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The Complex Identities Of Some Of America's Most Famous Black Men

Have you ever thought of Jay-Z having multiple personalities? There's Jay-Z, Sean Carter, Hova, and Jigga. And they're all wrapped up inside one black man. In Mark Anthony Neal's latest book "Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities," he explores the complex identities of figures like Jay-Z, Avery Brooks and Luther Vandross (NYU Press; 2013). Neal's work helps us take a second look at celebrities and entertainers, and complicates how we understand these black men.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, and the host of the webcast "Left of Black," uses the concepts of “legibility” and “illegibility” to look at the ways these black men are understood.

Neal explains the legibility of black men to State of Things host Frank Stasio as “the ways that we can read black masculinity, or that it’s recognizable to us. If you see a black man with a basketball you don’t even have to process it.”

And Neal compares this to illegibility: “But if we see an image of former North Carolina State swimmer Cullen Jones, and you realize he’s an American record holder…You immediately have all kind of questions. Where’d he learn to swim? Who taught him how to swim?”

One of the characters Neal takes a hard look at in “Looking for Leroy,” is Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in the HBO series “The Wire.” Neal critiques the relegation of knowledge that Stringer Bell has to “street smarts.” To Neal, book smarts and street smarts are inseparable in the minds of characters like Stringer Bell.

 “He’s a thinker, and he’s managing business practices of this drug crew, and taking classes at the local community college in microeconomics,” says Neal. “He’s taking these classes for the front operation, but for the drug operation as well.”

Host Frank Stasio and guest Mark Anthony Neal, were later joined by visual artist and photographer, Hank Willis Thomas. Neal chose a piece from Thomas’ 2011 series, Strange Fruit, as the cover art for “Looking for Leroy.”

Hank Willis Thomas is also involved in the project “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a video log of black men asking and answering questions from other black men.

“We use video as a format to empower African-American men to be the researchers and the experts in redefining black masculinity through our diversity,” says Hank Willis Thomas. “What surprised us most about the project was the questions…myself and other collaborators on the project are black men, and we ourselves couldn’t rightly judge an African-American man which spoke to the power of implicit bias.”

Below is a trailer from Hank Willis Thomas’ collaborative video project “Question Bridge: Black Males."

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Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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