Black Boys and Bird-Chests: The Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia

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Black Boys and Bird-Chests, or the Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia in African-American Men

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

The burn in my chest the first and last time a friend’s mom punched me was the final time I allowed myself to be okay with having a “bird-chest” and lanky arms. I remember the thought crossing my mind followed solely by the immediate regret of showing up over this house at all, and I should’ve demanded such a thing the day white friend told me he was blacker than me because he could dunk on a full-sized rim and I couldn’t.
However, the catalyst for this sudden change today came somewhere between the push-ups and sit-ups, and everything she thought was a favor to build me into a more suitable image of what she deemed acceptable for a young Black man to be when I realized that anyone speaking of my body or forcing themselves upon my body’s right to exist was not okay. Perhaps if I made such a stance for myself sooner, I would have a prouder self-image that doesn’t equate my body’s lack of athletic hardiness to a failure to live up to my cultural pride.

The world is obsessed with the Black male body image, in a way that often crosses into the gross. Not only in how these bodies can perform as a tool or commodity, as we often find in sports but in how one should conduct itself within parameters of Blackness. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Terry Crews having to defend his body against other high-profile Black men about what he did or didn’t do to protect himself during a sexual assault. The power isn’t with Terry Crews, however, and while it is also with these other celebrities, it speaks to a culture surrounding Black bodies; it’s rooted in a traumatizing experience that many Black men go through in their youth that not only pressures Black boys that dictate Black identity only as an extension of our bodies’ physical worth — and more specifically, only when we abuse it.
To be frail in a Black space is to be seen as less than Black. This was the case for me even before that day at my friend’s house in Ohio; it was like this before I was old enough to know, everything I did at a young age was dedicated to hardening my body to the same icy stone that one might expect of Black men.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

At six years old, I was expected to know how to play basketball, I was expected to race and run laps, and fight and be struck square in my chest without crying, caving on flinching because I had a ‘bird-chest” and that, in the world of West Philadelphia was not okay. The fantasy of my future involved a sport, and only a sport — and somewhere down the line basketball, and the revulsion of anything feminine, but the over-consumption of anything female. There were even dreams of what my first tattoo might be.

Imagine my mother’s disappointments when despite all of this, I still lacked all repulsion with anything athletic. And honestly, to this day I’ve never had little more than an ear piercing.

It was not my mother’s disappointments that concerned me or continues to do so, but the point of view of my family — both young and old — that somehow I tarnished my sense of Blackness by not dedicating myself to physical achievements. No matter the academic or emotional milestones I hurdle, we can always come back to the failure on my part to end up Strong in this one real way which counts to them — even if I no longer have a “bird-chest”. It always ends with an expectation to hit a gym sooner or later.

Infamous image of Gordon, or “Whipped Pete” (1863) depicting his scarred back

And, it wasn’t until that eventful night where a punch took it steps too far that I realized this was not regionally specific behavior — this was behavior canonized across Blackness and where I rebelled against it, it became the basis of my peer’s masculinity to the point it ostracized me from my Blackness and, in truth, there’s no reason for that to have been.

Yet, to this day, when I look upon my own Black form and how it fails to conform to this image I have now grown to expect of myself, I feel an involuntary revulsion. I feel beautiful, but at the same time, I am forced to feel incomplete, because the brownness of my skin is supposedly meant to be accompanied by a hardiness, and not a softness. I’m incapable of seeing even the curves I’ve developed as anything as my own way of escaping the whiteness and weakness my bird-chest once implied.

The history of Black bodies as commodity isn’t unknown to our understanding of what America is and it is ahistorical to discuss Black male bodies and not mention this. Slavery was all about reducing a whole culture’s human spectrum — their emotions, memories, their habits, and happiness — into a disgusting price tag to be tossed out on a wooden chopping block.

Ken Norton as Mede posing for slaver inspection, formulating one of the earliest forms of the fetishization of Black male physique.

The mind held little worth, though it could be marketed as a profitable gift with purchase, and the idea of a greased up mass of muscle who could only react, and never act (and therefore exist) became the model of Black men. Thus, we can note the beginning of the fetishization of Black male bodies.

