PRINT Summer 1992


The vexed question of “identity,” at the heart of so much talk and text these days, is symptomatic of a crisis in the psychic state of the nation. While the private lives of black men in the public eye—Magic Johnson, Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, Mike Tyson—have been exposed to glaring media visibility, it is the “invisible men” of the late capitalist underclass who have become the bearers—the signifiers—of the hopelessness and despair of our so-called post-Modern condition. Overrepresented in statistics on homicide and suicide, misrepresented in the media as the personification of drugs, disease, and crime, such invisible men, like their all-too-visible counterparts, suggest that black masculinity is not merely a social identity in crisis. It is also a key site of ideological representation, a site upon which the nation’s crisis comes to be dramatized, demonized, and dealt with—enter Willie Horton as apogee of the most un-American Otherness imaginable.

And yet the misery does not just come from the outside. With all the signs of a backlash against black women’s hard-won visibility, the sharpening of gender antagonism in the cultural sphere shows that earlier versions of black identity have been irrevocably thrown into question. Significantly, this crisis of identity is articulated in terms of sexual difference. As Paul Gilroy observes, in relation to black British cultural politics, “The question of sexuality has been the absolute sign for that rupture between a political sensibility from the movements of the 60s and 70s and those of the 80s and 90s.”1 This critical correlation of gender and generation defines the context in which to understand the recent work of Danny Tisdale and Keith Piper, two artists who see black masculinity as a constructed identity, underwritten by conflicting ideologies of both sex and race.

Tisdale came to prominence with The Black Museum, 1991, in which cultural ephemera from the Black Power era—hot combs, NuNile pomade, dashikis, Ron O’Neal as Superfly—were presented as funked-up found objects in the manner of Duchampian readymades. Like fellow African-American conceptualists Fred Wilson and Renee Green, who have also used the conventions of museum display to work against official forms of popular memory—and forgetting—Tisdale, born in 1958, belongs to a generation who perceive earlier models of black political identity as “past.” By his museological treatment of these once-potent icons of Black Pride, Tisdale purposely empties them of the aura they once emitted as signifiers of progressive empowerment. Such countergenealogy may be said to operate on the terrain of a critical black post-Modernism. It speaks to the unfinished business of the post–Civil Rights era as much to the sense of disenchantment with the present situation in which the historical icons of black struggle have been always already appropriated into the machinery of mass culture Burger King ads for Martin Luther King’s birthday, Malcolm X as Afrokitsch fashion accessory, and Mattel’s MC Hammer doll, “Made in Malaysia” stamped across its butt, somewhere in between.

What happens to racial identity when such icons of ethnicity become available to everyone? This was the topic of Tisdale’s 1988 series “Post Plantation Pop,” in which heroes and sheroes from the Black History Month Hall of Fame—Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and others—are subjected to a ghostly kind of “before and after” effect, whereby each icon becomes its own deracinated double. By manipulating the relation between original and copy (both of which are photocopies), the work documents the inexorable power of mass culture to colonize and cannibalize difference—to “deracialize” identity—all the better to homogenize and hegemonize it under the supremacy of sameness.

The series “20th Century Black Men,” 1991–92, performs a similar esthetic double take, this time interrogating the stereotypes that regulate black male visibility in American popular consciousness. Comprising over 30 panels in which a given image is repeated in a gridlike pattern, these serigraphs enact critical “signifying” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s sense of the term as a distinctive feature of double voicing in the African-American cultural text.2 Tisdale’s almost parodic appropriation of Andy Warhol’s use of repetition amounts to a “read” in the vernacular sense, where to “signify” is to utter unremitting critique. Here, such critique is double-voiced because it is directed both to the exclusions of those art-world narratives of the post-Modern that erase issues of race, and to the image-repertoires of popular culture from which its source material is derived. In performing this double move, Tisdale revitalizes the subversive intent of Warholian repetition, making strange common-sense ways of seeing, and displaces an esthetics of cool indifference by substituting the “hot” emotive and ideological valence of the black male stereotype as its object of inquiry.

