I Was Forced to Fight, Now I'm Learning to Cry
Black boys have to bury their emotions as they face off against racism and chase machismo.
I didn't cry when Trayvon Martin was killed. I wrote about his slaying a lot, sure—spent hours chronicling who he was and how he died and why his killer would get away with it. But I never wept. I didn't cry for Eric Garner, or Philando Castile, or Alton Sterling, either, even though I watched footage of their extrajudicial deaths more times than I can count in order to do my job. And honestly, I've never come close to shedding a tear for the people who look like me and are locked up as many as five times more often than whites, nor the roughly two out of five black children who live in poverty.
I understand these injustices, and try in my own way to fight against them, but I do my damndest not to feel them.
Crying feels foreign, even in the face of these horrors, because it's something I just didn't see growing up. Never in my life have I witnessed a man in my family cry—not my grandfathers, not my father, and not my older brothers. I wouldn't say weeping is outright forbidden in my house. But it's certainly looked down upon, especially for boys.
I'm not alone. I see it in the guys I run with, brothers I've known since tall tees were in style. To this day, these dudes can be as open as a book when recounting who they've fucked or who they've fought, but when it comes to the way they feel, the depth of their emotional pain, they have nothing to say. Recently, a woman dating one of my close friends complained about the way these kinds of emotional blocks hold back their relationship. She said she never knew what her man was feeling. "He gets mad, because that is acceptable for a man," she told me. "But then I realize he's not actually mad, it's something else that he just can't get out."
I've caught myself pushing this shit onto my own nephews, getting at them when they break out into tears and start wailing at the world. Phrases like "men can't cry" and "don't be no punk" have come rolling off my tongue so fast they've felt rehearsed.
This no-crying routine is part of a pattern of black masculinity in America, one I'm just beginning to recognize, even as I approach 30. As James Baldwin described in his essay "Here Be Dragons," our community's concept of manhood feeds off the same rigid, diametric American ideals that gave birth to the mythology of "cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white." I see it vividly now when I realize that all of the boys in my family are referred to as "little man" before they can even talk. It's there when our barbecues and get-togethers devolve into trials of manliness, where boys are graded on how many yams they pile on their plate, quizzed about how many girlfriends they have at school, or judged by the way they "square up" when they shadowbox with their elders.
These informal rites of passage are the building blocks of a gauntlet many men in America face. But for black men, they are especially confounding and made even more grotesque because they're paired with the dehumanizing fact of racism. Shit comes down on us hard. bell hooks may have said it most succinctly in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity: "Black boys more than other groups of male children in this society, are asked to surrender their childhoods in order to pursue an elusive patriarchal masculinity."
Unfortunately, this macho shit doesn't work out for black men. We're sort of damned if we do and damned if we don't. If we embrace the violent swagger of American icons in the tradition of John Wayne or Charlton Heston, we're not seen as patriotic heroes—we're just thugs. And if we try to resist engaging in these performances, we're emasculated cowards.
This patriarchal machismo is so poisonous, it infects and corrodes our relationships and interactions, especially with women, because, as Bitch contributor Tamara Winfrey Harris wrote earlier this year, it feeds off of a "hatred of what it defines as feminine... For those invested in toxic masculinity, there is nothing worse a black man can be than 'like a woman…'" And I've seen how this ugliness has played out in my own life.
Baldwin wrote "there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man." My mother, Gayle Miller-Cooper, is that woman inside of me. She is a woman I've seen cry, out of anger and out of love and out of joy. And she is a woman I've seen fight, for the well-being of her children and for own her self-respect. But as a kid I took everything about her for granted.
I resented when family members pointed out that I talked like her or had thick thighs like her, because I yearned to become a man. Like plenty of American boys of all races, I lived for my mom's cooking—her succulent sweet potatoes, her charred pork ribs, and her thick banana pudding—but I did not respect the work and time that went into it. And even though I saw her put on the same blue Cleveland Police uniform and gold badge as my dad and head out the door to do the same conflicted, dangerous law enforcement work that he did, I saw my dad as the man. She, on the other hand, was the lady who fed me and cleaned my clothes.