This legacy continues throughout American fiction. In 1975, the graphic adaptation of Kyle Onstot novel of the same name, Mandingo was released by Paramount Pictures. The film, starring boxer-turned-actor Ken Norton, depicted the sexual victimization of male and female Black slaves and the gross physical exploitation of the Black male form. In the film, Mede (Ken Norton) is a prizefighter forced to physical extremities such as bathing in cauldrons of hot salt water to toughen his skin. His worth is placed solely in the fact that as a Mandingo (of the Mandinka ethnic group) he is of superior physical virtue, and thus more suitable for breeding. The film ends with the murder of Mede after the Woman of the House extorts sex from Mede, culminating in his execution due solely to attracting the unrequited sexual desire due to his biology.

The stakes Black boys face today are nowhere as comparable as these moments of extreme brutality in reality, or fiction, but the line of succession passes itself forward. Today, only the conduct is different; Terry Crews has to defend his choices to not assault his sexual aggressors to other high-profile Black men who in some sense of a world are challenging his sense of Blackness for his decisions to not use his body — which is apparently his physically imposing — to fight.

Some might suggest that this is a case of Machismo, and while it is similar, as both concepts can be attributed to hypermasculinity, the extreme racial fetishization by both Black and White cultures makes the concept feel as unique as the other systematic structures imposed upon Black existence.
In any case, Black men are expected to resolve conflict violently or not at all, and this narrative has become a dangerous entity — a caustic cancer that has ended in the routine and systematic execution of Black youths. The narrative of the Black male form as monstrous have followed us further back than the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown or the prolific exposure of social media.

Public Domain Clip Art of Trayvon Martin, black minor executed in 2012

Yet, there is always the expectation to perform our strength and to fit into this idea of our bodies as a vehicle of aggression. It’s not an uncommon part of my day for a stranger to waste sixty whole seconds of my time guessing which sport I play — and it’s never soccer, tennis or track: football, or basketball, only.

And if I were to investigate the effects of this trauma inward onto myself, I find the ways that this trauma manifests itself routinely in my behavior: the sudden pauses and obsession with my image in the mirror, or the peculiar ways my self-image prioritizes the same arms, chest, and torso that alienated me culturally from a sense of Blackness that has no origin within Blackness.

In 2018, Javaugn “Javie’ Young-White (@jyoungwhite) penned a thread which poignantly explored the body dysmorphia suffered by African-American men due to this phenomena. “A lot of Black men struggle with body dysmorphia [because] of the emphasis that is placed on our athleticism [and] physical stature throughout childhood [and] adolescence,” he says. “It’s especially confusing because the body types we’re told to aim for also serve as justification for profiling and unarmed murders”

When our bodies are used to clock the mileage for our race and culture, it becomes the weapon by which others oppress us. How else could in the case of those less than athletic do our forms become synonymous to whiteness, or in cases of racial brutality, our physical intimidation become juxtaposes to the barbaric imagery?

The middle ground between these two ideas speaks only to the extreme ways race factors into our bodies, and the demands expected of these bodies in our youth. It speaks to the false realities we shove onto children to appeal to a standard that is as toxic as it is hypermasculine, and the traumas which haunt these youths — and have for generations

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Steven Underwood is an award-winning writer and essayist from Columbus, Ohio. Multifaceted, He has expanded his range deep into the recesses of Black speculative fiction and poetry. In the past, Steven has published essays with MTV News, Essence, Le Reine Noire, Comicsverse and Banango Street on identity and culture. He cites his writing style as the intersection between Toni Morrison and Fredrick Douglass. Follow him on social media @Blaqueword.

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NYC: Where Rich White Kids Play Poverty

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Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

