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September 20, 2006

Bad boys and loose women: prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham considers the myth of the bad, black man - and the harm it is doing to real black men

Posted by Emily Kingham

Why do women all too often fall for bad boys? Why do all too many black men define their manliness in terms of the number of women they have impregnated? Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham considers the myth of the bad, black man.

There are times when I think the only possible way of understanding people is by referring to books, psychoanalytical texts that depart from Greek mythology in particular. You can find all human behaviour there.

A young, black man told me:

Women like bad boys, so we all try and outdo each other.
There is a theory of female sexuality that borrows from the myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. In this story, the daughter reaches her sexual maturity on being abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. The mother seeks to save her from the predatory male. Her grief renders the earth infertile.

In this instance, for Demeter, sex is as an act of transgression by which she loses her child to the world of men. She pays lip service to patriarchy but one thing she has always had power over is her child. Not any more. For Persephone, the transgressive nature of sex is explained by the taboo of incest. It is behind every sexual choice we make. For a modern-day Persephone, a girl is caught between the "safe" world of her mother, and the "unsafe" world of men. She must tread carefully if she is to preserve herself. But not all girls tread carefully, and so bad boys are popular with some women. These women are acting out the demands of a primal urge.

Black boys are popular with white girls because they are the baddest boys of all (see, The success of urban black culture has made victims of urban black men, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham) and because they are reputed to have large penises. This is demeaning to black men, but some are quite happy to exploit the myth. It gets them more women. There is also the cultural emphasis on dance and sensuousness. Young black people have an easy grace that is alien to the vast majority of caucasians. Their muscle definition is also more pronounced. And in the shallow world of teen sex, looks are everything.

More interestingly, though, I have noticed in my work with young black men that they are very comfortable in the company of women, in a way that their white counterparts are not. As with Italians, I put this down to the close relationships they have with their mothers. Although in the case Afro-Caribbean families, 48% of them are headed by single women. This empathy with women, the myths surrounding their sexual prowess and their reputation for wayward behaviour ensure that they have everything going for them when pursuing young women.

White girls, in particular, give it up too easily. We all know this. Girls don't value their sexuality so they give it away. They also like to champion the underdog. Women like to "save" their men. If a girl has an absent father she is more likely to be promiscuous at an earlier age than is a girl from a nuclear family. There is no paternal control of her sexuality. As they get older, and more economically powerful, they become more assertive in their sexuality. Black girls, even if they are career-minded, tend to be more family-oriented, and are wiser to the ways of their men. They do not put up with any nonsense. This is why a lot of black boys prefer what are now called "cross-cultural relationships".

There are not many ways in which a black man can show he is a successful male. So his sexual behaviour is conditioned by his poor economic status. Some black boys do not feel they are a man until they have impregnated a woman. So they become babyfathers. Some of the white boys I deal with also have a babymother somewhere around. Some of these boys, though born and bred in provincial England, speak like Jamaicans. They are subscribing as heavily as their sisters to the myth of the bad, black man.

This brings me back to issues of masculinity as it pertains to black men. The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, suggested that there are two questions that plague every human being. For women, it is "Am I a woman?". For men, it is "Am I a man?"

It would seem that black men answer this question by reference to the number of women they can impregnate. It also seems that this is the case because of the conditions in which they are raised. They have been left with no other parameters of masculinity.

There is one black man I am working with who is in his early forties. He will embark on a degree in social studies on leaving prison next year. He attends AA meetings and is taking his steps to sobriety very seriously. He has done all the things that we have come to expect from working-class black men. But this prison sentence - a long one - has given him time to think about crime, drugs and his identity. He has rethought his masculinity. He has accepted his weaknesses and vulnerability - something not many black men (or any other men) would ever dare admit to. He has accepted responsibility for the choices he made. It takes a real man to do that.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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The way black women are presented in the media doesn’t help either – they largely appear as objects of entertainment. Beyoncé Knowles may be a feast for the eyes, and Whitney Houston for the ears, but could one think of settling down with either?

I don’t think the culture of white boys helps either. They seem to have become de-masculinized, if there is such a word. I strongly recommend the article The Abolition of Sex by John Derbyshire*, a politically conservative author. Although he displays no hint of religion in his writing, from a Christian viewpoint I would call this a flight from Genesis, in particular “male and female created he them”. Somehow, though, in this country black people appear to be largely immune to this phenomenon.

Finally, love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. In this case, the money is made by the purveyors of trashy popular culture. I’m not referring to the artists, so much as the big media companies. Sorry if, in present company, I sound rather left-wing about this, but you know the saying – “where there’s muck there’s money”!

*Author of Unknown Quantity, a popular history of algebra (highly recommended).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 22, 2006 09:31 PM
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