MLK and Masculinity

Sophie Mackin, Assistant Forum Editor

Because weather prevented her from joining us on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dartmouth professor and author Shatema Threadcraft came to Bates to speak about her research paper “Gender Trouble: Manhood, Inclusion and Justice” on Thursday, April 25th instead. Politics professor Nina Hegel and Philosophy professor Paul Schofield facilitated the panel discussion, asking Threadcraft some of their questions as well as those of the students in the “Film as Philosophy” Short Term class who had read her paper. Threadcraft and her co-author Brandon Terry wanted to investigate Martin Luther King’s rhetoric on masculinity and gender differences in the hopes of developing a feminist model rooted in “reading King against King.” King asserted on numerous occasions that men and women have fundamentally different natures. He believed that women were firstly responsible for child rearing, while only men could find fulfillment in politics and public life. In terms of gender-based violence, King told the women who came to see him for spiritual guidance that they should think about their role in motivating the abuse against them. Like many clergy members at the time, King would ask women to look within themselves to understand why their husbands were beating them. Clearly, King’s approaches were extremely problematic and Threadcraft admitted that she initially did not think King had anything to say for women or feminist theory. “His references to manhood seemed like macho nonsense to me,” she said, “but Brandon helped me see that to deconstruct masculinity, you have to find positive constructions.”

Threadcraft and Terry chose to deploy this strategy of “reading King against King” because they recognized the weight of King’s name and the prominence of his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. “It’s not that you throw King away,” Threadcraft explained, “It’s that you give people the tools to read him critically, remaining alive to the problems. MLK Day is not going away. None of this takes away from the great sacrifices he made, but gender sensitive theories allow you to take him more seriously.” Students will continue to read King’s writing and famous works like his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but it will be important for them to identify and understand the implications of his sexist ideologies. Many people have expressed criticisms about King’s use of gendered language rather than gender neutral concepts. Threadcraft and Terry wanted to remind us of the hierarchy that King reinforced by making that choice.

One of Professor Schofield’s questions for Threadcraft was about King’s inversion strategy of dissociating masculinity and violence. Threadcraft explained that while it is still helpful to have a conversation about the deconstruction and reconstruction of masculinity, King’s notion of masculinity as something that is good and exclusive to men impedes the progress of women. King also seems to point to a higher order of masculinity that is in control of its emotions and doesn’t violently lash out, which is also a hierarchical distinction. Professor Hegel asked if Threadcraft thought King’s language of manliness could ever be helpful for feminist aims and Threadcraft instantly said no. She shared her frustrations about participating in conversations about masculinity that often lead to a disregard of women. She described this shift in focus as a “trap” since she does not end up discussing women’s issues. This comment inspired a question from the audience about what Threadcraft’s idea would be for a new curriculum to teach Black History and political theory that emphasized the role and experiences of women. Threadcraft was excited to craft a more inclusive list of writers and theorists but also noted that there are always going to be historical absences since women, LGBTQ members, and feminists were not thought of as the people with “knowledge” for so long. She described the ways in which she teaches her students to read texts that might not necessarily have everything they need and how to discern the meaning of the absences. She concluded, however, by saying that the classic theorists will continue to be taught in schools regardless of any new curriculum that she might come up with. “I teach political theory. I do not tell students to do away with Jefferson, Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest,” she said, “But I do want to train them to read them critically and contextually.”

Threadcraft hopes that her paper will contribute to theoretical understandings of King’s rhetoric as well as potentially ignite civil action. She is currently working on research surrounding black death and the differences in the coverage and treatment of men, women, and LGBTQ members. Threadcraft’s work asks extremely valuable questions and forces us to reevaluate our collective memory of history and its actors.