Jack Fischl spends much of his time writing about healthy masculinity among millennial men. In an article that focuses on the Miami Dolphins’ Johnathan Martin, who at one point checked himself into a hospital for emotional distress, Fischl wrote, “Please: men have emotions too and we don’t only deal with them by punching people.” He goes on to say, “Despite recent articles and books forgiving men for having feelings, I feel that many people still pin our emotional reactions into one of two categories: stony, stoic Marlboro Man or oversharing, sensitive artist.”
Fischl, who is White, speaks of there being more than one (somewhat) acceptable emotional response for men, but I wonder if that idea carries over to Black men—who are, mostly, only expected and allowed to express one emotion: rage.
In an article entitled “Strong, Silent—and Depressed? Is Acting Like ‘a Man’ Bringing Brothers Down?,” essayist and culture critic Akiba Solomon (while discussing a study focusing on Black men and depression) comments that the study, “found that brothers who openly discuss their everyday struggles with racial discrimination are less likely to suffer depression than those who keep their feelings inside.”
Solomon adds, “This is no small thing, given that suicide is the third most common cause of death for Black boys and men ages 15 to 24, and that Black men are five times more likely to kill themselves than Black women.”
With respect to love and relationships, a constant conversation I have with Black men centers on how they (and their partners) can forge spaces in their relationships for the kind of emotional vulnerability that shows up in expressions other than rage—or altogether emotional withdrawal. Although we know that emotional vulnerability is healthy and is the cornerstone of happy, successful relationships, we also know vulnerability is hard work for everyone, especially men (because of their socialization)—and particularly Black men who are held to a seemingly inescapable standard of hyper-masculinity.
The topic of invulnerability, and the socialization of men to be invulnerable, is highlighted exceptionally by educator and activist Tony Porter in his TED Talk entitled “A Call To Men.” Porter, on what he calls the “man box” asserts, “I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating—no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger—and definitely no fear.”
But fear and pain, along with anger, are honest emotions. When we constantly tell men that articulating these emotions are somehow not “manly,” we force them to wear constant masks, which in turn prevents them from creating the vulnerable and authentic relationships that bring them closer to their partners and create the kinds of unbreakable bonds that lead to long and thriving relationships and families.
And even more, as mentioned above, Black men’s inability to express their thoughts, struggles and feelings, is killing them.
I asked a group of Black male readers to comment on how we can work to create safe spaces where Black men can be vulnerable and express a full, human range of emotions. Reader Carl Hewitt had this to say: “I think the first thing we need to do as men is acknowledge that we do in fact have feelings. Our hearts can be broken, we do have fears, there are moments we feel vulnerable, and yes, we are, in fact, human. How can we start the conversation about our emotions if we don’t know where to begin?”
Hewitt also offered Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s comments regarding the ways that we socialize boys to “shake it off” when they are in pain.
Writer Lincoln Blades offered this: “Some men have attempted to express themselves emotionally in a relationship, and it went so damn bad that they decided never to do that again. Things like crying, being vulnerable and revealing your heart are considered ‘soft’ in our community, and there are many men who’ve received that label at some point in their life for trying to express themselves. Expressing our emotions can lead to our manhood be questioned, and we would rather hold things inside than deal with that.”
Journalist D. L. Chandler, whom I’ve had countless conversations with regarding how patriarchy negatively impacts Black men, offers: “The issue is best solved in men themselves. We have to get out of our own ways and stop treating emotional expression as ‘soft’ or weakness. How many times have you seen men berate another man for showing feelings? Once we socialize our boys to love fearlessly and boundlessly, only then will that rigid paradigm shift. It starts when they’re young and has to continue well into their adulthood.”
There can be no full personhood without a full expression of emotion. Writer and activist Feminista Jones offers and excellent collection of resources regarding Black men and emotions here.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.