Reflections on Black Manhood: Black Men & Boys Need Feminism to Heal

What does it mean to be a man? A Black man? For me, the answers to these questions were very clear to me starting from a young age.

I can only think of one word that ties together so many of my experiences as a Black man and boy, and that is violence. Physical. Emotional. Psychological. Spiritual.

As Black men and boys, we are subject to the constant violence against our bodies, minds, and spirits. This violence against Black male bodies is one of the master’s tools, a concept that I learned from Audre Lorde, materializes in every institution.  In response to this emotional and physical pain, Black men harbor a great deal of rage which they are not able to process. Without the ability to process these emotions and experiences, we replicate the same oppression upon one another, and especially upon Black women and girls.

Because we as Black men have so much unexamined damage and pain, we project this onto the Black women and girls in our lives. In order to be able to heal our wounds as well as the ones we cause others, Black men and boys need to embrace feminism. By reading Black feminist thinkers such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Smith and the women of the Combahee River Collective, Black men and boys can do the self-examination and mental de-colonization needed to heal their own pain.

To understand how this cycle of pain happens, we first have to understand that being a Black man in America means to face the discrimination and prejudice that comes with this identity on a daily basis. It means coming into contact with ignorant and insensitive comments and gestures and to be the target of micro-aggressions and racial discrimination. It means being portrayed as a thug, having oftentimes fatal interactions with the police while attempting to live your life, whether that be playing in a park, going out to stores or even driving in your car with your family. Living as a Black person in America is a very difficult existence, one in which acts of violence are constantly being perpetrated against the Black body, Black mind, and Black wallet.

Being a Black man and boy means coming into close contact with the prospect of being destroyed – of losing one’s body or even one’s soul. It means facing the master’s tools head-on each day, and fighting for your survival. The “master’s tools,” a term used by Black feminist thinker Audre Lorde, are the ways through which society’s white patriarchy is enforced, whether that be in the media, the justice system, the educational system, or through government and politics. These institutions are the pillars used to uphold systems of oppression like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Audre Lorde (photo source: HuffPost)

Fighting to dismantle these tools is an act that requires accepting that you are not exempt from this fight, that there is no way for you to somehow individually escape it. It makes no difference what one is doing when approached by the officer with the intention of destruction. How one appears, whether a ‘thug’ or a Senator, or how much money one comes from, whether impoverished or wealthy does not matter. This is because the goal of these institutions is to rob Black men and boys of the humanity and life which we so dearly cling to.

Drawing from my own experience, I have witnessed the dehumanizing pain that comes as a consequence of these tools.

One night, on my way home alone from a party, I got off of the train and decided to take a cab rather than wait for the bus I would take to get home. From my point of view, this was the safest option, as the area that I got off the train at was not very safe, especially not in the late hours of night. Ironically, this fear of destruction on the way home would lead to more fear, as my cab driver, without uttering a single word, pulled the car over to the side of the road, just two blocks from my house when the ride was over. I asked what was wrong, informing him that this wasn’t my destination, and he only responded with a point toward his mirror, which showed the flash of red and blue lights of a squad car now behind him.

As he acknowledged the police car, I started to wonder why his car was pulled over: Did the driver do something wrong? Was there a problem with his car? I was certain that I had done absolutely nothing. Two white officers came to either side of the vehicle, and to my utmost surprise, were shining flashlights onto me, sitting in the backseat. They didn’t say a single thing to the driver, who proceeded to watch the encounter through his mirrors. The officers began by saying that there had been multiple cabs being robbed in the past few weeks. I didn’t understand what that had to do with me. I didn’t rob cabs. They then asked me if I had ever been arrested before and if I was a good kid. This too, seemed like a preposterous question:  Did I carry myself like a criminal, like a bad child? Did I look like one? After replying with answers that I thought would calm any suspicions the officers had of me, the door swung open.

It seemed my answers were not sufficient, because in this moment, the officer told me to spread my hands and legs, and he searched my clothes and my pockets thoroughly. During this search, I remember my inhaler falling out my pocket and clattering onto the floor, and I remember how my chest dropped. It made a metal clink as it hit the dark street, and I said to the officers that it was just my inhaler. I didn’t make an attempt to pick it up, and the officer grabbed it up and looked at it closely. After handing it back, they went back to their car. Never before this moment have I felt more helpless, rendered more powerless. Feeling robbed of all privacy and safety, I decided to just pay for my cab on that street and walk the rest of the distance home.

The goal of robbing Black men and boys of our humanity is embedded in our institutions of education, politics, the prison industrial complex, and our economic institutions. It is seen through things like the vast rates of poverty in communities of color, the school to prison pipeline, imprisonment rates, as well unfair sentencing for Black people.

Being a Black man also means having the responsibility of responding to the effects of this violence, which James Baldwin once famously attributed to being in a constant state of “rage.”

