The Black male-male love and intimacy rebellion: challenging black male hyper-masculinity and remapping manhood

The Black male-male love and intimacy rebellion: challenging black male hyper-masculinity and remapping manhood

By: Gcobani Qambela*

“I want people to really understand the power of love and loving” – Jean Houston on Super Soul Sunday.

I followed with rather surprised interest the American story and apparent controversy surrounding the gay marriage of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity member, Nathanael Gay to his partner Robert Brown, another man. The Washington Post notes this wedding to be “one of many examples of black gay men publicly emerging from hyper-masculine arenas… Their public disclosure served to remind us that there’s a lot at stake for black men who break the silence about homosexuality. Through their social defiance, our conceptions of black masculinity have inevitably been challenged”.

Columbia University Professor, Marc Lamont Hill goes on to note that “In our culture, we have scripts for who we think people are… the script for ‘real black men’ is to be aggressive, to be strong, to be fearless and to be straight. When people don’t fit the script anymore, we have to either reject the old claim or rewrite the script of black masculinity to fit this new identity of gay.” It is the re-writing of the script that I want to focus and reflect on here in this piece. I want to extend the discussion beyond just male-male romantic / sexual love, to love in its broadest sense between black males.

In her ground-breaking book “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” bell hooks notes that “Very few black males dare to ask themselves why they do not rebel against the racist, sexist status quo and invent new ways of thinking about manhood, about what it means to be responsible, about what it means to invent one’s life. Often black males are unable to think creatively about their lives because of their uncritical acceptance of narrow life-scripts shaped by patriarchal thinking.”1 She goes on to say that “individual black men [can] provide models that show it is possible to go against the grain, to change the conventional script.”2

From a very early age I was fascinated with sexuality and masculinities on many different fronts. Having moved around a lot and changed schools a lot, I encountered all different types of men from different races, sexualities, characters, and socio economic backgrounds. I was immersed early on into different livelihoods of men from the deep rural areas of South Africa, to the vibrant life in the townships and the leafy private suburbs covering the lives of the privileged and affluent.

But despite this background, my major interest has always been African masculinities, black male masculinity of particular. I was always a non-conformist when it came to adhering to ‘traditional’ gender roles and always maintained a critical eye on dominant masculinities and their dictates. When I got to university I was more than overjoyed to discover the work of Sello K. Duiker. Before University I had never encountered any black male writing on love between black males. Sello, despite his relatively small literature output had a profound influence on my life for his courage in really going where very few people, especially in the South African context had dared to go before: to write about black men, loving each other. As someone once said to me “black male love is already subversive. But expressing love for each other is a rebellious act”.

A few years back I was consulted to form part of a research group on a Johns Hopkins Health and Education South Africa study on sexuality, HIV/AIDS and South African men. As part of this work I had to conduct interviews with heterosexual black Xhosa men from various age groups. They told me an interview would last about an hour and half (which was the usual time for the previous researchers working on the study), but three hours later my first participant and I were still talking. I was surprised at how open he was to me considering the nature of the study (which amongst many other things covered the whole sexual history of the participant). At the end he told me he was sad that the interview was ending because he had never had anyone to speak to about these things, especially not on the level at which we spoke. I would encounter the same thing with most of the other participants I interviewed as part of this study.

Some of my participants were old enough to be my father and others still negotiating through their early twenties like me and yet I observed this deep sense and hunger from them to connect with me as a man and share at a deeper level of intimacy some of their worries, relationship problems, sexual problems and the like. But this was prevented by a deep fear of perceived judgement from society and of appearing weak to others, not knowledgeable enough or even “unmanly”. The interview setting (where anonymity was promised) provided them with a space to freely open up and share some of their deepest secrets, worries and fears, from why they cheat for instance, to who they have cheated with, their sexual health problems, what love means to them, what it means to love a woman, and their perceived perceptions of the connection between love and sex among many other things.

