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Mahogany Keys: The Complex Image of the African American Man.Part 1. The Black Man's Body

To Benny

Special thanks to E. Joyce Moore whose help with starting this project was priceless. 

Special thanks to Corey A. Burkes for inspiration, support and permission to use his work.

Special thanks to my friends for trusting me and sharing their pain with me.

(c) 2012 by Oana 


The Black Man’s Body

It started with a picture. Actually, it was more than a picture it was a three dimensional view of a nude black male drying himself with a colorful towel. A friend of mine, the artist, was working on the image and shared it with me. There was no overt nudity in it. The towel was covering parts of the body, yet the visual impact was strong. It was sensual…and beautiful.

I suddenly realized that in over ten years of living in the United States, I had never seen such an artistic, highly erotic image of a black male. However, even with America being notoriously and ridiculously Puritan, I would see all sorts of white male nudity.

That very image did to my brain what a deep noise does before an avalanche in a snow-heavy mountain valley. My conscious search for the beauty of the black man’s body in American art had just started.

I sensed something was wrong when I was visiting with an African American friend a few years ago. On the walls, there was an image of a girl carrying her little brother on her back on one of those beautiful African open fields. I also saw a portrait of a semi-nude African woman combing her hair. But… where were the men?

True, I had asked myself questions in the past. I am a daughter of an artist-photographer. My father had visited several African countries, and exposed me very young, perhaps as a ten year old girl, to the concept of "otherness" way before I even met a person of color. I recall his description of the African women who, in his opinion, had the grace and proportions of goddesses.

With so many stunning statuesque black male performers in American sports, one would expect the art imagery to be inundated with perfection-defying bodies just like the Greek Olympics were thousands of years ago. And yet the male black body is eternally misrepresented or unrepresented.

I should probably add that I am referring to African Americans as people of color and African descent whose heritage stems directly from African slavery in the United States. And when I talk about the black man’s body I am thinking of a positive rendering that implies beauty and sensuality, similar to Greek or Roman statues and paintings.

I do not wish to diminish the importance of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) even with the controversial shocking effect of his male nudes. I think Richmond Barthe’s sculpture The Boxer (1942), or Black Male Nude with Sculpture by Mark Allen Isaacson (Circa 1970’s) should be mentioned along with Walter Lynn Mosley’s Sky Nude (2007). Their existence is crucial, but shouldn’t we have more out there?

Europeans appear to be more determined to change things. Think Thierry Le Goues, mostly known for his book Soul (1998), where he photographed black nude models in front of a white background, giving impression to the viewer that they’re almost sculptures. The artist felt that the beauty of black women was seriously underrepresented in the world of high-fashion modeling.

Even before the revolutionary Le Goues, there are Europeans attempts in positive portrayal of black beauty. I’m thinking here Marie Guilhelmine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress 1799-1800 with its contextual/historical message of freedom and beauty; and one could only wonder how a painter like Philip Alexius de László known particularly for his portraits of royal and aristocratic personages, has come to create the beautiful feminine black nude in his Untitled painting. There is also Hans Engelman, the Dutch artist who apparently had a gift to convince females to pose for him in early 60’s.  Yet all these are female nudes.

I feel I hit a void. There is more missing than I expected.

Where is the African American sensual male body in art?

I looked for it, over and over again. We live in an era where everything is literally “a click away.” Therefore, I do not think it would be wrong to say that if something is not easy to find, either it’s not there or it is so “unimportant” that it will not pop up in a search of general interest.

I might be wrong, but I think there is more to my theory than just underrepresentation. It appears to me that this society has traditionally denied people of color the right to see their own image in social public settings, much less nude, and now the same society tries to further control it.

This type of language of power has a very destructive effect on the society and individuals alike, as both struggle with the visual sense of identity.

E. Joyce Moore, a distinguished contemporary artist and writer of African American descent writes in her article The Reality of Our Mentality (2010): “The most effective technique in this step used upon Africans – and still prevalent today – is introducing uncertainty about identity.” (

Some things we learn from books, some things we learn in the streets. Being streetwise is definitely a desirable survival tool. There are issues that one just feels. I could tell – way before my closest black friends admitted to it and shared their experiences with me – that probably many black children were taught at home to never trust and behave differently around white people, since any information given out would have been used against them.

