From Fame's Leroy To Jay-Z

May 16, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 2:52 pm

Looking for Leroy is a new book by Mark Anthony Neal that takes a look at how high profile black men like Jay-Z, Denzel Washington and Barack Obama shape our perceptions of black masculinity in America. He sat down with Tell Me More's Michel Martin.

Inspired by Fame

The "Leroy" in the title refers to the character played by actor Gene Anthony Ray in the 80s movie and television show Fame. Neal says he was "fascinated by this character. The cornrows, the way his body moved, the way he dressed, the way he dealt with the black world, the white word-- particularly in the art school that he went to. But as a fifteen and sixteen-year-old, I also thought that this was a character that was gay," he says. "It just raised a question for me about why are we just so tied to these kind of readings of black men and boys-- black masculinity-- that you either have to be hyper-masculine or you have to be queer."

Basketballs versus Violins

"When we think about black men and boys, when we see them in certain kinds of roles we don't even think twice about it," he says. "The example I always use... when we see a black man with a basketball we don't even have to process that...we know exactly what that means. If we were to see a black man with a violin that gives us reason to pause."

Hip-Hop, beyond "Playas" and "Pimps"

"Hip-Hop is a space that has for all intents and purposes monetized the image of black masculinity and made several of these figures incredible wealthy, if we're talking about the Jay-Zs and the Snoop Doggs and the Will Smiths." He says. "It's also a space that limits our understanding of the range of possibilities of what black masculinity can look like."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to continue our conversation about evolving ideas, about what it means to be black in America. "Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities" is a new book that focuses on how African-American men in entertainment, television, movies, hip-hop in particular, influence the way Americans view black men in their everyday lives.

The author is someone we turn to often for his interesting insights about culture. His name is Mark Anthony Neal. He's a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, and he's with us now. And because we want to be able to speak frankly, given some of the lyrics we want to talk about, this is probably as good time as any to say that our conversation might have some language that might not be suitable for everybody.

And with that being said, Professor Neal, thank you so much for joining us once again.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So the Leroy in the title comes from the character Leroy in the '80s movie and television show "Fame." I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAME")

GENE ANTHONY RAY: (as Leroy) What do you mean I can't do that? I can do whatever I want. Maybe that's why I'm leaving school because I'm sick and tired of being told what I can and cannot do. Sick and tired of it.

MARTIN: What about this character inspired you?

NEAL: There are few things - you know, Leroy as kind of, you know, shout-out to an everyday black man from 30 years ago. I mean we all knew 12, 15, 16 Leroys, you know, when we were growing up. But Leroy in this case, this is me at 15 and 16 years old, you know, watching "Fame" on television as a high school student in the Bronx and just being fascinated by this character - the cornrows, the way his body moved, the way he dressed, the way that he dealt with the black world, the way he dealt with the white world - particularly in the arts school that he went to, and I was just fascinated by this character. But as of 15 and 16 year old, I also thought this was a character that was gay, and we hadn't seen an out gay character on television in the early 1980s, and nothing about the show even suggested that he was an out gay character, but there was just some way that I read the character that struck me as interesting. And when the actor who portrayed Leroy, Gene Anthony Ray, passed in 2003, I remember looking for just some confirmation that Gene Anthony Ray was gay, as if, you know, the two things could be connected together. And when there was no confirmation of that, at least, you know, to somehow, you know, calm my 16-year-old mind going back in the past, you know, it just raised the question for me about what if we are just so tied to these kind of readings of black men and boys, black masculinity, that you either have to be hyper masculine or you have to be queer.

MARTIN: You talk about the images that black men have taken on in entertainment throughout time. And you also note that the range hasn't changed. Like, for example, in hip-hop you talk about these various roles that people seem to be assigned to. And again, this is where I have to give the language warning. This might not be something everybody wants to hear. But the roles you talk about are player, pimp, hustler, thug and nigger. What do you make of that? I mean is that a bandwidth? What is that?

NEAL: You know, there are ways in which, when we think about black men and boys, that when we see them in certain kind of roles we don't even think twice about it. The example I always use is if we see a black man with a basketball, we don't even have to process that. We've seen it so many times in our lives, we know exactly what that means. If we were to see a black man with a violin, that gives us reason to pause, right? We have all of these questions that are now attached, you know, how did he get the violin? Does he know how to play the violin? How can he afford the violin? I mean we can go on and on. And I think hip-hop becomes a very interesting space in this conversation because it's a space that has for all intents and purposes monetized the image of black masculinity, right, and made several of these figures incredibly wealthy - and we're talking about the Jay-Zs and the Snoop Doggs and the Will Smiths and a whole range of other folks. But it's also a space that limits our understanding of the range of possibilities of what black masculinity can look like.

MARTIN: It's not exactly new news that a lot of people feel that minorities in general - black people in particular - black men, especially in particular - if I can say that...

NEAL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...are limited by certain stereotypes and images that people have of them. In your book you prefer the term legible and illegible. What do you mean by that?

