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Breaking the Rules: Subverting Traditional Masculinity on the Court and Beyond

Marc Lamont Hill

Society's pressures complicate black male friendships. The basketball court is one place where black men can just be friends.

A few weeks ago, I decided to come out of self-imposed retirement and play a game of Sunday pick-up basketball with some friends. Except for my decreased talent and increased laziness, the game was like thousands of others that I'd played in my lifetime: two solid hours of intense cheating, ball hogging, and shit talking; countless victories and losses that meant everything at the moment but would soon be forgotten after a few days of deadlines, meetings, and personal drama; and, most important, more brotherly love and affection than I had experienced in months. And while none of the other 13 brothers who were there would likely admit it, a major reason for their presence on the court that morning was for collecting all the hugs, high-fives, chest bumps, and ass smacks that comprise any ghetto basketball game.

What all of us needed, in addition to consummating our passion for the game and savor for intense competition, was a space for offering the type of caring touches, kind words, and genuine regard for other brothers that most of us possess but aren't permitted to share except under very limited and heavily surveyed conditions. Where else but a basketball court, football field, or other such place could that thug ass nigga with the Sunni Muslim beard who didn't know me from a can of spray paint place his hand on the small of my back and ask if I was okay as I desperately gasped for air? Where else would I not have thought twice about it? Although none of my comrades checked their homophobia at the out-of-bounds line — for instance, words like "faggot" were used countless times that day — they were able to momentarily escape the world of hypermasculine cool poses and ice grills, let their guards down, and be someone slightly different and better.

My point here isn't that black men sneak off to basketball courts to indulge their homoerotic impulses. (This is a necessary caveat given America's current obsession with the Down Low, which has degenerated into a homophobic witch hunt that reiterates the notion of the Black penis as a weapon of mass destruction.) In fact, there is little or nothing (necessarily) sexual about the practices that I am describing. On the contrary, the basketball court provides a space in which we instinctively separate the homosocial from the homosexual, the affectionate from the erotic. Further, I am pointing to the basketball court, in spite and because of its shortcomings, as a site of possibility for the development of what cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal calls the "New Black Man".

In his fascinating new book, New Black Man (Routledge, 2005), Neal discusses the contours and contradictions of black masculinity and argues for a more expansive conception that tries to discard much of the sexist and homophobic ideology that has historically informed our understandings of what it means to be a "real man". Neal rightly notes that the New Black Man is not a utopian vision of masculinity, but a "metaphor for an imagined life" that can serve as a guidepost on the journey to self-improvement and collective struggle. It is from this position that I look to the basketball court as a place to break the rules of traditional black masculinity and articulate a different notion of New Black Manhood. This notion is neither threatened nor compromised by acts of same-sex love, affection, consideration, and tolerance.

Of course, the basketball court is not the exclusive site for transgressive performances of masculinity. The black church also provides a space where men can partially shed their secular masculinities and display their undying love and attachment to God through the adoration of a gendered, raced, and sexed body of Jesus. As a church-going child, I witnessed countless instances where otherwise "normal" men dropped to their knees, cried, and danced in an impassioned frenzy for the man whose bodily images were plastered around the sanctuary.

Despite my longtime estrangement from the church, I am still nearly moved to tears by biblical narratives of fraternal healing, caring and touching from Jesus to his followers. Unfortunately, the same church that offers these narratives also provides vocal support or willful ignorance to the homophobic beliefs and practices of its parishioners, clergy, and other leaders, many of whom (including the most public and televisible) are quite possibly engaged in the very practices that they condemn. Nevertheless, the church remains a place that we can look to for direction and hope with regard to challenging masculinity. What would it mean for brothers to show that type of love and devotion within and outside of the church without sacrificing the bodies and spirits of women and gays?

Hip-hop culture also provides another important space for practicing forms of masculinity that diverge from the perceived norms. Good or bad, a critical part of hip-hop's legacy will likely be its focus on same sex bonds. All-male rap crews, countless odes to lost friends, "homeboy hugs" (half-handshake/half-hug), and "niggas over bitches" mantras all index hip-hop's obsession with male relationships. This preoccupation even spills into the zone of the homoerotic, as in the case of men who "run trains", or participate in group sex acts (simultaneous or successive) with multiple other men and one woman. Although the practice of running trains retains its heterosexual veneer by placing the female body as the exclusive point of erotic attention, its social value within the culture is directly linked to the level and quantity of participation and interaction among the men.

While hip-hop's transformative potential is ultimately hampered by its pervasive misogyny and homophobia — the same brother who runs trains will feign confusion, disdain, or disgust for same-sex romantic relationships — it nonetheless provides a fertile site for further analysis. What would it mean for brothers to display that kind of loyalty and commitment without using hatred of women and gays as the predicate for their bonds?

While these cultural spaces, and multiple others, carries us to the doorstep of New Black Manhood, each ultimately collapses under the weight of its own vicious misogyny and homophobia. Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned from places like the basketball court, the church, and hip-hop culture. The challenge is locating creative methods of sustaining the redemptive values and practices that emerge from gendered rule breaking while abandoning the vicious misogyny and homophobia that allows them to exist unchecked. This challenge must be taken seriously in order to realize our full potential as New Black Men.

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