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Masculinity, Youth, and the Urbane in Modern Nigeria

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Abstract

This paper addresses the plasticity of masculinity, youth and power in post-WWII Nigeria. The discourse and semiotics of masculinity expanded in late-colonial southern Nigeria, as did structures of governance. These new semiotics challenged if not entirely disrupted older generational politics, emphasized individual fame and linked morality to physical power, as demonstrated by Cowboy Clubs, boxers, confidence-tricksters, and politicians. Urbanization, wage-labor, and nationalism rewarded new articulations of masculinity, which spread and crystalized as a result of their conjuncture with newspapers and the cinema. Tracing not only textual discourse, but also what young men communicated semiotically through style or gesture, allows for a richer examination of this topic. I read material objects and gestures, whether horse whips, cowboy hats, or a shoot-em-up pose, against written texts. I focus on Cowboy Clubs. From the 1930s in Lagos, this generational society quickly spread throughout the colony. Their organizational structure and activities resembled gerontocratic masquerade and secret societies, and Cowboy Clubs often honored big men. However, elders did not control Cowboy Clubs, and young men could easily afford membership. Cowboys were often respectable members of society, though they also functioned as paramilitary security, were occasionally violent, and by the 1950s were involved in nationalist politics.

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