A friend of mine from Columbus, OH can’t afford tape for his cleats, let alone new cleats. At home, there is a surplus of duct tape. The shiny material winds immortally down the concrete pavements. It’s trafficked and cherished with more reverence than the familiars of the homeless. It is the holy grail of livelihood.
This friend was always wealthy by our standards. His household had two cars, two parents, and shiny smiles that turned out liberal thinkers who never had to worry what drugs would do to them. And he doesn’t. He does cocaine off-handedly, but he doesn’t “do-do” cocaine. Just when he’s at Bars. Just when he’s about to do something athletic. Just anytime he needs a thrill.
In the same vein, he is thrilled to be in New York, on the Lower East Side. He can’t afford to tape his cleats, but he is thrilled, because he is poor now too. This inescapable phantom lurking in the Blues — the tearstained muse of every artist, revered for her savagery and the pain and the panic she summons — is now his greatest prize.
New York, the grand equalizer of fantasies. Where the rich and white come to play at Poverty.
My friend isn’t the first I’ve come across with the bizarre observation of economic struggle as a gilded treasure.
In fact, it’s too common. The Nosferatu by the name of Gentrification assures us that it will be here eternally, feeding on the blood of the poor, sustaining itself on a bleeding wheel of oppression. It’ll cast out the weak and broken-backed many and then it’ll dance in our homes. 
I walk these same streets with people who hold more wealth in their phones than my entire family has sustained for generations. My shoes are well catered and cleaned.
I ensure that they are. I scuff them during the day, I polish them during the night. I shine my sneakers bleach white and raw with my washcloth.
I’ve been trained by my hood to watch the ground. At first, it was always an attempt at invisibility. And now, it’s to measure Power in strides.
New York is filled with such ugly feet.
So much money.
Such poor feet.
I’m surprised that I just walked past a very affluent painter in the Lower East Side. Their shoes are clunky and ugly. In my hood, Sketchers are disgusting. As condemnable as Shaq’s. Balenciaga sold the same designs to wealthy whites, and now they’re everywhere. I can’t tell if they’re well kept or horribly attended.
The fact there is now unobtainable price-tag on something I once ran from in my past thanks to a brand is infuriating to me.
In Columbus, the Poor are leveraged to companies. We’re the Amazon factory workers that lug boxes so big they set our lifespans back a decade with one lug. How else can we clean our shoes? How else can we shine our own status?
Drugs are remedies for mental instability because we can’t afford the actual medication. I’ve met anxious people on Molly and the oddest strands of natural kush mixed with something extra perky. They’re not for fun. They’re for necessity.
We’re poor for real. We’re so poor, that the concept of brushing shoulder to shoulder on Public Transport with a millionaire is inconceivable.
And yet, in New York City, they make memes about it. The advertisements here market goods and services no one traveling among common-folk should be able to dream of!
Luxury is flaunted in front of the un-luxurious. 
These shoes aren’t the only thing reminded me of this contempt.

Hip Hop Concerts are too expensive for the demographic they once embodied. I’m told Nas’ Illmatic is the best album of all time on Television by a white boy. On Twitter, a YT gatekeeps Caribbean culture. Basquiat hangs in the den of Trump Tower businesses men. A white man in a Café asks me if I’ve ever even heard of Toni Morrison. A white woman rejects me from their Marginalized writer initiatives because my Black work just isn’t literary enough, It’s not speculative enough, I mean, a Black man writing about the magic inherent in Blackness? What? I should be more like Octavia Spencer, that’s a Black who did it!
And the Vampires lurk just outside of Harlem, sniffing at my Schomburg Center. They want to raid that temple, trample on Langston’s revered grave.
Post-post Modernism is white people loathing their whiteness. They shed it like the cicada sheds its carcass. It flicks its wet wings, soaked in the blood of so many ancestors and dries them with purpose. But, what escapes is only the illusion of a post-racial entity, a chimera. A creature of parts and pieces stolen from so many other worlds that it shouldn’t be its own thing.
It is an Anathema, disgusting and unnatural.
I wish I could be hopeful.
As I write, German barista eyes the Black boy and Dominican teen — discussing nudes and sexual conquest they’ve probably have had but understand very little about — as they walk in. He threatens to throw them out, despite this being an open Café. They’re loud, arrogant and vicious. I like them, they remind me of me and my friends, when we were loud, arrogant and vicious. They’re not Lower East Side, maybe, but certainly New Yorkers. A “Proud to serve the Community” sign hangs just beside a sign discussing the effects of gentrification in New York as he speaks to them.
I want to be hopeful.
But in New York, the Whites will suck that dry, too.

I’m too Black to not conduct myself better.

Being Black and an emerging writer resisting Trump’s America presents interesting challenges.

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Being Black and an emerging writer resisting Trump’s America presents interesting challenges. You’re rising in an industry that claims to value your voice, and want to incorporate your narrative in a bid for diversity and rebellion, yet refuses to employ you.

It’s not a secret to Black writers — both radical and tame — that Editorial and Publishing is secretly thrush with covert corporate racism. You can actually count on a single hand how many writers of color at all are discovered before they’ve built their own platforms to an extent they very likely do not need the assistance of publishing houses who knock at their doors for a handout. Black Writers are seldom employed to use our nuance and navigation of our complicated lives and the translation of our bodies across the human experience — we are mitigated to a specific seat on specific staffs, many without more than one or two faces that look like ours.

