Source: Boston Review
In the photograph Branded Head (2003), the shape of a black man’s clean-shaven head gracefully curves against a plain white background. The subject’s face—and with it all the features that might have identified him—is outside of the frame. The viewer’s attention is drawn instead to a keloid several inches above his ear in the shape of the Nike swoosh. The man is branded.
The portrait is a searing critique of what its creator, artist Hank Willis Thomas, calls a commodifiable blackness. “Young African American men especially,” Thomas observes, “have been known to pay to become the best advertisers anyone could ask for.” Without the Nike swoosh, Thomas’s subject would be entirely anonymous, a faceless black body. Branded, he becomes recognizable—yet in a way that accepts commodification as the source of his identity.
For Thomas, Branded Head speaks to how little has changed across the different eras of racial capitalism. “Slaves,” he explains, “were branded as a sign of ownership and. . . today so many of us brand ourselves.” In the first instance, branding was a mark of lost agency, a conversion of the body into a commodity object. Now branding—commodification—ironically restores value, in a postindustrial era that so often construes the black body as lacking any intrinsic value.
It is undeniable that our culture’s obsession with branding cuts across race and gender. Nonetheless there is something unique about how black men participate in it, and that speaks to their location within the structure of racial capitalism. For much of capitalism’s history, after all, its protagonists—the property owners and wage laborers who, as Marx would say, were destined to “make history”—were all white men. This legacy of entitlement persists in the inequalities we see today, which so often render black and male as inherently contradictory, the fact of black abjection set irreconcilably against the anticipation of male privilege. This contradiction should be an opening to critique capitalism’s persuasive ideology that reduces individual worth to monetary value. But as Branded Head implies, hegemony is in effect: even for men inhibited from achieving normative masculinities rooted in work, economic agency remains integral to their identities. Consumerism and commodification—brands and branding—thus become occult expressions of capitalist success that emerge as alternatives to conventional success within the labor economy. Through them, black men paradoxically are transformed into iconic figures of success within the fantasy of late capitalism.
The european transition to industrial capitalism established a division of labor that assigned men dominant roles as “productive” wage laborers and left women to reproductive activities outside of the new market economy. Men’s wages, in turn, enabled them to become providers—breadwinners in patriarchal, heteronormative households.
But while capitalism defined the laboring body as male, race placed black men at the intersection of male privilege and racial exclusion. To be black, as Cedric Robinson wrote in Black Marxism (1983), was to have “no civilization, no cultures, no religions, no history, no place, and finally no humanity that might command consideration.” Black men had to navigate a contested terrain, struggling to assert their limited economic agency. Within the world capitalist system, then, black men were cast in three distinct but imbricated roles: as commodified bodies, as devalued laborers, and as fraught consumers.
In the slave economy, the black body was commodified both as labor (to produce value) and as capital (property itself). Blackness, in other words, was valued both as capital and subhuman capital-generator. Upon manumission, the symbolic weight of blackness did not just evaporate: black bodies continued to be subjected to the exploitations of the most degraded forms of capitalist labor, while the status of their humanity remained, for their white employers and coworkers, a question mark. Black men struggled to be paid wages equivalent to white workers and were frequently emasculated as “boys” at denigrating workplaces. And because this meant that black men did not center their identities around work, these jobs for the most part did not present themselves as obvious sites for black “working”-class struggle. Instead, as Robin D. G. Kelley shows in Race Rebels (1994), leisure, social spaces, and sartorial expression “enabled African Americans to take back their bodies for their own pleasure rather than another’s profit.” Unable to enjoy the social status of the (white) working man, black men survived and garnered status outside of the boundaries circumscribing “good” or “dignified” work. Within the world capitalist system, black men were cast in three distinct but imbricated roles: as commodified bodies, as devalued laborers, and as fraught consumers. Opposition to economic and racial oppression on the job, in other words, centered performative expressions of black masculinity, and positioned black cultural forms such as music and style as important arenas of protest. Kelley illustrates this when he considers the political implications of Malcolm X’s zoot suit. So, too, do Theresa Runstedtler in Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner (2012), her study of early twentieth-century world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson and his cars and furs, and Mark Anthony Neal in Looking for Leroy (2013), his analysis of Jay-Z’s self-branding as an “elite ‘product’.”
