Bibler on Richardson, 'From Uncle Tom to Gangsta: Black Masculinity and the U.S. South'

Riche Richardson
Michael P. Bibler

Riche Richardson. From Uncle Tom to Gangsta: Black Masculinity and the U.S. South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. xiii + 296 pp. $49.95 (library), ISBN 978-0-8203-2609-2; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-2890-4.

Reviewed by Michael P. Bibler (Department of English and American Studies, University of Manchester)
Published on H-Southern-Lit (November, 2007)

Southern Studies, Black Studies, and the Vulnerable Body of the Black Southern Man

From Uncle Tom to Gangsta is one of those uncommon works of criticism whose argument is so insightful and compelling that one wonders how it was not already something that scholars have generally understood and agreed upon for many years. The answer for this, of course, is that Riche Richardson confronts a significant lacuna where southern studies and black studies intersect. Southernists have long explored the constructions of African American identity in regional, national, and (more recently) global contexts, but as Richardson suggests in her introduction, this work is often treated as if it had little relevance beyond the region itself. In contrast, scholars of African American literature and culture have long examined forms of black masculinity, yet typically through "urban-centered paradigms" that ignore the influence of rural geographies (p. 14), or through broader national and Diasporic frameworks that sometimes fail to account for the topographies of regional cultural spaces. Strange as it may seem, Richardson's is one of the first major studies to bring these two discourses together, and she does so with a detailed examination of the South's importance in shaping the ways that black masculinities are represented and negotiated within American culture.

Richardson's central concern is to explain "the role of geography in constituting difference and otherness within the category of African Americans, particularly among black men" (p. 3), and she offers substantial evidence to show how black male southerners have been stigmatized across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries "as inferior and undesirable models of black masculinity" (p. 2). Focusing on the two most pervasive and pernicious stereotypes of black masculinity--Uncle Tom and the black rapist--she reveals how the figure of Uncle Tom assists the negative projection of black southern men as backwards, docile, ignorant, and "apolitical and counterinsurgent" (p. 15), while the figure of the black rapist paradoxically informs the treatment of black southern men as dangerous and pathological.

Chapter 1 charts the evolution of the myth of the black rapist from the aftermath of the Civil War to the O.J. Simpson trial of the 1990s, focusing particularly on the 1974 film The Klansman and William Bradford Huie's 1967 novel of the same name, which is the basis for the film. She charts the ways that The Klansman attempts to revise white supremacist economies of race, sex, and gender that emerged after the Civil War by counteracting the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, on which that film was based. Her analysis convincingly shows how the myth of the black male rapist emerged from the southern cultural imagination and continues to exert its influence in specifically southern terms in the late twentieth century. The Klansman is rather marginal, even within the canons (if we can call them that) of the civil rights novel and the blaxploitation film; and Richardson's choice shows how the specifically southern origins of the black rapist myth continue to exert their influence in American culture. Not only is the film uniquely based in a southern setting--making it what Richardson calls the "Southern Shaft" (1971)--but the film's invention of the lone black hero (and the counterpart to the black rapist, the "bad Negro"), played by O. J. Simpson, underscores the powerful ideologies at work in the way Simpson was depicted during and after his murder trial in the 1990s. In addition to confronting the lingering problems involved with The Klansman's depiction of black and white women as victims of rape, Richardson also traces yet another counterpart to the figure of the black rapist--the bad white woman (a label once applied to Jennifer Lopez as well as Nicole Brown Simpson, as Richardson observes). These are important observations, to be sure, and they will inspire many new studies of southern literature and culture.

Chapter 2 focuses on Charles Fuller's play A Soldier's Play (1981) to trace the ways that black southern men have been marked in military contexts as pathological, weak, expendable, and "inimical to racial progress" (p. 77). While Richardson never loses sight of how white power structures contribute to and sustain this pathologizing discourse, the chapter is particularly rich for its explanations of how black men can internalize and embrace this discourse as well. Richardson reminds us that black identities are by no means monolithic and details the play's attempts "to unsettle sexed, raced, and gendered hierarchies of masculinity and to represent a diverse and complex range of black masculine formations" (p. 106). And although she ultimately finds "a reinforcement of the ideologies of masculinity and geography that the play ostensibly critiques" (p. 106), her reading expands our understanding of the role of geography in limiting the "place" of different black men within the project of racial advancement.