NEAL: I use the terms legibility and illegibility to talk about these images that are readable to us. So whether they're stereotypical or not, there are certain images of black men that when we see them, we know exactly what that is, we can read it, we can define it. But then there are these other images of black men that we don't quite know what to do with. So really, the labor of the book, the labor of the writing, the scholarship, is to take these very legible images of black masculinity - say, someone like Jay-Z, and read him as a cosmopolitan. Or to take illegible images of black masculinity - and Luther Vandross being a good example of this - and reading him in a different kind of context.

MARTIN: I feel comfortable saying, a lot of people feel that, you know, that entertainment just generally serves to reinforce opinions people already have. You say that actually some of these entertainment figures change - change these images. I want to play just a short clip from Jay-Z. I'll just play a clip from the song that maybe people think of as kind of a - just a classic hip-hop song, "Girls, Girls, Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS")

JAY-Z: Now that's young chick, stewardess, project and model. That means I fly rough early, plus I know Tae-bo. That means I'm new school, pop pills and stay in beat. But I never have a problem with my first class seat I love.

MARTIN: So what is it about Jay-Z that you feel kind of challenges the stereotype?

NEAL: You look at a Jay-Z or a Snoop Dogg and any of these kind of, you know, mainstream figures, and there is an incredible amount of pressure for them to produce the kind of work that is recognizable to mainstream audiences and allows them to sell records, to make movies and all those wonderful things. And so we have this song that is about his desire for women, but then when you watch the video and the video itself kind of plays in these same kind of ideas for much of it until the last 30 seconds and you see the camera pan back and what you see exposed literally is a constructed cardboard set, you know, the house where all these women are supposed to be is literally just a piece of cardboard. All of the women who are supposed to be his women are just revealed to be simply actresses and he walks off the set and shakes their hands and thanks them for working with him on the music video. He takes off his shirt as if he was taking off his uniform and then walks out a door that says Jay-Z, closed set. And for me it's a simple little gesture that says, you know, this is the business side of this. This is Jay-Z the brand, but Shawn Carter is someone separate and distinct. And so much of what I do throughout the book is define these little gestures towards another idea of who black men are. So that when I talk about Stringer Bell, for instance, from "The Wire," and of course, he is this notorious figure within this, you know, drug ring in Baltimore, but yet he's also an intellectual, you know, so he's reading these interesting kind of books. You know, in one of the episodes you see on his bookshelf, you know, the great Adam Smith book about capitalism. You know, this is someone who runs meetings, you know, with these little street corner hoods, you know, using Robert's Rules of Order.

MARTIN: Well, here's a clip of what you're talking about. And again, this is where I have to give the language warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) The Chair recognize Slim Charles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Chair. Our people got to stand somewhere, don't they? I mean all of the product in the world don't mean nothing if you constantly getting (bleep) standing on another fool's corner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Yo, get it straight. Your territory ain't going to mean (bleep) if your product is weak. Go ahead and ask those (bleep) tried to sell them Ford Tempos and you got niggas riding around in Japanese and German cars in America all day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Yeah but how we going to stand...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Yo, Chair ain't recognize your (bleep)...

NEAL: He's in the drug game not as an end but as a means to an end, right, because he can't get into Wharton and he can't get into Tuck, you know, so the drug game becomes his MBA program.

MARTIN: Is your book ultimately optimistic or pessimistic? I'm asking because, again, in just about every instance you cite, you could argue that these men have expanded the possibilities of how black men have been seen and in a lot of ways you could argue they've just reinforced it.

NEAL: I'm very, actually very optimistic about what these images mean. And the best way I can describe it is how these images have impacted myself. You know, the second chapter of the book is devoted to the career arc of Avery Brooks, great stage actor, television actor, a fabulous voice, you know, in terms of singing, but most folks got to know Avery Brooks in the 1980s watching "Spenser For Hire" and "A Man Called Hawk," in which he played this enforcer. This big black man with a bald head and a big black gun who would show up and people would run and scatter.

MARTIN: Well, here's a clip of Avery Brooks as Hawk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A MAN CALLED HAWK")

AVERY BROOKS: (as Hawk) Chopin. The lyrical technician, as a friend once called him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) That's a perfect description.

BROOKS: (as Hawk) Do you know me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.

BROOKS: (as Hawk) I'm Hawk.

NEAL: When we see "A Man Called Hawk," what we see is a character who is revealed to be a classical pianist, you know, who sits down and has, you know, erudite conversations with his mentor about Langston Hughes and great, you know, religious, black religious theorists and all these kinds of folks. And as a college student trying to wonder myself back in the late 1980s about what it would be to live a life of the mind, it was watching Avery Brooks on "Hawk" that convinced me that I could grow up in a place like the South Bronx and see myself as a thinker, even as I had to kind of navigate this space that the South Bronx meant for me growing up in the late 1980s. And I'm sure there's some young person now who is watching a Jay-Z navigate this space, or who has watched Stringer Bell and Idris Elba, you know, the actor who brought him to life, watching "The Wire" in watching how he navigated these very different worlds, that are imagining or reimagining the way that they can be in the world. So in that regard, for me, I'm always optimistic about the potential that these images can have on folks.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neil is a professor at Duke University. His latest book is "Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities." And he was kind enough to join us from the studios at Duke University.

Professor Mark Anthony Neal, thank you for speaking with us.

NEAL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.