It took me years to recognize that her ability to be both a nurturer at home and a cop in the world was an immense display of power in a racist and sexist society. My failure to see my mother for all of her strength and virtue earlier is one of my life's greatest regrets. If I had done it sooner, at the very least, I could have been a better son to a much deserving woman. And I might not be so conflicted with my own identity as a black man today.
Demeaning or at least undervaluing women and burying feelings to live up to some ideal of toughness—these habits have wreaked havoc on the psyche of black men in particular for centuries. Today, their tragic traces lie in everything from the high rates of intimate partner violence committed by black men against black women to the rising rate of suicide among black boys.
No doubt, there was stifling patriarchy at play in pre-colonial Africa—like most societies in human history—but what we contend with today is a particularly American problem. As hooks wrote, "The gender politics of slavery and white supremacist domination of free black men was the school where black men from different African tribes, with different languages and value systems, learned in the 'new world,' patriarchal masculinity."
This is about more than just being hard. It's an ethos molded in the image of the Antebellum South and reflects that era's rigidly defined gender roles of debutantes and gentlemen, its view of people as property, and its enshrinement of the white man Master at the very top of the pecking order with the power to punish, rape, and kill with impunity. Unfortunately, for some black men, our concept of freedom isn't to defy this patriarchal order; instead, we've learned to envy it. In our avarice, freedom has come to represent the ability to ascend to the position where we, too, might be the Master and dominate others the way we have been dominated.
In modern pop culture, I see this ice-cold edge everywhere—from the nihilistic glee of 21 Savage's lyrics to the capitalistic cool of the TV series Power's James "Ghost" St. Patrick. This is art responding to a brutal and greedy society with even more brutality and greed. This reaction is so familiar to me now, it reminds me of an old adage often repeated among my family: "If you're going to be a dog, be a big dog." In a nation built on theft and rape and violence, it's almost patriotic to reflect those macho qualities in yourself. At the very least, it's understandable—be the big dog before the man can dog you.
But I'm struck by cracks emerging in this veneer of black cultural life, from the unbridled joy of artists like Chance the Rapper to the gender-bending fashion of Jayden Smith to the emotional availability of Frank Ocean. The breakdown of this façade is an especially integral aspect of Moonlight, the 2016 coming-of-age film that follows a black protagonist named Chiron from the trauma and macho policing he experiences as a youth to the swole, impenetrable trapper he becomes as an adult.
Kevin is the love of Chiron's life, though they never had a chance to completely express and explore their feelings for each other as gay men because of their hyper-masculine, homophobic environment. Kevin articulates the stifling world they live in and the way it's hemmed up their lives, saying, "I never did anything I actually wanted to do. Was all I could do to do what other folks thought I should do. I wasn't never myself."
Chiron and Kevin manage to finally open themselves up and let down their defenses and give into the feelings they've tried to bury. Unfortunately, as in the lives of these characters, such moments of emotional liberation are still few and far between for black men—in popular culture and in everyday life.
A big part of that is because the very things that compelled so many generations of black men to embrace aggro masculinity are still with us. White terrorists are still targeting our churches, white supremacists are marching in our streets, and those in power—from the White House to local law enforcement—are giving neo-Nazism at least tacit approval to carry out campaigns of hate. Even if clinging to American machismo hurts us, the steeling of young black males will continue, because the obstacles we face are relentless, brutal, and ensconced in the highest echelons of power.
The first place I faced some of these obstacles was in the classroom. When race reared its ugly head—from boys calling me a nigger and other epithets to getting crap thrown at me when I got off the school bus—I relied on the lessons the men in my family had taught me about masculinity to assert myself. I didn't cry or whine in the face of hurtful words and actions. Instead, I tried to stand strong. I tried not to show weakness. And I fought back.