As she does throughout the book as a whole, Richardson fleshes out her argument in chapter 2 by revealing the important connections between Fuller's play, the film adaptation, and many other cultural documents, including military directives about black soldiers released during and between the two world wars. Chapter 3 continues this intertextual exploration by reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) in the context of other literary works and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. This chapter argues that the southern elements of Ellison's novel need much greater critical attention than they have received so far. Richardson offers a remarkable reading of the way southern and rural geographies become central to the novel's core explorations of blackness and masculinity: "In juxtaposing (1) the processes of African American subjection in constituting an exclusive notion of American subjectivity on the basis of race and class with (2) the subjection of black rural identities in producing elite notions of African American identity, Ellison reveals the instrumentality of black rural southerners in unsettling such categories as 'African American' and 'American'" (p. 155). Richardson also engages debates within the academy over the emphasis or neglect of black, predominately southern "folk" cultures to show how discourses that romanticize black southerners are integrally tied to discourses that pathologize them as backwards, abject, and counter-modern.

Chapter 4 continues this line of argument by showing how urban, northern revolutionaries--particularly Malcolm X--and more recent expressions of urban revolutionary discourse--particularly the films of Spike Lee--adopt pathologizing discourses to mark black men in the South "as inauthentically black, politically naïve, and counterrevolutionary" (p. 196). Finally, Chapter 5 charts the ways that southern rappers have recently begun to counteract these discourses through lyrics and marketing techniques that assert their masculinity as superior to those from the cities of the East and West Coasts. Mostly discussing Master P and No Limit Records, as well as Cash Money Records and its major artists Juvenile and Lil' Wayne, Richardson also examines the lyrics of songs such as Da Southern Soldier's "Goin' Home Wit' Somethin'" (2001) and Eight Ball and M. J. G.'s "Reason for Rhyme" (1997). But the meat of her argument really comes in her analysis of Joe Blakk's song "Way Down South" (1995), which expresses a detailed warning that, in Richardson's words, "imagining the South as essentially agrarian and underestimating the extent to which southern males are participating in gangsta cultures could prove to be costly" to visitors from outside the South (p. 217).

Richardson is especially talented at visualizing how her own study intersects with and opens up new lines of inquiry within other forms of critical discourse. Over and over again she reminds us how the limits of her own work point to new horizons elsewhere--not just in southern studies and black studies, but also in the study of cultural geography; folklore; psychoanalysis; feminism; sex, gender and sexuality; the history of labor; and more. The only downside to this is that by continually gesturing toward other avenues of study, she sometimes slows the delivery of her own analysis. In the first two chapters, particularly, Richardson repeats claims that she has already made in the introduction, and she might have been able to make these chapters more concise by condensing or even cutting some of these comments. At the end of chapter 2, for example, she writes that Fuller's A Soldier's Play "poses a challenge to southern literature itself. It shows how much southern literature might be enriched by breaking its own more traditional rules and expanding its textual repertoires to become more inclusive of works written by authors who were not born in the South and who don't live there but who have things to say about it" (p. 115). This is an extremely important call for all southernists to rethink the parameters of the discipline, and it underscores Richardson's refreshingly interdisciplinary approach. Yet she has already stated this claim in other places, including pages 12 and 22 of the introduction, and page 38 in chapter 1. In other cases, there is even more repetition, and I do not think it adds anything to make these claims again throughout the book.