Being a Black man is defined by the ways in which we have to do the emotional housekeeping required to be whole, but the very sad truth is, we as Black men and boys have not actually done this emotional housekeeping and have instead embraced unhealthy ways of processing and expressing our rage.

In my own case, I know I did not and still haven’t found the right way to process that moment with the police and the cab and heal from that pain. Even as I walked away from that moment, I began to think about what it was that made me so scared, so fearful. Why did I feel such dread and tension when the inhaler fell? What I feared was not speaking up to the officers, but rather what could’ve happened if they didn’t believe me. I remember getting home and just trying to sleep away the pain and shock of that moment. I even attempted to make humor out of the moment, referring to it in conversations with my other Black male friends as just another uncanny encounter. I was not and still am not able to confront the truth of my feelings in that moment; the way in which my life felt so directly threatened and belittled. I believe my personal struggle is emblematic of a greater struggle within Black manhood and boyhood.

A byproduct of our society’s toxic definitions of masculinity, men in general do not speak of their emotional or physical pain. This is felt even more so by Black men and boys, where emotional and physical damage felt caused by racist notions of masculinity combines with the pain of racism and colorism in general. Because we choose to internalize our rage, we are unable to express ourselves in healthy ways. Even in interactions among Black men and boys, we indulge in self-destructive practices and inflict damage upon one another. As young Black men, we use oppressive language to refer to one another, and use false notions of masculinity to wreak emotional and psychological damage on ourselves and others. We limit ourselves from being emotionally communicative, and a result, we foster unhealthy relationships with our family members and romantic partners. Eventually, we pass along this bad habit to other young Black men and boys, and perpetuate this cycle of emotional inarticulacy.

Yet, even as Black men and boys are victimized by these institutions, we are responsible for perpetuating a great deal of violence on others, especially on Black women and girls.

Where is the gap in our understanding as Black men? Why do we hold Black women and girls to impossible standards? Require them to do all the emotional labor? Why are we not a safe haven for them, in the same way they are for us?

In my time in my high school feminist theory and literature class taught by Ileana Jiménez, I remember first learning about this dynamic between Black men and women in the case of Angela Davis and her time within the Los Angeles SNCC when we watched the film Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisonerswhere talked about the dilemma of Black women in Black liberation movements. As she explained, Black women were the ones expected to do all of the logistical hard work and emotional labor for the movement, but were never given a platform to lead or voice their opinions or their vision for liberation either publicly or privately. This sexism against Black women effectually hindered the full freedom of Black women and limited their interests and demands to that of Black men in the movement. Black women wanted to examine both race and gender within the political movement, and instead, Black men reduced them to emotional, sexual, and reproductive partners. 

I also saw the same sexist rhetoric that Angela Davis experienced take hold in the case of Anita Hill, who provided sexual harassment testimony against Clarence Thomas in 1991 when he was in the process of being reviewed for a seat on the Supreme Court. In the Anita Hill documentary we watched in our class, I saw the dynamic of oppression between specifically Black women and black men quite clearly. Through hearing about how many in the Black community sided with Thomas over this issue, I saw the impossible standards that Black men hold Black women to in relation to enduring violence. Black women are expected to be loyal and committed to the needs and whims of Black men, even when those things directly contradict their own values and endangers their own safety.

I believe that because Black men have internalized the nuances of white patriarchy and capitalism so deeply, that instead of trying break free of this system alongside all oppressed people, we search for a way to elevate ourselves above them, upon them. It is because we feel so little security and autonomy over our own bodies that we attempt to exercise it over others.

An illuminating moment in my understanding came in encountering the words of Black feminist and author bell hooks. In providing her own definition of feminism, she demonstrates how feminism works to challenge our internalized and societal notions of hierarchy and domination. As she writes in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center: “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

bell hooks, (photo credit: Radical Reads)

In her writing, hooks clearly identifies our society’s hierarchy of race, class, and gender, which pits Black people and specifically Black women at the bottom. She specifically references an “ideology of domination” that exists on “various levels,” including how capitalism, imperialism, and violence against women are the tools of the patriarchy that do these forms of “domination.” Black men have directly internalized this same ideology, and because they lack the understanding that feminism can provide, we perpetuate this violence on Black women and girls.

That is why instead of trying to raise young women and girls to feel physically and emotionally liberated, we teach them lessons of subjugation and submission to men and boys, and we teach them how to stand behind Black men and boys and not how to stand on an equal emotional and intellectual ground. It is because we don’t teach Black men and boys about how to love Black women and girls, and how to have healthy and fulfilling interactions and relationships with Black women and girls, that we wind up using the very same sexist and dehumanizing rhetoric of domination of the white patriarchy, and we replicate and use the master’s tools in our communities.

