Defining masculinity has long been a peculiar thing for black men. The first struggle has been to be identified as a human, with slaves being considered only three-fifths human for nearly a century. Ongoing racial tactics have continued to hamper black men from growing into the fullness of their existence.
Kanye West’s “Spaceship” (released in 2004 from his debut album The College Dropout) and Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” (published in 1961 and set in the 1930s rural South) capture the fragile transition between a black male’s adolescence and adulthood. Both narratives reflect crippling employment opportunities, rebellious forms of release, resistance towards authority, nurturing desires in isolation, and escape.
West opens his song with the line “I’ve been workin’ this grave shift and I ain’t made s**t.” He is speaking of his real-life experience working in commercial retailers such as the Gap in Chicago. Dave Saunders, the seventeen-year-old protagonist from “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” works for a white farmer named Hawkins who gives Dave’s wages to his mother rather than the youth. West and Wright speak to the feeling of hopelessness that no amount of work can secure financial independence. Their labor is continuously given to strengthen white-owned businesses with the black employees reaping minimal benefits.
As a means of coping with these restrictions, Kanye and Dave both seek outlets that are considered threatening for men of their background. West raps about how he takes a “break next to the ‘No Smoking’ sign with a blunt and Mall.” Many public facilities have a no smoking ban, but West takes it a step further by smoking an illegal substance. Dave has an insatiable desire to own a gun. Owning a firearm is not necessarily illegal, but it was uncertainly unsettling to white comfort in the 1930s.
Kanye and Dave both rattled the status quo of their time as an attempt to claim their manhood. Exhibiting “respectable” traits still had not garnered them the respect of their white superiors who have set these standards. What could be interpreted as their rebellion is actually a display of their knowledge of their relegation in society.
Their stagnation leads to a resistance towards authority. Kanye raps, “If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him/After I f**k the manager up then I’m gonna shorten the register up.” Dave, now a gun owner, sharpens his skill privately during the night near his employer’s home. The sight of the employer’s home further heightens Dave’s resentment of white comfort. Dave said, “Lawd, ef Ah had jus one mo bullet Ah’s taka shot at tha house. Ah’d like t scare ol man Hawkins jusa little…Jusa enough t let im know Dave Saunders is a man.” Kanye and Dave realize that no amount of submission can implore their bosses to see their humanity. They come to the conclusion that manhood must be taken rather than bargained for.
Sharpening their respective crafts gives Kanye and Dave some sense of hope. Kanye wrote, “Takin’ my hits, writin’ my hits/Writin’ my rhymes, playin’ my mind,” speaking of smoking a blunt and then composing what would later be his hit songs. The high of the narcotic allows him to create his own zone where he can focus on his own career expansion rather than be consumed by the systematic politics of his workplace. When Dave first brings his gun home, he studies the instrument intimately. Wright describes Dave’s mentality with the words “if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him.” Kanye and Dave both understand that whatever one defines as a show of virility must be nurtured. They both began to view their current circumstances as a primer for where they want to go.
The ongoing emasculation of the workplace prompts a shift in both protagonists. Kanye wrote, “They take me to the back and pat me/Askin’ me about some khakis/But let some black people walk in/I bet they show off their token blackie.” Kanye’s place of employment categorizes him as either a thief or a marketing tool but never a young man deserving of due process. Even mistakes are not justifiable in denying a man’s sense of respect.
Dave, an ambitious but still inexperienced shooter, accidentally kills one of Hawkins’ mules while firing his weapon. Though Hawkins tells Dave he has nothing to be afraid of before a mixed crowd of black and white spectators, Dave resents that Hawkins gives him his punishment publicly. Hawkins demanding that Dave pay him worth of the dead mule causes the crowd to erupt in laughter. Wright wrote that “…he was hurt. Something hot seemed to turn over inside him each time he remembered how they had laughed.” The awareness that others had of Kanye and Dave’s mistreatment makes both want to leave what had been home to them.
One night while Dave is practicing with his gun, he notices a train nearing his direction. According to the story, “[h]e hesitated just a moment; then he grabbed, pulled atop a car, and lay flat. He felt his pocket; the gun was still there. Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man…” Dave flees to what is presumably a Northern city, quite possibly Chicago. Metropolitan Northern settings were thought to be an oasis to Southern blacks in the 1930s, with less rigid racial laws and better work conditions.
Kanye feels the same need to escape his surroundings. Kanye raps, “So many records in my basement/I’m just waitin’ on my spaceship.” Kanye is hoping that his artistry will solidify his manhood, and the “spaceship” will transport him to a different reality where his is respected for his ability. Ironically, West hails from the city of Chicago, a place that Dave would have likely viewed as a haven.
West’s “Spaceship” and Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” show that the anguish of being a young black man is transgenerational and transnational. The already difficult transition into manhood is further compounded for the black man, leaving little room for respect and even less room error. The experiences of Kanye and Dave show that even as a black man attempts to establish himself more traditionally, his position is steadily eroded by authoritative misemployment. Both protagonists come to the conclusion that manhood has to be developed on one’s personal terms and not defined by the acceptance of those in their immediate surroundings.
The previously unreleased “Spaceship” video provides a striking visual of what many young black men have experienced in the workplace for decades.