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“Same Old Stories”: The Black Male in Social Science and Educational Literature, 1930s to the Present

by Anthony L. Brown - 2011

Background/Context: Over the last three decades, considerable attention has been given to the social and educational conditions of Black males. Such observations have led to the accusation that Black males are “in crisis.” Although such pronouncements call national attention to the needs of Black males, these discourses have helped to normalize and fasten in place an unchanging and reworked narrative for discussing or addressing the conditions of Black males. The intent of this article is to show how, for numerous decades, both the findings and theories used to make sense of Black males within the social science and education literature have helped to produce a common-sense narrative about all Black males.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to trouble historical and contemporary beliefs about Black males and to help prompt new theories, research, and interventions that account for the complex needs of Black males’ lives. This article historically documents the social science and educational literature about Black males from the 1930s to the present. Two interrelated questions guided this analysis: (1) What are the common and recycled discourses employed within and across historical periods to make sense of the social and educational conditions of Black males? (2) To what extent and in what ways have these discourses closed off the kinds of questions one can ask in the present to address the social and educational conditions of Black males? This article concludes with a discussion of how researchers and educators can begin to ask new questions about Black males that explore the complexities of Black males’ lives, while also challenging the same old stories that pervade educational discourse.

Research Design: Historicizing of knowledge was the method used in this project. Historicizing of knowledge as a method of analysis examines how trajectories of the past help to shape how "ideas and events of the present are constructed," in the words of Thomas Popkewitz. Employing this historical approach, this study focused on the visibility and presentation of theories and explanations about Black males, both adults and youth, in social science and educational literature over subsequent decades—(a) 1930s–1940s, (b) 1950s–1960s, (c) 1970s-1980s and (d)1990s to the present—to assess their durability and how they were changed (i.e., nuanced), if at all, over time.

Findings/Results: The findings from this analysis illustrate that the populational reasoning of Black males has been framed around four recursive conceptual narratives—absent and wandering, impotent and powerless, soulful and adaptive, and endangered and in crisis—from the 1930s to the present.

Conclusions/Recommendations: What these findings illustrate is the necessity for educational theorists and practitioners to ask new questions beyond the populational reasoning that has consumed educational discourse about Black males. The first step is for researchers and practitioners to take notice of whether typical explanations or narratives of deficit and difference guide their questions about Black male achievement, and for researchers and educators to carefully examine the diversity of Black male experiences beyond the dominant tropes of pathology and difference that have persisted within educational discourse.

Over the last three decades, there has been considerable conversation about the social and educational status of African American males. Starting in the mid-1980s and continuing to the present, researchers, social advocates, and educators have written about African American males in schools and society (Garibaldi, 1992; Gibbs, 1988; Kunjufu, 1985). In much of this literature, authors reported the high rates of incarceration, suicide, AIDS/HIV, and violence facing Black males. In the education literature, scholars noted the number of African American males suspended, expelled, and placed in special education, or those who drop out and underachieve in school settings (Harry & Anderson, 1994; Noguera, 2003). Such observations have led to the accusation that Black males are “in crisis.” Sociologist Alford Young (2004) argued, “The phrase ‘the crisis of the black male’ has come to have great salience in the public imagination over the past two decades” (p. 16). A popular image is a Black male living with his single mother on limited litigated financial resources and being socialized within a “street culture,” resulting in the internalization of a maladaptive code of behavior and morality.

Across social science and popular discussions, discourses of this kind have helped to explain the increased rates of Black male poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and academic underachievement. Yet, while these pronouncements call national attention to the social and educational needs of African American males, such discourses have helped to normalize and fasten in place an unchanging and reworked narrative for discussing or addressing the conditions of African American males. The idea of a narrative is central to understanding the normalization of African American males within social science and educational literature. This suggests that what researchers attempt to do is narrate and/or tell the story about people and communities’ experiences by uncovering the specific contexts that shape their lives. Historically, this approach has been useful in uncovering the material conditions of specific communities, however, these same efforts have also helped to construct an essentialized narrative about particular racial groups.

For example, as opposed to exploring the varied contexts that shape the experiences of African American males, these narratives serve as a universal story to make sense of all African American males. These narratives exist in the news media, popular culture, policy reports, educational conferences, special education meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and everyday language. I further contend that these durable narratives are held in place by a multiplicity of social and historical conditions, and decades of scholarly literature have also provided the language and theories for framing how Black males are imagined in public life.   

The intent of this article is to show how, for many decades, both the findings and theories used to make sense of African American males within the social science and education literature have helped to produce a common-sense narrative about all African American males. I assert that although each period of research has provided new ways to understand the experiences of African American males, the recycling of specific discourses has helped to construct an essentialized story that has closed off the kinds of questions that one can ask to account for and address the social needs of African American males. I use the term discourse to mean products of historical circumstance that provide the terminology, theories, and language used to make sense of African American male life in schools and society (Foucault, 1972). Therefore, the purpose of this article is to trouble historical and contemporarily held beliefs about African American males and help to prompt new theories, research, and interventions that account for their complex and diverse needs. Furthermore, the focus on African American males is not to privilege their social and educational conditions over other historically underserved groups, but to highlight the African American male as a case to illustrate how historically, recycled narratives implicitly guide and constrain contemporary approaches taken to addressing academic underachievement for targeted student populations.


This study draws from both the theoretical lenses of populational reasoning (Popkewitz, 1998) and conceptual narrative (Pride, 2002; Somers & Gibson, 1994). Populational reasoning is the system of thought employed to position people, things, and concepts as fixed, knowable, and fully understandable entities. Popkewitz (1998) stated, “populational reasoning constructs our understanding of the way children learn, of school achievement, and the social and psychological attributes presumed to cause school failure” (p. 26). He further noted that individuals become knowable and fixed entities through statistical measurements and qualitative descriptors that define how groups of individuals fit within a social context such as schools. In a similar manner, the African American male has become a knowable and fixed entity through social science and educational discourses. I further assert that these discourses have transcended empirical discussion and have become a common-sense narrative, or what scholars call a conceptual narrative (Pride; Somers & Gibson). According to Pride, conceptual narratives are stories told by social scientists “to define terms and posit causal patterns in a manner amenable to formal logic and scientific explanation” (p. 6).1 They are stories told about various social problems that transcend empirical refutation and become part of the cultural memory or common-sense logic for understanding and addressing various social problems.


Historicizing of knowledge was the method used in this project. Popkewitz (1997) defined historicizing of knowledge as a method of analysis used to examine how trajectories of the past help to shape how “ideas and events of the present are constructed” (p. 18). This method of historicizing is less concerned with offering a linear chronology of historical events and more concerned with the historical contexts and specific discourses made available during these periods to help construct people and/or events. Similarly, this article is not a linear history of articles and studies conducted about African American males, but highlights how past discourses have helped to construct a fixed narrative about African American males in the present.

