To the slaveholders in the South and to many whites in the North, African Americans were not regarded as people, but as property. This was a heavy blow to the black society as a whole, but was especially troublesome to black men. The denial of their manhood by white society proposed the question of what manhood really was. Was it someone “born…with manhood” or was it earned? Did it mean something different to black men than it did to white men (77)? How did fighting in the war entitle black men to a label of manliness? Jim Cullen addresses these questions in his essay “’I’s a Man Now’: Gender and African American Men” in Clinton and Silber’s Divided Houses.
The scholarly study of gender is largely a modern phenomenon, but it is helpful to lay the groundwork of gender studies while reading a source dealing with 19th century gender constructs. Sex is biologically determined due to the presence of XX/XY chromosomes and the function of sex organs (usually determined as male or female, with a small percentage of people being born as intersex), while gender is the social construct, norms, and behaviors associated with a sex. Gender is a fluid spectrum and not just male or female, allowing a full scale of options for identification. A person may choose to be gender fluid or gender queer if they feel that they do not fully identify with the male or female gender. Further, a person who is biologically male and identifies as so may also choose to identify as “femme” – a term often used to describe homosexual males who identify as male but are more effeminate than what is deemed normal for male gender identification by greater society. This normalization is based upon structured gender roles: men are strong defenders of the family while women swoon into men’s arms and take care of the children and the home. During the Civil War, many men enlisted and went off to fight, fulfilling the expectations of the male gender. However, these men were always white men, fighting a “white man’s war” (78). How did the black men feel about their denial of manhood and male identification?
Black males were not completely ignored in the war effort, for they found work in the Confederate war machine…yet were denied admission into the Union forces. Why, then, would a black man ever choose to fight at all? The North offered a life of privileges that must “be guarded, if not expanded” and if one were to refuse to fight, it would be “unpatriotic, nay mean and unmanly” to do so (79). The very concept of battle was manly, and the best way for black men to show white men that they were “equal in war as well as peace” (80) was to enlist, but this action was still barred until the First Confiscation Act of 1862. Regardless of official policy, many black men chose to weaken the Confederate infrastructure by engaging in guerrilla warfare, escaping plantations, and/or becoming “contraband” under Butler’s 1861 decree. After Lincoln’s 1862 preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, African American status became the pinnacle of the war effort.
Black men now joined the Union forces with deliberate speed, “possessing the means – and promised a worthy end” (81), finally able to prove themselves to the rest of America. Frederick Douglass promoted enlistment as a surefire way for African American men to obtain citizenship as well as secure “manhood and freedom” (81). The issue of black enlistment was both supported and rejected by the white masses. Those who supported it did so either because they truly believed in the right to fight, or would rather just see black men die in place of white men. Those who opposed enlistment felt in such a way due to racism and their refusal to treat blacks as victors and with “all decent and becoming respect” (82). Many African American soldiers were not allowed to become commissioned officers and received about one-half of the salary attributed to whites. A black commander wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts telling him that he and his men would rather fight without payment if it meant having to “acknowledge that because they have African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have saxon” (84).
The metamorphosis of a black man turning into a “man” nullified the belief that such a person could be considered property or an animal – an enormous blow to the peculiar institution of slavery. Further, it changed the African American family dynamic. The black man’s newfound manhood would strengthen his authority in his home and allowed him to practice the “intellectual, emotional, and temperamental traits of manhood” (90) previously denied to him in slavery, where he had lost the ability to control his own life. Now, he had the ability to control not only his life, but to oversee his family.
Cullen’s piece highlights the dehumanization aspect of slavery and how desperately black men wished to be seen as humans in the eyes of whites. These men fought “for the right to kill and be killed” (82) and despite all of their mortal sacrifices, which were seen as the “zenith of manhood”, black men “were still dismissed as less than men” (88). Finally, with the removal of enlistment restrictions and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, black men finally staked their rightful claim as men, not slaves, not animals, but American men who fought and sacrificed to save the Union and free themselves while struggling to live up to the social constructs of manhood and the male gender identity.