Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Jonathan Majors is a rising star in Hollywood. He won critical praise for his performance in 2019's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, breathed new life into the Rocky series' spinoff, as a memorable opponent in Creed III, and made his debut as the villainous Kang in this year's Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Now, Majors also appeared on the cover of the February issue of Ebony Magazine. For the print edition, he was wearing a shaggy pink coat over a shirtless chest, legs crossed in blue jeans lined with red accents.
In the digital version of the cover, Majors is in boxing shoes and shorts, draped lazily over a pink chair, a bouquet of red roses spilling from his relaxed grip. The images evoke a kind of 1970s cool and radiate a vulnerable masculinity that is a hallmark of Majors' work. Many of us loved this cover, but some Black men and women criticized it as a gender performance that inappropriately feminized Black men. Majors discussed the response to his Ebony cover in a conversation with NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.
Jonathan Majors: I'll just be curious. Tell me what masculinity is. I [unintelligible 00:01:40] walk up on me in the street, but it's bigger than-- It's love. It's like there's awareness and then there's acknowledgment of ignorance. A big part of it is kindness, use of power, gentleness. These are masculine characteristics. It's quite unmasculine to try to emasculate another man.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then at the end of March, Majors was arrested on charges of assault and harassment against a woman. He was arraigned and subsequently released. To be clear, Majors denies and disputes the charges, but perhaps most curious, following his arrest, some of his detractors became defenders. Seeking to understand how Jonathan Majors has become a Rorschach test for Black masculinity, we sat down with Mark Anthony Neal, who's the James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Let me just start with, what is Black manhood?
Mark Anthony Neal: I think, historically, we've understood Black manhood to be strength, to be integrity, to be honesty, to be bravery, to be that figure in Black communities that's always solid, that has everyone's back. Of course, that's meant very different things generationally over the years. Black masculinity, I think, Black manhood has always been seen as the last line of defense, particularly in the context of white supremacy. That if white supremacy is ultimately going to overthrow Blackness, if you will, it will happen in the context of undermining the Black man, undermining our ideals historically of what Black manhood is supposed to be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For young Black boys and Black men, if part of the presumed responsibility is that you've got to be the last line of defense against white supremacy, that's a pretty tall order.
Mark Anthony Neal: Absolutely. I think it's a challenge, particularly for young Black men because they're given a set of ideals of what that last line of defense should look like. It's supposed to be, historically, heterosexual. It's supposed to be masculine if not hyper-masculine. It was supposed to be a performance of Black manhood that would strike fear in white supremacy so they would never come for us. I think for young Black men trying to live up to that ideal, which might not be something that is unique, part of your interior sense of who you are but is a box that you're expected to fit in, I think that's often been a challenge for young Black men, and quite honestly, it's a challenge for older Black men also.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In what ways does this limit the imaginations, the existence, the expressions of Black men when it comes to gender expression? I was imagining Billy Porter on that red carpet in that extraordinary tuxedo gown with the train and thinking of how on the one hand I love that image and all of the different playful, beautiful things Billy Porter is doing in that moment, and I'm thinking about how my 82-year-old father responded to that as that is him failing to do exactly the thing you're describing, which is to strike fear in the hearts of white supremacists.
Mark Anthony Neal: Historically, obviously, there have been figures like Billy Porter in Black communities. They didn't necessarily have a public forum to fully express their ideals of themselves, even as they're continuously expressing their ideas of what it is to be a Black man in their moment. I think we've done damage to the idea of Black humanity by limiting the ways in which Black men are allowed to show up, how they dress, how they are styled, how they use language, how they move. We are complex human individuals.
