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Literature Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13


Oh Brother 2006: You'd Better Call Tyrone...
By A. H. Bugg—Special to SeeingBlack.com
Nov 28, 2006, 21:17

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Whether you were actually present during the “Smoking Grooves” tour in 1996 when Erykah Badu famously informed her beau that their relationship was over and that he had better “call Tyrone,” it matters little because within a year, on both album and heavy rotation within black/ urban radio markets, the songstress put her man, and his anonymous yet ubiquitous friend, Tyrone, on full blast. Such anonymity actually informs the ubiquitous nature of Tyrone, and is rather telling of the song’s ability to transcend the singularity and specificity of an artist’s experiences into an affective response— the collective amen! Instead of wondering who this Tyrone is, we accept that we already know him; he is one and many, a well known though perhaps infamous friend, foe, or otherwise indeterminate figure in our lives and active imaginaries. We name him even though he does not yet know himself.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida is credited with having coined the term deconstruction to articulate such a notion of open-ended and multilayered constructions of identity. The articulation of self and other, Black, White, and otherwise, is derived from language use, and Derrida’s concept of deconstruction demonstrated that the language we use is both structured and inextricably tied to relations of power. Such relationships are complicated and complex, having much to do with the positions occupied between any given speech act and the audience who receives it. As an example, Badu constructs the text, “Tyrone,” which itself is then open to the interpretations and receptions of a diverse audience, and each member may construct the meaning of the text relative to their own position within a varying matrix of power relations across time and space. If Black men and women, further variegated by sexuality, family histories, class status, and so on, interpreted the meaning of Badu’s “Tyrone” differently, and yet still distinctly from Whites and others, this is precisely the potential and problematic inherent in a Derridean deconstruction. It dismantles any false notions of a pure text and reveals it to be structured along repressive lines of historical power relationships. Think back to Sojourner Truth’s speculative speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” or even Henry “Box” Brown’s literal, though fantastic, deconstruction of boxed-in, compartmentalized spaces of Black identity. Examples abound. Speaking truth to power, in this way, is part and parcel of the historical efforts by Black folk to deconstruct the identities limited to them in the public and private spheres, both collectively and individually.

Here is where Natalie Hopkinson and Natalie Y. Moore come in. The two journalists and Howard University alums are co-authors of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation. The text is rife with varying accounts of Black masculinity: Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick; poet/activist and baller for the Washington Wizards Etan Thomas; issues surrounding Black gay male identity and brothers on the DL; the relationship Black women in the hip-hop generation have to the degradating commercial representations of themselves in Black popular music imagery; Black men in the professional sphere and those on lock down doing life; the baby daddy/mama phenomenon; the relationships between female strippers and their fathers and young Black males being raised at this moment in history, in the public school system or elsewhere, who are all continually negotiating their “Tyroninity” in the world around them. Within the text lies an interesting paradox. The authors use the archetype of Tyrone to stand in for all Black men: those problematically linked to Badu’s beau, the crack addicted character on Dave Chappelle’s Show (Tyrone Biggums), and those refusing to accept such representations while actively engaged in re-inspiriting new models of self, and Black masculinity at large. The Natalies attempt to provide fresh faces, of a diverse sort, to Black masculinity, while attempting to deconstruct under the constructed nomenclature of Tyrone. Again, we name him even though he does not yet know himself.
And here lies the rub.

Acts of representation, in spheres both public and private, are not sovereign. We have little control of public perception, and the ways in which our articulations of self will be deconstructed by the audiences who receive them. No place is safe; all spaces of proffered identity representations are precarious, turbulent, and violent. Identities are ever boxed in, though continually renegotiated, based upon the availability of ideas to think any such representations and make use of them. In short, our readings are never ours alone, and simultaneously, subject to power relations that decide the preferred reading in any given time and space. Moreover, being dislocated in a space where you must explain who you are because you are not who you’re supposed to be carries with it a psychical and potentially physical violence. I am Tyrone whether I acknowledge it or not. In the space of others, I am called before I can knowingly articulate myself. Sounds deep, right? Well, such analysis is not to be found in this text. Unfortunately, the authors fall short in their deconstructive analysis of the sites from which these representations and name calling emerge. The work remains descriptive of a number of places where Black masculinity is evident but not prescriptive of how spaces for such sovereign representations might be constructed as sites for a more productive articulation around Black male identity. Wherever such sites for meaningful construction might exist, and that is likely to be everywhere, we can then challenge the readymade NiggaSpace proffered by the likes of Tyrone & Co.

Deconstructing Tyrone does not delve deep into a space that attempts to understands the aporetic logic of these constructions and demonstrate effective strategies for re-visioning Black masculinity. It remains on the surface, for after all it is but a mere Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation. It is not an attempt to substantively critique the interiority of the public gaze, to deconstruct and lay bare the ongoing sites of dialectical struggle for recognition, nor does it problematize the traumatic discomfiture of Black masculinity, and Black identities at large. They do not address the fact that all spaces from which notions of Black masculinity are articulated remain potentially alienating, and are permeated by the troubling desire to accept difference based on their commodity values and the ability for such notions to work within, and not against, ongoing systems of domination and control.

Nevertheless, loving narrative the way that I do, it is nice to read accounts of Black masculinity from varying perspectives. The hope for me (and in this regard Deconstructing Tyrone is a success) is that the troubling, yet powerful indeterminacy of Black masculinity will transcend any attempt at codifying Black folk. Those profiled herein recognize that if you are biologically male, and sociologically Black, you still have a space or stage, albeit restricted, of improvisational selfhood. No mediated image can fully reflect the immediate self, regardless of the attempts by the powers to be to do just that. One must deconstruct the representations available, discard the unproductive, perpetually work to (re)construct the self amid the rubbish of available representations and then innovate based upon the ideas available to us. This is hip-hop—or at least its potential. The space in which you inhabit affects others, disrupting it from the moment you enter. A certain responsibility to others in these spaces is required, but none more than the responsibility to think critically and continuously about the efficacy of living with the representations available. It is a precarious process and we can sense this dynamic in a number of the book’s accounts. We’re never just one thing and certainly never always just what we say we are. Check Chapter 9, “Boy Born Friday,” and feel the precarious relationship to representation in Kofi Modibo Ajabu. Deconstructing Tyrone is an important effort in this regard but it is just a point of entry. The dialogue and the commitment to critical interrogation of these representations is where the real deconstruction begins.


A.H. Bugg is currently a doctoral student in the Literature Program at Duke University. His interests include Black popular music, the articulation of space, and African American literary and cultural theory.

© Copyright 2006 SeeingBlack.com

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