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Dismantling Southern Codes of Black Masculinity : The Black Male’s Demystified Image in Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970)

Françoise CLARY
p. 75-101


Le sens, dit Greimas, n’est rien d’autre que ce qu’il est possible d’interpréter et de décoder. Prenant appui sur la théorie de l’intersectionalité, on avancera l’argument que deux visions antagonistes des hommes noirs s’opposent dans la représentation de la masculinité noire proposée par Hal Bennett, l’une est celle de l’étalon noir provocant, l’autre celle du Noir assimilationniste soumis, toutes deux étant le produit de mythes. Cet essai part du postulat que la puissance revenant aux métaphores et la focalisation sur la rhétorique de l’exagération peuvent apparaître comme un nouveau langage inventé pour démanteler le discours uniforme de la masculinité, déconstruire les stéréotypes du Noir violeur, inscrire dans le texte la visibilité du corps de l’homme noir et esquisser de nouvelles formes de masculinité où le masculin et le féminin afro-américains se retrouvent inextricablement liés lorsque l’on s’attache à l’idée que discuter de son corps permet de se définir soi-même.

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1This essay proceeds from the assumption that the reimagining of the black male subject is at the core of every act of interpretation of black masculinist writing. So, if we consider, like Ricoeur, that words and images are “external marks” of actual happenings (130), the very act of reimagining black masculinity can then be thought of as fulfilling its role of connecting past experiences and present consciousness. With a remarkable perception of the significance of protest in black men’s experience and discourse, Charles Johnson, winner of the National Book Award in 1990, holds that black writing has remained unaltered in its attachment to the protest tradition since 1970. But because Blacks signify little in the imaginative landscape of literary whiteness Johnson argues, their confidence in describing black maleness has been lessened. It has been caught up in the desire to give voice to an unspoken trauma, eventually spawning a variety of black protagonists portrayed as “people deformed by their lack of power in a racially divided landscape” (93). The focus will therefore be on the idea of a resituated southern male subject while addressing the issue of narrative and textual positionality of black manhood and the concomitant centrality of gender.

2Manhood is a dynamic process that historians contextualize according to their own interpretations. If we put the conception of masculinity in the South into perspective, it is clear that any argument about manhood is tethered up to an understanding of the southern codes. Historians of the American South like Bertram Wyatt-Brown put a primary focus on the code of honor. It represents—together with its opposite, shame—the driving force behind southern manhood and determines the relations of power organizing the hierarchical system of the South. In the Old South, Wyatt-Brown contends, the code of morality could legitimate racial or class injustice. Honor was inseparable from hierarchy, entitlement and community needs. It required the rejection of the lowly, the alien, and the shamed. The ethics of the code of honor that Wyatt-Brown defines as inner feelings of self-worth, gentility, valor for family and country can find an illustration in the paradigm of the Virginian gentleman. But if the southern gentleman’s qualities include his being powerful, leisurely and honorable, his preoccupation with masculinity is obviously a projection of the hyper masculine South. In fact, this projected masculinity did not correspond to the southern white man’s true identity. It reflected his fear of effeminacy : “Southerners who could not claim a degree of virile honorableness would lose all favor in the eyes of peers. That sense of masculine respectability rested largely in the hands of relatives and neighbors” (Wyatt-Brown 66). The paradigm of southern manhood would not be complete if one forgot to mention the southern man’s anxiety to define himself against other men through theatricality, religion, and physicality. Hence the rituals and mimicries of masculinity that Wyatt-Brown presents as reflections of the codes of manhood. But what makes the normative quality of southern male identity distinctive and provocative is that it is unidirectional. Not only does race refer to the status of subordinated minorities, but the denial of black manhood is central to the sense of mastery that renders the white man masculine.

3The cultural framework of the American South provides the mechanism that has produced the discourse initiated by white men for the promotion of norms and codes associated with white males’ interests. As the systemic structure of the white norms of southern masculinity was framed in terms of honor but also of fear of failed manliness, it has shaped patronizing types of behavior towards the black populations. Through acts of violence, white southern men have endeavored to suppress the honor and manhood of Blacks while asserting the white man’s masculine identity. But what is to be borne in mind about the southern white male’s patriarchal standards is that they were essentially meant to enforce discipline. The black male was consequently forced to view himself according to the standards of the dominant culture, that is to say in a position of perpetual servitude since he was forbidden to exercise dominance under the patriarchal and heterosexist hierarchies. It is to be noted that the white mainstream’s anxiety has generated southern codes of black masculinity that are not only raced, but also gendered and sex-oriented, with myths structuring the perception of the black male as a threat to women. This has made the black male’s sense of self-identity distinct from that of the southern white, though sometimes with a repressed desire to emulate white masculinity. Such a perspective on the hierarchical classification of bodies and masculinities brings into light the gendering of racism and consequently demonstrates that the codes of black masculinity are a social construction. Specifically, not only are the codes of black masculinity the effects of hierarchies of identity but they were meant to constrain the black male to accept subordination to white normative masculinity as natural in a social construct depicting white males as all-powerful. This explains why, in popular representation, black men’s subordinated position in social hierarchies is linked to a two-sided view of black masculinity with images that alternate between the desexualized and submissive black man versus the hyper-sexed and violent one.

4The racial, gender, and sex-oriented systems that compose the southern codes are the hybrid forms of overlapping modes of subordination, that is why I am especially interested in exploring the lessons that gender and race theory teach in issues related to the black literary masculine, and in analyzing the representation of the black male’s strategy for disrupting the various forms of oppression. For example, how does black masculinist writing fit into the discussion of southern manhood ? What type of masculinity does it present ? What features of language serve as a vehicle for revisiting the discourse on masculinity ? In this discussion, I have chosen to foreground Hal Bennett’s thematic concern : his interest in myths and black masculinity hemmed in by racial madness. It is not his having written about sexuality or published in Playboy Magazine that matters. In fact, Bennett had no definite career with this magazine but was selected most promising young writer of the year in 1970 by Playboy Magazine for his short story “Dotson Gerber Resurrected.” Bennett’s use of irony and his sharp sense of parody arise largely from the African American satirical tradition, notably from Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry with a close attention to the smallest details of a black man’s life in American society. Secondly, an analysis of Bennett’s representations of sex-oriented black masculinity sheds light on the effects of a binary view of black masculinity that structures the way whites think about Blacks. In that light, two predominant images will be opposed : the sexually unrestrained black male, inherently criminal, versus the desexualized, passive black man.