The selection of studies was based on two criteria. First, I selected studies that discussed the educational or social conditions of African American males. The second selection criterion was the relevance and recognition of the scholarship and/or a scholar’s work over time concerning the context of African American male life. The analysis of these studies focused on the visibility and presentation of theories and explanations about African American males, both adults and youth, in social science and educational literature over subsequent decades(a) 1930s–1940s, (b) 1950s–1960s, (c) 1970-1980s and (d) 1990s to the present—to assess their durability and how they were changed (i.e., nuanced), if at all, over time. The body of literature reviewed in this article includes quantitative, conceptual, and qualitative research studies reported in books, journal articles, and policy reports (see Table 1).2

Table 1. Literature Reviewed About African American Males





Blanshard (1942)

Abrahams (1964)

Abrahams & Gay (1972)

Akbar (1991)

Diggs (1940)

Ausebel & Ausebel (1963)

Anderson (1978)

Anderson (1990)

Drake & Cayton (1945)

Bernard (1966)

Auletta (1982)

Davis (2003)

Frazier (1930)

Bond (1950)

Baratz & Baratz (1970)

Davis & Jordan (1994)

Frazier (1932)

Cavan (1959)

C. Franklin (1984)

Duncan (2002)

Frazier (1939)

Clark (1965)

Garibaldi (1988)

Ferguson (2001)

Frazier (1940)

Deutsch (1963)

Gibbs (1988)

A. Franklin (1999)

Moses (1936)

Frazier (1950)

Gutman (1975)

A. Franklin & Boyd-Franklin (2000)


Grier & Cobbs (1968)

Hannerz (1970a)

Gadsden, Wortham & Turner, (2003)


Hill (1959)

Hannerz (1970b)

Garibaldi (1992))


Moynihan (1965/1967)

Hare & Hare (1985)

Harry & Anderson (1994


Nobles (1978)

Hunt & Hunt (1975)

Howard (2008)


Pettigrew (1964)

Keil (1977)

Lynn, Bacon, Totten, Bridges, & Jennings (2010)


Rainwater (1966)

Kochman (1972)

Mahiri (1991)


Silberman (1964)

Kunjufu (1985)

Majors & Billison (1992)


Labov (1972)

Murrell (1994))


Ladner (1973/1998)

Noguera (1996


Oliver (1989)

Noguera (2003)


Parham & McDavis (1987)

Noguera (2009)


Rainwater (1970)

Ogbu (2003)


Rickets (1989)

Patterson (1993)


Silverstein & Krate (1975)

Polite (1993)


Staples (1977)

Polite (1994)


Staples (1982)

Royster (2003)


Valentine (1971)

Steele (1997)


Stevenson (1998)


Stinson (2006)


Warfield-Coppock (1992)


White & Cone (1999)


White & Parham (1990)


Wilson (1993)


Young (2004)

To do this, I first read and noted consistent themes in each historical period. My initial read of the literature during this period aimed to get a sense of the author’s claims and theories about African American males’ lives in schools, in families, and in their social worlds. Then I looked for the consistency of arguments across this period that explicitly and implicitly reflected a common narrative. Two interrelated questions guided this analysis: (1) What are the common and recycled discourses employed within and across historical periods to make sense of the social and educational conditions of African American males? (2) To what extent and in what ways have these discourses closed off the kinds of questions one can ask in the present to address the social and educational conditions of African American males?

In the first section, I explore the dominant discourses from the 1930s to the 1950s that constructed the African American male as “absent and wandering.” This body of work focused on the structure of the African American family and its impact on their ability to assimilate into mainstream culture. I then examine how researchers in the early 1960s deployed previous theories from the 1930s–1950s about the Black family to explain the sociopsychological and educational development of Black male youth. In this section, I focus on seminal studies and theories from the 1960s that constructed the African American male as “powerless,” “castrated,” and “emasculated” (Clark, 1965; Pettigrew, 1964). This section is followed by an examination of major sociological, ethnographic, and educational studies from the late 1960s to the late 1970s (Hannerz, 1970a, 1970b) that conceptualized African American male behaviors as cultural adaptations, or what many scholars referred to as “soul.” Next, I explore the 1980s and more recent educational discussions about the Black male as “in crisis” and “endangered” (Gibbs, 1988). Finally, I conclude with a discussion of how researchers and educators can begin to ask new questions about African American males that explore the complexities of Black males’ lives, while also challenging the same old stories3 that pervade educational discourse.


From the early 1930s through the late 1950s, a number of key studies examined the sociology of the Black family (Drake & Cayton, 1945; Frazier, 1932). Two key demographic and theoretical shifts contributed to this burgeoning emphasis on the Black family: (a) migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban cities, and (b) changing social theories within the field of sociology (Bracey, Meier, & Rudwick, 1971). These two shifts would have a significant impact on the growing research interest in African Americans. In addition, numerous African American scholars (DuBois, 1899/1995; Frazier, 1939; Wilkerson, 1934) challenged existing theories of race that suggested that the social, economic, and educational lives of African Americans were shaped by an inherent biological capacity. For example, W. E. B. DuBois’s (1899/1995) sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, highlighted how various social forces influenced the lives of African Americans. This emphasis on the sociological and local contexts of African American experiences was also evident in the work of Carter G. Woodson, whose textbooks and historical studies emphasized African Americans’ experiences of success and failure in the context of racial oppression (Brown, 2010). Additionally, as increased numbers of African Americans moved to cities, sociologists examined the ecological experiences of African American life.


E. Franklin Frazier (1932, 1939, 1940,1950) was one the first and more prolific scholars to conduct in-depth sociological studies about African Americans in an urban context. Drawing from sociologist Robert Park’s methodological analysis of “natural history,” Frazier collected personal documents, biographies, and narratives to trace the evolution of the Black family through slavery to Emancipation through Reconstruction in the rural South, and through their migration to industrial cities of the North (Bracey et al., 1971). His analysis of the sociological dimension of African American male life attempted to make sense of the statistically significant number of Black families without a male head. In short, Frazier (1939) offered a vivid sociohistorical narrative of the journey of African American men migrating and adapting to a new urban context.