Fighting back in the face of racial slurs is not something I regret. But it is incredibly complicated. When I retaliated against words with physical action, in a way, I confirmed the nasty stereotype I was railing against—that I, a black boy, was the short-tempered brute the white folks imagined me to be. Sitting alone in the principal's office instead of learning in class because I had defended my name had a perversely routine feeling to it. In-school suspensions and detentions—preludes to the carceral state that await all black men in America—left me wondering what, exactly, I'd gained with my cavalier displays, and what I'd given up.
Of course, there's also the ugly inhumanity of beating someone down, even someone who is racist. When I went beyond just defending myself and tried to use force to teach people lessons about my own power and strength, I saw in myself the kind of internal brokenness I despised. And while I was bullied and ostracized for being black, I joined in and punished others for being effeminate or slow, hoping that would shield me from or endear me to my tormentors. It never did.
There were also times when my attempts at being the tough guy backfired. I once attacked an overgrown, corn-fed white boy who called me a nigger during indoor recess in elementary school. The future linebacker bested me to the point that I should have thanked the teacher for intervening before I got seriously hurt. In that squabble, I saw the other side of the double-edged sword—that stinging shame of failing to live up to fragile concepts of masculinity. By not being able to redeem my race in proving I was physically stronger, I felt I had failed disastrously.
I resented this stereotype of the hypermasculine black brute, but I also yearned to evoke its fury. Not being able to overpower him made me feel less black and less manly.
Many of my own macho ways come, naturally, from the two men who have shaped me the most. The first is my grandfather, George Cooper. As a black man who lived in Ohio through the Jim Crow–era and fought in the armed forces in World War II, he faced unspeakable horrors and indignities. For him, the key to being a man, above anything else, was earning wages so he could provide for and be the head of his family—the masculine patriarch. Publicly expressing frustration or angst against the system would have jeopardized that in a time when a black man could get lynched or locked up just for talking smart. The key to seeing another day and moving the buck further was to grin and bear society's emasculation, while he earned enough money to create a space for himself and his family. There, he could be the man and run things.
But this stoicism seeped not just into the way he dealt with the outside world, but also the way he raised my other influence: his son. My dad has told me often about the expressions of love he yearned for but never received. Instead, my grandfather was hard at home in what my dad believes was an effort to make him tougher.
However, my old man vowed to be different. We say "I love you" to each other at the end of every phone call, and every time we part. We hug each other close when we greet each other. He's worked hard to be more than a just an old-school patriarch, even if there are vestiges of that troubling machismo.
Instead of expressing no emotion whatsoever, like my granddad, my father shows plenty of it, but the most intense one is anger. It's hard for me to even imagine his brown, freckled face turned up in agony with tears streaming down those stubbled jowls. But I have seen him yell, his voice growling with a rabid intensity. I've heard him curse, bringing people to tears with his words. And though he's not a big man, I've seen him assert his dominance over other men through the physicality of his broad shoulders and the power of his stance. I've never been a direct victim of his wrath, but as a boy, I knew to fear it. I think the intensity and tenderness with which he loved me is matched only by the fury he has at the world for holding him back as a black man.
To gain the power he felt denied, my dad chose to join the biggest, baddest gang of all: the police department. In many ways, this was a clever survival strategy that allowed him to achieve idealized masculinity—power, privilege, and financial freedom—often denied black men. Like a disgruntled Mister Tibbs, I've seen my dad use his badge to make racist white men heel. His decision to become an officer is one that I empathize with and have absolutely benefited from. But even as the job gave him and our family some intermittent power and social status, that power was created to suppress black and brown people. And dad knows all too well that having a badge doesn't completely insulate him or our family from the injustice inherent in American law enforcement.
