(Non)Toxic Masculinity Columns

Book Review: Patriarchy Blues by Frederick Joseph

Robert Monson

I know that those in my immediate circle of influence are probably sick of hearing me rave about how much I enjoyed the book Patriarchy Blues: Reflections on Manhood by Frederick Joseph. (By the way, if you sign up to have any type of relationship with me, no matter how close or casual, you will get my thoughts on every book that I am currently loving). 

On the margins of dominance 

I’ve been talking about Patriarchy Blues for months. I can’t help it. For years, I have longed to have salient conversations about masculinity that bring nuance to the topic, include an intersectional lens, and that (perhaps most of all) center Blackness. 

For quite some time, I have been vocal about how our discourse needs to be specific when we use words like “patriarchy” and “masculinity.” As a Black man, I realize that I benefit from patriarchy in a different way than the white man down the street. I also know that Black men simultaneously benefit from patriarchy while also being relegated to its outskirts. These are very important concepts, and so I have felt the need to really sit with how Black men have come to engage in oppressive forms of maleness within our own communities. Enter Frederick Joseph with this amazing book.

Reckoning with patriarchy

On the surface, Patriarchy Blues is intriguing because it employs a number of different writing styles to tell stories. Each chapter fluidly switches between the various writing forms. At some points, it reads like poetry. At other points, it contains prose that reads like a fiction novel. Sometimes, the narrative flows like a memoir. This might sound chaotic, but Joseph’s bold writing style is also gentle enough to draw the reader into whatever is happening on the page. Of course, Joseph’s style might be a potential drawback for some readers, but I enjoyed it, and I think that it enhanced the reading experience. 

The essays, poems, and short reflections helped me to tackle the main question that I went into the book with: “But why is patriarchy so bad?”With so much talk of toxic masculinity in our world today and with the regular call to dismantle the patriarchy, this question is imperative. 

Joseph doesn’t offer a single answer to this question or even a direct answer. Instead, he illustrates the pain of growing up with the expectations that patriarchy places on boys to be dominant, what patriarchy does to interpersonal relationships, and so much more. 

When did we learn patriarchy? 

“I was about eight years old when I started playing an active role in upholding the patriarchy. It was a simple yet telling moment.” Frederick Joseph Patriarchy Blues

This quote from the beginning of the book helps frame the patriarchy discussion. As men, particularly as Black men, it is important to note our particular entry point into actively participating in the patriarchy. 

Joseph’s point of entry came as he tried to avoid criticism from his classmates for liking musicals. Even though musicals were something that he enjoyed very much, he didn’t want to be labeled with the different stereotypes that come along with enjoying them, so he worked to hide his interest in them. He instinctively knew that labels—especially being labeled gay–were bad, and so he sought to avoid them. He notes that his attempts to bypass criticism were one thing, but hiding from his truth was a problem. 

“Hiding is something that millions of people do to simply survive; these people are often forced to hide their whole selves from the world for safety because they don’t fit into the boxes designated for them.” Frederick Joseph,  Patriarchy Blues

The rest of the book discusses topics such as transphobia, Dave Chapelle,  and hotep culture. It also imagines a different understanding of what it means to protect Black women. 

It was also very moving to hear the different elements of Joseph’s story, particularly his disability/pain journey. It shows how Black men can be multiply marginalized and illustrates the importance of telling our stroies. This is also a critical part of his discussion of how Black men, while multiply marginalized, can also participate in patriarchal structures. 

Patriarchy Blues brought Audre Lorde’s rich essay “Man Child” to mind for me. In fact, I believe that the two works would make excellent conversation partners. Lorde’s essay is about her journey in raising a young boy into manhood as she contended with her own internal struggle with wanting to push him toward dominance.  
If you haven’t guessed yet, I highly recommend Patriarchy Blues. This thoughtfully nuanced content is brilliant.