Frazier (1939) often characterized the epic journey of Black men to the urban South and North as an “odyssey,” often referring to them as the “Black Ulysses.” The long journey commenced with millions of African American men sojourning to the urban South and North, seeking jobs and a new life. Frazier noted that through this journey, African American men confronted a different world from the simple life of the rural South. As Frazier (1939) commented, “Once having caught a glimpse of the outside world beyond the dull routine of country life, these men . . . were lured in to a world beyond these small towns” (p. 210). Frazier’s (1939, 1940, 1950) analysis concluded that a new cultural pattern of the African American male emerged, characterized by the vivid narrative of African American men seamlessly wandering from place to place, seeking food, work, and shelter, but also engaging in loose sexual relations and carrying an eroded sense of family responsibility. The salience of this narrative set forth a series of studies concerned with the impact that the absent male or mother-centered home would have on the socialization and educational development of the African American child.


During this period, Frazier’s thesis of the Black family persisted as a central theoretical lens for analyzing the African American life (Valentine, 1968). Drawing from Frazier’s analysis of the Black family, subsequent studies gave greater attention to how father absence affected the social, emotional, and educational development of the Black child (Drake & Cayton, 1945; Hill, 1959). In their seminal sociological study, Black Metropolis, St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton drew directly from this narrative, arguing that “the roving masses of Negro men has been an important factor, during the eighty years since slavery, in preventing the formation of stable, conventional family units” (p. 583). Several researchers, including Drake and Cayton, argued that in such settings, the African American youth and boys in particular would engage in a variety of delinquent behaviors (Blanshard, 1942; Cavan, 1959; Diggs, 1940; Hill; Moses, 1936).

With respect to education, researchers were concerned with how this social milieu of African American families affected the social and educational outcomes of African American males. Scholars regularly argued that because of the production of the African American male subculture, Black boys’ behaviors were in opposition to the norms and expectations of school life (Frazier, 1950; Kardiner & Ovesey, 1951). Frazier (1950) noted that “children who have never been subjected to the discipline of normal life find it difficult to conform to the routine and discipline required by the public school” (p. 276). Although scholars such as Horace Mann Bond (1950), W. E. B. DuBois (1935), and Carter G. Woodson (1933/2000) consistently pointed to how various structural (e.g., underresourced schools and untrained teachers, low expectations), institutional (e.g., segregation), and curricular (e.g., negative imagery of African Americans) constraints to schooling affected the education of Black children, the Black family structure and Black male behaviors remained the primary focus of researchers’ analyses through the 1960s.


Certainly, E. Franklin Frazier’s work ushered in a new analysis about African Americans. From his analysis, the social context of the poor Black family, and males in particular, was not a result of a racially inferior biological composition, but the outcome of social and cultural factors. Indeed, this period of research provided a new and necessary paradigm for examining African American males beyond genetic explanations. However, as one narrative disappeared about the genetic deficiencies of Black men, a new narrative emerged about African American men as absent, footloose, and sexually irresponsible, and the Black boy as fatherless and delinquent. Furthermore, as several scholars have noted, empirical and historical data used to describe the sociology of the Black family and father were significantly inaccurate (Gutman, 1975; Rickets, 1989). For example, Rickets’s findings point to these empirical inconsistencies:

Data show, contrary to widely held beliefs, that through 1960, rates of marriage for both black and white women were lowest at the end of the 1800s and peaked in 1950 for blacks and whites. Furthermore it is dramatically clear that Black families married at higher rates than white females of native parentage until 1950. . . . Moreover, national data covering decennial years from 1890 to 1920 show that blacks out-married whites despite a consistent shortage of black males due to their higher rates of mortality. And in three of four decennial years there was a higher proportion of currently married black men then white men. Even in those years, the rate of female-headed families was higher among blacks than among whites, but the cause was high rates of widowhood, not lower rates of marriage. (p. 32)

These findings give credence to the idea that the depiction of the African American male as absent and irresponsible was more of the manufacturing of myth than objective sociological findings. However, despite such inaccuracies, the narrative of the wandering, footloose, irresponsible, and sexually promiscuous Black male remained, making it impossible to explore more nuanced questions about the complexity of Black male life. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, social scientists drew from a simple cause-and-effect populational reasoning to understand the problems facing the Black male: The Black male child was delinquent because his Black male father was both aberrant and evasive. As such, the historical creation of the African American man as absent, footloose, and wandering became so deeply entrenched in the social science imagination that there were few other ways to make sense of the sociological and educational experiences of African American males. Through the 1960s, researchers concerned with the sociopsychological questions about the lower-class African American male youth appeared to be confined to ask the following question: What are the sociopsychological effects on lower-class African American boys raised within fatherless or mother-centered homes?      


By the 1960s, African American male youth became a more explicit subject in the academic literature. Scholars (Clark, 1965; Moynihan, 1965/1967; Pettigrew, 1964; Rainwater, 1966) picked up from where previous studies left off between the 1930s and 1950s, attempting to explain the sociopsychological effects of being Black, male, urban, and living within a mother-centered home. Across many of the major studies in the 1960s was a general belief that the vestiges of slavery and the macro-structural constraints of poverty, racial discrimination, and chronic joblessness compelled African American males to act in ways that did not conform to mainstream social norms and expectations. Drawing from a similar argument, educational researchers (Ausubel & Ausubel, 1963; Deutsch, 1963; McClelland, 1961) explored the “root” causes of academic underachievement of African American boys. A common argument made by social scientists and educational researchers was that because Black males were “powerless,” they would assume self-defeating male behaviors (Katz, 1963, 1967, 1969; McClelland; Moynihan). During this period, a new narrative emerged that depicted the African American male as powerless and emasculated. Within this context, the African American mother was often positioned as the central character or antagonist in the story of Black male life.


Throughout the 1960s, several well-known researchers regularly argued that the mother-centered family structure had a direct impact on the social and psychological state of African American men (Clark, 1965; Moynihan, 1965/1967; Silberman, 1964). Many asserted that because African American women historically played the dominant parental role, men became more withdrawn and in many cases would leave the home. Silberman summarized this point:

Male impotence and withdrawal, moreover, both stem from and contribute to a strong matriarchal tradition. Under slavery, such family life as existed centered inevitably around women. A variety of economic and social factors since Emancipation have kept the woman in the dominant role. Because her husband cannot support the family, the Negro wife goes to work; she has an easier time finding a job than her husband, since domestic work is almost always available. (p. 118)

From this context, researchers concluded that Black men were psychologically vulnerable, resulting in an internalized sense of subjection and weakness. Literature during the 1960s used terms such as emasculated, castrated, feminine, and impotent to signify African American males’ lack of manhood (Bernard, 1966; Moynihan, 1965/1967; Pettigrew, 1964; Silberman, 1964). Staples (1977) argued that such theories derived from a cultural belief: “The cultural belief contains a duality of meaning: that Black men have been deprived of their masculinity and that Black women participated in the emasculation process” (p. 33). Numerous studies constructed African American men as powerless individuals incapable of properly fulfilling their male roles as fathers, husbands, and “providers” and who often sought pathological means to reaffirm their manhood (Bernard, 1966; Clark, 1965; Pettigrew, 1964). When discussing African American male youth, researchers regularly argued that because they lacked the sexual modeling of fathers, they often relied on “distorted” masculine norms from the street to compensate for their state of powerlessness (Clark, 1965; Silberman, 1964).