5The South’s influence on the formation of black masculinity should not be underestimated. It is thus hard to ignore the controlling imagery of Bennett’s fiction reflecting a world of darkness, impotence, self-flagellation, but also of excesses, racial madness, sensuality, and violent actions. His use of metaphors reveals a great deal about his satirical technique, as well as the difficulty of achieving selfhood and identity. Put another way, my purpose is to examine how this African American novelist from the South, who has authored three satirical novels, A Wilderness of Vines, The Black Wine, and Lord of Dark Places (Clary 241-330) firmly rooted in an apprehension of Virginia, provides subversive commentary on the codes of southern manhood from a marginalized perspective. Although Lord of Dark Places was published in 1970, Bennett is far from being an outmoded writer from Virginia. Quite on the contrary, a renewal of interest in Bennett’s work is to be noted among American scholars. The City University of New York conference “Jesters and Gestures : Irony at a Crossroads” (February 24-25th, 2011) revolved around Bennett’s unsparing use of irony and vernacular modernism as illustrated by Davu Seru’s paper on “Modernity and the phallic Cure, a Study of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Hal Bennett’s A Wilderness of Vines.” In addition, Charles Rowell, Callaloo’s editor, is contemplating publishing a special issue on Hal Bennett.

6In terms of representation of southern black masculinity within the context of African American experience, southern whites’ epistemological system of organization of society is cultural and social. The present article sets out to demystify the uniform discourse of black masculinity with the contention that Bennett’s satirical approach to black manhood is a binary one alternating between the myth of the vainglorious, hypersexual black male and the image of the nonassertive, desexualized black man. Acknowledging first a concern for the ideology and the mind of the South, I have made the choice of legal theorists’ intersectionality theory (Crenshaw 1241-45) as my theoretical framework for the insights it provides into the overlapping of race, gender and sex as the components of black masculine identity. I will then focus on Lord of Dark Places (LDP) to investigate how Bennett’s embracing the stereotype of the black male stud as he did narcissism becomes problematic, even subversive, because of his modernistic uses of irony and a way of writing that draws from Norman Mailer in the artist’s desire to intensify and if necessary exacerbate the moral consciousness of people. Eventually questions will be raised about the ways in which readers are supposed to respond to a reinterpretation of the black male as an artful Nietzschean Hero, evoked through metaphoric thinking.

Identity, Gender and the Southern Black Mind

7In Lord of Dark Places, Bennett lays a claim on fictional territory and southern African American culture while exploiting irony and symbolism to stir the reader’s interest in the interrelated dynamics of racism, gender and identity quest. The aim of this essay is to analyze how Bennett’s figuration of the hero as a black stud is to disrupt southern stereotypes on black masculinity, challenge the hierarchical system defined by southern codes, and build up a compensatory image of black masculinity whose subversive hypervisibility is meant to deconstruct race and sex-oriented hierarchies.

8There is a two-sided view of black masculinity in Bennett’s novel : one corresponds to the image of the hyper-sexed Black stud, the threatening black male as defiler, and another to the emasculated black man, victim of the racial hierarchy. Both are as much the result of stereotypes on gender and race as they are the products of myths. My theoretical framework does not aim to offer a summary of the culture of the South. In order to understand why race and gender combine in stereotypical images and how Bennett uses satire to destroy the present hierarchies, I will build up a theoretical framework based on intersectionality theory whose focus is on the various systems of subordination and their interlocking. The theoretical approach will next be extended to a twin diachronic perspective on the history of myths and southern whites “normative grading,” or hierarchical organization, of male bodies. For the purposes of my theoretical framework, I will therefore borrow from Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins” and Critical Race Feminism’s Intersectionality Theory. In the field of gender studies, intersectionality has become the predominant theory to analyze subordination mechanisms. Extending intersectionality theory to the sexual stereotyping Bennett’s black male protagonist is victim of is thus the fittest way of conceptualizing the relation between the various systems of oppression which shape black masculinities and African Americans’ identities.

9What is important about intersectionality theory is that it de-marginalizes the intersection of race and sex and debunks normative assumptions about identity. For Crenshaw, we are all always raced, gendered, and sex-oriented ; she argues that multiple grounds of identity operate all at once in any individual (1241-45). In other words, to apply intersectionality theory to the rating of race, gender and class may allow me to penetrate the roots of the process of subordination by pointing at the interlocking of all the systems of subordination. A useful example is the way Anthony Paul Farley summarizes how the logic of one mechanism of subordination supports another : “[r]ace is the way that the skin is made to mean hierarchy. . . Gender is the way that sex is made to mean hierarchy. . . Class is the way that gestures and habits and locutions come to be associated with ownership and non-ownership” (221-23). With this in mind, it is to be noted that following the tradition of African American satirists, Bennett reveals the truth behind the mask. Indeed, he offers an ironical perspective on the system of multi-subordination in the scene of the lynching of Roosevelt, the hero’s grandfather. The focus is deliberately put on the black man’s hanging body with a flowered dress on that could not be disconnected from his neck. This scene combines racism, sexism, and a denunciation of the southern white men’s code of honor as the white gentlemen “escorted him (the black man) with the greatest courtesy to an oak tree in the woods” (LDP 13), before tying his hands behind his back and putting the noose around his neck. In the representation of the black male’s emasculation, the novelist emphasizes the white onlookers’ stare at the black man’s sex : “‘By God, that nigger’s got the biggest peter I ever did see,’ Mr. Johnson said. He reached up and touched it fondly . . . did anybody bring his knife ?” (LDP 13). I contend that the intersectionality theory approach provides a meaningful insight into the artful overlapping of perspectives on race and gender subordination offered to the reader. One of its effects is to enlighten the African American satirist’s denunciation of the southern codes of black masculinity that aimed at negating black manhood.

