Review: Black Manhood and Community Building in North Carolina
Angela Hornsby-Gutting. Black Manhood and Community Building in North Carolina, 1900-1930. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 244 pp. ISBN 9780813036793.
Historians have long recognized the prominence of the Protestant church within the African American community, from its “invisible” institutional origins under slavery to its conspicuous leadership in the civil rights era. In her book, Angela Hornsby-Gutting assumes an acquaintance with this fact as she seeks to expand the gendered analysis of black community development in the Jim Crow South. Focusing specifically on the role black men played in this process, the author rectifies a perceived oversight in the historical literature, which typically emphasizes black men’s activity in the political arena and black women’s roles in community development. In her analysis of black men within the church, fraternal orders, and community institutions, Hornsby-Gutting sheds long overdue light upon their pivotal role in negotiating gender constructions and racial uplift in the face of white racial discrimination and black class and gender division.
The author begins this analysis by examining black churchmen and their reactions to the “Black Women’s Era” in which black women, much like white women of the period, assumed more assertive roles within the church and community. In her first chapter, Hornsby-Gutting recognizes how Jim Crow segregation statutes, disfranchisement legislation, and lynch law all politically unmanned black men. She also acknowledges the rising tide of white racial prejudice, highlighting the gendered means by which whites denigrated black women as licentious while castigating black men as bestial. Through her examination of various denominational convention meetings, the author emphasizes the precarious balancing act performed by African American churchmen. In her view, these men sought to combat white prejudice by subscribing to prevailing Victorian gender conventions, which idealized masculine restraint and feminine virtue while also asserting their masculine prerogatives of female protector and community leader. Toeing this line proved difficult. External prejudice and oppression combined with internal class conflict and gender dissension to frustrate male efforts to control female community activity and promote racial solidarity. These dueling motives pervade all subsequent issues.
The second chapter explicates the “boy problem” prevalent in all evangelical denominations of the period. The feminization of religion and society—symptoms of the modern industrial economy—figured prominently in the minds of many whites and blacks. Their proposed solution, typically identified as “Muscular Christianity,” was to recruit more young men into the church by emphasizing recreational pursuits as important to both spiritual development and masculine maturation. Among African Americans, this pursuit involved similar contestation between feminine assertion and masculine control, racial uplift and gender hierarchy that shaped debates over church policy. Chapter three follows these debates into African American fraternal orders—especially the Prince Hall Masons—highlighting the discord between these all-male spaces and their auxiliary female organizations as both groups engaged in racial uplift activities such as education and economic relief. The final chapter documents how these debates evolved over time by focusing on Emancipation Day celebrations and “colored” state fairs, paying particular attention to the role and function of Asheville’s Young Men’s Institute (YMI—a local organization similar to the YMCA). She argues convincingly that the younger generations increasingly rejected attempts to assuage white prejudicial fears in favor of direct resistance to discrimination and forceful assertion of black manhood and racial pride.
Hornsby-Gutting situates her work squarely within the rubric of southern gender and race relations. She brings a substantive discussion of postbellum black manhood to the insights pioneered by Gail Bederman, Kathleen Clark, Laura Edwards, Glenda Gilmore, and Tera Hunter, among others, who focus predominantly upon black women. Moreover, by relating religious developments to Jim Crow legislation, class conflict, and Victorian gender conventions, Hornsby-Gutting pushes the discussion of black masculinity beyond the purely political, while also placing the black church and its community function within the broader narrative of American imperialism.
Several works seem conspicuously absent from Hornsby-Gutting’s notes—Kristin Hoganson’s Fighting for American Manhood(1998), Clifford Putney’s Muscular Christianity(2001), and Ted Ownby’s Subduing Satan(1990)—all of which might have enhanced her related perspectives on the gendered dynamics of imperialism, religion, and recreation. Scholars seeking an in-depth treatment of the theological and institutional development of African American religion—or evangelicalism generally—in the period should look elsewhere. But those interested in the gendered dimensions of the black church within the black community, the Jim Crow South, and the imperial age will find impressive rewards herein.