I'm thinking also now the vocals of someone like Luther Vandross because it's a performance of Black manhood that shares a range of emotions. It's not that Black men don't have emotions, but the acceptable emotions for Black men have often been anger and rage. When we say anger and rage, we have no problem understanding that as a performance of Black masculinity, but when we start to talk about things like tenderness, when we start to talk about things like vulnerability, for many folks, they still see that as a mark of weakness amongst Black men as opposed to a strength.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like we saw this happening in a super sped-up time-lapse with Jonathan Majors, how this is operating on these multiple levels. Jonathan Majors' recent Ebony cover, he's wearing this shaggy pink jacket. There were lots of positive comments but then there was also this torrent of homophobic vile discourse that Majors in this position of repose is emasculating to Black men. Talk to me about the fear at the core of that response.
Mark Anthony Neal: It was striking, as you said. On the one hand, you give Jonathan Majors kudos for being comfortable enough in his masculinity that he can wear anything that he wants. I'd like to think we're in a historical moment where many Black men feel comfortable in that way, but some of the critiques that you heard, that success in Hollywood if you're Jonathan Majors and so many other Black men, means that you have to be effeminized in that context, that the price that you pay for being a top-line Black male actor in Hollywood is to lose your masculinity.
I'm sure for many Black men who cover a range of personalities and styles within Black masculinity, it was absolutely hurtful to hear those comments. Those comments themselves are derived from this fear that Black masculinity is being eroded in this moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Quick break. More on Black masculinity right after this. All right. We're back with Professor Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University. We're talking about Jonathan Majors and Black masculinity. Of course, then almost immediately, the next thing that we hear in public space around Jonathan Majors is his arrest on a domestic dispute. He was charged with harassment and assault. He denied the allegations. Then following his arrest, some of those same sort of spirit of, "Oh, he's emasculating Black men," took up the position behind him as supporter suggesting that, "Oh, no, this is indicative that he actually is manly, he actually is sufficiently masculine."
Mark Anthony Neal: Jonathan Majors on the cover, for some Black men, was illegible. What then made him legible is an accusation of domestic violence. That's the thing that made him a real man because, again, in some sectors of the Black community, what a real man does is keep his "woman in control," and if all other means don't work, then you resort to violence. We know this is a long historical narrative but not just in Black communities. I think that's troubling to me, particularly how quickly the sentiment shifted for folks who were so critical and ambivalent about Jonathan Majors prior to that moment because of the cover on the magazine, suddenly, the ambivalence disappears.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does that help us to understand about what the narrow definitions of Black masculinity mean for Black girls and women?
Mark Anthony Neal: I think it's troubling, still, in the sense that we still have no real measure of the amount of domestic violence abuse that occurs within Black communities, if there is still such a long-held belief that part of the role of a Black man is to instill discipline amongst women in Black communities and children in Black communities, in that the most effective means of that discipline is violence. That's not even considering the role of emotional violence in the context of this.
On the one hand, I think 20 years ago, we're not having the full conversation about what Jonathan Majors looked like on a cover of a magazine or the accusations of domestic violence 20 years ago to the fullness that we're having these conversations now. I think, in that regard, it bodes well for future generations of young Black folks, who in considering everything that's going on, can have a much more deeper understanding of what's at risk when we hold onto these very, very old stereotypes and archetypes of what Black masculinity is supposed to be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth noting the ways that desire, romantic love are endogenous, our notion of what we want. It doesn't just come from some external reality. It's embedded in our systems of what we grow up in, of the air that we breathe. This notion of heterosexual, cisgendered Black woman to want a Black man who presents in ways that are, to go all the way back, that definition of protection from the violence of the world, can also mean that we recreate it, that we reproduce it, that we even desire it, because it is endogenous to our understanding of what makes manhood and masculinity.
Mark Anthony Neal: It's kind of a user-friendly patriarchy. There have been many critiques of the strong Black woman and what that does to the sensibility of Black women to this idea that you'll always have to be there for the Black community and Black men in particular, but we also need to have a real critique of the strong Black men, both in the sense of the limits of that for Black men to be able to fully actually realize what that ideal is but also for us to recalibrate in the Black community about what it means for the community as a whole to be able to react in strength and in power to the threats of white supremacy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and host of the podcast Left of Black.
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