The big difference between my grandfather and my father's masculinity is generational. As a young man, my dad didn't understand or respect the way my grandfather dealt with white people with his cool demeanor. My dad came of age during the birth of the black power movement, and yearned to be different. His idols were men like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Stokely Carmichael. Their brand of manliness was defiant and swaggering: peeping out the window with rifle in hand, perched on rattan chair toting a firearm and a spear, or raising a black fist mightily through the air.
While some of these leaders had more progressive views on masculinity for their time—Newton saw the LGBTQ community as comrades in the struggle, for example—much of their legacy has been watered down to one-dimensional rage and macho posturing today. Instead of their vital critiques of American capitalism, radicals from the 60s and 70s are often defined by their guns and Afros and sleek outfits. Like many young black men searching for an identity, I bought a leather jacket and a beret before I ever critically read the works of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon. Instead of complex men with compelling ideas, bygone leaders like the Panthers are often flattened into leftist bros who fit a familiar, and quintessentially American archetype that is all about force and individualism, like the cowboys of the Wild West.
But when the struggle for racial equality is framed as a pursuit for domination and a thirst for violence—the foundation on which inequality in this nation was built—it undermines the revolutionary mission and reinforces the status quo. To achieve change that breaks down the patriarchal power structure, we don't have to just end race-based oppression, we also have to kill our tired notions of manhood.
As men of color, we can't allow ourselves to be defined only by our rage against the system and our craving for raw might. We must give ourselves space to feel and express a range of emotions. Left unaddressed, the internal angst we harbor can be almost as destructive to us as the external oppression we face off against.
I'm still working my way through that maze of machismo, but instead of wallowing, I'm discovering a path out. In my early 20s, my go-to solution was to drink, numbing myself, silencing the feelings I didn't want to feel or acknowledge. Lately, I've been taking a different approach: allowing myself the room for expression to escape the stifling aura bestowed upon me and actually figure out who I want to be.
One of the most important steps I've taken on this journey came during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The museum is filled with all kinds of important historical shit that made me feel incredibly proud to be black—they've got everything from Parliament-Funkadelic's Mothership to Nat Turner's bible. But I was profoundly touched by the casket of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till, which sits solemnly in the Smithsonian museum's "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom" section.
Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so that, in her words, "all the world can see what they did to my boy." It's a decision that's been credited with helping spark the civil rights movement. As I followed in a slow procession of people inching toward the coffin, I understood why.
I felt this wave of feeling rise inside of me that I couldn't deny or ignore. I thought about the fact that my father and grandfather had faced some of the same violent American traditions that took Till's life. And that despite all the marches and legislation and (sometimes historic) elections since, the threat was there for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. And it has been there for me as well—in every traffic stop, in the face of all the epithets, and in the psychic pain I carry everywhere I go. And there's little doubt that it will be there for my son one day, too, should I have one. The burden of blackness will be his birthright as an American man.
As I approached Till's casket, these facts elicited an unfamiliar reaction. It wasn't defined by anger, and I didn't try to suppress it. I felt sorrow for all the suffering, fear for the pain yet to come to my brothers, and a deep sense of powerlessness at the weighty inevitability of it all. And so, for the first time in I don't know how long, I cried.
I cried in front of old gray-haired black men in their HBCU T-shirts and young brothers in Jordans. I cried in front of moms in their updos and little girls in braids and berets. It was an ugly cry, with my head hung over, my mouth gaping and upturned, my eyes clamped tight. The tears welled up at the corners of my eyelids, then streaked around my cheekbones and clumped together in the coarse hairs of my beard.
I cried for all the times I had never cried. I cried for all the men who've died in the struggle, and all the men who told me that I should never cry. I cried until I didn't have any more tears—until I had run completely dry. Maybe most surprising: When I was done, I didn't feel embarrassment or shame.
There was something purifying about laying my burden down like that, if only for a brief moment. Thanks to the strong black men in my life, I've always had the will to fight. But at the foot of that coffin in that hallowed space, I found the strength to cry. It's a power I will never give away again.
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