This rhetoric is passed on to us men from a very young age. Before gaining a healthy grasp on romance and attraction, young men are conditioned to objectify women and girls romantically and sexually. This materializes through interactions with older male figures who ask things like: “So, which girl do you want?” and “How many girlfriends do you have?” While on the surface level, these are innocent questions, young men and boys internalize these underlying societal messages about manhood. In these moments, it is clear that society has conflated manhood with not only heterosexuality but also with sexual dominance, possession, and the objectification of women.

From a more personal standpoint, I have gained more awareness about this double standard, especially in terms of sexual intimacy. I see how women and girls are viewed as sexual objects, in such a way that even separates them from their humanity. The young men and boys in my life see women and girls in the way that movies, magazines, and pornography depict them as: as objects of desire, who exist only to serve the sexual whims of men. Being involved with women and girls is seen as a way to both achieve your manhood and also secure it. Men with many sexual partners are acknowledged by their peers as powerful, as cool. Yet at the same time, I see the women and girls who are actually sexually involved with these same young men being judged and demeaned. We use words like “thot” and “ho” to talk about these girls.

Being in the unique position of victim as well perpetrator in my experience, emphasizes the importance of Black men and boys needing to embrace feminism. Recognizing how our actions as men and boys perpetuate the master’s tools can allow for a deeper reflection on our individual experiences and upbringing.

In my own life, I can speak to the impossible dependence upon and expectations of Black women, as I have relied heavily on the emotional and physical support of Black women throughout my entire life. My mother has always been committed to my emotional and physical well-being, even when it has come at the cost of her own. Whether that be coming home from a long day of work just to take care of me or going without certain things to keep me comfortable.

While I didn’t realize it when I was younger, I never really gave her the appreciation she deserved. Of course I said thank you and got her presents on her birthday and Mother’s Day, but I cannot truthfully say I was as committed to her emotional and mental well-being as she was and is to mine. I can recall coming home from school, and my mother would proceed to ask me about my day and how I was doing, and after answering her, I would jump to asking her about whatever she had made for me to eat for dinner.

I remember watching my mother critique my sister’s cooking as they would both be in the kitchen, saying things like “how do you expect to feed your husband and family?” or “what kind of wife will you be if you can’t cook?”  My mother had never expected the same of myself and my brother, and I believe it is because she knew that somewhere out there, another mother was presiding over her daughter, picking apart her every habit and gesture, in order to make for a better wife to a man. And I suppose in a sense, I too believed the same, that another woman would function to meet my physical and emotional needs, but never expected the same of myself. While my mother had taught my sister to be a good mother and partner, she never instructed me how to be a good husband to a future wife; perhaps because she did not have the time, or perhaps never felt the need. Patriarchy and the master’s tools replicated themselves within my own household, and I did very little to question it.

In reflection, I see these exact moments linked to why men often feel as though they don’t need to be concerned with the emotional labor and internal work done by women, limiting our own ability to undo internalized oppression and to decolonize our minds. We have become damaged due to the abuse that we face; and as a result, we have damaged our relationships with Black women and girls.

If Black men can embrace feminism, then we can begin to assess our damage. That begins through challenging our misconceptions of feminism, a major one being that it is strictly for women and white women specifically. In my case, this was revealed to me through learning about the Black feminist movement, and specifically the Combahee River Collective.’

As defined by Barbara Smith of the Combahee River Collective in her essay, “Racism and Women’s Studies,”: “The reason racism is a feminist issue is easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women –as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”

Feminism is not exclusive to women. Saying that ignores the end goal of feminism– the liberation of all people from toxic norms that keep us from being fully human.  The separation of men and boys from feminist conversations implies that they are not active contributors to the oppression of women and girls. Leaving women to do all the work does nothing but show that boys and men are unwilling to self-evaluate. Black boys and men need to understand that they are complicit in the oppression of women and girls. Embracing feminism provides the self-scrutinizing lens necessary to do so.

With Black feminism, we can begin to heal our wounds, and ease the self-inflicted pain that we have also caused to others. Black men can learn how to use Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic to incorporate more emotion into their lives. If we Black men are able to become better in touch with our emotional and psychological selves, then w can do the self-work necessary to decolonize our minds. And by decolonizing ourselves, we can help achieve a healthy way of life safe for all peoples. As Lorde explains in her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power: “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” With this idea of the erotic, Black men and boys can escape from their positions of subjugation and feelings of dehumanization; we can become more in touch with ourselves and one another.

I need Black feminism in my life because I know that I experience and cause emotional damage every day. I need Black feminism because of my toxic actions, whether that be in conversations about women and girls or in excusing myself from doing emotional labor. I need Black feminism because I want to be a better son, brother, friend, partner, and hopefully, one day a better father. I need feminism because I am first responsible for myself, and if I one day hope to help others, I must start by working on myself.

 

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