Another thing that I would like to have seen more of in her work is greater attention to voices that respond to or challenge devaluations and stereotyping of southern black masculinities. While she briefly discusses James Baldwin's essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949) in her chapter on Malcolm X and Spike Lee, it would be interesting to see what she would say about the complex depictions of southern black and queer identities in Baldwin's other works, as well as his publicly contentious relationship to the politics of Black Power. Similarly, while she mentions the ways that Malcolm X and other northern, urban revolutionaries criticized Martin Luther King Jr. as ineffectual and effeminate, she might have complicated her arguments about the North-South binary by also discussing the figure of Pennsylvania-born activist Bayard Rustin, who was largely responsible for bringing the principles of nonviolence into the early civil rights movement, and whose homosexuality was known to many. Furthermore, it would also be interesting to see how Richardson would treat the intersections between black masculinity, homosexuality, and rural geographies in the works of Randall Kenan, and between geography and interracial heterosexual desire in Alice Walker's Meridian (1976). And what should we think about someone like James Brown? That Richardson does not give more time to these and other alternative voices is not exactly a weakness of her study, for she is wholly convincing in her explanations of the ways that negative images of black male identity are routinely displaced onto black southerners. Yet her analysis would be that much richer if she had more fully mapped the uneven and competing models of southern black masculinity circulating at any given time

Of greater concern to me, however, is the slipperiness that sometimes occurs between the distinctions she makes between North and South along the axis between urban and rural. In her chapter on Ellison, Richardson argues that "In general, an examination of the rural should be elemental in southern studies, for in spite of the geographical diversity of the U.S. South, the region is routinely imagined as rural" (p. 134). Yet in this chapter and elsewhere she sometimes allows that conflation between southern and rural to limit interpretations. For example, in her discussion of Spike Lee's Get on the Bus (1997), she argues that film depicts "a black man from the South as alien to and expendable within the formulation of authentic black masculinity, reveal[ing] its implicit investments in a scripting of 'authentic' black masculinity as fundamentally urban" (p. 186). The southern man she is referring to is the character Wendell, who is eventually kicked off the bus. Wendell is the only southern black man in the film, and Richardson's explanation of how his southernness is used against him is quite astute. Yet Wendell is a middle-class man from Memphis, not from the country, making the binary between urban/North and rural/South less clean, and much less useful in this case, than she might prefer. For all her brilliant attention to the relationship between geography and identity, she could have strengthened her argument by taking intra-regional geographies more fully into account.

This is also relevant to her chapter on southern rap. Richardson shows how many southern rappers challenge stereotypical notions of black southerners as "country hicks." Yet as she admits, the centers for southern rap are all urban, and southern rappers are more than eager to prove their urban credentials as "gangstas" and "playas." I do not question or doubt Richardson's arguments in the least. But for all the ways southern rappers emphasize their difference from East- and West-Coast rappers, is there not also evidence of a fundamental wish to prove their similarity to those other rappers--a similarity potentially underscored by rappers' use of the comparable term "South Coast"? As southern rappers draw on southern imagery, idioms, and speech patterns, do they not also privilege the urban over the rural in much the same ways as their non-southern competitors? What might this emphasis on urban lifestyles and identities do to perpetuate, rather than dispel existing mythologies about black men from the southern countryside? People have questioned the subversive potential of rap since it came into existence, and Richardson herself suggests that an underlying point of Joe Blakk's "Way Down South" is actually that "the South isn't different from Brooklyn or 'Chi-Town' (Chicago)" (p. 219). Yet she does not pursue this point and ultimately bypasses the problems of intra-regional geographies in her account of the "Dirty South." (I also would like to have seen Richardson address the ways that New Orleans rappers have responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in some cases by organizing to raise money for the relief effort, and in others appearing to abandon the city for their new locations. Perhaps she could have just touched on Nik Cohn's comments in the new afterward to his book Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap [2005].)

Ultimately, Richardson is a vanguard in her efforts to forge closer connections between southern studies and black studies in the academy. She weaves compelling arguments that bring together a startling array of different texts. And in doing so, she irrefutably changes the ways we will understand black masculinity, southern literature, and national ideology from this point forward. This book is going to be a crucial read for anyone interested in southern cultures, African American cultures and identities, gender studies, cultural studies, and studies in geography.

Printable Version:

Citation: Michael P. Bibler. Review of Richardson, Riche, From Uncle Tom to Gangsta: Black Masculinity and the U.S. South. H-Southern-Lit, H-Net Reviews. November, 2007.

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