10Extending this idea to that of the double-consciousness in southern African American culture, it appears that satire and irony, commonly employed by early African American novelists in their description of the socio-psychological experience of black Americans, have evolved into a moral weapon. Derived from the African tradition, the moral power of satire can be traced back to its African origins in magic, myth, and rituals with the use of magical words and ritual phrases uttered by satirists to destroy the honor or the lives of personal enemies. Thus, tales and legends had it that people died from the power of the words delivered by satirists. Historically speaking, the black American experience has mixed the comic and the tragic for African American novelists whose audience has been largely white and middle class. As a consequence, black satirists like Rudolph Fisher, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman have turned into moralists conventionally disclosing the truth hidden behind the mask. The satirical approach has evolved. It has become provocative with Hal Bennett and definitely unsettling with Ishmael Reed, notably in Mumbo Jumbo. In Lord of Dark Places, the power of satirical attacks is not tied to rituals. Deriving from the writer’s command over the word, satire is Bennett’s tool to exercise compensatory retaliation against southern whites’ grading, or hierarchization of masculine bodies and use of stereotypes as justification for the subordination of black males.

11The stereotypical elements involved in the representation of black masculinity are a product of myths with a whole sum of clichés on the animal-like black male. There is no denying that biological differences between races have been used by colonial ideologies with the purpose of introducing a social or historical gap between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. The process of deconstruction of the southern black man’s image will be made more vivid thanks to two perspectives : one refers to colonial definitions of masculinity and the other to postcolonial studies. My contention is first that the collective subconscious assimilation of raced and sex-oriented colonial definitions of masculinity resulted in African American men being stripped of their maleness. Setting whiteness as the baseline in the hierarchical system of southern society has promoted the assimilation of the white body and its effects as the normative element in the representations of identity hierarchies. With the white norms in mind, the black male’s body has consequently been graded low and schematized as both animal-like and sexually unrestrained (Duru 1315).

12In colonial ideology, racial differences are predicated on a feminization of the members of the so-called subaltern group and a denying of their manhood. This does not merely involve cataloguing black men as emotional. Opting for an empirical analysis could demonstrate that arguments of biological inferiority have steadily been utilized in order to rationalize the subservient group’s position on the bottom rung of the hierarchical ladder. Paired with this, in postcolonial studies, is what Bhabha calls the “alienating denial of identity” (125). A projection of this deprecatory image is to be found in the stereotypical representation of the passive black male. The overall result, as far as the discourse on black masculinity, race and gender in the South is concerned, is that racist and sexist views are applied cross-culturally. Cultural denigration is, for instance, reflected by the image of the hypercriminalization of the black man with accusations of bestiality whose main components are the sexually degraded images of a lecherous, immoral, and dissolute male. As a consequence, the figurations of black masculinity achieved by affixing to the black man the cliché of a male with huge reproductive organs and unrestrained sexuality have been crystallized in the myth of the black rapist. An illustration of this historically persistent and ideologically functional image can be found in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in which the author assails the ideological sexualization of colored people. In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver’s focus is on the black man stripped of his personality. The black male is considered as “the body,” explains Cleaver, while “the brain” is symbolized by the white man (151). But the African American is also an emasculated black male, argues Cleaver. He thus lays the blame on the white man who authoritatively and symbolically emasculates the black man by relegating him to a position of servitude : “I will have access to the white woman and I will have access to the black woman. . . . I forbid you access to the white woman. The white woman will have access to me, the Omnipotent Administrator, but I deny her access to you the Supermasculine Menial” (153). This extract from Soul on Ice does not merely reflect Cleaver’s refusal to have white masculinity considered as normative, it also offers a perspective on the interlocking of race and gender in the approach to black masculinity.

13Among the stereotypical representations of black masculinity, the outrageous emphasis laid on the hypertrophy of the black male’s reproductive organs seems to run counter to the cliché of his feminization. As a matter of fact, there is no real dichotomy as race and gender subordination remain interlocked. In spite of their being apparently antagonistic, these two clichés fit within a two-sided figuration of the African American man. For some, he is the threatening black man, a cliché founded on three assumptions : he is animal-like, potentially criminal, sexually unrestrained. In short, the image is that of the black man as incipient rapist. Specifically, the gendering of that racial image is clearly to be seen through the focus put on the penis in popular culture. Joe Market, the hero of Lord of Dark Places, is the elaborate reflection of this stereotypical figuration of the gendering of race. Opposite this, the stereotype of the gentle, vulnerable black man downplaying his race, is personified by his grandfather Roosevelt. In the novel, this character is the helpless, nonassertive black man fully subordinated to white norms, bowing to white southern gentlemen’s decision to lynch him : “‘I’m a good nigger, ain’t I, Mr. Johnson ?’ . . . he didn’t even ask them why they were killing him, since obviously it was their right to use him as they saw him fit” (LDP 13). In this parody of a scene of lynching, Bennett brushes up the desexualized figure of an elderly black man to construct an ironical counterpart to the stereotypical figure of Uncle Tom, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Christ-like hero.

14As a result of the distinctive normative roles assigned to men and women, and the imposition of gender models on cultural identity, we are led to consider that one’s reflective identity as male or female is not a matter of simple sexual categorization but of language. Indeed, for African American males to assert their masculine status, a confrontation with society’s figuration of manhood seems unavoidable. For example, when John Oliver Killens argues that “the one thing whites will not stand is for a black man to be a man,” he also specifies that “everything else is worthless if a man can’t be a man” (180). Going beyond the clichés about black manhood, Houston Baker lays an outstanding emphasis on “the protocols of black male subject formation” (Baker 2001, 2) in Turning South Again, a book that offers a usable structure for analyzing the black male’s defense against the terrors emanating from the culture of the South. Leaving aside theoretical digressions on black manhood, Baker points at the different stages of the black male’s identity quest while mapping the black southern mind. He thus focuses on “specific blue/black memory” appealing to the uncanny figure of the Blue Man, from the oral tradition, as a component of the representation of fear and horror tied to the “ghostly emanations of southern economics of violence against the black body” (Baker 2001, 2, 9) because “as driving force, the blues matrix […] functions towards cultural understanding.” (Baker 1984, 9). Fitting in between the real and the fantastic in the culture of the South, the grotesque that is primarily concerned with the distortion and transgression of boundaries is significantly expressed through the Blue Man tradition : “The Blue Man was grotesque . . . and his story was chilling ; He was stealthy, yet ferocious, fanged and vicious in pursuit of young black men” (Baker 2001, 9). Therefore, when Baker links up the “improvisatory rituals of black southern manhood revision” to “the feverish ghoulish narrative collective unconscious of the Blue Man” (Baker 2001, 4), he makes the choice of the horrendous in order to convey the horrifying memory of the black male’s place in confining spaces designed to harm the black body, whether it be the holds of slave ships during the Middle Passage or the prisons of the South. Baker’s description of the injury done to the black male’s body is deliberately consciousness-raising. Because of the convergence of traumatic images between Bennett’s description of the effects of the lynching scene (“He was determined that no son of his would die like his father had died” [LDP 13]) and southern African Americans’ blue/black memory, Bennett’s satirical, then emotional handling of the helpless black man’s image should be viewed as a literary echo to the black male’s primitive ritual of self- defense as evoked by Baker : “Little did we realize that our linguistics of the Blue Man were the ontogeny of southern black male subject formation. Yet it was our anticipatory self-defense” (Baker 2001, 6).