Naturalizing the masculine, and by extension white, character of virtuous labor was a hegemonic project, the ideological axis of economic domination. The theory of hegemony, developed by twentieth-century Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, explained how dominant group ideology transcends class to appear as common-sense understandings of the world and thus generate consent to domination. Stuart Hall adapted Gramsci’s theory to describe how identity construction becomes “the ‘trenches’ and the permanent fortifications” of ideological struggle. Because various aspects of identity do not always align, they generate “contradictory forms of ‘common sense.’” Hall was concerned with the clash of class and race in particular, a clash seen, for example, in white nationalist ideologies that produce antipathy to black and immigrant struggles, thus inhibiting the formation of a potentially formidable interracial working-class coalition.
But Hall’s interpretation also illustrates the contradictions of black masculinity, an identity situated at the intersection of masculine entitlement and devalued blackness. Patriarchy, as a “common-sense” ideology, is a powerful incentive for black men to remain committed to tenets of masculine worth rooted in economic value—even when their devalued participation in the labor market means they are unable to achieve dominant masculinities themselves.
Striving to achieve economic value presents the aforementioned alternatives to labor: commodification and consumerism, branding and brands. Blackness, with its legacy of double commodification, is particularly susceptible to disembodied market value. Tokenism and cultural appropriation—valuable blackness coupled with the near or total absence of black people—exemplify the marginal position occupied by blacks in the marketplace. So while black laboring bodies in many instances have become redundant, the social registers of blackness have been converted into cultural capital and remain highly significant. Greg Tate writes in Everything But the Burden (2003) that, as capitalism’s original fetish object, “the Black body, and subsequently Black culture, has become a hungered-after taboo item and a nightmarish bugbear in the badlands of the American racial imagination.” The ubiquitous image of a dunking Michael Jordan hints at how iconic the black male body is in popular culture. Yet Jordan’s repurposing as a commodity—one aimed at compelling consumption by other black men—renders his remarkable athleticism secondary to his power as a commercial object. Tokenism and cultural appropriation—valuable blackness coupled with the near or total absence of black people—exemplify the marginal position occupied by blacks in the marketplace. This commodification of Jordan dramatizes the degree to which black manhood, so far as the market is concerned, has value mainly as a trope. Tropes, in this sense, are not only personifications of a stereotype. They are performing commodities that embody extreme expressions of livelihoods—whether celebrity or criminal—that are outside of wage labor and that are rooted in conspicuous consumption. For black men excluded from the labor market, such tropes stand in as promises of success in the capitalist world system. Indeed, for many they suggest an alternative to market fundamentalism: if conventional routes to masculine worth via virtuous breadwinning are unavailable, the freedom to make money any way possible and spend it with abandon emerges as a generalizable expression of manhood.
Like a blinged-out Horatio Alger, the black male trope is many things at once: as Tate maintains, the “ultimate outsider,” yes, but also, as Nicole Fleetwood contends, “an ultra-stylish thug and the ultimate American citizen.” In his essay “NIGGA: The 21st-Century Theoretical Superhero” (2013), Neal explains, “basic tropes of ‘blackness’—black culture, black identity, black institutions—have been distorted, remixed, and undermined by the logic of the current global economy.” This distorted blackness enables a “stake in transnational capitalism” but at the expense of being “posited and circulated as a buffer against white supremacy, political disenfranchisement, slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the collusion of racist imaginations and commercial culture.” The commodification of blackness during a time when an ever-increasing number of the world’s laborers are insecure, contingent, or chronically unemployed thus has the perverse effect of extolling blackness within the very system that objectifies it.
While blackness was initially subjected to what Aimé Césaire referred to in 1955 as thingification in service to capitalism, tropes of blackness now personify the ideals of making and spending—the basic freedoms of late capitalism. Even for black men who are never able to attain normative, producer-provider masculinities, the seduction of patriarchal privilege is a powerful driver. With their masculinities at stake, many seek out alternative means to demonstrate their economic agency. They achieve this by locating black value in its commodity form—paying to advertise, as Thomas aphorizes. Doing so enables black men to overwrite the dominant narrative of labor market exclusion.
