I remember very vividly examining my father’s hands as a child. They were men’s hands. Large calloused ones that had toiled probably as long as they had grasped. He had been a farmer and a mechanic, a repairman and an electrician, at times a carpenter, and most times a general contractor who found work wherever it lay. He had defined (and continues to, even in death) so much of what manhood means to me.
I married a man just like my father. They had similar hands and trades and work ethics. But I was not my mother, although I tried to be, and in the end it just didn’t work. Much of me had always appreciated diligent, hard-working, blue-collar brothers and the seeming rigidity that came with them. Somewhere along the way though, I realized I wanted something more—something higher, sweeter, more human and gentle and open to me. Today I call that shift “growing up.” I spend a great deal of time wishing I could talk to my father about how unfair the cloak of manhood must have been; sometimes I find myself whispering to him still, actually.
I went to see my barber for a quick edge-up the other day with Yolo Akili’s powerful post from The Good Men Project blog on my mind. There was the usual loud and obnoxious barbershop banter. Some song blared about “beating it up,” or rupturing her kidney, or getting money, or something; a little boy had his mohawk tapered; and lots and lots of Black men sat talking. Usually I bring a book with me, hoping to drown out the misogyny, but this day I wanted to take them all in. I wanted to study their hands, listen to their stories and bask in their essence. They were beautiful and troubled and I’m sure much more complex and nuanced than we usually imagine.
One guy spoke about some kind of pyramid scheme, laying out his business plan with lots of flavor and hand movements. They were just like the men Akili spoke of—at least half of them probably scared to death about these tough economic times. “Communities of color are mired in an economic depression,” The Huffington Post mentioned recently, with Black male unemployment the most serious concern (highest among all ethnic groups). It’s no wonder that the topic du jour at the barbershop, and everywhere, is getting money.
What’s peculiar is that in most of the ways we interpret gender roles and act them out, we damage not only others but also ourselves. Black men who subscribe to unattainable expectations of manhood, like those who say they can only succeed if they’re shining (not like the sun, but like one of their favorite rappers or ballers), seem to pedal full speed towards mental and emotional turmoil. Usually that pain and anguish has to find someplace to go; it’s rarely a good place, and often their relationships suffer as a result.
And some of us help.
Many women, my old self included, subscribe to those same dogmas, believing that a man’s worth is tied to what he brings home. We, too, are trapped by a narrow definition of manhood, and therefore a limited understanding of how truly beneficial a relationship built on partnership—where there is no appointed breadwinner—can be. A great point brought up by my own partner is that when we focus so much on what men are able to contribute financially to relationships, we send a message that men can and should contribute little else.
But there are also many women who care minutely about money, and who still seem to face difficulties in relationships because their lovers, boyfriends and husbands are caught up in memes of manhood that say women can’t make more money than men, or be smarter than men, or do anything at all better than men. (Otherwise we’re punking them by proxy.) Akili writes, “Male socialization runs so deep through our veins that for many the shame of not having money, the shame of not being able to provide, collapses upon every other facet of our lives.” I don’t know that many of our relationships are surviving these collapses, I must say.
I respect men who have the desire to fully support their families, and I have those same goals. If only we could come together.
Your thoughts? Do you believe the expectation of Black men being breadwinners is obsolete? How much does money matter in your relationship?
Josie Pickens is a writer, educator and social commentator who blogs at jonubian.com. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.