This consultancy one was one of the reasons that pushed me to focus on men and masculinities for my research topic. hooks notes that work on black men “must start with breaking through the denial created by allegiance to sexism that teaches us [as black men] to despise our need for emotional connections. This denial has been especially damaging to black males as sexism has allowed females the freedom to acknowledge and feel emotions even as we [black females] are devalued because of this.”3 This according to hooks means that “The inability to be vulnerable means that we are unable to feel. If we cannot feel we cannot truly emotionally connect with one another. We cannot know love.”4 [My emphasis]

This is why homosexual relations between two black males still rear up so much controversy, as in the case of Nathaniel and his partner for homosexuality is still perceived as a threat to patriarchy. Homosexuality is still associated with femininity in much of black patriarchal society, and thus ‘feminine’ men are seen as weak and vulnerable in such patriarchal black society. Most black men therefore adopt a performance of hyper-masculinity, continuously trying to show they are detached, unloving and straight.

hooks correctly notes that “Many black males are longing to be given permission to be vulnerable, hoping that female relatives, friends, lovers, will assure them that they gain personal power by opening the heart, by choosing the experience of intimacy over hard-heartedness.”5 This is why I agree with hooks that as black men we need to become “aware of the detrimental impact of patriarchal thinking and fundamentalist religious beliefs. Reclaiming the importance of emotional connection is crucial if we are to experience relational recovery.”

There is a lot of work to be done in re-writing the narrative on black men. One of the most frustrating things I am encountering in the process of my writing is the lack of studies on African men, and yet also the plethora of misinformation, or rather incomplete narratives around us as black African men. I do not know where my research will take me next in the coming years, but I certainly hope that it will contribute to not only rewriting the dominant pessimistic narratives on black men as unfeeling and disconnected, and that somehow also create space for black men to be able to love and connect freely with each other, and those around them.

Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.

1 Hooks, bell. 2004. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. Routledge: New York. Pg. 80

2 Ibid, Pg. 80-81

3 Hooks, ibid. pg. 115

Ibid, pg. 115

Ibid, pg. 122


Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

4 Responses to The Black male-male love and intimacy rebellion: challenging black male hyper-masculinity and remapping manhood

  1. Gcobani I am totally in love with this piece. For one, while I may not you, one gets a sense that you actually did allow yourself to be part of the piece. And by so doing, you increased the depth and credibility of your argument and indeed possibly redefined vulnerability.

    Thanks for this piece! I do hope that the script for black men can be re-written so that we can all relate to each other as flawed beings but connected in a spirit that allows for supportive growth.

  2. Like Mathe, I totally love this piece Gcobani! Living and teaching my brother this year I realised desperately that there is a lot of work that needs to be done on black masculinity in terms of demonstrating alternative ‘masculinities’ beyond the dominant “hyper-masculinity” that robs black men of their emotional growth. Your work is also very vital in this political moment in South Africa seems to be saturated by the politics of the ‘Big Men’. This weekend I completely enjoyed reading Eusebius McKaiser’s “A Bantu in my bathroom: Debating race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics”, because he is also provided such a progressive and exciting alternative to black masculinity that we are not seeing in our public space. He is not only the most exciting political analyst at the moment, period, but I also love the fact that he is a black man who loves other black men!

    I certainly see a space for very exciting conversations and collaborations between people like yourself working on masculinities and people like me who are focusing on femininities in this post-apartheid, post-colonial moment in Africa  To me our goal is the same, that is to end what Pumla Gqola calls the ‘cult of femininity’ and ‘hyper-masculinity’ which holds hostage both women and men from the process of self actualisation.

  3. Amazing Piece Gcobani. it is, indeed, going to be a lot of work to re-write and consequently re-shape black masculinities, but with people like you at the forefront of the discourse, i am quite certain it will be done. Thanks again for the piece.

  4. I think you two should just stay together no matter what any body say yall both are two sexy fine black males so that’s my thought.

Leave a reply