African Masculinity

If we accept that African masculinity has “a history,” how is that history to be written or understood? And what are the implications of tracking “this history”? I use the singular form here because I remain uncomfortable with the notion that pluralizing terms is enough to account for the diversity such a rhetorical strategy purports to accomplish. Also, I’m interested in the conceptual difficulty of thinking through the diversity of singularity—attempting to negotiate this conceptual minefield.

To be even further reductive, I want to suggest that there are two competing—though not incommensurable—theses regarding African masculinity. The first argues that colonial modernity—or modernity in general, and this is code for a range of factors, including feminism, urbanization, and globalization, has emasculated African men.

A diverse body of literature tracks how wage labor, women’s earning capacity, and education has diminished men’s traditional roles as leaders, owners, and patriarchs. There are several historical and conceptual assumptions here that need to be challenged, not least that masculinity and gender relations were stable and relatively hierarchical before the advent of a de-masculinizing modernity. We must track how these gender discourses came into being—and, we are fortunate that some archives exist that allow a far more complex view of gender relations.

The second thesis claims that masculinity has proliferated, that the ways of being and acting masculine have changed along with history. While I like this thesis, I am also wary of its seeming originary claims: that one form of masculinity fractured under the weight of modernity. The claim of proliferating masculinity risks retrospectively stabilizing what might not have been very stable initially.

Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that something known as Afro-modernity—which does NOT begin with Africans encountering Europeans—impacted African conceptualizations of masculinity, which were always already multiple or, to use a metaphor I like, variegated.

It’s quite obvious that I favor one narrative over the other.

I have little patience with the de-masculinization thesis in part because it stems, quite often, from a very patriarchal view of masculinity.

At the same time, it’s historically irresponsible not to theorize how certain moments of Afro-modernity produced wounded or injured forms of masculinity in addition to many other kinds of masculinity.

How do we think about scarred masculinities on a continent where scarification is evidence of courage (battles won) and beauty (ritual scarification) and impotence in the face of superior weapons?

How do we think about textured masculinities? What are the textures of masculinity?

How do we think about hard men and soft men? About hardening men and softening men?

How do we understand the production and reproduction of African masculinity?