15Perhaps even more significant is the persistence of a position in Baker’s text that interrogates the emergence of assertive black masculinity in the South. First, he urges the reader to incorporate his conclusions on southern history and memory into a fresh approach to the southern grotesque presented as a component of the representation of terror and utilized in order to deny black manhood. Second, combining blue/black memory with the uncanny, Houston Baker proceeds to show how adopting postures of “strategic forgetting and tensional rewriting” or else valuing the “body aesthetics” of the black male (Baker 2001, 4, 7) forestalls the defense of black masculinity.

Revising the Normative Constructions of Black Masculinity : Bennett’s Rhetoric of Exaggeration and the Black Stud as Nietzschean Hero

16When Lord of Dark Places was published in 1970, it stirred black masculinist consciousness, as shown by Ronald Walcott’s article in Black World. In this novel, Bennett deliberately opposes an imaginary zone to all the elements that combine to foster the assimilation by the collective unconscious of demeaning definitions of African American masculinity. He thus counters the myth of the phallus with the satirical figuration of the hypersexual black man as both incipient black stud and Nietzschean hero. In other words, he turns his hero into the Overman challenging all normative constructions, rejecting conventional morality, and authoritative powers. For instance, the main protagonist is in turn the provocative Black Redeemer offering salvation in the Church of the Naked Disciple ; the stud coveted for the sexual prowess that blackness supposedly confers on him ; the black soldier who feels excited “all down in the crotch” after killing his first man during the Vietnam war (LDP 125) ; and also the black man in revolt who decides to murder his son because he is convinced castration and death is the fate of all Blacks. At first sight, the black male protagonist of Lord of Dark Places may appear to be an unlikely hero but the deconstruction of the myth of the phallus is linked to the emergence of the black stud as Nietzschean hero. By creating his own values of sex-oriented hypervisibility and bringing the crowd of the faithful to worship his naked body, the black male protagonist meets the criteria of the Nietzschean Overman. The interplay between race and gender is made particularly interesting to observe : the accumulated causes for being forced to subordination—such as to be black and to be a virile black man in the South—are not merely challenged but ironically turned into assets in Bennett’s text. Blackness and maleness are not presented as a source of shame but of pride. Just as Nietzsche argues in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that morality has an immoral origin, that rationality has an irrational origin, that truth has its origin in fiction, so Titus, in Lord of Dark Places, “founds a religion to spread the social gospel of black redemption in a white world” (LDP 24). The hero’s father contends that his religion is offering Salvation to the crowd through a Black Redeemer. The proclaimed morality of Titus’s religion has its origin in the immoral exhibition of his son’s naked body in front of the crowd and in the sacrilegious collective worshipping of a black male’s penis. The emphasis laid on the hero’s narcissist pride as he shows off his naked body is congruent with Nietzsche’s views on the natural aristocracy of the instinctive nobleman who naturally achieves domination through his “immanent charisma” (Nietzsche 59). Similarly, the black masculine hero’s embrace of competition, trouble and danger is wholly Nietzschean, as is his living beyond good and evil. Subverting the southern codes of subordination of black masculinity, Bennett’s black hero stands as the existential rebel motivated by a natural drive for self-assertion. Even his act of violence when he murders his own son represents not evil but an act socially triggered to save his son from racial madness. Lord of Dark Places provides the battleground upon which southern white normative codes and Bennett’s subversive irony compete.

17Bennett’s way of deconstructing the stereotypical vision of the Black male consists in providing the reader with challenging perspectives on a masculine figure that is both hated and wanted. Resorting to exaggeration, he reframes the idea of the black male. Fighting for what he thinks is good, Bennett’s black male protagonist strives for self-mastery. He is the individual that rejects authority, law and societal norms. This disjunction renders white southern normative ideas about black masculinity uncertain and makes the hierarchy of identities an issue to be raised. The representation of black masculinity as Other in Bennett’s novel takes into account not only the socially defined, gendered identity of the protagonists but the reconfiguration of the black male’s self by admitting disruption from the normative conception of masculinity. According to the intertwined perspectives of ideologically functional colonialism and post colonialism, the model of discourse centered on black manhood is conventionally associated with sexual degradation. Indeed, as Ashis Nandy points out in her study of the masculine self under colonialism, colonial ideology has promoted two types of normative construction of black male identity that can be briefly summed up as follows : on the one hand, the black male’s exalted masculine vigor and, on the other hand, his supposed passivity indicative of desexualization and effeminacy.

18Challenging the clichés on black maleness internalized by the collective unconscious, Bennett moves away from the black male subject formation to set up a process of mythologization of the black masculine. One should note that the African American novelist does not deny the myth of the phallus but amplifies it to a degree through the use of satire so as to bring it into disrepute. He apparently follows the logic of the myth. But the fact of the matter is that he fixes his approach to the vision of the black man as stud in the arena of the Christian morals of U.S. society, whose foundations he aims to shake because of its complicity in the country’s racial madness. Out of a travesty of the Gospels, Bennett links up his satirical attack with a deconstruction of society’s value-system and counters the myth of the black male as defiler with the myth of the black stud as rebel. First, Bennett introduces a vision of the black stud aiming to seduce the crowd of the faithful gathered in the Church of the Naked Disciple into worshipping the black male’s naked body : “Hallelujah ! Amen ! Behold The Naked Disciple ! . . . Man, he felt great. Just great. A hundred hands reached out, trying to touch him. His butt quivered” (LDP 21). But, in essence, Bennett’s satirical attack on the myth of the phallus can all along be understood as the figuration of the black male as Nietzschean hero experimenting the revelation of the Self. In fact, this scene is evocative of the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra : “The beauty of the superman came to me as a shadow : what are gods to me now !” (3). The parodic structure of Thus Spoke Zarathustra can easily be extended to Lord of Dark Places whose main protagonist, just like the Nietzschean hero, is in a quest for wholeness.