Kenneth Clark (1965), in his seminal book, Dark Ghetto, argued that because African American males could not fulfill their role as a consistent wage earner, African American boys and adolescents were bound to base their self-worth through a “distorted male image”:

He was compelled to base his self-esteem instead on a kind of behavior that tended to support a stereotyped picture of the Negro male—sexual impulsiveness, irresponsibility, verbal bombast, posturing, and compensatory achievement in entertainment and athletics, particularly in sports like boxing in which athletic prowess could be exploited for the gain of others. The Negro male was, therefore, driven to seek status in ways which seemed either antisocial, escapist and socially irresponsible. (p. 70)

Within this context, researchers frequently argued that African American boys would suffer deep “psychological scars” because of the lack of male figures to model masculine behavior. For example, Thomas Pettigrew (1964) found that without father guidance, African American boys engaged in what he called “compulsive masculinity.” He defined compulsive masculinity as dispositions to overcompensate for their lack of self-worth. Pettigrew’s analysis found that African American boys reared in overprotective mother-centered homes tended to exhibit “feminine qualities” in their preadolescent years. Consequently, he argued that Black male adolescents demonstrated “pseudo masculine behaviors” (e.g., fighting, crime, and sexual promiscuity) as a way to compensate for their “feminine upbringing.”   

Using a similar line of reasoning, educational researchers argued that African American males had developed psychological defenses that devalued their own capacity to achieve academically (Ausebel & Ausubel, 1963; McClelland, 1961). In addition, these studies pointed to racial discrimination and the Black family structure as primary factors in Black males’ inclination to devalue their academic capacities (Moynihan, 1965/1967).4


Several authors contended that African American mothers’ parental practices had a direct impact on African American males’ conceptions of academic achievement (Deutsch, 1963; Katz, 1969; McClelland, 1961). McClelland argued that African Americans males’ achievement motive developed from parental strategies that emerged out of Black family relations during slavery. He defined achievement motive as the underlying psychological factors (e.g., social approval, power, and knowledge) that motivate and impede a group or individual’s desire and capacity to achieve. He argued that because the institution of slavery required slaves to remain dependent, Black mothers developed child-rearing practices that produced obedience and responsibility, as opposed to a stimulus of motivation and achievement. McClelland argued,

in many such families the mothers are the consistent breadwinners, and the fathers may come and go in a fashion which creates a family type sometimes known as “serial monogamy.” The young children [males] typically stay with the mother as the more consistent provider of nurturance . . . . Again it does not seem far-fetched to infer that n Achievement is low in such groups because the institution of serial monogamy tends to favor the creation of mother dependency. (p. 374)    

In addition, McClelland maintained that because these child-rearing practices persisted after slavery, Black males maintained a low achievement motive. McClelland also attributed Black males’ low achievement motive to mother-centered parenting, which he argued fostered mother-son dependency. McClelland’s research concluded that because of the social development of the Black boy, he would lack the motivation and desire to achieve in schools and society. Throughout the 1960s, several other researchers directly attributed the academic underachievement of African American boys to the mothered-centered structure of the Black family (Katz, 1969; McClelland, 1961; Moynihan, 1965/1967).  

Some authors argued that mother-centered homes produced linguistically deficient children (Deutsch, 1963; J. Hunt, 1961). The conclusion of many of these studies was that children would become linguistically deficient because African American mothers purportedly did not engage them in mainstream language activities such as “dinner table conversation” and taking them to museums. Other researchers argued that African American males’ academic underachievement was a result of father absence (Ausubel & Ausubel, 1963; Bronfenbrenner, 1967; L. Hunt & Hunt, 1975; Katz, 1967, 1969; Moynihan, 1965/1967). Educational psychologist Martin Deutsch argued that because lower-class African American boys entered school without the experiences of a successful male model, they had no psychological framework to internalize models of effort and achievement in schools. Katz (1969) similarly found that “father-deprived boys, lacking a masculine role model with which to identify, consequently developed personalities marked by impulsivity, effeminacy, and immature dependency” (p. 14). Several researchers asserted that such personality traits had a direct impact on African American males’ rejection of mainstream school norms and expectations (Katz, 1969; Moynihan; Pettigrew, 1964). Much of this research was also concerned with the sociopsychological barriers to Black males’ attending desegregated school settings. Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s words summarize a common argument among scholars concerned with Black males’ ability to integrate into White schools:

But integration cannot repair a damaged brain, supply a father, equip a home with books, or alter a family’s values, speech habits, and patterns of child rearing. Thus, in many cases, the Negro child in the integrated classroom is, and continues to be, intellectually retarded, unable to concentrate, unmotivated to learn; at first apathetic, but as he gets older, becoming resentful, rebellious, and delinquency-prone. (p. 918)

Katz (1967) posited that because African American males believed they were intellectually inferior to White students, they would generally disengage from learning to guard against feelings of inadequacy, or what he called failure threat. With the exception of a few prominent scholars (Clark, 1965; Kornberg, 1963) who insisted that the restructuring of schools would improve social and educational conditions of African American males, ideas about powerlessness, emasculation, and hypermasculinity remained commonplace for explaining their educational and social development.

However, by the late 1960s, a shift occurred in the research about African American males. Several scholars argued that Black male behavior was not a reflection of their powerlessness or emasculation, but more a demonstration of their ability to cope with and adapt to their social conditions of being Black, male, urban, and poor (Hannerz, 1970a; Liebow, 1967; Rainwater, 1970).


Several studies defined Black male behaviors as patterns of an evolving subculture, or soul (Abrahams, 1964; Hannerz, 1970a; Keil, 1977; Kochman, 1972; Rainwater, 1970). Within this body of literature, a new narrative emerged that constructed the African American male as “soulful and adaptive.” The literature on soul was a departure from previous research that described the Black male culture as merely a pathological outcome of the social and historical conditions of White racism and economic inequalities. Rainwater argued that soul was a creative and existential tool that helped Black males cope in a society that left them economically and politically marginalized. Hannerz (1970a) described the notion of soul as “the essence of Negroness.” Studies that focused on this notion of soul were particularly interested in behaviors that had to do with modes of communication or expressive styles of behavior of the Black male (Keil, 1997; Kochman, 1972).