By this act of reappropriation, Tisdale shows how the dominant regime of given black male types—criminal, entertainer, slave, lynch-mob victim—assumes a certain fixity and persistence in the popular imagination precisely because of its dependence on mechanical reproduction to secure the reinscription of ideological effects. When, in the series “America’s Most Wanted,” 1991–92, he departs from the grid format, in random enlargements of police mug shots, Tisdale’s hybridizing “read” on Warhol becomes explicit: repeating the latter’s Most Wanted Men, 1964, with a critical difference (replacing Italian-American mafia types with criminalized Afro-Americans), in order to make the point that what the racial discourse of the stereotype represents is an image of America’s most unwanted. The effect is to overexpose the hidden fears that fuel the fantasmatic logic whereby the black male is desired by the criminal-justice system precisely to the extent that he is undesired by the social system as a whole. He must therefore be expelled, through the iron law of the stereotype, as that excess or refuse that the symbolic order of the social body cannot readmit—namely, its shit. As portraits of black men, nameless and condemned, float through the brutal gray banality of the depthless photocopy print, their obviousness is estranged: Tisdale confronts you with the impossibility of ever “knowing” who these men really are or were. Because they could be pictures of any black man—indeed, of every black man in the abstract—they are, in fact, pictures of no black man in particular. Hence, they literally become documentary evidence of those anonymous and interchangeable “invisible men” whose subjection to police brutality is routinely glossed on the grounds of “mistaken identity.”

Tisdale himself refers to “20th Century Black Men” as inhabiting a space “between documentation and art.” Indeed, the use of seriality not only documents the role of repetition in establishing the fixity of typification, but it also encompasses an angle of vision that recognizes the ambivalence engendered whenever the same image satisfies conflicting social and psychic demands. When Michael Jordan appears on the Wheaties cereal box as an updated version of the smiling black chef on the Cream O’Wheat package, the ruthless clarity of Tisdale’s wit not only “blackens” Warhol’s Brillo boxes, so to speak, but breaks through the impasse of the either/or dichotomy of so-called “positive” and “negative” images to show that the black male sports hero is a social type paradoxically valorized by audiences both black and white. It is here, in signifying on the racial mythologies of popular culture, that Tisdale’s project crosses paths with Keith Piper’s.

Piper, born in 1960, has been a key figure in the ’80s generation of black British artists alongside Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid, and Donald Rodney. The various components of his recent installation Step into the Arena, 1991 (the title comes from the album by New York rappers Gang Starr), offer a distillation of his passage through critical black post-Modernism.

In a 24-page catalogue essay that is integral to the work, Notes on Black Masculinity &a the Contest of Territory, Piper adopts three voices to articulate his interrogation of black male identity as an artifact of psychic and social antagonism. These are: a rigorously analytic voice through which he tracks down the dualities that dominate black male images in music, sports, and advertising; an autobiographical voice that eschews the expressive or confessional in favor of a critical self-inventory; and an astutely political voice that refuses to flinch from the disenchantment that marks black British politics in the post-riots, post-Rushdie ’90s. Indeed, both here and in A Ship Called Jesus, 1991, an installation/essay piece on Afro-Christianity, Piper evokes a somber and moody tone of voice that signals a decisive shift from the righteous anger and optimism of the “clenched fist esthetics” of his mid-’80s work. In place of earlier political certainties, Piper now confronts his loss of faith in romantic mythologies of “black struggle” so central to the self-fashioning of an entire generation (myself included).

Piper’s autocritique of masculinism in black political mythology, as revealed in these two works, was instigated as an ethical response to black feminist voices whose ascendancy in the ’80s led to a pluralist consensus on “identity.” Thus Piper reflects: “As a heterosexual Black man, I suspect that one of the reasons for this relative absence of an introspective voice is that, like heterosexual white men, we have been raised upon the assumption that somewhere along the line it is our job to ‘manage’ the planet.”3 In the “as a” phrasing, Piper might seem to reiterate the rhetoric of identity politics. However, what subverts categorical essentialism is his acknowledgment of the complex relations of antagonism through which black and white masculinities are ideologically engendered as “opposites”—as subordinate and dominant subjects competing for positions of mastery. By virtue of this move, Piper breaks away from the static noun of “identity” and shifts toward a concept of “identification” as a dynamic verb.