Recently, many companies have made a bid for individuals to speak on POC and Marginalized Community-related politics, but rather than being a challenge to involve voices that aren’t heard, we find that unless we have a specific following behind us, we cannot even get a seat at the kiddy table, let alone an entry-level position with very little income.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

I had the irony of sitting in the backseat of an LYFT with a woman who had the fortune of working for a Big 5 Publishing House, one I’ve recently been rejected from for whatever reason. She had very little to say about her previous place of employment that I have not heard about many similar places who pay crumbs and ashes to the POC working amongst them while glorifying the pursuits and agendas of whiter, straighter counterparts.
I didn’t propose that this reflects on the BIG 5 publishing house not employing me, because honestly? It could be that I didn’t fit their no qualifications necessary bylines on the job description, and somehow me — a supposedly radical black queer writer with strong feelings on social justice and politics — didn’t fit their search for a writer who feels strongly about “marginalized communities, politics, and social justice).

However, this conversation on experience in writers is ridiculous in itself, because in a community that voices the problem amongst media being that it doesn’t give POC representation of our narratives or stories in any format, how is it that a Writer of Color is able to have any experience?

How do you have experience when you’re not able to be employed?

Quite easily: by working for free. By allowing yourself to be taken advantage of like this is a greasy Motown recording studio, and you’re looking for sounds that can “Cross-over” without that nasty glorification of the dark-skinned talent who made this art.

Photo by Matthew Spiteri on Unsplash

Black Writers have not had the opportunity to contribute the substance that we deserve to be able to contribute in this new age of digital content. There are platforms, but it’s limited and niched. And if we audace to self-publish: we are punished fo rit by those same Publishers; called not “good enough” for literary pursuits. That’s not to say that it was any better before — that’s to say that the current environment is just a different head of the hydra.

I wish I was the only writer of color — the only BLACK Writer with this issue, but I have counted 15 peers who have hit the same roadblocks, and we have all found our defeat at the hands of a Starry-Eyed White Girl with the Mid-West with a Sylvia Plath button on her backpack and a can-do spirit she wants to impart to the “Poor Blacks” she’s read all about on her friend’s blog.
Your NYU/New School Admission Letter and Democratic Party sticker doesn’t make you better than any of us. It makes you more privileged and it makes you more palatable to the audiences that the Publisher and Editors want money from.

Photo by Andrew Vickers on Unsplash

Ergo, it makes you almost as bad as the Gentrification you’re likely contributing to.

And Yes. I do come off as angry or wrathful in this particular piece/excerpt/chapter about the issues of marginalization I encounter. Maybe, it’s because I’m angry and wrathful, Lindsey?

At one point, I had dreams of working for GQ. As a Fashion enthusiast, a menswear advocate and a lover of a good fashion blog, It thrilled me to find a magazine that fit my personality. It became the thing I marked my career trajectory with.

I had dreams of also working for Marvel, and writing for the X-Men gave me hopes of sharing something with my father who gave me my first comic despite losing him to a mutation of his own genes. I had many other aspirations of becoming an editor — or becoming a content creator — or a novelist. So many things, but each and every industry has found its way to slam its doors closed at Black writers!

Photo by Julian Howard on Unsplash

And the few journals and magazines catering specifically to Black writers, or writers of color, are so congested with writers fighting for their voices to be heard, that it’s a mound of talented individuals clawing at each other to get to the top.

This is not the fault of Black Writers trying to be heard in a world that has silenced us since the Harlem Renaissance: this is the fault of the major companies and corporations who do not want to admit their inherent biases enough to realize that their Diversity initiatives have turned Black writers and creators into TOKENS.

I invite you to prove me wrong: search any of the Big 5 Companies — hell, search any editorial staff that isn’t Blavity or LATINX. Count how many Black Writers are on staff. Expand your search. Count how many Writers of Color are on their board.

Now, look at all “diverse” stories they’ve published. Will you notice a consistent trend among what’s being published?
Will you notice that the diversity initiatives by these companies are heavily white washed or place a glorifying eye onto whiteness in a way that makes them seem “troubled, but by golly — they don’t know any better!”

The particular Blackness depicted in all of these stories and narratives are structured counter-culturally against the issues and culture of poverty and class. You will never find a story of ghetto, slum or hood lifestyles, or even symmetrical comparisons — because the elitism being pushed forward heavily leans to drowning specific kinds of blackness and uplifting the more “tolerable” versions of it by the fault of the publications.