Education researchers drew from these theories to point out that African American male children had a unique style of speech and communication that schools and teachers often misunderstood. Several scholars argued that previous research inaccurately described the language development and communication patterns of Black families and Black children as culturally deficient (Baratz & Baratz, 1970; Labov, 1972). Some attributed these inaccuracies to problematic methods for collecting data about African American children’s cognitive and linguistic abilities. Labov asserted that investigators in the1960s typically made generalizations from a narrow scope of data that rarely, if ever, came from direct observation in the African American home:

Most typically, the investigators ask the child if he has dinner with his parents, and if he engages in dinner-table conversation with them. He also asked whether his family takes him on trips to the museum and other cultural activities. This slender thread of evidence is used to explain and interpret the large body of tests carried out in the laboratory and in the school. (p. 229)

This work also illustrated how schools and teachers misunderstood the cultural capacity of African American male communication patterns. For example, Abrahams and Gay (1972) argued that pathological conceptions of Black English often led to cultural conflicts in the classroom. Additionally, because White teachers did not understand the context or meaning of Black English, they were not able to decipher the African American male students’ ways of asking for information or clarification for a point already made. Abrahams and Gay illustrated a common conflict:

It is not surprising that the teacher is unaware of what the student means when he reacts to her lectures or discussions by saying, “Would you run that through again?” She is likely to think that he is flippant, trying to get laughs, and pass it off as that or ignore him entirely. His purpose may be exactly that, but he may also be quite serious about his confusion and really need to hear the explanation again so that he can better understand it. (p. 202)

Abrahams and Gay argued that teachers often either ignored or denied such requests, which led to the child never asking questions. Some authors argued that one way to better understand the complexities of African American male students’ cultural patterns was to observe the social and verbal interactions of the African American male “street culture” (Anderson, 1978; Silverstein & Krate, 1975). A point often made within this literature is that embedded within cultural patterns of Black English are well-defined codes of masculine speech and interactions. These studies contended that within Black male culture was an ideal model of behavior, defined by a code of social interaction, verbal communication, and sexual relations, that every young male wanted to mimic (Anderson, 1978).


In the 1960s, a reinstantiation of an old stereotype emerged that characterized Black male public life as pathological and deviant. Several significant studies during the 1960s drew from theories of cultural pathology, arguing that African American males’ language development derived from a self-perpetuated Black male culture. More so, this decade of research helped to construct a new conceptual narrative about African American male life as powerless, castrated, and emasculated, causing them to be more dependent, impulsive, and insecure and, as a result, less likely to achieve academically.

By the 1970s, researchers, mostly social anthropologists and urban sociologists, found that African American male cultural patterns, or soul, were cultural differences as opposed to cultural deficiencies. Educational researchers took a slightly different approach to the idea of cultural difference, noting that Black male English and cultural street patterns were simply different and often filtered and misinterpreted by White teachers and school officials. Indeed, the approach to these studies shifted the perspective about the African American male from culturally deficit to culturally different. Unfortunately, however, this research unfortunately did very little to undo the dominant narratives about the African American male. The leading social scientists of this period continued to portray Black male public life as deviant and as counter to mainstream White norms (Anderson, 1978; Hannerz, 1970a; L. Hunt & Hunt, 1975; Silverstein & Krate, 1975).

Charles Valentine (1971) poignantly argued that the assumptions embedded in both deficit and difference theories assumed that there was a stable Black social milieu (e.g., single mother, urban, uneducated) with a universal set of social problems, which often ruled out any possibility of variation or social context. From this, he found that school officials employed stereotypical and “highly standardized” assumptions about Black life in order to draw inaccurate conclusions about the educational potential and psychological state of African American children.

Moreover, the changing African American radical and nationalist discourse of the late 1960s and 1970s also helped to usher in new critiques about how African Americans were discussed in public policy discourse and in traditional research methods (Ladner, 1973/1998; Nobles, 1978). This was most evident in Joyce Ladner’s edited book, The Death of White Sociology, in which a number of essays (Albert Murray, Dennis Forsythe, James Turner, Andrew Billingsly) persuasively showed how traditional social science literature approached African Americans (and their culture) as deficit and thus implicitly promoted a Black inferiority thesis. This was also evident in Grier and Cobbs’s Black Rage (1968), which provided a reinterpretation of Black male anger and frustration as a result of personal rage against their inferior racial and social status. Additionally, as cultural nationalism5 emerged as a political movement in the African American community, scholars and activists (Campbell, 1970; Warfield-Coppock, 1992) started to employ African-centered and culture-centered pedagogies to reach African American male students. One of the earliest efforts can be traced to the 1960s, when the organization “Simba (Kiswahili for ‘young lions’) began initiating young black males in the practice of cultural nationalism” (Warfield-Coppock, p. 474).

Through the late 1970s, however, the leading social scientists of this period continued to construct Black male youth, adolescent, and adult as a “street-corner counterculture” to mainstream norms (Anderson, 1978; Silverstein & Krate, 1975). Ulf Hannerz (1970b) elaborated on a common narrative of this period:

Much has been made of the notion that young [Black] boys in the ghetto, growing up in matrifocal households, are somehow deficient in or uncertain about their masculinity, because their fathers are absent or peripheral in household affairs. It is said they lack the role models necessary for learning male behavior; there is a lack of the kind of information about the nature of masculinity which a father would transmit unintentionally merely by going about his life at home. The boys therefore supposedly experience a great deal of sex role anxiety as a result of this cultural vacuum. (p. 173)

From this perspective, the populational reasoning of the urban African American male historically emerged from a sustained and recycled conceptual narrative of plantation family relations, absent fathers, mother-centered parenting, and emasculated male role models, resulting in the production of a culturally deficient or culturally different nonmainstream subculture.

This common discourse from the 1950s through the 1970s set the stage for subsequent sociological discussions during the 1980s that constructed the Black male (men and adolescents) underclass as a “group of individuals locked in an inseparable web of economic deprivation and pathology” (Young, 2004, p. 27). Much of this work argued that within a declining manufacturing sector, Black male social conditions would deteriorate into unprecedented levels of academic underachievement, crime, violence, and incarceration (Auletta, 1982; W. Wilson, 1987). In addition, the 1980s ushered in a widely circulated national debate about the social status of African American male youth.