I grew up keeping my mouth shut – true for different reasons, but the long-lasting effects were similar. I recall the late night “instructional” conversations with my father cloaked by whispers and the noise of running water – one never knew if there were bugs in the house and who listened. We had to stay silent, and never talk to anyone since any information could have meant imprisonment or worse for my parents and a very uncertain fate for us as children.

Terror is ultimately colorless, but it sure does leave a scent and I did pick up on that one, even if I couldn’t make much of it at that time.

I was going to set this project aside; I needed so much more information.

But one of my girlfriends stopped by for a coffee. She saw the image on the computer. “Oh, la la” she whistled “Who is this hot guy? Your best kept secret?”

“Don’t be silly,” I replied, “he is not even real, it’s just an image.

Indeed it was just an image. But the fact that she noticed it, along with her totally positive reaction, had me back to square one, looking for even more explanations.

I sat down and said to myself, how horrific must have been to be denied the right to your own proper and dignifying reflection for so long. I thought of people of color being forced to watch the image of their oppressors and perpetually feel that they were not good enough to be represented in art.

America has come a long way from Kenneth and Mamie Clark experiments with white and black dolls, to Brown vs. Board of Education, both of whose findings exposed internalized racism in African-American children and self-hatred, and yet the problem with the visual identity persists.

As Kehinde Wiley names it, contextually referring to the “white men,” it is indeed a very similar if not essentially the same language of power. Wiley points at the absence of the black body in the history of fine art and the negative, stereotypical portrayal of black males in contemporary media.

I think I get it. The message is simple and powerful: you are not “good” enough to be in art, but if you have to be then you are going to be depicted the way they want you to be.

Who is “they”?

Robert Rubenstein gives us a snapshot of that reality in his recently released The White Bridge, “Morganza shuddered as she recalled a magazine article: ‘At Wytheville, Va., last week gentry stormed the county jail; shot Raymond Bird, 31, Negro; hanged his black body to a tree.’
No other words, no explanation even after death, she thought, hiding the bitterness in her heart. Even the likes of Time Magazine took part in the outrage of Raymond Bird, forever after portrayed as a black corpse and not a poor, colorless soul. Morganza Spillway read the mob shot Bird and beat him into pulp.”

Cassandra Jackson, in her book Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body, explains how being a black male was actually being profoundly vulnerable in the old times and how the image of the wounded bleeding body permeates the media today.

A collective effort, The Black Body: Imagining, Writing, (Re)Reading is a book outgrown from an international conference, ‘The Black Body: Imagining, Writing, and Re(Reading)’, held at DePaul University in the spring of 2004. The third chapter, Carol Henderson’s ‘Seeking the Dry Bones of My Father: Race, Rites, Ritual and the White Male Body in Baldwin, Wright and Ellison,’ concerns ritualistic violence against black males through commentary about ‘questionable fatal shootings or instances of police brutality.’ She looks at real-life experiences that graphically represent real and symbolic acts inflicted upon the flesh’ of black (male) bodies – lynched, castrated, mutilated, dismembered. She also offers social commentary about race and relations of power and privilege regarding Blacks and Whites in the United States.

Following my theory, we’re dealing with the same hypocrisy and duplicity that stereotyped the black male as a “donor” and not a father. The same hypocrisy that creates ads inviting black males to “connect with their kids” and “be a father” on Father’s Day while stereotyping them when it comes to their parental rights in the court of law. We are “suggested” that a black man would know nothing about kids except the making of them, as in the days of slavery when the black male was used as a stud to create more slave properties. The African American woman and mother is perceived traditionally as a victim of her man, while the white woman is often labeled as a whore who “knew what to expect from a black man and she got what she deserved.”

Things are much more complicated here as I try to stay on track with my topic.

I keep bumping into this negative portrayal, into this hyper-sexuality that defines the image of the black man in this country. Indeed, he has been constantly depicted as the perpetual testosterone-loaded, irresponsible father and sports fan. It is a “bad, dangerous” sexuality – all women and especially white women should stay away from him.

Is that so? I come from a place packed with testosterone-loaded males and their skin is much lighter; they do lose their minds over soccer. Actually, women and children rarely participate in sport events because of the high levels of aggression. The only ones who are present at sport event beside male fans are the police.