It is this view of black masculinity as the uncertain, unstable, and unfixed outcome of intersecting identifications that animates Piper’s signifying “read” on the constitutive, rather than reflective, role of representation in constructing the ideological subject positions from which we speak and are spoken. This amounts to a radical paradigm shift in black cultural politics. When Piper turns to scrutinize the antithetical categories that repeatedly define black male identity in relations of power—master/slave, house negro/field nigger, threat/victim—he does so to underscore the ambivalence and interdependence of each binary coupling. Conversely, when he reads the photo of Malcolm and Martin circulated by the “Smiley” character in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as a floating signifier for “the reconciliation of the two opposing esthetics of black male presence,”4 his aim is to show that the two political figures only appear to be at odds because of the dualism that denies the coexistence of contraries.

The devastating clarity of Piper’s rereading of Muhammad Ali as the black sports hero who confounded his “type” to become a spokesman for popular black aspirations in the ’60s thus reveals the Cartesian mind/body dualism on which the “all brawn no brains” racist stereotype depends. However, Piper also shows how the 1965 Ali/Patterson fight came to be encoded in the social imaginary as a symbolic agon between the renegade and the respectable, as an anchoring point for opposing positions in racial discourse. Because it is articulated from the inside out, he sidesteps “theory” as such for a finely textured account informed by memories of a flickering television screen beaming such imagery across the diaspora into “my Mother’s house where my Father and noisy Uncles would cheer and stamp their feet.”5 Here, the autobiographical voice articulates a Gramscian inventory of sedimented traces deposited in the political unconscious. Piper demythologizes the symbolic “war of position” enacted around black masculinity in a racially structured society, all the better to get out from under its ideological effects in one’s own identity formation. Hence, when he deromanticizes the aura of heroic defiance in a news photo of the West Indian youth who caused such disarray against the police during Carnival 1976 (the site of Isaac Julien’s early film, Territories), it is as if Roland Barthes’ black soldier had come back to rewrite the master text of critical semiotics. Although the image of the black male antagonist pitched against the State was used to objectify white fears, it was also used to subjectify black fantasies of empowerment that nonetheless excluded our sisters and reinforced an inadequate either/or model of politics on account of its unthinking masculinism.

I would argue that it is this self-consciously reflexive voicing of black male subjectivity that differentiates Piper’s voice from those enunciating the new boys’ own stories of popular African-American cinema, Spike Lee’s included. In films like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood we have seen how the desire to give voice to disenfranchised black men, whose rage and pain are silenced by media misrepresentation, inadvertently subverts its own ends. The story replays the master codes of a race-relations narrative that depends on gender polarization and the denigration of black women in order to emblematize black male experiences as “representative” of black experiences as a whole. Just as the incessant dissing of “bitches,” “ho’s,” and “fags” in rap betrays a vulnerable ego whose existence can only be confirmed by the degradation of others, the monot-onous macho-narcissism and male bonding glorified in these cinematic coming-of-age stories unwittingly discloses that black masculinities are actually rather similar to white ones. In Singleton’s case, the idealization of the black father betrays the desperate desire for initiation that men’s movement guru Robert Bly refers to as “father-hunger.”6

Such a paradox reveals the ambivalence by which aspects of black masculinity are based on an unconscious identification with the hegemonic white master model, in which the acquisition of a masculine identity always seems to depend on the “othering” of someone else’s. As Deborah McDowell observes, when black men find their expectations “aggressively unfulfilled” in black women’s representations, the demand that phallic power be restored to the black patriarch is often expressed through the punitive desire to excommunicatenalize the black feminist artist as either inauthentically black or as a manipulated fool whose unflattering portrayals are said to collude with the white male power structure.7 Equally, Ron Simmons’ analysis of Amiri Baraka’s quivering homophobia shows that the psychic mechanism of denial and disavowal finds a parallel in the obsessive wish to excommunicate black gay men who are seen as having failed phallic manhood by succumbing to homosexual desire, a “white man’s disease.”8 When black male identity is voiced in this way, it reveals the hideous ambivalence whereby the meta-structure of racial othering is reproduced among subaltern subjects themselves, displaced from the white/black frontier of racism into the internal borderlines of gender and sexuality. Sociologists like Robert Staples have long since recognized this paradox in their accounts of black male gender “roles.” Staples sees machismo, for example, as a contradictory psychosexual formation in which subordinate men internalize normative ideals of patriarchal power and privilege to win a degree of self-empowerment over the powerlessness that white supremacy entails.9 And yet, when men of color aspire to dominate others also subordinated to the same system of power and control, the emptiness of the circular concept of “internalization” is revealed: it misrecognizes the unconscious identifications at stake in ideological struggles over representations of “self” and “other.”

