The purpose of this study is to assess the role of power in the representation of black masculinity in American popular culture. The researcher examines depictions of black men as bad men or outlaws that are found in the Stagolee ballads of early twentieth century African-American folklore, blaxploitation cinema during the early 1970s, and gangsta rap music from the late 1980s through the present. The black men’s struggle to attain power is at the core of these examples. Often the black man’s historical disenfranchisement and lack of power are underlying causes of his criminal behavior. To a great extent, this never ending struggle for power makes these bad men archetypes attractive symbols of power in some black communities.
This interdisciplinary study incorporates African-American history, gender studies, black film and music studies, and African-American folklore to study black bad men. The study begins with a discussion of the black man’s lack of power in the United States dating back to the three-fifths compromise and slavery, and then recaps various means of resistance that black men used to demonstrate their masculinity and seize power through the twentieth century.
The myth of Stagolee deals with a black criminal, Lee Shelton also known as Stagolee, in the late nineteenth century. During the early twentieth century this bad man became a symbol of empowerment in some poor black communities. The black bad man was also popularized in a genre of films known as blaxploitation cinema.
Blaxploitation cinema promoted images of black men as hustlers, gangsters, and pimps in the 1970s, and gangsta rap music revived the blaxploitation anti-heroes in gangsta rap music from the late 1980s through the present. The researcher assesses the images of masculinity portrayed in the Stagolee myth, blaxploitation films, gangsta rap musical lyrics, and music videos using five paradigms: (1) The Bad Man Paradigm, (2) Resistant Masculinity, (3) Self-Made Masculinity, (4) Black Rage, and (5) Plantation Patriarchy.
The researcher includes transcripts of interviews he conducted with four university professors, a member of the media, and a Hollywood actor about the portrayal of black masculinity in blaxploitation cinema and gangsta rap. He also reports on three focus groups convened for participants to view one of three blaxploitation films – Superfly, The Mack, or Black Caesar – and discuss the similarities and differences between images of masculinity in blaxploitation cinema and gangsta rap. The overwhelming response from the interviewees and the focus group participants was that these bad men believe criminal activity is their only means to power and manhood.