By the mid-1980s, researchers, educational advocates, and the print media made an aggressive attempt to draw national attention to the social and educational realities of African American males (Anderson, 1990; Akbar, 1991; C. Franklin, 1984; Hare & Hare, 1985; Majors & Billison, 1992; Staples, 1982; White & Cone, 1999; White & Parham, 1990; A. Wilson, 1993). In addition, several school districts and state agencies created task forces and commissions to develop reports about the social and educational needs of African American males (Garibaldi, 1988; Milwaukee Public Schools, 1990; Ohio Office of Black Affairs, 1990). In the academic literature, researchers frequently used terms such as at risk, endangered, and in crisis as a way to describe the gravity of African American males’ social and educational conditions (Garibaldi, 1992; Gibbs, 1988; Parham & McDavis; 1987). A new narrative had emerged that described the African American male as in crisis or endangered. Several scholars and activists (Gibbs; Kunjufu, 1985; Parham & McDavis) concluded that Black males between the ages of 15 and 24 were the most troubled segment of society. Terms such as endangered species appeared to serve as a metaphor, but also as a literal interpretation of the social reality of the Black male:

An endangered species is, according to Webster, “a class of individuals having common attributes and designated by a common name . . . [which is] in danger or peril of probable harm or loss.” This description applies in a metaphorical sense, to the current status of young black males in contemporary American society. (Gibbs, pp. 1–2)

However, the notion of being in crisis and endangered was also about how Black males’ individual choices contributed to this social dilemma. Subsequent studies drew from this notion of endangered and in crisis, focusing almost exclusively on Black male behaviors (Majors & Billson, 1992). As Gibbs (1988) stated, “young Black men are truly endangered, not only from society’s neglect and abuse but directly from their own action” (p. 282).  


During this period, social scientists regularly argued that self-destructive behaviors helped to shape the social conditions of Black males (Anderson, 1990; C. Franklin, 1984; A. Wilson, 1993). C. Franklin defined these behaviors as the Black masculine role, which he defined as “life-threatening” and “psychologically brutalizing” behaviors. Several studies conceptualized the psychological state of the Black male either as pathologically damaged or as a mechanism to cope with his social reality (Majors & Billson, 1992; Oliver, 1989; Patterson, 1993). For example, Orlando Patterson argued that masculine cool pose involves pathological behaviors and dispositions that serve to perpetuate a self-destructive Black male culture. Oliver similarly claimed that Black male masculinity vacillates between two dominant tropes: (a) the tough guy and (b) the player of women. For Oliver, the tough guy and player of women are distorted self-images intended to compensate for limited access to social power and status. Other theories, such as Majors and Billson’s cool pose theory, suggest that Black masculinity behaviors are simply “critical psychological defenses” (p. 3) to ward off racial oppression and social inequality.

Majors and Billson (1992) defined cool pose as “a ritualized form of masculinity that entails behaviors, scripts, physical posturing, impression management, and carefully crafted performances that deliver a single, critical message: pride, strength and control” (p. 2). Similar to authors of studies from the 1970s, Majors and Billson attempted to challenge the notion that Black male behaviors were not simply pathological responses to their social reality. However, although the efforts of cool pose theory were to illustrate the resilience and complexities of Black male behaviors, their analysis also relied on discourses that portrayed Black male youth as simply having a “damaged psyche” (Scott, 1997). For example, Majors and Billson asserted that Black males have been “psychologically castrated,” necessitating a “cool pose” to mask their suffering as a mechanism to cope in society. For Majors and Billson, “compulsive masculinity” is a central personality trait of cool pose. They defined compulsive masculinity as “typical” Black male masculine values reflected through “rigid prescriptions for toughness, sexual promiscuity, manipulation, thrill-seeking, and a willingness to use violence to resolve interpersonal conflict” (p. 34). Several researchers made similar arguments, claiming that Black males’ dysfunctional definitions of self are the major contributor to academic underachievement (Majors & Billson; Osborne, 1999; Patton, 1995).

During this period, a number of African American psychologists created programs for Black males premised on African-centered principles that focused specifically on issues of identity, manhood, culture, and self-esteem (Ascher, 1992; Hare & Hare, 1985; Nobles, 1989).  For example, African-centered social psychologist Wade Nobles’s Hawk Federation Program specifically employed African-centered rites of passages principles, with the intention of fostering positive attributes of manhood to help stimulate African American male academic motivation and success. Continuing through the late 1990s and 2000s, several scholars (A. Franklin, 1999; A. Franklin & Boyd-Franklin, 2000; Stevenson, 1998) explored the psychological dimensions of racism on Black males’ lives. Much of this work focuses not on the structural and institutional workings of racism, but on the psychological effects of racism on the individual psyche. This work fundamentally argues that the accumulated effects of racism cause the Black male to feel a sense of isolation, alienation, and displacement, thus causing him to take on compensatory behaviors that buffer his damaged psyche (Scott, 1997).  


Education researchers regularly argue that Black males’ disengagement from learning is due to a devalued sense of self-worth (Ogbu, 2003; Osborne, 1999; Murrell, 1994). Some argued that such attributes caused Black males to perceive academic success as “acting White” or as feminine (Osborne). Furthermore, much of this research maintains that Black males will choose to opt out or disengage from learning as a way to psychologically guard against psychological feelings of inadequacy (Osborne; Steele, 1997). Researchers use terms such as oppositional culture (Ogbu), stereotype threat (Steele), cool pose (Majors & Billson, 1992), and school avoidance (Polite, 1993) to define Black males’ academic disengagement.

Other researchers argue that Black male behaviors are simply a unique style of knowledge acquisition. These studies generally argue that Black males’ communicative discourses go unrecognized in traditional classroom settings (Mahiri, 1991; Murrell, 1994). These studies consistently note that Black males possess a unique cultural discourse for communicating their knowledge of school concepts. Murrell argued that when teachers are not familiar with Black male styles of interaction and communication, they often inaccurately misinterpret their behaviors— what he called cultural incompatibility. In his examination of 12 African American males in a math classroom, he found that the teacher and students had different frames of discourse, resulting in regular classroom conflict. Murrell illustrated this point: “The focus students’ [African American males] resistance and obstinacy was a result of interpersonal conflict. That is, to admit that the teachers helped them get the answer or that they even needed help was, for these students, an admission of inadequacy” (p. 563). For Murrell, the cultural conflict was a result of Black males’ necessity to preserve a masculine identity. He concluded that if teachers understood the distinct African American male frames of discourse, they could better interpret the unique communication discourses that undergird their potential to engage in classroom activities. Murrell found the following frames of discourse to be the common manner in which Black males communicate in classroom: (a) a question-posing, teacher-challenging approach; (b) a preference for request-for-information teacher inquiries; (c) an eagerness to show off the information they possess; (d) a penchant for extended application; and (e) a preference for “getting over” rather than admitting ignorance. Murrell and other researchers (Mahiri, 1991) who focus on communication discourse and classroom interactions argued that teachers and school officials could effectively address the educational needs of Black males by understanding their culturally different orientations to communicating and internalizing knowledge. Although much of the literature from the mid-1980s to the present has involved questions about the individual cultures and dispositions of Black males, some scholars have explored how various structural and discursive practices have constructed the educational experiences of Black males.


