Is There a Need for Black Male Studies?

Black Male Studies (BMS) is an emerging field of study that seeks to bring empirically grounded insights from the experience and perspective of Black males to philosophy. What claims are its proponents making and are they making any significant contributions to philosophical discourse? Miron Clay-Gilmore takes a closer look at BMS.

Negative stereotypes about Black men are well-entrenched in Western culture. This is true even in academic scholarship. Discussions in ethics and political philosophy for instance contribute to the perpetuation of such negative attributions by relying on intuitions that assume a causal relationship between the rational (or irrational) choices of individuals and the conditions that establish desirable or morally correct action/values. Accordingly, even scholars who are supposed to theorize about oppressed and underprivileged groups (such as intersectionality theorists, non-ideal theorists, and even Black feminists) also tend to reify these stereotypes in their work; i.e., that poor Black men in the ghetto commit violence and sexual harassment on Black women and girls; that Black men have some claim to patriarchal power/privilege based on maleness, or that Black men also aspire to imitate White masculine norms and desires to maintain power and privilege.

These views are now being challenged by Black Male Studies (BMS) scholars. One of the leading thinkers in the field is Tommy Curry whose 2017 publication The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood introduced Black Male Studies (BMS) as a field of inquiry. Challenging long-held assumptions about race and gender categories, BMS (1) emphasizes an interdisciplinary empirical approach when theorizing about social groups, (2) provides a novel account of patriarchy and gender, and (3) introduces a new guiding theoretical framework to understand the dynamics of Black male victimization in racist, capitalist, patriarchal societies. As primary thesis, the framework of Black Male Studies posits the notion of “phallicism” which upends traditional assumptions about the nature of genocidal intergroup conflict.

Tommy Curry interview with the Institute of Art and Ideas ( Here Professor Curry discusses racism as a structural, cultural and historical process and not a matter of individual bias. He also talks about the problems of the intersectional approach to race as well as the history of dehumanization and the sanctioning of violence targeting Black men.

While previous theories assume Black masculinity to be inherently defective, driven by violence and an imitation of White patriarchy, BMS scholars’ approach to inquiry is informed by evidence from history, sociology and cognitive science. For instance, Dr. Adebayo Ogungbre in The Political Economy of Niggerdom (2019) used interdisciplinary findings to argue against the “many myths, stereotypes, and distortions” perpetuated by social scientists and intellectuals about Black men’s “primary” role in the disorganization and dysfunction of the Black family. Rather, Ogungbre argues, Black men ought to be understood through a lens called the political economy of “niggerdom” which refers to the stigmatization of this group from participation in America’s capitalist political economy. Ogungbre traces this stigmatization to the 19th century White American patriarchal order which gave way to a 20th century which saw Black men as unique threats to the social order and were thus placed at the bottom of the racial caste system. Extending his analysis towards the 21st century, Ogungbre turns to contemporary social scientific data documenting the high unemployment, incarceration, low rates of upward mobility and all-encompassing criminalization of Black males in society. Citing recent work that show large intergenerational wealth and earnings disparities between Black and White men, Ogungbre details how poverty, unemployment and the stigma of criminalization combine to map “hatred, delinquency, and derogatory portrayals to Black male bodies” and function to justify “their decimation within the state” (p. 279).

Using a methodology that also draws on empirical observations, Tommy Curry in Re-Constituting the Object (2021) outlines a distinctive account of patriarchy and gender from the perspective of BMS. Curry notes how the feminist account of patriarchy and gender originates from an analogy with racial caste literature which portrayed the Black male’s marginal position in the social system as “rooted in sharp caste distinctions”(p. 3). However, the racial caste literature argued that Black men endured severe punishment for speaking or acting against their status under the Southern segregationist social order. Under this order, the White racial bloodline was to be protected from “the threat the Black male posed to the biological reproduction and kinship bonds of Whites” (p. 3). This focus on kinship relations is missing in current feminist theory. Drawing on the work of genocidal studies and other sources, BMS scholars reorient patriarchy as calibrated toward the “various differentiation between kinds of men” – the organizing of society by the dominant racial group to establish their dominance over and maintenance of lethal violence against alien male groups as a way to delineate the boundaries of kinship (p. 5). As Curry writes:

[T]he violence and dehumanization of a selected male outgroup not only asserts the present danger of their existence to the dominant racial group but also how the existence of racialized males—Black males—are a threat to the futurity of the group—its societal dominance and demographic prosperity..

Curry, p. 6

The notion of gender and patriarchy developed in the 20th century insists on it as “one global pattern of male domination” over women. But according to Curry, these debates “centered on the need White feminists had in constructing themselves as a class external to White patriarchy” rather than “the product of a systematic analysis of patriarchal societies” (p. 7). To explain how Western patriarchal societies detach Black males “from patriarchy in ways similar to women, while nonetheless creating caricatures of Black men and boys that serve to justify their extermination” (p. 9), BMS scholars introduce the notion of “racial castration or phallicism.” Phallicism refers to the condition by where “males of a subordinated racialized or ethnicized group are simultaneously imagined to be a sexual threat and predatory, and libidinally constituted as sexually desirous by the fantasies or fetishes of the dominant racial group” (p. 31). This is supposed to bring out the tension in characterizing racialized males as sexual predators and at the same time “being subjugated to rape by both the male and female members of the dominant group who disown their sexual violence because the hypervisibility of the racialized male is only as the rapist” (p. 31).

Prejudicial views and treatment of Black men continue to be a pressing and persistent societal problem, including their portrayal in academic scholarship. The contributions of BMS scholars show that our current ideas of gender and patriarchy are inadequate and that we need to incorporate more empirical social scientific data as well as the historical experience of Black manhood to remedy this oversight.

Part two of Miron’s blog will be published next week.


Miron Clay-Gilmore is a husband, father, and PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include Black Male Studies, Anti-Colonial Philosophy, Black Aesthetics and Black Nationalism.

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