It took a significant amount of fortitude for me to compose this piece. My manhood, and by extension Black manhood, is not something that I have ever actually examined. I am afraid of examining it because the illusions that surround it are what keep me alive. Shattering those illusions would prove too difficult to bear. The illusions of Black manhood are what give me my identity, an identity I did not choose. In fact, this identity was given to me by a society that completely despises me.
One thing that we must all come to understand is that America is a hierarchical society. It is a hierarchy based on race, gender, class, and age. This hierarchy is enforced both by legislation and by more subtle means as well; namely, culture. Wealthy, heterosexual, cisgendered, adult White men are at the top, and they are our bosses, politicians, etc. The few exceptions to this rule are merely tokens used to mask this fact. Black men are at the bottom of this hierarchy, and as long as the current order is in place, they will remain there.
Because they are at the bottom, they are not valued as people, but rather, they are valued for what they can produce. They are valued for their perceived physical and sexual prowess: how athletic they are, how “hard” they are, and how big their penises are. You are valued for your sex. You are valued as a football player, a rapper, a boxer, a worker, and not much else. Most importantly, they are valued to the extent that they are not a threat to their oppressors. Writer bell hooks elaborates on this beautifully in her book We Real Cool:
Sadly, the real truth, which is taboo to speak, is that this is a culture that does not love black males, that they are not loved by white men, white women, black women, or girls and boys. And that especially most black men do not love themselves. How could they… Black males in the culture of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy are feared but they are not loved (hooks ix).
So because Black men live in a society that is hostile to their existence, Black men do not love themselves. Black men are feared and despised by society, therefore they fear and despise themselves and each other. When society tells you, in so many ways, that “you ain’t shit” you start to believe it. How this self-hatred and self-fear manifests varies depending on the individual, but the root cause is universal. However, the issue is so much more profound and hooks continues:
Whether in an actual prison or not, practically every black male in the United States has been forced at some point in his life to hold back the self he wants to express, to repress and contain for fear of being attacked, slaughtered, destroyed. Black males often exist in a prison of the mind unable to find their way out (hooks ix-x)
All Black men are trapped in a mental prison and one that is very difficult to escape. This prison is imposed on them by society. It is reinforced in all institutions right from childhood: the home, the workplace, the school, the state, etc. Black men are under a tremendous amount of pressure: “pull your pants up, cut your hair, speak ‘proper’ English, don’t talk back, don’t be loud, don’t show any aggression.” As a Black man, you cannot assert or express yourself to your boss or you run the risk of being fired; you cannot assert or express yourself to the police or you run the risk of being arrested or killed; and you cannot express yourself to your parents or you run the risk of being punished in some way.
Because Black men are perpetual prisoners, you have an entire demographic of people who are emotionally and psychologically stunted. They don’t know how to love, how to feel, how to express emotion constructively; often times, they don’t even know how to think. The resulting anger, rage, and confusion must be disposed of somehow, or it will kill them, and in most cases it does.
Due to the fact that this is a hierarchical society, Black men take this anger and rage out on people on the same level as them: other Black men. Not only other Black men, but their wives, girlfriends, and children, people who fare lower on the social hierarchy. Black men have to get ahead the only way one can in a hierarchical society: by stepping on each other. Maybe this explains why the crime rate is so high in poor, Black communities, and why this crime tends to be disproportionately committed by Black men. All of these are issues that I am beginning to come to terms with in my own life.
As a Black man, I have never felt loved by anyone. I feel that I am “loved” to the extent that I do not fully express myself and my true nature, that I do not speak my mind and follow my convictions. I feel “loved” to the extent that I fit a certain stereotype or a certain mode of behavior. I have battled with self-hatred, depression, and feelings of inferiority ever since I can remember. Therefore, I do not know how to love, and I am afraid to love. This has affected my relationships with others severely, and may even affect my future relationships. It is why I cannot decide on whether or not I want children: I fear that I will merely repeat the cycle, that I will not know how to love them and be the father that they need and that they will hate me as a result.
This year, 2017, I have begun what will most likely be a very long process. One of self-liberation. I seek to liberate myself from society’s definitions. To attain my own selfhood, and establish an identity created by me and me alone. By following someone else’s definitions, I am insulting the God who created me as I am. I will grow dreadlocks in rebellion against Western standards and definitions about how hair is supposed to look. I will speak my mind where necessary. I will be the man that I know in my heart I want to be.
Throughout history, there have been a few Black men who have risen above the White world’s definitions (hooks x). Who have escaped these mental prisons, embraced who they are, and asserted their manhood. Men like Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Muhammad Ali, 2Pac, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Marcus Garvey, and Patrice Lumumba come to mind. These men are revered as ones who stood for their people, and who refused to compromise with an immoral society.
Because of this, they were crucified; both by society, and by their own people. They were crucified out of a desire to “keep the niggers in their place.” Their own people, defeated and confused as they are, refused to accept them as well. Many of these men were killed, which is a testament to how feared the Black man is by society, and why he must be contained. In such a society, a Black man has two options: conform to the White world’s definitions or die.
Black men are prisoners to an identity that was not created by them. This identity, created by society, is toxic to not only Black men but to other Black people as well. Manhood, as we know it today, is based on a repression of self. In addition, it is based on the oppression of others, those who are perceived as weak. Women, children, and LGBT folks are often the victims of the violence inherent in manhood.
This is where asserting one’s manhood can become problematic. Black manhood should not be based on replicating the oppression of society, but rather, it should be based on protecting the vulnerable, standing up for the oppressed, and refusing to conform to a society that despises you. It should be based on calmness and courage in the face of adversity. It should be based on understanding the various intersections of oppression, and it should definitely be based on a radical love of Blackness and Black people.
Black manhood must be redefined. The Black man must break out of his shell and, as Steve Biko once said, “attain the envisaged self.” He must not allow himself to be intimidated by society and its institutions, but rather he must assert himself with the utmost fearlessness and strength. He must look to the past to define his future, and he must protect the people he loves and cares about.
Hooks, Bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.