Healing Black Masculinity: A Talk Between Bell Hooks and Kevin Powell

My high school feminism class has touched on many reasons as to why feminism is so necessary for our future. From watching and critiquing films such as India’s Daughter, which taught me about the Delhi gang rape in India, to reading about the exclusion of black women in police brutality cases in the article “Black Girls Matter,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw, this class has taught me how broad the definition of feminism really is. One topic we covered that has really stuck with me is the pressures of masculinity and the surprisingly large role it plays in female oppression.

BellHooks speaking at The New School (photo credit: taken by photographer for the New School Free Press website)
bell hooks speaking at The New School (photo credit: New School Free Press)

My high school feminism teacher, Ileana Jiménez, highly recommended that we go to one of the bell hooks talks taking place at The New School during her residency earlier this fall. The day I went, the topic was on black masculinity. As a white female from a privileged background, I was very interested in exploring a topic that was different from my own experience.

bell hooks began by stating that American media has made the black man a figure of danger. She declared at one point, “In our white, supremacist world we do not care about the black man.”

Kevin Powell, who was in conversation with hooks that night, said that in our world, men in general are detached from the “unspoken contributions of women,” and that “men have become unaware of their patriarchy.” Most gang activity, shootings, and murders are perpetrated by men. “What has happened to our men to create this rage?” Powell asked. 

In his personal story, Powell continued to describe his mother, asking, “Who can blame a black woman who grew up in the south during the 1940’s?” He went on to say, “I don’t think there is anything more abusive than the world she grew up in.” A cycle of anger and resentment started in a racist world that we are still trying to heal.

hooks nodded her head in agreement, adding that there is a lack of love in the households of black boys. She said that they are pushed into a system that oppresses them. They are given the message that they are not to be loved or give love because that is against “the toxic messages of power” that are fed to boys of color. “We have created a culture that doesn’t care about black boys,” hooks said.  

This lack of love has hardened and violated the minds of boys and men of color, making their reality hostile and fragile all at once. Growing up with a lack of fathers creates rage and a lack of positive male role models in each new generation. We have raised men of color to be so tough, we destroy their sense of self. “Self-worth is not a privilege given to these men,” as they have to be “hard and emotionless or they are not a man,” hooks observed. This is what creates rage and violence as young men of color grow up with no other options or ways out. They learn how to survive through the violence that surrounds them.

“Nothing prepared black boys to love themselves,” hooks concluded, saying the only way to calm the rage is to redefine what manhood means.

I was shocked after hearing this talk. This had me thinking of other talks we have had in our feminism class about masculinity and how it contributes to female oppression, not just toxic masculinity.

My mind went to when we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk in class when she speaks about her journey to feminism against the “Nigerian man’s” mentality. Her most powerful set of lines is:

“We do boys a great disservice in how we raise them. We define masculinity in a very narrow way, making it a hard small cage that we put boys into. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, we make them have to be so hard they develop very fragile egos. But we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink to be small; if a girl is more successful than a man she will intimidate him, she will emasculate him.”

Hearing Adichie’s words again put all the pieces together for me: we correlate masculinity with money, power, success, danger, anger, etc. We put an unreasonable pressure on boys to be hard and to fear their emotions, creating the “rage” hooks discussed with Powell. Because of the pressure to be powerfully masculine, men inherently see women as weaker. Girls and women are then raised to “shrink” under boys and men, step out of their way, fear being too successful, and in some cases, fear men.

This realization really made an impact on me because I started to notice many similar behaviors in my everyday life as well. I started to think about why I get scared to walk alone at night, refrain from wearing certain clothes, or why I get nervous to speak up in class at times. I have forced myself to not let these little details go, to really pay attention. I have come to the conclusion that these types of behaviors are ingrained in us without us really even noticing. Sexism is such an easy place to go to because it has become almost a part of our psyche to do so. We are raised into these toxic gender roles from the second we are born.

We need to change what masculinity means to change the opportunities both boys and girls, men and women are given. The destruction of girls’ schools in India and the Middle East are fueled by the belief that women aren’t the ones meant to be powerful or successful. This hyper-masculine mentality is a problem the whole world is facing. Just as both hooks and Adichie said, it starts from the root, and that’s why we need to change the way we raise our children. Only then can we calm the rage.


9 thoughts on “Healing Black Masculinity: A Talk Between Bell Hooks and Kevin Powell

  1. I definitely agree that society creates gender binaries that force men to believe that they must constantly be “hard” or strong and that they cannot be vulnerable. Also, I wanted to ask you how this is even more amplified for men of color and how the racial construct of America or even the world impact the expectations of men of color.

  2. Like you, I am a girl and I wrote about toxic masculinity in my post. I think it is interesting that as a white girl, you were moved about black masculinity. This is a topic that I have not (and perhaps you have not) learned about before this course, so to read this post is very eye opening.

  3. Your analysis on hooks’ statement that that we do not give boys of color the privilege of self-worth was very interesting, especially in the way you linked it to the extremely binary gender roles we have been raised within. I am wondering how we can instill a sense of self-worth into the lives of these boys, as that seems to be where the rage is rooting from.

  4. as I said in one of my comments to another post, I don’t think that sexism is fueled by the difference in gender between men and women but rather in the similarities that women have with the men that are seen as lesser. Of course this isn’t any easier to deal with as it is still oppression, but do you think in order to solve or somewhat solve the problems with sexism we have to focus less on gender? or do you think it has evolved from the difference in men and lesser men and the difference between men and women?

  5. This is a very well written reflection. I had one question concerning the second to last paragraph. In it, you say that you let “little details” like getting “scared to walk alone at night” go. However, that anxiety is not created in a vacuum, but rather as a defensive response to men who will follow you home/harass you at night. How did you go about minimizing that fear? Is it safe to let that fear go? I’d love to hear your thoughts on balancing protecting yourself and being fearless (which everyone deserves to be).

  6. This is a really great blog post! I found your description of the way that lack of love influences Black masculinity very interesting. This, in my mind, is another way that sexism can be racialized; violence against women can be racialized, and toxic masculinity can be racialized. Additionally, I found your analysis of the relationship between self-worth and the gender binary to be fascinating! Do you think that raising people outside of the gender binary system would make it easier for them to validate themselves and their emotions?

  7. We truly do a disservice to the men of color in our society, as you said we have created a society that ignores their needs as human beings. I think back to the movie we watched as a class, “Gun Hill Road,” and how the father was really struggling with his own masculinity and what it meant for himself, the society he lives in, and in relation to his wife and his transgender daughter. A very well done piece! You highlight a topic that we seem to skim over a lot when talking about feminism,

  8. I really loved your piece and I think your analysis on toxic masculinity being a great disservice to men was great. One line that I really loved was, “This lack of love has hardened and violated the minds of boys and men of color” because it really connected to the toxic masculinity we talk about in class with Henry and Adrian, and also closely relates to the movie we watched in class. I think you did a great job describing toxic masculinity and why it isn’t really beneficial to anyone. Great Job!

  9. I love how you incorporated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words into your post. In Adichie’s TED Talk she says, “We teach girls to shrink to be small; if a girl is more successful than a man she will intimidate him, she will emasculate him.” This twisted teaching created by our society is so upsetting, especially since i’m a young girl who lives in this society. This whole notion of a women automatically being labeled as intimidating or a bitch because of their success in a male dominated workplace is ridiculous. Intelligence, handwork, and success aren’t traits you posses based on your gender.

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