African American literature often presents the theme of race and masculinity, a dominant and recurring aspect that reflects decades of subjugation and discrimination. For many black men living in southern and northern states of America, emancipation from slavery did not automatically afford them equal rights amongst the white men in their society.
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall and A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines contain differing aspects of race and masculinity, although both novels demonstrate the correlation between race and masculinity however they are reported from opposing points of view. This essay will seek to determine this by firstly examining how race and masculinity are represented in A Gathering of Old Men through the characters Charlie Biggs, Mathu and Fix Boutan and by finally discussing the representation through the character Deighton Boyce in Brown Girl, Brownstones.
Race and masculinity are exhibited through many of the characters and representations of this are arguably best illustrated by Charlie, Mathu, Gil, Jean and Fix Boutan. Throughout the novel there are tales of racial trauma and emasculation suffered by many of the black men, however Mathu represents a stronger and exemplary figure for the black men in A Gathering of Old Men, his ability to respond to the subjugation by fighting back commanded respect from his peers “Mathu was the only one we knowed had ever stood up” (51). Mathu despite his race asserts his masculinity against many of the Cajun’s in his community his confident sense of self enables him to stand up to Fix Boutan and other Cajan’s who try to oppress him “A man got to do what he think is right…that’s what part him from a boy”(84).
As Mathu takes a ‘stand’ his strong representation of manhood gains respect from local white sheriff called Mapes who “knowed Mathu had never backed down from nobody, either. Maybe that’s why he liked him. To him Mathy was a real man.” (132) Mathu’s tough masculine persona ensures that he is suspected of the murder as he is perceived as “the only one around here man enough” this statement presents Mathu as a contradiction to the rest of the servile black men who are treated as children and not respected by the sheriff “Mapes respected Mathu. But he didn’t think much of the rest of us, and he didn’t respect us.” (132)
The instant willingness of the black male community to display solidarity with one another and support Mathu allows the men to reclaim and re-define their masculinity as most of the men “aint had no trouble with the law.” The respect the black men have for Mathu allows them to draw strength from his fight to vanquish their fears and stand up to those who had subjugated them “Mathu always stood up…and that’s why I come here today, to stand with this man. To die with him…that’s why we all come here – out of respect for him.”(179) Moreover through Mathu the reader can acknowledge that the black men who rally around to protect Mathu, (a man who always fought to retain his value as a black man) can be looked upon finally with the same respect that they held for him “You know why proud to be African? ‘Cause they won’t let me be a citizen here in this country. Hate them…hated y’all ’cause you never tried…I been changed by y’all” (182)
Furthermore this “gathering of old men” gives Charlie the ultimate courage to tell his story, the definitive narrative within the novel of abuse because of his race and seemingly irrevocable servitude to the Cajun plantation workers. Charlie’s represents a physical trait of masculinity “He was so big, so tall…he was taller than any man in that room…we all had to look up to him,” his masculinity is magnified and his “half a hundred” years would appear enough to solidify his claim to manhood, however his continuous racial and physical abuse from Mathu and Beau has emasculated him “All my natural-born black life I took the ‘busing and never hit back” (189) he also represents a child-like personality that the white inhabitants assume all the black men (except Mathu) correspond to “Just like little bedbugs…frightened little bedbugs now” (15)
Charlie realises that he must reclaim his masculinity and become the proud man that Mathu had claimed to be “They comes a day when a man must be a man.”(189) Furthermore Mathu strong sense of masculinity forces Charlie to determine his own, “Parrain told me if I run from Beau Boutan he was go’n beat me himself. He told me he was eight-two, but he was more man than me.” (191)
This statement suggests that Charlie was given no choice but to finally stand up for himself, no longer should he accept being abused because of race, and no longer should he accept his debilitation. Mathu forces him to fight for his masculinity, just as he had with the other black male inhabitants. In addition, Charlie exemplifies his status by returning to the scene and confessing to the crime, it is at this turning point where Charlie can declare “Now I know I’m a man.” (193) Charlie’s death transforms him to a martyr and solidifies his claim to manhood as he dies upholding his new-found manhood.
In contrast to the old black men Gil and his brother Jean Boutan reflect an opposed view of the masculinity displayed by their father Fix and most of the Cajun and white men, instead of using violence to avenge their brother’s death. Fix responds to this and decides to leave his old methods of aggression to maintain the ideals of his family “A member of the family has been insulted, and family, the family must seek justice. But these they say no” (147) This statement represents the conflict and divide over race and masculinity, on one hand it is seen as an outrage that a Cajun man is murdered at the hands of a black man and there are no reprisals this is projected through the character Luke Will “When niggers start shooting down white men in broad daylight, the trouble started then.”(149) Luke Will represents the ideals of race and masculinity from the past, whilst Gil and Jean reflect a new era where masculinity is not measured by violence but by the way in which they can integrate with the black community and still assert their masculinity through other pursuits such as sports as in Gil’s case.