19Bennett’s main strategy for countering the myth of the black man as defiler lingering in the social imagination lies in the use of satire and irony. The novelist’s purpose becomes clear at the moment when the archetype of the black male as sexual monster is made sufficiently complex and so much burdened with exaggerations that it explodes. The reader cannot help being amazed at the accumulation of provocative stereotypical descriptions of the black male’s naked body that appear to reconfirm the colonial normative configuration of black masculine identity, such as : “He was indeed a beautiful child . . . He had got an unusually early start with the sex practices of Burnside, and his enormous tail showed that fact” (LDP 18). The novelist proceeds to a focalization on a sexual vocabulary that serves to come to grips with white southern normative constructions through different modes of ironic expression. Rhetorical irony first retains the reader’s attention. The statements are provocative and their meaning ambiguous as when the crowds that have joined Titus’s religion in order to worship a black man’s naked body join in a call and response : “‘We are all naked before Jehovah !’ Titus thundered. The crowd yelled ‘Amen !’” (LDP 19). Then, the reader is invited to react to the dramatic irony of the narrative. A salient example is offered in the scene staging the white woman as the sexual aggressor and the black man as the victim forced to perform sexually on threat of the white woman screaming rape.

20“Writing was our black defense against and revision of ancient terrors, mistaken identities, dread losses” (Baker 2001, 5). Not only does this statement by Baker reflect the colonial imposition of gender models and stereotypes on cultural relations, but it can be used as a guideline to investigate the literary representation of black masculinity. Lord of Dark Places is a satirical novel that can be taken as the most significant example of the reconfiguration of southern black masculinity thanks to the art of writing. Through the use of metaphor, rhetorical irony and satire, Bennett introduces a process of disjunction that can operate within the sentence, and even beyond because, as Ronald Walcott points out, the structure of the text reflects a series of “baptisms” and “falls,” that is a progression from innocence to experience (Walcott 80) confirming what Baker points out as the process of forgetting and rewriting. The questions that crop up have to do with what sort of metaphoric representation is used by Bennett and what special value it may have for the sociological thought on which the writer’s conceptualization of masculinity is based.

21In Bennett’s novel, all knowledge of black manhood is perspectival and hence metaphoric because the point of view on the Black male as defiler and stud is linked to the controlling metaphor of the novel : the drama of incest. America is represented as a seductive woman and matriarch that arouses the black stud and exalts his masculine vigor. Capitalizing to a degree on the numerous stereotypes concerning the black man’s sexuality inspired by the ideology of colonialism, such as the clichés about the black male’s sexual drives, the novelist centers the narrative on a phallic hero. Joe Market, the main protagonist, is described as an outrageously provocative southern youth whose racial, sexual, and religious experiences combine to demonstrate that the black male has been denied his masculinity and emasculated by America’s legacy of racial madness. And yet, in Bennett’s novel, black manhood is never dwarfed to a representation that would equate black masculinity with victimization.

22Irony, as metaphor of opposites, is the main element in the aesthetic construction of Bennett’s sociological thought. Carefully elaborated, it is used by the novelist as a way of moving from conventional paradigms to original ones in the scenic confrontation between two central antagonistic figures, the while female, as both virgin and bitch, versus the black male, as defiler and nigger stud redeemed by the myth of innocence. In the background, America is an archetypal element in the dominant metaphor of the novel, that is to say in the drama of incest. Indeed, America is perceived by the black stud as an attractive, seductive woman before being seen as an authoritative, wily matriarch. The construction of the phallic myth articulates, in fact, on the themes of incest and castration. It represents an essentially negative movement in the novel that builds up the image of the black male as a victim of his sexual inheritance. The reader is constantly facing the fact that the logic of the myth of the phallus is never denied. But it is made to swell. We are thus told that Titus, the hero’s father, is the product of the incestuous union of his mother, a Madame Eudora, with Roosevelt, her nephew—and husband. We can observe that the novelist strives first to provide a measure of thematic predictability. Then the text moves towards wholeness, lending a kind of inevitability to the normative construction of black masculinity in its variations, whether it be the view of black manhood indicative of effeminacy, passivity, simple-mindedness, or on the contrary, the colonial ideologues’ descriptive stereotypes of the black male’s reproductive organs and hyper sexuality.

23The Prologue of Lord of Dark Places provides an interesting representation of black masculinity that fissures the normative constructions, even though the discourse of the novelist may, at first sight, appear to reflect colonial ideologues’ normative views on black manhood. But this is due to Bennett’s satirical approach. Resorting to rhetorical irony by pretending to take southern racist views seriously, the novelist describes Roosevelt, the nephew-husband, as having rapidly attained the status of a wise man in the South, “by telling white people what a dumb, low-down, no-good nigger he was” (LDP 12). Through this description, Roosevelt seems to stand out as the fitting representation of southern white normative views on the passivity and simple-mindedness of the black male. Indeed, when Bennett lets it be understood that Roosevelt’s lynching is due to the fact that “a white woman probably mistook a tic for a wink” (LDP 12), he describes this black protagonist as a totally passive man, apparently unconcerned.