Several researchers have examined how class structures, low school expectations, and negative perceptions about Black males reproduce inequitable educational outcomes (Duncan, 2002; Ferguson, 2001; Noguera, 2003). For example, Noguera agued that to understand the complex lives of African American males, researchers and practitioners must consider aspects of class and geographic location. In a similar vein, Davis and Jordan (1994) noted that low academic achievement among African American males is due to underfunded, neglected schools and a culture of low expectations among teachers and staff. Ferguson took a slightly different approach to examining the educational experiences of Black males, showing that particular myths, discourses, and fictions about Black males shaped the disciplinary practices of schools. Across this literature, authors consistently asserted that African American male achievement is not a product of a monolithic Black male subculture, but is shaped by implicit societal structures and discourses. Although this body of work provided important insights about the experiences of African American males, much of it remained overshadowed by the “endangered” and “in crisis” discourses that, by the late 1990s, had become the common narrative within the public discourse about African American male youth.


Although much of the research from the mid-1980s through the present has given significant attention the social, psychological, and educational issues of Black males, it is clear that the analyses used were far from new. Certainly, researchers have attempted to avoid using cultural deficit models for explaining Black male conditions, however, many of the theories about Black males were simply a rehashing of arguments made in previous decades. As this section illustrates, research over the last 20 years is largely a recycling of questions asked since the 1930s. It appears that each decade grapples with the same question: How does the Black male behave within his social and educational reality? Indeed, each decade has brought new insights to this question. However, the results appear to be the same: The Black male is hypermasculine and oppositional to the norms and expectations of schools and society. For example, use of terms such as in crisis and endangered evokes emasculation theories of the 1960s that suggested that African American males were psychologically powerless individuals who expressed manhood through pathological means. The contemporary discourses about African American male disengagement or stereotype threat are based on recycled theories that emerged in the 1960s suggesting that Black males possessed psychological defenses (Pettigrew, 1964), or failure threat (Katz, 1967), when competing against White counterparts. In addition, arguments made about the cultural difference of Black males were again simply the recycling of theories from the late 1960s and 1970s that argued that Black males possessed a defined set of cultural repertoires of speech and public performance. The contemporary narrative of the urban African American male has remained typically constructed him as living in an absent-father home, as psychologically powerless, and as possessing a set of common cultural patterns of speech and social interactions. It was clear by the late 20th century that research about African American males was merely a retelling of the same old stories.    


The findings from this analysis illustrate that the populational reasoning of Black males has been framed around four recursive conceptual narratives from the 1930s to the present. The first narrative to surface was the “absent and footloose” African American male, which remained a stable narrative within social science and education literature through the late 1990s. Indeed, although numerous scholars (Staples, 1977; Valentine, 1968; Young, 2004) challenged the assumptions of focusing on the so-called absent father, this narrative has remained commonplace within discussions about why the African American male youth is underachieving in schools and society.

By the early 1960s, when African American males became a central subject of inquiry, the “impotent and powerless” African American male was the common narrative for this period of research. In this context, father absence was an uncontested finding, and the African American mother was positioned as the culprit for bringing up African American males who would become “powerless,” “ineffective,” and “effeminate.” What stood out about this period of research was that scholars consistently argued that the African American male personality was fundamentally powerless or ineffective. Even in those cases in which African American males demonstrated signs of confidence and strength, it was generally understood in the research literature as a “distorted” sense of self and masculinity. As sociologist Robert Staples (1977) explained,

Black males are put in the psychological trick-bag of being “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” If they acted effeminate they would be considered effeminate. Because they act like real men, they are charged with an exaggeration of normal masculine behavior to compensate for, or disguise, their femininity. (p. 138)      

By the early 1970s, several scholars maintained that African American men were not powerless, but possessed cultural adaptations that enabled them to cope within their social reality. This body of work helped to usher in a new narrative that constructed African American men as “soulful and adaptive.” The African American male style of talk, walk, and social interaction was at the center of this research. Although this literature attempted to shift the narrative of the African American male, this work often reproduced essentialized portraits of Black male performance. However, this narrative would remain through the 1990s, when social scientists and educational researchers consistently argued that African American males possessed a common set of cultural styles of speech and public performance.

By the mid-1980s, amid a growing national concern over the social conditions of the African American male, the narrative of the African American male as an “endangered species” and “in crisis” emerged. What stood out about this period of research was the tone of the narrative in this body of work that often depicted African American male life as entrenched, solemnly fatal, and incurable. Interestingly, though, much of the research during this period was a recycling of discourses that had emerged over the previous six decades of research. The contemporary narrative of the urban African American male was typically constructed with him living in an absent-father home, as psychologically powerless, and as possessing a set of common cultural patterns of speech and social interactions. It was clear by the late 20th century that research about African American males was merely a retelling of the same old stories.

So in keeping with Popkewitz’s (1998) notion of populational reasoning, it is important to note that the narratives told about African American males are a historical invention informed by temporal and spatial contexts. From the 1930s to the present, different policy concerns, methodologies, research questions, and public discussions have prompted a derivation of theories that played off traditional themes around the deficient, pathological Black family (e.g., absent fathers) and the “in crisis” Black male youth (e.g., having low self-esteem, being hypermasculine).

In educational discourse, the concerns about the performance of the African American male in school are also read through a populational reasoning about the Black family and his psyche, without attention to the pedagogical, curricular, structural, or institutional factors that clearly inform his learning. Schools, districts, and teacher education programs pursue programmatic efforts that rely almost exclusively on the efforts to “correct,” remedy, and administer the social and psychological dispositions of Black males. This is most apparent in the efforts of teacher education programs and state initiatives that promote the recruitment and training of African American male teachers who could potentially serve as role models and mentors to  “troubled” African American boys. In both an explicit and subtle manner, the Black male teacher is seen as the manhood surrogate who can teach and model the dispositions needed for the Black boy to function and adapt in schools and society (Brown, 2009). Thus, in this context, the conceptual narrative of the Black male remains enclosed in a spatial politics that normalizes both the explanations offered for why Black males do not succeed in school, and the solutions employed to meet their needs.


