book review by annie hikido
The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, Matlon discusses how tropes of Black masculinity have facilitated capitalist accumulation through slavery, colonial, and neoliberal eras. The overview traces how the Black male body has not only been exploited as cheap labor, but also fetishized as a commodity object and positioned as a conflicted consumer. The second part examines the growth of the African city through significations of Blackness. With a focus on Abidjan, we see how colonial and postcolonial ideals travel across the Atlantic and shape notions of urban citizenship. These first two sections provide a historical foundation for Matlon’s analysis and delineate its transnational scope. They reveal how starting in an African city, a place more likely to draw the attention of anthropologists, provides fertile, overlooked grounds for understanding sociological phenomena. They also display Matlon’s fidelity to scholars who have long studied racial capitalism. In drawing from historians, geographers, and other cultural theorists, she directs sociologists to venture beyond disciplinary boundaries to understand racial capitalism in fuller scope and more granular detail.
Here is where Matlon turns to Gramsci. At first glance, these self-presentations appear to be contestations. Black men are challenging discourses that pit them as unable to provide and therefore are not “real men.” But Matlon points out that there is an element of consent at play also. Their attempt to redeem themselves through entrepreneurial businessmen and media superstars legitimates participation in global capitalism as a restorative practice. Put another way, these performances play into the capitalist organization of symbols and obscure anti-capitalist alternatives.
This is a sharp observation and important theoretical development within a literature that emphasizes Black resistance. Most American scholars attribute the concept of racial capitalism to Cedric Robinson. In Black Marxism (1983), Robinson argues that the co-production of racism and capitalism has historically organized exploitation but also grown an international legacy of Black revolution. What he calls the “Black Radical Tradition” does not assert the inherent radicalness of Black identity. Rather, the term captures how groups assigned to Blackness have resisted in response to their oppression. It also underscores that it was not just the heroism of fabled Black revolutionaries but Black people’s mobilization that led to radical social change.
I do not read Matlon’s work as a challenge to the Black Radical Tradition. I see it as a cautionary note about how “Blackness” can be re-signified to sustain capitalism and prevent collective mobilization. This is important because I sometimes sense an impulse to celebrate marginalized persons who challenge racism and sexism through discourse and representation. Matlon illustrates how Black men’s refusal to be cast as failures translates into performances that play into the very system they appear to be challenging. These double-edged practices of contestation and consent remind us that symbolic and structural dimensions must always be thought of in relation to each other.
A Man Among Other Men is not simply a book about Ivoirian men, but about gendered dynamics of capitalist hegemony. Matlon makes this clear, and in doing so, invites reconsideration of the ethnographic object. Ethnographers usually enter their research with an interest in a specific group, and then that group becomes the analytical focus. After all, the word “ethnography” directly translates as the “study of an ethnic group.” This approach is embedded in both the anthropological and sociological traditions of ethnography and is generally still taken for granted. In the frequent occasion when we must deliver a research elevator pitch, it’s convenient and expected that we say, for example, “I am studying Black men in Côte d’Ivoire.” In a brief but pointed methodological note, Matlon argues that this framing sustains a fascination with an “other” in ways that recall ethnography’s colonial roots.
Ethnographers can be an anxious bunch. We remain haunted by the uneven power relations that produced the method and continue to define it. Among urban ethnographers in particular, there has been much criticism of the “outsider” who presents aggrieved communities as helpless and pitiful. In response, there is sometimes a desire to demonstrate how marginal groups are heroically resilient or remarkably strategic. These portrayals understandably aim to debunk past ethnographic offenses. But I am concerned that these efforts may veer into overcorrections. Failing to attend to how structural and historical forces have conditioned complex responses would ironically reproduce the trademark flatness of colonial representations.
Matlon argues that shifting the analytical focus from groups to social processes might start to undo what she refers to as “residual colonial logic.” Her object of inquiry is not Ivoirian men; it is capitalist hegemony. This has analytical purchase and an inherently political one. When we make social relations the ethnographic object, we might direct attention to how we are all implicated in these processes, as opposed to just outside observers and readers. We, and not just Black men of Abidjan, have roles, stakes, and responsibilities in how capitalist hegemony sustains the chasms of social inequality.
Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Note: This essay is based on the author’s comments at the Ethnographic Café on November 18, 2022.