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The Carletonian

Convocation by Duke University Professor kicks off Black History Month

<rbucks with his laptop and a stack of books at 2:00 in the afternoon, Mark Anthony Neal was frequently asked what he was up to. Was he a disc jockey? A numbers runner? Finishing up the homework he neglected the night before? But no one ever guessed the real answer—that he was a Duke University professor of African and African American studies writing one of his four books on black popular culture, his nationally recognized area of expertise.

“It’s a complex image for some people,” Neal said while giving this year’s Black History Month convocation on Feb. 6. In his presentation entitled “Barack Obama and the Era of the New Black Man,” Neal examined the modern ideal of black masculinity and the molds African American males are often made to fit in today’s society.

“Even as we look at the ascent of Barack Obama,” Neal said, “there really is a slippery slope of viewing him as this icon.” The amount of time Obama has spent on television and in front of American eyes, according to Neal, “almost functions as a form of surveillance,” when people begin to think the only way to be a good black man is to mirror the masculinity of Obama.

He then contrasted the legible images of black men—handcuffed and hooded in the back of a police car or sprinting down the football field or basketball court—with the images “that give us pause”: black violinists or ballet dancers, for example.

In Neal’s current project, “Looking for Leroy,” he explores themes reminiscent of Gene Anthony Ray’s character in the 1980s movie and television show “Fame,” a tough black dancer who studies at the School of Performing Arts. While the character was never portrayed as homosexual on the show, after Ray’s death, Neal scanned the obituaries expecting to find some hint as to the actor’s sexuality.

As he did so, he began to wonder, “What if I, too, have been caught in this binary representation of the black man?” He uses this idea to examine the areas lying between the two main representations of black men in America—“thugs” at one extreme and homosexuals at the other.

Keeping up with the subject of popular culture, Neal discussed African American characters on television shows ranging from HBO’s “The Wire” to another 1980s program, “Spenser: For Hire,” and applauded the ways these shows began “complicating the nature of black masculinity.” They portrayed real, more complex men, prompting Neal to create new labels including “HomoThug” and “ThugNiggaIntellectual,” terms he uses in “Looking for Leroy.”

In the age of Obama, Neal sees distinctions being made to separate so-called thugs, including cultural icons like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, from those he deems “race men,” figures such as Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. He questions whether the two really are so separate, citing early twentieth century gangsters who provided funding for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and modern-day rappers who stood in eight-hour voting lines Nov. 4 to keep people motivated in the presidential election.

After President Obama’s victory, Neal saw people suddenly wondering, “If Barack Obama can succeed in American society, why can’t all black men succeed in American society?”

It seemed like a logical, even hopeful sentiment at first, but he came to view it as more of a potential hindrance than encouragement. As he puts it, “Barack Obama, for lack of a better way to describe it, is the most perfect Negro ever… Is he really the most available option for young black boys to mirror?”

Instead, he said, those boys need normal, accessible people. “We pay so little attention to everyday African American men who go to work and make a living,” Neal said. “Let’s not pretend that the only models out there for black men are people like Barack Obama.”

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