Suzanne Jones states that Gaines’s novel involves:
“White and black men coming to terms with southern society’s race and gender ideology. Gil Boutan, a young white man, exhibits maturity when he rejects his society’s equation of masculinity with violence, while the old black men of the novel’s title achieve manhood when they enact this definition.” (Jones, 126)
Jones’ statement suggests that Gaines’ novel presents the correlation between the re-definition of race and masculinity for both races, for the black men, they affirm their masculinity through the violence that they had been subjected to, in contrast Fix’s refusal to send out a lynch mob to avenge his son death because his son Gil is unwilling to contribute destroys “the cycle of racial violence that his father is notorious for” (Jones, 126).
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall presents the reader with Brooklyn, New York City 1939 as many “West Indians slowly edged their way in”. The Boyce family from Barbados present a symbol of constant movement in the construction of identity, in particular for Deighton Boyce his identity is bound up by his race and masculinity. Deighton’s desire for his masculinity to be recognised as it once was in Barbados “I would walk ’bout town like I was a full-full man”(10) appear farfetched in contrast to his wife Silla who “worked round the clock” in the vain attempt to purchase a “brownstone.” Working hard to afford property is perceived by the Bajan community as the best way of gaining respect from their peers and from the white community “We here now and when they run we gon be right behind them. That’s why, mahn, you got to start buying” (38-39)
Deighton on the other hand is frivolous with his time and his money, preferring to spend his money on expensive clothing and a materialistic driven lifestyle. His constant risk-taking, half-hearted aspirations and lack of a serious ambition in order to make it ‘big’ have in spite of his wife’s disapproval “you ain no real-real Bajan man”(173) provide him with the endless task of trying to prove his masculinity to his peers and his family which began with his emasculation during his time as a young man in Barbados:
Those faces, stippled red by the tropic sun, that had always refused his request for a clerk’s job and thus turned the years at school, and his attempts to be like them in his dark wool English-cut suits…his face – clean though black – into nothing; that had utterly unmanned him before he was yet a man. (182)
However upon entering America, Deighton is initially unperturbed by his rejection in his native land and uses it to gain momentum in his quest to prove himself by chasing employment in predominantly white industries where he believes is the only place that he can make his riches. His need for acceptance as a man leads him to trail vanity and money “I gon make ‘nough money. Then the Bajan with their few raw-mouth houses will see what real money is” (85) Deighton displays his contempt for what he believes is small island mentality and is not content with working in a “small office” job like his fellow Bajan’s, his yearning to become successful in his career signifies his need to be seen as a successful man despite his race and does not equate a “small job” with being taken seriously as a man “I got big plans or nothing a-tall. That’s the way a man does things!” (83)
Deighton envies the black men in Fulton Street who are able to express their masculinity through violence and “coarse play” however being of Bajan decent, the African-American mentality is alien to his culture, he believes that money will secure him patriarchal dominance over his wife “she gon have to watch that mouth. I gon be firm with she ’cause it’ll be my house” (87) Moreover Deighton’s refusal to work in a small office like his fellow Bajan’s and secure a property develops resentment from his wife Silla as she is the financial provider “You don’t want no job…Instead of him going to some small office where he might have a chance – no, he got to play like he’s white.” (82) Silla’s bitter rejection of his idea’s reaffirm’s his emasculation and deflation at being rejected because of his race “Here and in Bimshire they’s the same. They does scorn yuh ’cause yuh skin black.” Deighton still believes that he can overcome the rejection and maintains his pursuit of success “two weeks later he brought home that trumpet…and was soon his affable, teasing self again.” (83)
The reiteration of his race “his dark skin”, “dark flesh showing”, “clean though black” represents the reoccurring issue of his colour, as much as he is trying to dress himself in order to impress and gain respect, no matter how much he tries to gain employment by “always putting himself up in the face of the big white people in town asking for some big job” (33) his race still remains as a definitive reason why he could not achieve employment in the “big” jobs working with white men “you can know all the accounting there is, these people still not gon have you up in their fancy office” (39).
Failing to reclaim his masculinity through his quests, Deighton relies on his land in Bimshire as his final claim to manhood; however when Silla sells the land and this shatters Deighton’s masculinity indefinitely. “The pretence was over. He was broken, stripped…the same unnatural acceptance had scored his bitter outburst when he was refused the job in accounting…his loss of land was now simply his due” (115).
Race and masculinity are represented in Brown Girl, Brownstones prevalently through the character Deighton Boyce, instead of accepting his race, Deighton makes numerous attempts to fit in with the community, his emphasis on dressing well and obtaining a good education and career, lead to rejection because of his colour. Deighton is not subjugated like the black men in A Gathering of Old Men; however the institutional racism he suffers emasculates him and results in his frivolous spending habits and half-hearted aspirations demonstrate his need to regain his idea of manhood that has been denied to him.
A Garthering of Old Men the men are subjugated further as they allow themselves to be treated as children and connotes feelings of humiliation and debilitation. The Cajun men in contrast are considered to be of a higher status to the black men because of their race and feed off their servile mentality in order to maintain the hierarchy. Violence is established as a way of presenting masculinity and the Cajun men assert this through.