book review by Yannick Coenders
The book consists of three parts that each highlight the paradoxes of Black masculinity under racial capitalism, which Matlon encapsulates as “a long crisis”. First, she argues theoretically why the very notion of “Black man” is – within the parameters of its colonial meaning – a contradiction in terms. Based on her reading of histories of colonial exploitation in Africa, she argues that the value of populations that are rendered Black “is proportionate to the reification of their difference” (p. 51). Simultaneously colonialisms’ civilizational imperative and differentiated rule held out a promise to Black men that they too could attain a metropolitan identity through education and salaried work. The latter created an indigenous male elite stratum of so called “évolués” that according to Matlon objected to colonial racism, while simultaneously participating in the circulation of an ideology that valorizes individual economic agency as a means to attain status within a masculine symbolic order. Thus, racial capitalism produces a Black male subject that almost inescapably becomes its accomplice.
Finally, Matlon gives an ethnographic account of how this commodified Black masculinity is integral to racial capitalism by juxtaposing performances of masculinity by street vendors against masculine performance by political orators. Through her description of the latter, a group of men, highly educated yet excluded from évolué status due to a shrinking state bureaucracy in which they once may have found employment, Matlon is able to show the continuities between the present and the historical imposition of colonial cultural norms. The street vendors reject this ideal, associated it with the past of French rule and perform a Black business identity instead. Drawing on tropes of Black masculinity originating in sports and hip hop, they situate themselves in a globally imagined network of Black icons. While the vendors counter dominant discourses in which whiteness is equated to economic power, they do so in a way that Matlon pointedly describes as a hegemonic counter-narrative. Indeed, once the street vendors had made it as businessmen, professional athletes, or rappers, they’d have access to a family life, luxury items, and global travel in ways that correspond with masculine ideals under capitalism more generally.
Matlon convincingly shows that while both groups may conceive of themselves as distinct from each other, they operate under similar constraints of unemployment and aspire to similar masculine ideals. In addition, she argues more implicitly that these Black subjectivities are highly individualized. Even notions of Blackness that have Black Atlantic iconic reference points that may betray a collective transnational consciousness, seem to merely operate as a source of vindication of masculinity. Matlon excels capturing these ethics of individual accomplishment through an in depth visual analysis of the cityscape centering barbershops in the final chapter. However, I wonder here whether actions speak louder than words, or at least whether they may have something to say. Beyond their highly individualized discourse, the men that Matlon encountered, seemed often to act communally. For example, there is the aspiring football player who gets material support from his local community to be able to practice and be freed from the everyday labor of street vending. There is the hiphop artist who sets up an organization that organizes rap shows for the community, but that also offers education, gives out business loans and emergency aid, and implements public works. Both the football player and the hiphop artist seem to reveal a collective consciousness that may not be apparent in the masculinist capitalist discourse that is continuously circulated in their social circles.
For Matlon, the inability of the men she studies to divest from the commodification of Blackness, prevents a liberatory Blackness that counters racial capitalism. This raises the question of where such an alternative liberatory subjectivity could originate from. The main example Matlon draws from is the anti-capitalism of the US-based Black Power movement. I wonder whether there were no examples to be found within the history of Cote d’Ivoire itself. While formal decolonization is touched upon, it is here cast aside as a group of nationalist elites (évolués) replacing a group of imperialist elites (French colonists). While this may have been the decolonization that took place, there surely have been movements that aspired to something more or something different. What happened to those movements? How were they articulated to gendered expressions of Blackness? As Matlon argues convincingly that Black masculinity offers a crucial vantage point from which to understand racial capitalism, she invites further inquiry to understand how Black masculinities are expressed within anti-capitalist movements.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that despite the constraints of capitalism, both groups of men espoused anticolonial discourse. For street vendors this meant rejecting what they perceived as French masculine ideals and substituting them for US capitalist ones. For Orators this meant a rejection of direct influence of the French elites and celebrating the rule of native elites who equally invested in a capitalist order. However, their rejection of French colonial rule reveals a much more fundamental assertion of Black autonomy that could potentially be articulated to an anti-capitalist political project or to a rejection of colonial heteronormative ideals. Hence, I posit that not all is lost, but as Matlon shows it seems that for now autonomy is sought after within capitalist market processes of commodification and consumption. In that sense, this may also have been an ethnography of the US, the analogies are striking.