Refer to my Motown metaphor, you will notice a recurring theme in the performance.

“Four young people smiling while talking near a staircase outside a building” by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Diversity is just the newest incarnation of the Mainstream Cross-Over culture of the 1960s — it’s not that original. It’s saying we can only be accepted by an artform when our art matches a certain tone. It’s saying we can’t all make it, so only the ones that they can accept will do it.

It’s troubling, and unless these companies are willing to confront this directly, they are hypocrites.

And there is very little as disgusting asa liberal hypocrite.

#TRENDSETTER: Kanye West’s YE Album and Kim Kardashian

#TRENDSETTER, Art, Articles, Culture, Music, Non-Fiction

By: Steven Underwood

You have an opinion on Kanye’s new album?

Dope. I don’t.

Over the past year, Kanye West has found some justified criticisms, and the fact that he leveraged that criticism into publicity is no one’s fault but the consumers who fell for it. Me? I wasn’t into it, I didn’t buy any of the outrage and any issue I took to his comments were mine own. I very pointedly stated this to a specific twitter account for fine art and art cultivation:

“When I cancel someone for being hazardous to our culture, I don’t mean it ironically. A man stands by his word, and an artist stands by their heart.”

It could be because I wasn’t that much of a fan of Kanye’s to begin with. I know of some who would skin their baby sister alive to breathe Ye’s backwash, and that inflates the legend that was Kanye West for me, but there was really not that much satisfaction I reaped from him.  I bopped to “Jesus Walks,” and “All Falls Down”; I know that College Drop-out was a defining moment for Hip-Hop. I know Donda raised better, and deserves better than what this minstrel show is presenting to us, but I don’t care about Kanye West. Never did. And probably never will.

Speaking of Donda – Kim Kardashian sustains herself on being a trash person and making “ignorant” comments just to increase her revenue that consists itself on drama, negativity and the outrage generated by the stupidity her family perpetuates, so I will NOT be focusing on the Donda’s House scenario much. What I will do, is say I am excited to donate to the advancement and mission of the new community support and outreach program that fills the voice of Donda’s House with the staff that has done such a terrific job at empowering the Community Kanye West once hailed from and Kim Kardashian flies over on her way to some sadidy penthouse.

There are too many underground rappers out here to cape for Kanye West.

Check out the single, “Jungle”, by Villenz from Columbus, OH.

https://open.spotify.com/album/0xabwsZqgrSuaTq419Wqom

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/illy/1017166404

For more music by Villenz, follow their SoundCloud.

https://soundcloud.com/anunnaki-villenz

 

Disagree? Change my mind below in the comments.

#TRAILBLAZER: DIDDY OFFERS YOUNG H&M BOY $1 MILLION DOLLAR MODELING DEAL

Culture

By: Steven Underwood

Following the recent H&M Controversy, many black and black-coin profiteers  have found cause to take action to adequately punish the company. Musicians such as the Weeknd and G-Eazy have since cut ties from the company, despite the apologies issues by the company.

Never out done, Diddy apparently had a different idea.

According to TVONE,  Entrepreneur and Panther Owner-hopeful, Diddy has reached out to the brilliant young king in the photo and offered a deal worth a whole guap ($1,000,000 USD). There are yet no reports if the child’s representatives have accepted the deal.

How do you feel about this development? Comment below and follow us for more updates!

SOURCE: TVOne

Black Cat Blues

Art, Non-Fiction, Poetry

 

A Poem for the first day of Black History Month.

by Steven Underwood

 

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The Black Graymalkin is never free;

Though liberated in city it appears to be;

Its leash, like thread, vanish in the eye;

But still held in chains till feline die.

 

Onyx Graymalkin, your roar is low,

If you are to speak, who would know?

Dense Graymalkin, you are meek,

Though your pelt is velvet, sleek.

Observant Graymalkin, you lurk in shade,

You hide from the daylight that whiteness made.

 

Black Graymalkin, are you me?

How cruel a society do you flee?

From whose ebony Pride are you bred?

From what dark skin do you shed?

 

Toil, Graymalkin, they will fear;

No love for loved ones you hold dear.

This world is black, dark like pitch;

And from your trouble this land grow rich.

Flee, Graymalkin, don’t you stray;

The present is black because you’re black all day.