Wanting Out

C. Riley Snorton

I can remember the first time I met Mark Anthony Neal. I was a graduate student, and he was visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a class entitled “(Il)Legible Blackness.” The course aimed to familiarize students with recent work in black aesthetic theory and included discussion of a wide range of artists and intellectuals, from Kara Walker to E. Patrick Johnson, Saidiya Hartman to Dave Chappelle. The sheer breadth of the course was breathtaking and foreshadowed what was to come in Neal’s Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. With just five chapters, a preface, introduction, and postscript, Looking for Leroy is a tour de force through contemporary black popular culture that resists any presentist impulses.

Beginning with a personal narrative of his first encounters with actor and dancer Gene Anthony Ray, who became famous for his portrayal of Leroy in the movie and subsequent television series Fame, Neal examines the types of legibilities and illegibilities that frame and construct black masculinities in American visual cultures. Black masculinities, Neal argues, are bound to particular forms of legibility, which are overly determined by stereotype and fantasy and prone to be read through and against an available repertoire of caricaturized figures. The resulting filter renders some black masculinities illegible, while flattening any complexities in others that might approximate the accepted scripts for black masculine performance.

As Neal suggests in his chapter on actor and professor Avery Brooks, known for his roles as Hawk on Spenser: For Hire and its spin-off A Man Called Hawk, and as Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Hawk “is representative of a rather sophisticated intellectual sensibility that is motivated by the historical difficulties faced by black men desiring to remain politically and culturally relevant—legible—to the black communities that produced them while openly confronting their limited and limiting legibility outside those communities.” Neal’s analysis here and throughout is attentive to the possibilities of multiple forms of il/legibilities occurring at once and to the politics of circulation and reception, which make particular signs more intelligible to some rather than others.

Neal is also concerned with the figuring of black masculinity as somehow antithetical to cosmopolitanism. In his chapter on Jay-Z, Neal compellingly argues that we understand the man that goes by Jay-Z and numerous other aliases as negotiating a “closeted cosmopolitan space,” a space that “renders Jay-Z’s embodied queerness palpable in the context of mainstream hypermasculine hip-hop, where he can be queered only in the most idiosyncratic way.” The author creates apertures into Jay-Z’s “queer cosmopolitan flow” by way of a deep understanding of his intricate rhymes and equally complex capital investments in global economies. Similarly, Neal reads Idris Elba’s character “Stringer” Bell on the television show The Wire as illegible in many ways due to the character’s fluency in the diverse range of codes suitable to the proverbial corner, the boardroom, the classroom, and City Hall.

The (cosmopolitan) closet takes on different dimensions in Neal’s chapter on R&B singer R. Kelly, in which Neal situates the crooner within a genealogy of male soul singers to make sense of what is arguably Kelly’s most acclaimed artistic creation, a series of songs collectively entitled Trapped in the Closet. According to Neal, the work’s “grand message … might be best captured in the colloquialism ‘shit happens’ and that it behooves black communities to wrap their heads around the ways that the safety of weaker bodies and spirits is regularly compromised under these conditions.” In his discussion of the character Big Man, who emerges from a cupboard in episode 8 of Trapped in the Closet, Neal cites my previous work on Kelly’s episodic hip-hopera. He writes, “Snorton convincingly argues [that] Big Man’s cupboard … serves as a form of protection in its ability to hide the materiality of indiscretion, although it is never a stable hiding place for long. Rather the cupboard/closet functions for the black male body as a space of inevitable discovery and escape.” Snorton’s observations beg the broader questions: what is to be discovered about R. Kelly in the cupboard, and what might he be escaping via these closets and cupboards?

Snorton’s observations beg the broader questions: what is to be discovered about R. Kelly in the cupboard, and what might he be escaping via these closets and cupboards?

My earlier theorization of the cupboard/closet space was intended to mark how closets function differently in the case of blackness, where black bodies are frequently subject to representational practices that figure them within what I term a “glass closet,” a space structured by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. Yet in Neal’s effort to unearth what Kelly might be escaping via the cupboard/closet, he has recourse to the fragilities of the Big Man figure—as a little person, as asthmatic, as prone to nervous bouts of flatulence—to suggest that Big Man might stand in for a child: “[I]t is not difficult to imagine reading Big Man, given his performance of naiveté, as simply a little boy. Kelly’s signaling of the importance of Big Man suggests some relationship between the perverse sexual behaviors embodied by Big Man and childhood.” While I appreciate Neal’s desire to highlight the unique significance of Big Man to the narrative, the move to associate the character with Kelly’s childhood eerily borders on a well-worn ableist trope that represents disabled people as children. I wonder what other sense could have been made had Neal read Big Man’s disabilities through the rubric of legibility/illegibility that he sets up elsewhere in this book, as when he thematizes, to superb effect, the various differences that constitute public readings of Luther Vandross, including his sexuality, his fat corporeality, and the labor required to maintain his distinction as a virtuosic male singer.

The political stakes of Looking for Leroy can only become more urgent as representations of black masculinities continue to proliferate and complexify. As Neal suggests in his final reading, of Byron Hurt’s film Barack and Curtis: Manhood, Power, and Respect, we remain inundated with “fictions that are the products of the larger culture’s inability to imagine anything but radical dichotomies for black men.” For those interested in moving beyond such dichotomies, Neal’s latest book offers a useful road map.