Yet by accepting commodification as a source of black value, these strategies also perpetuate capitalist hegemony. The trope accepts the fundamental association of blackness with commodification as the cost of admission to the patriarchal political economic order. Just as the incorporation of blackness in the world capitalist economy reduced it to object status, black value thus recuperated is still—the more so, even—a product of racial capitalism. Resisting the denigrations of racial capitalism has become the means of its preservation.
In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote: “The economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” We might also add that you are a man because you have money, and you have money because you are a man. It is in this context of unequal access to productive, remunerative labor that consumerism and commodification have become so pervasive to the public personas of black masculinity. From slavery on, the fact of blackness being the cause and consequence of economic devaluation has made patriarchal capitalist inclusion especially appealing for black men, like winning a rigged game against all odds. But in doing so, the terms of black liberation are collapsed into patriarchal entitlement and participation in capitalism, rather than being framed as a more ambitious anti-capitalist critique.
As a result of their structural position and the perspective it has given them, black Americans are in a privileged position to critique racial capitalism. But that is a potentiality, not a foregone fact. The risk of essentializing blackness, Hall warns, is that “we are tempted to use ‘black’ as sufficient in itself to guarantee the progressive character of the politics we fight under the banner.” The cause may appear the consequence, such that all utterances celebrating blackness are treated as oppositions to racial capitalism. Among other things, this threatens to mistake consumer choice for social justice and branding for black power. A recent example is the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s Nike contract, in which the terrain of struggle was in some senses transformed into one of brand visibility and consumer allegiance. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s endorsement, embraced as a victory, overshadows the fact that his appointment as a Nike spokesperson in no way altered the fragility of black life in the United States—not to mention the debased conditions of Nike’s sweatshop laborers abroad. Highly visible expressions of black masculinity—specious substitutes for revolutionary potential—thus become but a selling point for disposable bodies in the market of disposable consumerism.
At the same time that commercial culture converts black men into tropes, black men’s purported deviances (as drug dealers, say) or deficiencies (as absent fathers) vis-à-vis the breadwinning masculine ideal are made— with equal parts disgust and fascination—the subject of exposés, white papers, and government programs. Initiatives such as Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper—which proposes that better mentorship, rather than structural change, is the key to black men’s success—underscore the emphasis black respectability politics places on the right kind of remunerative strategies and consumption practices as the way to achieve black uplift. Such approaches have identified black capitalism as the source of black liberation. Beholden to the system, perhaps it is.
Yet for black people, “buying in rather than dropping out” acquiesces to “the link between commodities and identities,” as Paul Gilroy observed. In other words, not all proposed routes to black liberation lead to the same place. Black thingification has the potential to be a powerful counterhegemonic force against the degradations of racial capitalism. The black radical tradition that Robinson outlined in Black Marxism understands anti-capitalism as an abolitionist politics—one that has the potential to benefit not only blacks but everyone ensnared by a global system of labor market exclusion and environmental devastation that will immiserate and finally destroy us all.
In the welcome resurgence of writing about racial capitalism, the integral role of patriarchy in upholding ideological and economic domination is often missed. But a truly radical counterhegemony can only be realized by disassociating both blackness and manhood from capitalist registers of worth. The original construction of the black body as a commodity object, after all, uniquely positions it to critique the commodity fetish. And likewise the contradictory location of black masculinity uniquely positions it to critique the patriarchal, heteronormative ideals of male economic entitlement.
Yet the trope—as the ultimate performance of black masculinity—has proven a ready proponent of capital. In Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), bell hooks asks, “And what does it say about the future of black liberation struggles if the phrase ‘it’s a dick thing’ is transposed and becomes ‘it’s a black thing?’” If this is the case, she warns, “black people are in serious trouble.” True black liberation is rather, as Tate suggests, “divestment in the performance of ‘Blackness.’”