What does it mean to be a man?
Dr. Steve Estes, a professor at Sonoma State University in California, delivered the keynote speech for William Woods University's second annual "Diversity Matters" symposium on the topics of race, manhood and the civil rights movement.
Estes began by telling a story from his time in graduate school.
"My professor was saying how gender identity is a spectrum," Estes said. "First, he pointed to my friend sitting next to me, saying 'Look, he is conservative, Christian, 6-foot-5 and pure muscle.' Then he pointed at me, and said 'Then, there is Steve.'"
Estes said while many in the class found the moment humorous, it also taught them an important lesson.
"There is a spectrum of identity," he said. "We also learned about the ways identity has changed over time and how it is also a fixed point."
To help illustrate his point, Estes asked the audience to examine an abolitionist flyer from before the Civil War. On the flyer, an
African-American man is seen kneeling in chains, asking "Am I not a man and a brother?"
A student answered the man was being oppressed, and was also questioning his masculinity and gender.
"They were thought of as lesser," the student said.
The student was correct, Estes said, noting in the time period, African-American men were not thought of as human, even among abolitionists, and because of the gendered nature of the English language, the slave is actually asking for human rights as well as recognition of his gender.
"When the slave depicted asks 'Am I not a man,' he is asking for recognition as a human being," Estes said. "But, because only men voted at the time, the language reflected the gender dynamic of the era."
Estes said by the time of the civil rights movement, African Americans were no longer asking for recognition, they were telling.
"In the 20th century, they were no longer asking 'Am I not a man,'" he said. "They said, 'I am a man.'"
During the 1950s, Estes said the definition of manhood was fairly iron clad.
"In that time, men were defined as being the primary bread winner for their family," he said. "They also had to have a political voice. Men voted and they needed to have power over others, a position of authority."
Estes said these definitions caused conflict, however.
"Many men could not live up to these definitions," he said. "That could have been connected to either their race or their class."
Another concept that began to be challenged during World War II was the concept of racial inequality, Estes said.
"While race seems to be more fixed than masculinity, it does change," he said. "President Barack Obama, for example, was not called the first mixed race president even though his mother was white. He was the first black president. But, Irish and Jewish Americans were not considered white, though they are today. So, 'whiteness' changes."
To illustrate the point further, Estes used two opposing WWII propaganda posters, again asking the audience to analyze them. One showed a white, muscular sailor loading a gun. The other was a head shot of African -American war hero Dorie Miller.
"What differences do you see between these two posters?" Estes said. "What are the posters trying to say?"
An audience member said the poster of the white sailor was meant to demonstrate strength, while the poster of Miller was very neutral.
"Very true," Estes said. "Whites didn't want African-American men to see them as equals. A black man manning a gun is political. He could man that gun. But when recruiting, you don't want to offend anybody, you want to bring in everyone you possibly can."
Estes said serving in the military has historically been seen as a right of passage into manhood, and in a democracy like the United States, part of a citizen's political obligation is to serve. Therefore, Estes said, a connection is created between masculinity and civil service.
With more and more people of other races serving and receiving recognition, Estes said civil rights was becoming more in the forefront, which led to problems during the 1940s and '50s.
"In the South especially, white masculinity is tied up with the concept of honor," he said. "During the civil rights movement, white men felt their honor was being challenged."
To combat this challenge, many southern business leaders joined organizations known as citizen's councils, which Estes said were also referred to as the white collar KKK. Estes said these organizations attacked, with both words and violence, anyone who they felt threatened their hold on society, including other whites.
Estes said this partially sparked the violence that followed the civil rights movement in the South. As an example, Estes related the story of James Meredith, the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi.
"Gov. Ross Barnett was the governor of Mississippi in the 1960s," Estes said. "John F. Kennedy wanted the university to be desegregated, but Ross refused. Later, he relented on the condition that a federal marshal force him to do so at gun point, at which point he would stand aside. He was concerned with retaining his honor in the minds of others, to the extent that he wanted this performance to take place."
Gov. Barnett's action, Estes said, led to people being killed in riots at the university. "That is the extent in which masculinity was on display," he said.
On the other side of the coin were the non-violent demonstrations led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Estes said.
"The SNCC's non-violence acted as a caricature of the violent Citizens Councils," he said. "This made the Citizens Councils look outside the norm. It was a brilliant strategy."
Estes also mentioned the Black Panther Party, which co-opted black stereotypes and used them for political ends.
"The Panthers did things that were progressive, like training female Panthers and participating in civil service," Estes said. "Tragically, unlike the nonviolent movement, the Panthers highlighted their militant manhood. This marginalized women in the organization and furthered negative stereotypes."
It also opened the door to allowing police to actively suppress them, Estes said.
"Their actions let white authorities use violence to suppress them," he said. "It felt justified to them."
After everything he has learned, Estes said the concepts of masculinity and femininity have been flipped on their heads for him.
"When I started, I thought that masculinity was a peak you climbed. When you reached the top, you were a man," he said. "But after all this, I realized that the concept of masculinity is constantly changing, which leads to a constant crisis."