Between Two Worlds: Black Christian Men and Purity Culture
by Verdell A. Wright
There’s something peculiar about being a black man while navigating Christian purity culture. Purity culture teaches that God smiles on people who abstain from what are believed to be sexual sins. I’ve decided to discuss purity culture from the angle of being black, (formerly) evangelical, and male. Including the cultural differences that race presents makes purity culture different enough in black communities to be worth discussing. In the evangelical world, blackness is rarely viewed or critically discussed.
The requirements of black maleness mixed with purity culture often create an odd mix of standards that are incredibly intense and often contradictory. One the one hand, as a Christian male you’re expected to abstain from any sexual activity outside of marriage to a woman. On the other hand, as a black man, one is charged with the responsibility of crafting themselves into a strong, hyper-masculine force. We are bombarded by images from music, television, and even our pulpits on the proper way to be strong men.
Scholars call this cultural phenomenon “Myth of the Strong Black Man.” This man is an archetypical, hypermasculine figure that is the leader of the people and the desire of women. This myth, as coined and described by Mark Anthony Neal, serves as a “functional myth on which the black nation could be built.” This Strong Black Man can either be the well-polished gentlemen in a suit, the drug dealer on the corner, or the rapper surrounded by video vixens. Power and control over others are key at establishing oneself as this strong black man. Without the ability to demonstrate his ability to exert his power in some way, either over his finances, through sex, or against other men, black men are often left without a means to prove their manhood.
This creates a tension within a black Christian male that does not exist in white circles. Yes, there are similarities. There is a focus on maintaining patriarchal ideas in both cultures. How a man wields power is vital in both arenas. But for black men, this isn’t just a holy mandate, as white evangelical preachers such as Mark Driscoll would say. This is about the rescue and survival of a whole race. Attaining a credible amount of black male strength isn’t merely about pleasing God, it’s striving to survive in a world still hostile to their existence.
Driven by the need to prove himself and honor God, the black male that is involved in purity culture has to warily balance the scales between pleasing God and “being a man.” Too much overt Christianity, and a man is perceived as weak. Jesus can be a homeboy, a friend, even someone’s “n-word,” but proclaiming Jesus as the lover of your soul may tip the scales too much. Being a Christian is desirable, but being a man is necessary.
This overlapping of issues creates a huge problem for young black men, as they are never free to figure out who they are without preexisting requirements of their humanity. Racism deems black males guilty and menacing before they draw a breath. Patriarchy informs them that their emotions, save for rage and lust, are useless. Racial obligations and traditional Christian teaching demand that their sexual identity be expressed with and at the expense of women. Strict conformity to gender norms is taught. The patriarchy and misogyny that is taught as sound doctrine cause too many black men to line up with the sexism and homophobia that already exists in black culture. Purity culture serves as the stamp of approval that makes it okay.
Ultimately, this pressure that resides on the back of a black Christian man in purity culture is unproductive and very harmful. It is a double-edged sword, cutting back on the both men and women in the African American community. Men are taught to see themselves as more necessary to the cause of racial uplift. As such, issues that are of particular concern to black women often go unheralded by black men. Also, the tense journey to maintain a Christian, heteronormative viewpoint of masculinity prevents a black man in purity culture from exploring his sexuality in ways that are healthy. Any deviance from what is considered “normal” is seen as a sickness. Even if a man acts on his sexual inclinations toward the same sex, the possibility of his relationships being healthy is challenged due to indoctrinated views of homosexuality.
I know personally how constraining and damaging this idea of purity culture can be on black men. The barrage of men’s ministries, retreats, and sermons aimed to direct me toward “biblical masculinity” always left me feeling inadequate. I never fit with their explicit instructions. I didn’t think I should be the “priest of the household.” I didn’t think that I was supposed to lead women. I didn’t feel like “hunting” (or to put in more nicely, pursuing)
I didn’t match up with the implicit instructions, either. I preferred reading over football and basketball. My desire to prove my manliness wasn’t a motivator for me. I didn’t talk about women like objects either. The theology and culture created an environment were exploring the various aspects of my reality, sexuality, personal interests, and feelings, were seen as enemies to both God and to my race. This caused immense pain for years. Thankfully, there’s been a lot of healing in those areas. But the healing came once I disconnected from those harmful ideas.
Black men face many challenges in today’s society. Since legal and social oppression only compound other issues, the forcing of purity culture onto the minds of young black men can have damaging effects on holistic growth. The point of life in Christ is to be free to love yourself and others. It is up to people who know better to foster environments where black men can be who they authentically are in the sight of God.
 Neal, Mark Anthony. New Black Man, p. 21
Verdell A. Wright is a graduate student and freelance writer in Washington, DC. He currently attends Lincoln Temple UCC and wants to use words to help make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to keep up with any of ramblings, you can follow him on Twitter at @mr_wrightaway.