24Noticeably, Roosevelt does not dare to revolt against the wrong done to him even though he is about to be lynched. He is the personification of the submissive black man subordinated to the southern white codes. Moreover, in the Prologue, the spiral of the story encompasses additional stereotypes that appear to foster the normative colonial construction of black manhood. Reference is thus made to the colonial cliché of the black male’s effeminacy in the scene of the lynching that dwells repeatedly on Roosevelt’s sleeping in one of Madame Eudora’s flowered dresses, and on his being told he didn’t need to take off the dress or put his pants on. Then, as the lynching comes to an end, it is from the colonial ideologues’ clichés about the black male’s hypertrophied reproductive organs, and from the myth of castration, that the reader draws the impression of a conformity with a heavily normative construction of black masculinity. This sense of conformity is due to the cumulative effect of stereotypes. And yet, a close examination of the text shows Bennett’s resistance to such stereotypes equating the black man’s subordination with simple-mindedness. What Bennett clearly demonstrates though is that nothing can be done either by Roosevelt, or his son Titus, or even any other black man to stop the horror mirroring the image of the horrifying Blue Man of the tales of the Old South from happening. The description of Titus running through the woods in a nightmarish landscape, fleeing frantically away from the repulsive scene of the lynching, duplicates unmistakably other ghoulish scenes of horror typical of the mind of the South. The synergy between these two types of representation of black manhood facing horror is another step in Bennett’s process of deconstruction of the negative stereotypes of black manhood.

25What hurts stays in the memory, argues Nietzsche. Unmistakably, the African American novelist explores several facets of the black man’s experience while confronting his readers with the responsibility they may have for perpetuating in the social imagination stereotypes of the Black man as sexual monster. By doing so, they have stirred up racial madness in America. First of all, Lord of Dark Places can be perceived as producing thematic coherence along the lines of gender and race. If one accepts the idea that Bennett identifies the racial and sexual clichés that are constitutive of the myth of the phallus, it then becomes clear that he attempts to counter this representation of black masculinity by burdening the myth to an extreme with a satirical fusion of morality and immorality, rationality and irrationality. In his attempt to deconstruct the phallic myth and all the hurtful consequences it entailed, such as lynching and castration, the novelist gathers three male characters whose personalities and behaviors are brought to the fore. There is first Roosevelt, the paradoxical figure of impassivity who seems to accept the idea of being lynched for a dubious wink at a white woman. Titus comes next. He is the one who boasts to have deliberately murdered his wife by way of the sexual act and has in his mind to found the Church of the Naked Disciple, gathering people that will worship a black man’s body, and most particularly the phallus. Finally, the archetype of the various clichés of the black male’s unrefrained sexuality is the main protagonist, Joe, who finds out that he has no identity except his “niggerness,” and that all he has is his sex.

26Yet, if we read beyond this association of stereotypes that have contributed to the normative colonial construction of black masculinity, we understand that while Bennett’s narrative is located within the sociocultural arena, it also evinces a clear political bias with America’s racial madness in the background. It eventually offers a provocative philosophical representation of southern masculinity since the perspective is that of erasure of the masculine black self that faces unleashed violence and madness. A question still remains : Is it possible to make a hero out of the black stud mythologized in Lord of Dark Places ? According to Nietzsche, a hero is one who engages in life-transcending contests. A heroic life is an individual existence that struggles toward the Overman. In fact, there is a duality in Bennett’s mythologized black stud. Unavoidably, when his inability to overcome pessimism makes him murder his own son and admit “We cannot love now because we have lost the ability to love” (LDP 215), he may be viewed as an anti-hero in Nietzsche’s mind. However, in his yearning to identify himself with the Divine, metaphorically expressed when on the electric chair he is sexually aroused and shouts before dying, “Father, forgive them, they know exactly what they’re doing” (LDP 310), the black stud really fits within the Nietzschean heroic frame.

Opening up the Text to Other Forms of Masculinities : The “as if” Quality of Metaphoric Thinking

27The novelist’s artwork is to be understood as an organic structure in which language is turned into a protagonist and used as a weapon. However, although the novelist refuses a normalized definition of black manhood, he does not discard the clichés of the hypersexual black man. He even pretends to follow the logic of the phallic myth extensively since the novel comes to an end with a focus on the image of the black male protagonist strapped down, blindfolded, about to die on the electric chair but sexually aroused during the very last second of his life. Exploring how the use of metaphoric thinking transforms the archetype of the hypersexual black man into a victim eager to find a shelter in madness will help dispel misconceptions about Bennett’s representation of black masculinity.

28Bennett incorporates a double view of reality in his representation of black manhood. He combines a satirical attack on the myth of the phallus with an ironic parable on the loss of innocence inclusive of the departure from the Garden of Eden, the discovery of responsibility and morality, and eventually the escape through madness and death. Structurally, metaphoric thinking is instilled into Bennett’s novel that has certain similarities to a Bildungsroman. Thus, as the hero progresses on his identity quest he experiences a chauvinistic and almost sexual appeal to his country. America has for him the attractive curves of a white woman : “America…was a woman he could love, a large and beautiful white woman, he felt such a warm, spontaneous excitement for her monuments and parks and cities, her amber waves of grain (LDP 89). Humor, metaphoric thinking and satire combine when the black male protagonist dubs his penis Christopher, in memory of Christopher Columbus. The protagonist’s jump into the river when fleeing north is the symbol of baptism, of rebirth to a new life. Tony Brenzo, the white integrationist cop from the North offering knowledge to be exchanged with a loss of personality, is the personification of the snake in the Bible. Death has the shape of a voluptuous Black goddess that the black protagonist wishes to penetrate to reach bliss. Joe Market thus acts as a Nietzschean hero. He is, in a sense, Overman, a self-overcoming character. This involves a domineering attitude towards life even though he may appear despaired, feeling life is meaningless. Just like Nietzsche’s Overman, he conceives life in terms of Dionysian realization. He is able to face life, realizing that all pasts make him what he is today ; he shows self-mastery about the way to deal with the truth not in a direct manner with straightforward rules but more like a sensitive mix of indirect approaches. This finds an illustration when he decides he must kill his own son in order to save him from racial madness but, after killing his baby son, refrains from revealing the truth to his wife. He opts for an indirect approach, pretending he knew nothing about his boy’s death : “‘Our son’s dead ?’ His voice sounded high and unnaturally shrill to his own ears, like some of those sissy boy sopranos” (LDP 160).

