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BOOK REVIEW | spring 2008

New Wave Man
Layli Phillips

Black Male Outsider: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man-A Memoir
By Gary L. Lemons
SUNY Press Black Male Outsider

WHEN I STOP TO THINK ABOUT the successes of feminism, one of the most under-recognized yet remarkable is its production of feminist men. Male feminists prove that the transformation of society is truly achievable and not simply some utopian pipe dream or theoretical abstract. Such men are still relatively few and far between, but as Lemons proves in Black Male Outsider, a groundswell is in the making. This growing wave of men who identify with feminism is, on the one hand, an artifact of a generation that has grown up with feminism. On the other hand, it is a demonstration of the life-changing power of feminist thought—in this case, black feminist thought—on not just women, but on human beings of any gender.

After the manner of bell hooks, whom Lemons names as the biggest influence on his feminist development, this memoir is a captivating mixture of “professional” and “confessional” approaches. This style allows Lemons to interweave theory and autobiography with the personal narratives of his students, mostly but not exclusively white and female, who have been transformed by their encounter with black feminist thought delivered through the unlikely voice of a self-styled “professor of feminism.” By confronting white students about white identity, students of color about “passing,” and all students about the intersections of racism and sexuality, Lemons stewards his classes through profound shifts in thinking and empathy. In the end, he emerges not only as one of the most influential black male feminists, but also as a “wounded healer” of no small magnitude.

Some of the themes that Lemons emphasizes—such as how sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism and other -isms work together to produce both identities and oppressions—are well-established, if not well-worn, in feminist academic discourse today. What gives his treatments of these topics a freshness and makes them compelling are the poignant personal stories he tells to show how he went from being an angry young man who didn’t question male privilege or homophobia to being a vocal and committed black male feminist and womanist.

He recounts what it was like to grow up as a “church boy” in a culture of black machismo, and also what it was like to be the “exceptional” black person at an overwhelmingly white school (where, ironically, he first encountered black feminism). What we don’t expect to hear, for instance, is that while he is an antiracist feminist professor, he is also an ordained Pentecostal minister and cofacilitator of a church-based recovery program. Such improbable conjunctions as these stretch our feminist politics of inclusion beyond comfortable bounds in ways that are significant. In a similar vein, Lemons’ harrowing tales of enduring domestic violence and terrorism during his childhood and adolescence rival anything a victimized woman might report, demonstrating that such experiences can lead to feminist awakening and consciousness in men— particularly men of Lemons’ post-integration generation and later— just as they do in women. Reading Black Male Outsider, we must gladly admit that something subtle but profound has shifted in our culture and society.

LAYLI PHILLIPS is an associate professor of women’s studies at Georgia State University and editor of The Womanist Reader (Routledge, 2006).

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