The Missing Black Male Narrative

| 9/28/2012 9:40:39 AM

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young black man 

In mainstream news and local media, the black everyman is plentiful by number. The daily news is full of young criminals, middle and professional class social circles, helpless citizens, earned accomplishments, and quiet nods to a lifetime of sacrifice. As individuals – three dimensional men who justify their own existence – they are barely visible. What’s the last story of note you can remember about a black man, or black men in general, that wasn’t about a famous entertainer or steeped in televised controversy?  Few media outlets dedicate themselves to examining the individual lives of these men as they are living it.

GQ, the ultra-glossy aspirational men’s magazine, does regularly run reportage and life-lesson pieces, independent of status or celebrity influence. Esquire relies on celebrities, but talks to them as men and woman unto themselves. The defunct Men’s Vogue had excellent monthly columns reserved for profiles and reportage of the lives of individual non-celebrities. Outside, Art of Manliness, Men’s Journal, The Good Men Project, and Men’s Health, on the other hand, live and die by the concept of the everyman.  But, commonly, any deep dives into the experiences of black men’s lives depend on pop stars and media darlings.  These one-percenters inherit the heavy burden of representing the breadth and depth of the cumulative black male experience. As a result doing so responsibly becomes all the more important. Yet, even as recently as last month, the largest and most respected of media outlets have tried to squeeze these larger than life personalities into tired narratives, instead of letting what stood out about the individual speak for itself.

New York Times’ September profile of Jay-Z, for example, spends a lot of time reaffirming every notion of what a hip-hop star and celebrity at large like him is supposed to be (dresses younger than his age, perception of artistry vs. menace to society, a famous man blending into the common man’s world, etc.). It only briefly mentions things that uniquely define the man and the artist. Jay-Z says he dislikes that rap is not treated as an artform, is annoyed that people regularly ask him questions he answered in his 2010 memoir, and believes that Obama’s contribution to the irrelevance of the hustler represents progress.  All these things, along with the writer’s claim that the rapper’s lyrics are “built to handle contradiction” are treated as asides of little importance.

It fails to discuss Jay-Z’s uncommon and wildly successful practice of nurturing artists for years before expecting a profit. It doesn’t question his ironic history of dramatic failure in long-term working relationships with artists who were stars in their own right (R. Kelly, Beanie Sigal), Kanye West aside. It never explores Jay-Z’s feelings behind the tireless, mignon-like effort he has put in adding value to the Brooklyn Nets NBA franchise, despite that he only owns a tiny sliver of the team. His actions can be interpreted as a foolish blowhard’s attempt to earn high society credibility, a take-nothing-for-granted sweat equity attitude any man can learn from, or anything in between.  These are issues that speak directly to the way the man thinks, things that only he can clarify. But we never know the answers, because no one asks. The article simply recycles an established narrative, referring to Jay-Z as more of a grounded deity requiring little more than opaque commentary. It gives no indication of a man worth exploring.

To be fair, coaxing fresh material from a seasoned superstar can’t be easy. They’ve answered the same underwhelming questions hundreds of times. They have a brand to protect.  They’ve had years of practice artfully dodging issues they don’t care to address. But it still stands that thorough profiles of men of color are few and far in between. Halfway effective write-ups like the New York Times piece do not help alleviate the problem.  In this respect, major media outlets may have something to learn from smaller, niche websites and magazines. It seems that, recently, in the realm of musicians and entertainers, interviews and profiles of those below the radar have done better to uncover the core of personalities readers can engage with.

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