What these findings illustrate is the necessity for educational theorists and practitioners to ask new questions beyond the populational reasoning that has consumed educational discourse about Black males. Giving attention to the ways in which unquestioned knowledge limits who the Black male is, what he needs, and who he can be will enable researchers and teachers to effectively address his social and academic needs. Indeed, some of these arguments made about Black male behaviors might explain some aspects of Black males’ experiences in schools. However, when this analysis frames all experiences of Black males, other explanations, theories, and analyses are left unexplored. This in turn frames subsequent discussions of Black males in education around reworked narratives from previous decades, causing a kind of sociological amnesia (Gans, 1992) in which ideas and concepts consistently resurface as novel and innovative. Another important point, raised by James Earl Davis (2003), is that “not all Black boys are the same” (p. 530). He further argued,

This simple point is not an obvious one given most of the discussions about the so-called Black boy problem in American schools. But where are the high achieving African American boys? It is apparent from the national conversation on troubled boyhood that the inclusion of high achieving Black boys’ experiences muddles the discussion. In essence, we have created a separate conversation and agenda that removes Black boys with competitive test scores and positive school experiences from an important national debate. (p. 530)

My intent here is not to suggest that all African American male problems are empirically unsubstantiated. Countless studies have outlined the deleterious social conditions that Black males face in schools and society, and there is little debate over whether these findings are accurate. My concern is how these conditions are conceptualized through the use of common-sense narratives that implicitly guide all explanations for why African American males are not doing well in school and society. In other words, to what extent has the “Black male” become what philosopher Ian Hacking (1995) referred to as a human kind? Hacking defined a human kind as a form of “classification that could be used to formulate general truths about people; generalizations sufficiently strong that they seem like laws about people; their actions or sentiments” (p. 352).

Hacking further contended that the production of a human kind has historically emerged from the efforts of the human and social sciences to test, tabulate, and summarize scientific truths in order to organize societal thought about people and groups. Similarly, for decades we have surveyed, ethnographically- analyzed, case-studied, and psychologically-assessed the behaviors, motivations, sexuality, literacy, character traits, social milieu, and personality of the African American male, only to arrive at the same conclusion—that African American males constitute a “peculiar” and “troubled” population. However, the question remains: To what extent can contemporary discussions about the education of African American males move beyond the reworked sociopsychological and educational narratives from previous decades? The answer to this question is in fact quite modest.

The first step is for researchers and practitioners to take notice of whether typical explanations or narratives of deficit and difference guide their questions about Black male achievement. Additionally, for researchers and educators to carefully examine the diversity of Black male experiences beyond the dominant tropes of pathology and difference that have persisted within educational discourse.  Several scholars in education and the social sciences have already explored new questions about the diverse experiences of African American males (Duncan, 2002; Howard, 2008; Kirkland, 2009; Lynn, Bacon, Totten, Bridges, & Jennings, 2010; Stinson, 2006; Young, 2004). For example, in The Trouble with Black Boys, Noguera (2009) illustrates how the confluence of structural and cultural factors that informs Black boys’ lives and also provides cases of Black boys’ real-life experiences in schools and society. Another example can be taken from the work of Gadsden, Wortham and Turner, 2003, in which they powerfully reconceptualize what we know about African American fathers in low-income urban settings. By highlighting the resilience of African American fathers in the context of their social milieu, this work challenges the long-standing and recursive narrative of African American men as “absent and wandering.”   


However, further questions can offer a more nuanced understanding of African American males’ lives. across other social and educational contexts. For example, although the educational and research world is well aware of the social forces that shape African American males’ lives, we interestingly know little about the varied ways in which African American males conceptualize their own experiences in schools. In addition, we know little about whether different regions of the country, from rural to urban spaces, produce a different set of experiences for African American males. Several autobiographies and memoirs about African American males highlight the subtleties and complexities of African American males’ lives along racial, class, gender, and regional lines (Ashe & Rampersad, 1994; Obama, 2004; Thomas, 2007). The most recent example of this can be found in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. His memoir provides a unique and nuanced narrative about his life as a biracial African American male who was raised in Hawaii and who lived in Iowa and Indonesia. His story underscores the complex and nonsynchronous (McCarthy, 1988) ways in which issues of race, gender, and identity intersect in Black males’ lives beyond the same old stories. Furthermore, because studies over the last seven decades have been overly preoccupied with the “urban lower-class Black male,” we know little about the experiences of middle-class or even upper-middle-class African American males. For example, Lawrence Otis Graham’s (1999) Our Kind of People historically documents the institutional histories, struggles, and experiences of upper-class African Americans. Graham’s text poignantly tells the stories and experiences of a community often silenced or forgotten within the public discourse about African Americans, and males in particular.

These two examples draw attention to how educational research can begin to carefully examine unexplored narratives that reveal the continuities and discontinuities of race, class, sexuality, and gender that inform the social and educational experiences of African American males writ large. Thus, a conceptual shift must occur in the research about African American males that accounts for the complex and diverse ways that Black males’ material realities and identities are differently constrained across varied racial, class, sexual, and regional lines. Such an approach will indeed enable educators to move beyond the same old stories of Black male cultural deficit and difference and provide counternarratives that consider the nuances and complexities of Black male life in schools and society.


1. Richard Pride (2002) drew his definition of conceptual narrative from the work of Margaret R. Somers and Gloria D. Gibson (1994). See Somers & Gibson for a further explanation about personal narratives, public narratives, conceptual narratives, and metanarratives.

2. Table 1 represents a variety of literature about the social and educational conditions of African American males. The literature reviewed was taken from the fields of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, educational psychology, and education. Each span of decades presented in the table represents the dominant literature about African American males (youth and adults) during these periods. One explanation for why there was not as much literature in the 1930s–1940s as compared with subsequent decades is that Black males were often a secondary subject of inquiry. However, as the table illustrates, the literature about African American males grew exponentially after the mid-1960s.

3. I draw from social theorist Homi Bhabha’s (1994) use of the term same old stories.

4. See Rainwater and Yancey (1967) for a substantive discussion about the controversial governmental report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action About African American Families,” also known as the “Moynihan Report.”

5. Black cultural nationalism is an African American political ideology that places Black culture at the center of efforts to achieve African American autonomy from White oppression. African American and African cultural forms are seen as the essential tool of liberation and collective group consciousness. As philosopher Tommie Shelby (2005) explained, the Black cultural nationalism emphasizes that “Black culture is held to provide many benefits for blacks, including these: a basis for psychological integration, sources of self esteem and pride, a repertoire of valued social roles,  . . . distinctive styles of expression, venerable intellectual tradition, and common narratives that contain vital sociohistorical knowledge” (p.164).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 9, 2011, p. 2047-2079
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16182, Date Accessed: 7/12/2020 7:45:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY L. BROWN is an assistant professor in the department of Curriculum & Instruction and affiliated faculty at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS) and Cultural Studies in Education (CSE) at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests focus on the educational experiences of African American males and the historical representations and depictions of African Americans in the K–12 official and hidden curriculum. Anthony’s work has been recently published in The Urban Review and Race Ethnicity and Education.
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