29Not only does Bennett’s shifting vision constrain the reader to maintain the interchange between different levels of discourse (narration, satire, allegory), but the metaphoric vision itself requires the reader to suspend commitments to literal reality and take the poetic or imaginary fiction seriously. A useful example is offered by the successive metaphors of baptism and fall that duplicate African Americans’ Great Migration from the South to the North. In other words, they duplicate the achievements and the failures of the black man’s American experience. His sufferings are constitutive of the myth of innocence with which Bennett attempts to counter the phallic myth.

30At the same time, Bennett creates new metaphors located in the improvisations of a sexual vocabulary that reaches stupefying heights. Specifically, by resorting to some form of lexical dilatation of outrageous sexual idiom, Bennett projects the text beyond the system of normalized representation of black masculinity and positions his discourse on the level of satire. An illustration of Bennett’s startling improvisations is offered in this passage in which the hero asserts his manhood as vigorously as he would sing a sexual song :

Man. I am the Naked Disciple. . . . Now he was a man. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child ; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. A white cop looked at him, but his peter just got harder. Fuck you jack. You want to suck my big black peter ? You white motherfucker, I know you want to suck my peter. He wished he was double-jointed so he could suck it himself. Man. (LDP46).

31In this extract, both outrageous and arresting in its irreverence, the black hero reflects on his masculinity. To convey the black male’s reflection, Bennett makes the choice of a rhetoric of exaggeration working on the reader’s mind. Repetition and amplification, intertwined with digression, disrupt the forward movement of the narration. The interaction of the two sets of referents—the literal level and the pretended one—is precisely what turns metaphoric thinking into a weapon to counter the myth of the hypersexual black male. Indeed, if taken literally, the metaphor is patently absurd. Consequently, to believe every one of Bennett’s improvisations in his metaphoric discourse would be to accept an absurdity as truth. In short, Bennett’s subversive writing consists in amplifying the metaphor as if it reflected the truth. It means making of this metaphor a myth. Consequently, the fact of reducing this metaphor to its literal statement means destroying the metaphor itself and therefore the myth tied to it. The absurdity of the myth is made patent.

32This strategy of exaggeration that aims to demonstrate the absurdity of the phallic myth is also founded on humor. For instance, the use of repetitive forms through which the novelist represents the black man’s mental world is part of the process of amplification that makes the myth look ridiculous. Once it has been extended to an extreme degree, ridicule ruins the phallic myth. An example of this strategy of subversive writing through a rhetoric of excess is to be found in the following extract that reflects the hero’s entrapment in the myth of the Black male’s unrestrained sexuality : “He decided then that today ought to be his peter’s day off . . . All those gaping motherfuckers could look, but none of them could touch. Not today” (LDP 46). The arrangement of idiomatic expressions gives Bennett the opportunity to link up numerous referents of the stereotype of the hyper-sexed black man to what is shown as a grotesque commitment to a fantasy. Besides, the rhetoric of excess as a way to extol the black masculine body serves, in fact, the purpose of launching a satirical attack on the phallic myth. It is recognizable in the literary device of extended metaphor used by Bennett when he focuses on the Naked Disciple’s body. By distorting a passage of the Gospel of Matthew 16 :13-18 about Christ founding the church on Peter, the first Pope of the Catholic Church, and by opting for an irreverent play on words defiling the image of the “rock” present in the Gospel that points to the strength and persistence of the Christian Church, Bennett’s profane discourse indirectly introduces the idea that salvation for Blacks is not attainable through Christianity : “He walked on happily, throwing his left leg to show off the growing bulge of his peter against his thigh. Thou art Peter. Well he was, wasn’t he ? And Titus had built a church upon his rock” (LDP 38). The tropes used in Lord of Dark Places, including irony, which is a metaphor of opposites, clearly make up the vehicle that permits unlimited lexical associations to resist the normalization of the construction of black masculinity.

33The logical absurdity of metaphors has a cognitive function in Bennett’s novel as it offers readers a new awareness. Indeed, central to the aesthetic of the novel is the use of sexual metaphors endowed with an “as if” quality. It implies that while these metaphors do not reflect real facts, they do not lock up the text in the fictitious either. This “as if” characteristic enables readers to see the metaphoric in what is taken as literal about the black man’s vulnerability. A meaningful example is to be found in Part I of the novel when the white woman summons the Black protagonist walking along the street to come up to her fence. She wants the black male for what he is said to represent, hypersexuality and sexual prowess. But at the same time she hates him for his blackness : “Oh… I’d admire having that hard thing in me. But I can’t get out there because Daddy hates for me to mess around with niggers…” (LDP 50). So, when she orders him to perform sexually through the fence, the railing that is between the two bodies is concretely and symbolically what is keeping the black man and the white woman apart. The “as if” quality of the metaphor clearly enables the reader to make believe that what is related in the text is literally true although what he reads is rather the satiric expression for phenomena that cannot be conveyed in a straightforward way.

34Lord of Dark Places offers extreme examples of the process by which metaphorical extensions and mutations allow readers to venture into the system of representation of masculinity. If one considers that identity is ideological, then its construction entails a wide range of beliefs about what one should do, what one is able to do, and what one believes one really is. Relying on metaphoric thinking, Bennett introduces the representation of opposite forms of black masculinity into his novel. To do so, he bases his figuration of manhood on the perception of binaries, such as hypersexual masculinity versus emasculated masculinity. Then he brings the overlapping of these binaries into focus. This is notably the case when the hyper-sexed black male hero shaken by the black lieutenant’s castration and death murders his own son lest the boy should one day lose his manhood, his dignity and his life. Remembering his grandfather Roosevelt’s lynching and emasculation, the hero is convinced that “America herself” will “get a man twisted and maimed and destroyed sexless” (LDP 146). After having embodied the myth of the phallus, that is the hypersexual black male, Joe Market will become a symbol of the black male’s emasculation. For instance, when he meets his wife after she has discovered their son’s dead body, he pretends he has just arrived and expresses freely the feminine part of his personality. Indeed, he admits feeling emasculated, fearing “the dark void” (LDP 152) between his legs, and then ceases all sexual activity with his wife. In this part of the text, the novelist deviates from the ideological imposition of a colonial normative perspective on gender identity. He challenges the codes tied to phallocentric stereotypes of manhood rooted in strength, power and heterosexuality. Moreover, he offers shifting views of masculinity while organizing the text around a quest : that of masculinity in progress. In other words, he introduces masculinity as a process of self-definition and identity formation.

