Yonelo Diko’s article on The Enduring Curiosity About Black Manhood raises some interesting points about the reason so many black people feel uncomfortable about the film Inxeba. But his argument rests on an assumption about masculinity that is exactly what the film seeks to question, proving that discomfort is no reason to shut down debate. The role of artists is to provoke, to make us question our culture and become more mindful of what our customs do to people. By ALISTAIR MACKAY.
Yonela Diko’s argument seems to be that black culture needs to be “restored” to a place of strength and power before gay people can become accepted. Essentially, that gay people must wait in line and that alpha masculinity must be pursued first (and, implicit in this, is the idea that gay people cannot be masculine).
But this conception of masculinity as hard, heterosexual, warlike, is exactly what causes the suffering in Inxeba. The pursuit of such a narrow conception of masculinity at all costs is the problem. It is not the first step to overcoming the problem. The gay characters in Inxeba are haunted by their failure to live up to that ideal of manhood. The movie explores the pain of trying to conform to a strict and toxic masculinity that goes against how the characters would like to conduct their lives. They feel love for one another and cannot reconcile this love with the behaviour that is expected of them “as men”.
Diko contrasts Inxeba to Black Panther, a movie that shows black people as powerful, respected warriors, kings and generals. And indeed there is something very cool, and important, about that portrayal. But one can’t help thinking that it is the easier form of masculinity to portray. The uncomplicated, undisputed kind that many straight people identify with and strive for. But it is not the only way to be a human being worthy of respect. It is not the only way to be a man. And it is not the only way to be a black man.
Inxeba is not about “exposing” Xhosa culture for the curiosity of outsiders. It is an exploration of the emotional pain of being gay and Xhosa. (Nor is it saying that only Xhosa culture is patriarchal. For an equally brilliant look at the pain of being gay and Afrikaans, I recommend watching Skoonheid.) The pain is intersectional. Part of the suffering endured by the characters is the pain of being black in South Africa (the protagonist Xolani, struggles to support his family on the wages he earns as a warehouse driver, an impoverished legacy of apartheid and white exploitation for sure), but the primary pain that this story explores is the pain inflicted on gay men by their own culture. It is a story about gay self-acceptance, not race. And perhaps part of the discomfort black audiences feel when watching it is their complicity in this particular oppression.
Saying that this story undermines black masculinity is essentially blaming victims for their own oppression. Diko frames gayness as a “mellowing” and a “weakening” of masculinity, loaded terms that reinforce a toxic, one-dimensional masculinity and serve to further villainise gay men, men who often go to desperate lengths (as in the movie), to prove that they are not weak. It is pure bullying to accuse gay Xhosa men of furthering an “enduring process of assaulting black males”. They are not in cahoots with the West. They do not have an agenda to portray black people as weak. They are not assaulting anyone. They are the ones being assaulted, from within their own culture as well as the outside world. And they have a right to tell their story.
I may not be Xhosa but I know all about trying to fit in to a world of toxic masculinity, where “manliness” is policed and enforced by cultural leaders. I attended boarding school in the Eastern Cape, a different kind of traditional initiation but just as preoccupied with “making men out of boys” as the activities depicted in Inxeba. Instead of stick fights, there was rugby. Instead of circumcision, there was hazing. I was deeply unhappy and the sense of shame instilled in me there has taken years to process and overcome. All the cultures of South Africa are obsessed with a toxic kind of masculinity that does not serve us. Our male rites of passage allow for only one kind of masculinity, and so they damage the men going through them and eventually they damage all of society. They churn out uncaring and violent men. Men who believe they have no right to be soft and kind, who believe that love is a kind of weakness.
As a gay man, I resonated deeply with Xolani’s experience of being gay – his attempts to fit in, his shame, his rage, his unrequited love. Yet as a white man I know I am also the inheritor of an economic and racial system that oppresses him. Black straight men will surely relate to Xolani’s experience of being black, yet they are also the inheritors of a cultural system that oppresses him. The divisions and commonalities are complex, nuanced and layered. It is not, excuse the pun, black and white. That is what makes this such a powerful piece of art.
People have every right to question their culture. Cultures are always changing. There is no such thing as “original” or “authentic” culture. They change fastest in the cities (the culture of urban South Africa is almost unrecognisable from just a generation ago) but even in traditional communities things change. There are now women on traditional councils, for example. Even if Inxeba questions Ulwaluko, that does not mean the tradition has to disappear. It can evolve. One can love Xhosa culture and still work to make it more inclusive. As Nakhane Toure (the lead actor in Inxeba) said on twitter: “This is my life. These are our lives. And I fucking refuse to live in shame for your patriarchy to keep on living. I’m an umXhosa and I don’t know what to do with what I love but doesn’t love me.”
There is no reason why masculinity has to oppress gay people. Men can be strong but also kind. Powerful but also capable of loving one another. In ancient Greece, many of the best warriors were gay.
The black power on display in Black Panther is wonderful to see. The kings and generals of Wakanda make for a great superhero movie, and there is something restorative, as Diko says, in the respect that they command. But why is it so inconceivable to respect gay black people? To respect black drag queens or trans men or gay men working as guides in initiation school? Many gay men endure daily abuse. They are called soft and weak and degraded and “assaulters of black masculinity” and yet they get up every morning and they keep on going. That takes as much bravery as leading the armies of Wakanda. DM