I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Black man in America. As circumstance would have it, I am a Black man in America, so I suppose that makes sense. However, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I’m not alone; the rest of the country, at least temporarily, appears to be interested in the lives of Black men, particularly young Black men. Out of that tragedy has arisen the need to explain the story of Black men on a national scale.
Of course, there isn’t a single narrative, one that will definitively place all the experiences of Black men into a neat package for a curious public. However, there are commonalities, uniting factors that can help those who will never be Black men or will come into scant contact with Black men to get a general sense of what shapes the lives of Black men. There’s the hope that, perhaps, the more the world knows about us, the fewer Trayvons there will be. A prayer set out into the darkness, no doubt, but that in itself is a part of the Black male experience.
It occurs to me, reflecting more in this moment about the lives of young brothers, that it’s a familiar enough story. It’s as human as it gets, despite the best attempts to deny us our humanity. I have found that Black men experience this world in ways that are quite similar to the widely known Kubler-Ross "5 Stages of Grief" model:
1. Denial. In his life, every Black man is afforded a period of unburdened optimism. The length varies for each individual, and some may not remember it. Whether it lasts until they turn five or 50, there’s at least a moment where a Black man can look out into the world and see it as full of opportunity. There exists no limits in his mind as to who or what he can become. It’s a time free of history’s lessons and society’s prejudices.
But there also comes a moment, an internal realization generally prompted by an outside force, where Black men have to confront their reality as “the other.” If you’re lucky, it could be something seemingly innocuous, like being told “you speak so well.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be potentially deadly, like being pulled over by a police officer for “looking suspicious.” It very well could be purposeful, as in an elder handing down to you a dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Again, the timing and form of this message will vary from person to person, but eventually something pushes a previously dormant voice in the mind of every Black man to say “wake up, you’re Black” and he doesn’t want to believe it.
This isn’t so much about the denial of one’s Blackness as it is a denial about world’s reaction to that Blackness. No one wants to believe their mere existence is a problem, that the fact of their skin color will be an impediment to their goals. Everyone wants to be judged fairly based on who they are. No one wants to believe the worst in people. For a while, a Black man may choose to say to themselves that it simply isn’t true, that the world can see their humanity just fine. A few get stuck there, either by choice or delusion. Even those who make it past this stage may continue to long for the days of well-meaning ignorance and optimism.
2. Anger. Who can blame Black men for being angry? You’re born into a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, marches, protests, and riots. From the moment you’re old enough to know what it is, you’re told that it’s likely you’ll end up in prison, and you start to believe it as you watch fathers/uncles/brothers/cousins be hauled off. Everywhere you go, you’re viewed as a problem that needs to be solved.
How can you not be angry when it seems like every other week you’re learning the name of another brother you’ll never meet, for all the wrong reasons? Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Ramarley Graham. Oscar Grant. James Byrd. Troy Davis. James Anderson. Their names make it into the news and a familiar sense of pain and rage settles in, because the story never changes.
Black male anger isn’t an anomaly, it’s a consequence of breathing.
It’s tricky to navigate anger, though. A Black man’s presence already elicits fear, and to add anger only validates the ideas of one’s uncontrollable animalistic nature. It becomes a chore where Black men must disarm ourselves of even legitimate expressions of anger and set everyone else at ease, lest we be alienated from society any further. On a Black man’s face, a smile is no longer a smile, a mere reaction to joy, but a defense mechanism employed to diffuse tension.
3. Bargaining. A large part of being a Black man is understanding that you can’t tell all of the truth, or you won’t be alive long enough to tell any truth at all. This is where the delicate dance of bargaining or compromising enters the vocabulary. It’s all about deciding which truths to tell.
This is where you find the acceptance of reductive histories of Black male heroes, chopping their legacies down to near meaningless platitudes like “I Have a Dream” or “By Any Means Necessary,” just so they’ll be remembered outside of February.
It’s wanting the world to take in the genius of James Baldwin so badly, that you agree in principle to never mention the fact of his sexuality, or even come to hate that part of him yourself. It’s not even bothering to learn Bayard Rustin’s name.
Bargaining is taking the month of March to play a series of nationally televised basketball games, viewed by millions, for absolute no compensation, scholarship notwithstanding, in order to have access to an otherwise inaccessible education or, more hopefully, the shot at a lucrative professional contract that becomes the financial hope of your entire extended family.
This is the trade-off where you allow Jay-Z’s most popular song to date to be a tepid and schmaltzy ode to the locale that birthed him, so you can keep lyrics like “yeah I sold drugs for a living, that’s given, why is it?/Why don’t you try to visit the neighborhoods I lived in/My mind been through hell, my neighborhood is crime central/where cops lock you up more than try to defend you” for yourself.
It’s supporting the rise of Barack Hussein Obama in the same city where Fred Hampton was killed. Bargaining is survival.
4. Depression. This stage isn’t always visible. In part, that has to do with Black men going to great lengths to conceal their emotions, because we have learned early on that showing any signs of perceived “weakness” is not masculine and/or can get you killed. But it’s more than that. Like anger, Black male depression is pathologized. When it is assumed that Black men are on rampant drug users and alcoholics, one wouldn’t view that behavior as a sign of anything more than their natural state. Also, depression can express itself among Black men in ways that aren’t necessarily recognizable to the clinical definition. When Black men are suicidal we don’t call it depression, we call it gang wars. Depression is the inevitable consequence of every day facing a society that makes it clear it doesn’t believe you have a right to exist.
5. Acceptance. This doesn’t happen just once. At every step, a Black man has to come to terms with his station. Acceptance doesn’t mean defeat, as we wouldn’t have survived this long in this country if we simply gave up at every obstacle. What it does mean is that Black men are consistently remembering that they are Black men, and that means something wicked for the rest of the world.
Yes, being a Black man is exhausting. But unlike grief, Black manhood consists of a crucial sixth stage, one that helps you cope with it all. This consists of throwing caution to back to history and telling the Black-rage-filled-truth anyway, damn the consequences. It’s the embracing of one’s Black self, gay self, bisexual self, and/or trans self as one whole. This is about creating culture that becomes indispensible. It’s writing our history in its totality. It’s where Black men forge their own identities in defiance of all the world’s expectations.
We call this resistance. It’s not simply a matter of surviving. This is how we learn to live.