Given the “invisibility” of black men in the current theorization of masculinities in which there seem to be no black Men in Feminism, if only because a certain ethnocentrism assumes that we’ve all been sequestered into the prison house of marginality10—the urgent questions raised by Piper, Tisdale, and their diaspora contemporaries offer an alternative way of understanding why issues of “identity” really matter. I would add that the epistemological break signaled by the shift from identity to identification reopens the way to psychoanalysis without recourse to an emotionally terrorizing posture of “correctness.” Moreover, against a tendency to conflate the erotic and the political in black gay men’s cultural production (which risks losing sight of the fact that sexuality is what we are seeking liberation from, not merely the liberation of), it is crucial to note that, on their own terms, black male artists like Piper and others can be heard to reiterate a dubwise version of Jacqueline Rose’s feminist argument that “the question of identity how it is constituted and maintained—is...the central issue through which psychoanalysis enters the political field.”11Accordingly, I would like to suggest a deliberate mistranslation from Rose’s Femininity and Its Discontents so as to voice our discontent with available images of black male identity. This hybridized “read” offers a way of restating the case for psychoanalysis and its potential role in our collective decolonization from the dominant order of gender and race:

What distinguishes psychoanalysis from sociological accounts of black masculinity . . . is that whereas for the latter, the internalisation of norms is assumed roughly to work, the basic premise and indeed starting-point of psychoanalysis is that it does not. The unconscious constantly reveals the “failure” of identity. Because there is no continuity of psychic life, so there is no stability of racial and gendered identity; no position for black men (or for black women) which is ever simply achieved. Nor does psychoanalysis see such “failure” as a special case inability or an individual deviancy from the norm. “Failure” is not a moment to be regretted in a process of adaptation, or development into normality. . . . Instead, “failure” is something endlessly repeated and relived moment by moment throughout our individual histories. It appears not only in the symptom, but also in dreams, in slips of the tongue and in forms of sexual pleasure which are pushed to the sidelines of the norm. Black people’s affinity with psychoanalysis rests above all...with this recognition that there is a resistance to identity at the very heart of psychic life.12

Kobena Mercer is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A collection of his essays, entitled Lost Boundaries, is forthcoming from Routledge, New York.

1. Paul Gilroy, quoted in “Roundtable Discussion,” Interrogating Identity, exhibition catalogue, New York: New York University, 1991, p. 59.

2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

3. Keith Piper, Step into the Arena: Notes on Black Masculinity & the Contest of Territory, exhibition catalogue, Rochdale: Rochdale Art Gallery, 1991, p. 7.

4. Ibid., p. 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Robert Bly, “What Men Really Want,” 1982, in To Be a Man: In Search of the Deep Masculine, ed. Keith Thompson, Los Angeles: Tarcher Press, 1991, pp. 16-24.

7. Deborah E. McDowell, “Reading Family Matters,” Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 75–97.

8. Ron Simmons, “Some thoughts on the challenges facing black gay intellectuals,” Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, ed. Essex Hemphill, Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991, pp. 211–28.

9. Robert Staples, Black Masculinity: The Black Male’s Role in American Society, San Francisco: Black Scholar Press, 1982.

10. See Alice Jardine and Paul Smith, eds., Men in Feminism, New York: Methuen, 1987, which amazingly contains no nonwhite voices whatsoever; for an alternative see Marcellus Blount and George Cunningham, eds., Theorizing Black Male Subjectivity, New York: Routledge, 1992, forthcoming.

11. Jacqueline Rose, “Feminism and the Psychic,” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision, London: Verso, 1986. p. 5.

12. A substitution of terms from Rose, “Feminity and Its Discontents,” in ibid., pp. 90–91.