Through my youth and prime as a female living and traveling in Eastern Europe, I have many times been close to being raped, killed, cut up in pieces and stuffed in a suitcase or just pushed out of a fast running train. Had this happened it wouldn’t have been at the hand of some “scary” black man, for sure.  So much for the “proverbial” black aggression!

What exactly is behind this?

Is it the fear of the American white man that – God forbid! – white women might get mysterious convulsive arousal at the sight of the exotic black male body? That they cannot control the attraction anymore and they all flock towards the “devilish” black male? Sounds like this could have terrible consequences like… the end of the world as the white man wants it.

There are still separation and distinction in many aspects of our daily lives and they seem to migrate to our subconscious expressions in the way we socialize, live and ultimately in the art we create…or not.

In dating magazines advice is given for dating a “sister” vs. dating a white woman. That is segregation, be it subliminal.

To the wildlife rehabilitator I used to be, this sounds like a handler’s manual – how to handle the otter vs. how to handle the mink. They belong to the same family, yet they’re distinct animals.

The fact that we are still a segregationist society shows in little things. But how “little” are they really?

Question begs: Am I alone or are there other people feeling insulted by this situation?

I think the cohesion of a social group is defined by the levels of “comfort” of its members in various racial and ethnic settings. If I don’t feel comfortable around other races, or they don’t feel comfortable around me, on a deeper social and spiritual level we are segregated.

Racism means no freedom of choice. Racism means that someone else decided already who I hang out with, who I learn from, who I befriend or marry, and perhaps most important, who I can trust. Racism is dictatorship.

This topic calls for some serious anthropological, social, and psychological studies.

It is very important that each of us, regardless of our color, understands that the right to one’s own real, unaltered Image is fundamental and it should be restored and respected.

We live in a free country. We have no excuse not to work on things.

It started with a picture. I firmly believe that pictures have the power of one thousand words and beyond. In trying to understand this situation I had gone through many book titles, and there are more waiting for me to peruse them. I know I have a lot to learn.

Art is serious business. Art is powerful. Art is the deepest most complex reflection of a culture. Think about how much we can tell just by looking at some images from thousands of years ago. Sometimes even a tiny piece of an artifact or another becomes a carrier of unbelievable revelations.

As a writer I do my best to create awareness using words.

It’s time for all artists to be brave enough to pick up their tools look around, and see for themselves what is and what is not real.

As I get to the end of my essay, I look again at the image of the black man created by my friend.

What exactly is behind this?

Who is “they”?





Image courtesy of  3D Artwork by DesktopEpics' AppleBytes.

ART REVIEW; Constructing Images Of the Black Male by Michael Kimmelman, November 11th 1994

Interview with artist Kehinde Wiley ART AND STYLE| DECEMBER 01, 2006

Thierry Le Goues, Soul, ISBN-13: 978-1576870419, Powerhouse Books, 1998

Cassandra Jackson, Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body, Routledge, 2010

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics, Taylor & Francis, 2007

Scott Poulson-Bryan, Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, 2006

Robert Rubenstein, The White Bridge, All Things That Matter Press, 2012

Kiri Davis, A Girl Like Me, movie documentary, 2005

Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Prejudice and Your Child, Beacon Press 1963

 E.Joyce Moore, The Reality of Our Mentality, published on 2/3/2010

Marie Guilhelmine Benoist,  Portrait of a Negress 1799-1800 

Philip Alexius de László, Untitled painting

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989, Works

Sander L. Gilman, Black Bodies, White Bodies, Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature, Critical Inquiry, The University of Chicago Press, 1985

Top of Form


Sandra Jackson, Fassil Demissie & Michele Goodwin (Editors) 
The Black Body: Imagining, Writing, (Re)Reading  Unisa Press (world rights) 
 D. M. Lowe, The Body in Late Capitalist USA (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 1. 
 N. Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (Berg: Oxford, 2004), 148. 
 Puwar, Space Invaders, 147. 
 F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto, 1986). 
 P. H. Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2004) and D. Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Press, 1997). 
 H. Edwards, ‘The Black Athlete: 20th Century Gladiators for White America’, Psychology Today, November (1973). 
K. Wallace-Sanders, ed., Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002), 6. 
 M. L. Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), the back cover, unattributed remarks. 
 M. O. Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture 1775–1995 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 6. 
 R. L. Jackson II, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), 7.







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