who he is," Wilbon writes, "he can ask anybody anything. And because he is who he is, people feel at ease talking about just about anything with him." Barkley is a fine interviewer because he is genuinely inquisitive. The interview format -- Barkley's remarks are set off in boldface -- allows for call-and-response with his subjects; voices sometimes blend, sometimes clash. While Barkley shows flashes of his vaunted wit, he also reveals a deep concern for the cause of racial justice.

The wide-ranging exchanges circle around a set of core issues: interracial relations, black self-empowerment, black leadership in the 21st century and our collective responsibility to America's children. Many of the conversations bring to mind comedian Bill Cosby's controversial remarks criticizing the black underclass and youth culture: In a May 2004 speech at an NAACP gala and numerous times since, he has denounced what he sees as a lack of parenting and loss of respect for education among the black urban poor. Along with several of his interview subjects, Barkley seems to agree with some of Cosby's criticisms and to applaud him for speaking his mind.

What makes the book intriguing, however, is not always what's said, but who's saying it. Tiger Woods, notoriously circumspect about race, tells of being assaulted by white classmates on his first day of kindergarten. Barack Obama, speaking a month before winning the Senate race in Illinois, details the fine points of racially inclusive politics. Barkley makes such moments valuable by successfully uncovering the private lives of public figures.

In Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? Barkley comes off as a thoughtful citizen and a concerned father who looks upon young black Americans with those same father's eyes. In a way, Barkley is offering something Cosby, one of the most famous father figures in American culture, did not: a tone of empathy and concern that invites dialogue.

For all its straight talk on race, however, the book ends at a familiar impasse. As Martin Luther King Jr. asked almost 40 years ago, where do we go from here? That's where Mark Anthony Neal's New Black Man comes in. Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, is the author of several books and numerous articles on black popular culture. A self-described "thug nigga intellectual," he is not likely to be on Barkley's celebrity guest list. But in asserting his identity as a black male feminist, Neal challenges many of the assumptions behind Barkley's book.

Barkley's conversations are almost entirely between a black heterosexual, privileged man and other heterosexual privileged men. Even if their collective dreams of ending racism were realized, fundamental inequalities would be sustained through heterosexism, classism and misogyny. Neal addresses those inequalities by calling for a radical reframing of the way we talk about black and white, privilege and victimization. He imagines a New Black Manhood as "a metaphor for an imagined life -- a way to be 'strong' as a black man in new ways: strong commitment to diversity in our communities, strong support for women and feminism, and strong faith in love and the value of listening."

Neal is calling out the black community. This approach, however, risks portraying blacks as a problem people rather than a people who share a problem common to all Americans. Confusing masculinity with swagger and intimidation is not a black thing but a national pastime. If black men abandon those strutting attitudes traditionally associated with American manhood, doesn't that put them at an even greater competitive disadvantage? Is there a way to balance certain established qualities of black masculinity with Neal's progressive ideal? Neal offers no definitive answers to these questions, but he gives us the next best thing: a promising new direction for discussion.

Part academic treatise, part soul-baring memoir, New Black Man is the unlikely offspring of hip-hop and feminism. Because its language is drawn from both movements, the result is occasionally discombobulating. As a kind of intellectual conversion narrative, it displays some of that genre's conventional excesses -- a zeal to disclose intimate experience (Neal writes at length, for instance, about his battle with sleep apnea) and an intermittent desire to offer fawning homage to the author's influences (the black feminist scholars who helped Neal see the light). What it proposes is so novel, however, that such flaws can be overlooked.

With New Black Man , Neal offers a call to action by challenging not only the conventional white powers that be, but also the black men who sanction inequality by upholding patriarchy and heterosexism. In many ways, Neal's work responds better to the title of Barkley's book than does Barkley's own. Who's afraid of a large black man? Neal's New Black Man might just be the most feared man of all, for it is he who may finally realize that the path to racial justice runs through equal justice for all. ยท

Adam Bradley is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company