From the auction block to the prison cell, from the boardroom to the bedroom, Black men in America have become prizes to be won, mongrels to be feared, sexual dynamos to be experienced and pack horses to be worked.
They’ve been beaten, emasculated, hunted and hanged. They’ve been sold, bought, bartered and executed. They’ve been put on display, forced to shuck and jive and cajoled into diminishing their humanity in the hands of systemically racist institutions that keep them marginalized.
All this points to one of the most destructive and pervasive racial plights leveled against the melanated in America: Black men are commodities in a bigoted society that would sooner sell them than celebrate them.
Just consider the origin of Black men in this nation. Ever since they were stolen en masse to the land of their oppressors, Black men have suffered a number of brutal indignities producing lasting trauma that ripples more than 400 years later. (We in no way seek to diminish the abuse and mistreatment leveled against Black women, which, in many ways, has been far worse. However, this blog centers on the struggles of Black men in light of the artist’s lithographic work.)
The moment Black men stepped off the ships, they were gawked at, grabbed, fondled and sold. Slaveowners investigated their features — teeth, hair, nostrils, eyes, muscles, etc. — with the same concentration one might use to inspect a car on the dealership sales floor. They were bred and coupled to create better, stronger slaves at the same time they were starved, humiliated and tortured at the merest inkling of disobedience or independent thought.
The physical and psychological warfare at the hands of cruel slave owners was an intentional sheltering of white supremacy that leveraged Black bodies as an engine for economics.
Iman Cooper, a creative strategist and communications maven, wrote in a paper for Earlham College that, “Over time, the replication of individual choices to capture, buy and trade African slaves created a social structure that equalized the value of human life with a market value.”
Black men, exploited for both work and copulation, were essential to driving the market forces of the Antebellum South. And so ensued the deconstruction of their humanity.
They were torn from their families. They were subjugated as their names were erased and their identities were reframed. They were called nigger, forced into backbreaking labor, treated like chattel and relegated to deplorable living conditions. Their blood, sweat and agony built a global superpower. As a thank you, they were lynched, disenfranchised and disproportionately imprisoned.
They were the sum of their money-making parts, which helped create generational wealth for whites and far-reaching disparities for Blacks.
Today, in this era of so-called racial enlightenment, not much has changed. Black men are still prized possessions that boost the white dollar. It’s a concept so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that many people hardly notice.
The entertainment and sports industries are evident examples of the commoditization of the Black man, but they’re not alone.
A Black man in a business suit could mean it’s mission accomplished for the company or board trying to meet diversity quotas. Adding a Black man to a politician’s campaign team can clinch a surefire victory. Entire sections of pornographic websites are devoted to Black men, their lauded sexual prowess and interracial intercourse — a racist carryover from ideas formed during slavery that Blacks were promiscuous, hypersexual and bestial. And commissioning largely ignored Black male artists for a beautiful street mural may help a city shed its racist image and earn public relations brownie points.
While some may see the aforementioned as signs of (warped) progress, they’re also evidence of the monetary value that’s placed on Black male bodies. We’re things that make white people money. We make good marketing campaigns.
That’s not to say we as Black men aren’t complicit in billing ourselves as products. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that we need to sell ourselves if we hope to compete or succeed in a society buttressed by racial attitudes. Some are willing to compromise their Blackness for the sake of the dollar to raise their own status. Others disavow association with our shared ancestry entirely, hoping that by avoiding overt connection with Blackness they may be able to pass or seem more acceptable in a country engineered to hate them. And many of us participate in a capitalistic system that elevates the wealthy and steamrolls the disadvantaged so we can feed our families, build our careers and lead peaceable lives.
Nevertheless, the fact remains: We’re useful until our actual humanity comes into play, at which point we’re beset with contradictions about our value and worth.
Our names, faces and bodies appear on billboards, sneakers and commercials. Our athleticism fuels multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals and solicits overwhelming admiration from the masses. Yet, if we step out of line, the repercussions are swift and severe (see: Colin Kaepernick).
We’re the romantic partner or disarming friend for white people trying to prove they’re not racist. Conversely, we’re the shrouded figure at night that’s dangerous and violent.
We’re the affable comedian, the sensual lover, the lyrically-gifted rapper and the rhythmic dancer while we’re also the bodies that birthed the prison industrial complex.
Our talent is praised on the gridiron, yet our passion is conflated with uncontrolled rage in the office.
Our style and swagger are admired and appropriated, yet our pain and persecution are eschewed and dismissed.
We should follow the law, yet it’s our fault when police kill us for no reason.
We should work harder to be successful, yet our attempts to shatter glass ceilings threaten patriarchy.
At the crux of our existence in America lies the juxtaposition of fear and lust, greed and hatred.
In this racist “land of the free, home of the brave,” Black men are props, ideals and fantasies denied the freedom of complex human expression and contextual understanding.
We either fit into the box or live far outside it. We validate stereotypes, or we’re profoundly misunderstood. We improve the bottom line, or we’re locked up and thrown away.