Vincent Lloyd – « Masculinity, race, fatherhood »

2. Stanley Tookie Williams as God-Father

Let us turn to one narrative that particularly dramatizes masculinity from the margins, grappling with the presumed connection between masculinity, fatherhood, and authority – and reflecting on the ideological and idolatrous forces that attempt to sanctify that triad. This is the story of and by a Black man who was killed by the state. Stanley Tookie Williams was executed on December 13, 2005. The year before, he penned an autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, that tracks his religious salvation alongside his salvation as a father and as a man. Writing a year before his execution, as his fame was growing, Williams thought he had triumphed: ‘To poor people, prisoners, slaves, and the disenfranchised everywhere – through faith and theories put into practice, you can bend the most oppressive circumstances to your will, to make the impossible possible’ (vii).[2] It garnered him a Nobel Prize nomination, but not a stay of his execution: a quite different model of masculinity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, ordered him killed by lethal injection.

Williams grew up after the civil rights movement, after the black power movement. There was no longer a sense that mass movements would end racial inequality. Laws of segregation had fallen, but there were still the police: ‘Every child in the neighborhood knew that cops were the enemy’ (12). State institutions did not provide stable normative authority. The state’s authority was wielded arbitrarily, to dominate Blacks. And there was no alternative space for Black institutions and authorities to develop. The same forces of domination that harassed Black children removed and encaged their fathers: ‘Mass incarceration has become a divisive force that splits families and foments a son’s resentment for his father’ (319). In the moment, it felt as if individual police officers are racist, as if fathers are irresponsible. With a bird’s eye view, it became clear that the system of white supremacy is denying Black authority. Whether it was police violence or imprisonment, economic deprivation or the health consequences of environmental devastation, Williams will come to recognize racial domination’s effects on the bodies and lives of Black Americans.

On the surface, Williams was a man defined by fathers. He was Stanley Tookie Williams III, bearing the name of his father and grandfather. But that father had left the family before the young Williams turned one, and his grandfather experienced such economic hardship due to his race that his health deteriorated, and he died young. The young Williams is a naughty boy, getting himself in deeper and deeper trouble as he grows. Authority, for him, can only mean domination: the arbitrary violence of the police. Eventually, his mother decides to bring the young Williams to his father to straighten him out, but from the youth’s perspective, his father is no different than the police officers: just another man trying to exercise his arbitrary will over the boy. ‘When he decreed that I was going to school every day whether I liked it or not, I asked, “Are you man enough to make me?”’ (112).

Masculinity means strength and the capacity to use it to enforce one’s arbitrary will, this is what the young Williams had concluded. ‘I promised myself I’d never be anything like my father,’ Williams reports, but on reflection, from prison, he realizes that he became exactly like his father (320).

Williams’s mother attempted to impose order on the family, to teach Williams right from wrong. But her teachings had little effect, and Williams continued to get into trouble. In part, Williams explains this by the incompatibility between the set of norms imposed by his mother and the set of norms imposed by ‘the street’, that is, the world of boys and girls, men and women outside the home. There, self-interest and strength ruled supreme, not right and wrong. ‘Might was right, always’ (15). This was not an honorable street governed by noble principles. To the contrary, ‘The prime rule of fighting was this: there were no rules, anything goes’ (35).[3] From the perspective of the street, Williams’s mother’s rules seemed arbitrary as well, just one more form of domination, this one sanctioned by his mother’s Christianity. She would administer ‘Biblical beatings’ that followed her prayers. ‘That swift backhand upside my head must have been God’s response’, Williams concludes (42). Here God is just one among the cast of characters Williams encounters who arbitrarily exercise violence on his body.

Williams decides to escape those around him pushing systems of rules: God and school, father and mother. He embraces life on the street, but in doing so he finds himself in need of another system of rules. The street was chaotic, with small gangs fighting and stealing. He decides to make order out of this chaos, this time by authoring his own set of norms and imposing it on others. With friends he merged several small gangs into a super-gang, the Crips, governed by rules and imposing rules on street life. ‘Crip was my religion. I was its cocreator and star-crossed prophet, and I critiqued all other Crips by my own standards’ (242). This was a religion of vengeance. Every wrong required a violent response; there was no turning the other cheek. And it was a new family, with each member of the Crips addressing each other as cousin, ‘Cuz’. Along with imposing his rules on others in the street, becoming a father figure for a generation of young, impoverished Black men in Los Angeles, Williams cultivated the image of hyper-masculinity, first and foremost by weightlifting. His muscles grew enormous together with his authority, the two entwined: ‘My enormous size from pumping iron also frightened the hell out of the authorities’ (219). Yet this combination was unstable. It was always ultimately responsive to and dependent on other authorities, particularly the police, and Williams reports that his efforts at establishing Crip order were always undercut by his own volatility. It was not that the Crips established an island of peace in an ocean of anti-Black tyranny; rather, the Crips established another form of tyranny, with its arbitrary violence afflicting participants themselves – a fact Williams was reminded of acutely when he was shot.

[2] Parenthetical numbering refers to pages in Stanley Tookie Williams, Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir, Pleasant Hill: Damamli Publishing Company, 2004.

[3] There were some exceptions: Williams reports strong ‘street’ norms against rape (164), robbing churches (199), and collaborating with police (75).