35In Part II of Lord of Dark Places, Bennett foregrounds the illustrative metaphor of the myth of innocence as a rhetorical vehicle through which the black male renegotiates his identity. Specifically, Joe Market, who has jumped into the river to escape being shot down by the police, and swum for his life, emerges from the water with a sense of resurrection : “He had somehow been born again, but this time without earthly parents, a naked child of sun…” (LDP 70). The extended metaphor of the hero’s dying to a sinful life and being reborn to self-awareness is associated with a representation of masculinity linked to the expression of subjectivity, in short to a sense of the self. Wholeness and coherence are seldom neutral terms.

36By appropriating metaphoric thinking, Bennett creates new modes of representation of black masculinity. After being forced to leave the South and its protective myths to go North, Joe is exposed to white hostility. He becomes a whore attracting perverts. Besides, in the North, the Black hero is no longer described as the embodiment of the phallic myth he was in the South. His black masculinity is now synonymous with vulnerability. Images of black masculinity alternate, therefore, between hypersexuality and desexualisation. The novelist resorts to analogic metaphors that create images by contrast to show the black male protagonist facing both racial madness and the madness of the Vietnam War. Then, as the narrator’s point of view evolves towards a social perspective, a new form of masculinity is delineated. It consists in the right the black male grants himself to subordinate weaker human beings, a white homosexual and a black woman, his wife, as a mode of compensation for his own subordination. It is that sort of hierarchical black masculinity set up to subordinate weaker human beings as compensation for his own subordination that the black male protagonist clings to. A salient example is provided by the black male protagonist’s scornful attitude with Lamont, the white man whom he forces to reveal his homosexuality, even though this will result in Lamont hanging himself. It is the same need to subordinate someone weaker, his wife, as compensation for his own feeling of subordination that explains the hero’s deliberately sadistic behavior with Odessa, whom he has come to despise (“Now he felt nothing but contempt for her,” 176) and subjects to all kinds of indignity.

  • 1 Aesthetically speaking, a useful parallel could be established between Bennett’s approach to gender (...)

37The text resembles a labyrinth, as fragmentation lying behind unity in the metaphor of Christian Redemption opens up the text to new forms of masculinity. Drawing from Aristotle, who implies in Poetic that metaphor might be used as a means of discovery, I will also retain the philosopher’s definition of the term as “the transference of a word to a sense different from its proper signification” (80). Undeniably, the two systems of reference of metaphoric thinking offer us an understanding of the symbolical meaning of specific images used to incorporate a new awareness into the text. An example of this new awareness is offered by the metaphor of the dress, the only garment the hero is able to find to cover his body when he emerges, naked, from the river. As he is dressed like a woman, a transformation occurs. This image is to be grasped as the metaphor of the feminine and vulnerable part of his personality made concrete when he becomes a whore. As he attracts perverts, he eventually questions his own sexuality. Consequently, a new black male voice emerges in Part II in which Bennett introduces a gender-oriented perspective. This standpoint brings the reader to reflect on the cultural representation of black women because Bennett utilizes the concept of the black woman as a subordinated category supporting the gendered representation of black masculinity. Through the image of the dress covering the hero’s naked body, it is the subordinated figure of the black woman and the uniqueness of her oppression in the American experience that are associated with the figure of the black male. This gendered representation of black masculinity through an approach to black women’s subordination in the system of hierarchies finds an echo in Patricia Collins’s analysis of the mechanisms of subordination : “group location in hierarchical power relations produces shared experiences for individuals in those groups” (281).1


38This essay has analyzed the strategy developed by a masculinist writer to challenge the normative definition of black masculinity in the Old South. Lord of Dark Places has unquestionably been framed to serve a strategy of satirical writing designed to be comprehensively useful for deconstructing a normative system of subordination of black masculinity. The stereotype of the hypersexual black man amplified into becoming a phallic myth and the black male as defiler acting like a Nietzschean hero are the leading figures in an analytical process that goes beyond satirical attacks on myths and stereotypes. Important assumptions underlie Bennett’s text. First, there is a progression in the black male protagonist’s experiences, from low, that is the remote level of memory with the description of the sex-oriented trauma the hero’s father and grandfather had to face, to the highest level of the hero’s embracing Death as he would embrace a black woman. Within this framework, the existence of interlocking systems of oppression demonstrates that a member of a subordinated group, like the black male protagonist, is in his turn likely to extend subordination to weaker people such as gays and women, out of a need for compensation. Second, Bennett’s rhetoric of excess and satirical attacks on stereotypes challenge the white normative idea that masculinity is bound to the dominance of socially marginalized groups. Third, a reinterpretation of masculinity inclusive of gender emerges from the text that may be summed up by Paul Smith’s words, “Masculinity is not ; there are only masculinities in the plural” (3). In Lord of Dark Places, the varied embodiments of the masculine self denote, therefore, a continuous process of transformation, knowing that on the level of historical events, Bennett makes the source of the ambiguity superhuman—be it History, Fate or the gods.

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1 Aesthetically speaking, a useful parallel could be established between Bennett’s approach to gendered masculinity through a focus on the black body and the views of contemporary black womanists, Sonia Sanchez, Ayana Byrd, or Asali Solomon. I will argue that Bennett’s representation of black masculinity evolves, at times, towards a feminine sensuous approach to the black body very much evocative of Lori L. Tharps’s exclamation : “I began to realize my body could, in fact, be an object of desire” (49). This process of metaphoric thinking incorporates other symbolic domains that are synthetized in this statement by Sonia Sanchez : “‘Who are these bodies for ?’ These bodies are for ourselves . . . . Because when you talk about beauty, you’re really talking about what it means to be human. When you find the core of humanity inside yourself, that’s when you know that you are beautiful” (xv).

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Françoise CLARY, « Dismantling Southern Codes of Black Masculinity : The Black Male’s Demystified Image in Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970) », Babel, 31 | 2015, 75-101.

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Françoise CLARY, « Dismantling Southern Codes of Black Masculinity : The Black Male’s Demystified Image in Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970) », Babel [En ligne], 31 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 avril 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.4072

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Françoise CLARY

Université de Rouen - ERIAC (EA 4705)

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