1. Where we from
For many young Black men in North America, the world can feel like it's been purpose-built for our destruction. We feel this way because our parents begin driving the message into our heads at an early age—and when their words fail to suffice, it is too often driven into our backsides with their belts and sandals, instead. Stay out of trouble. Address your elders as "sir," and "ma'am." Study your schoolbooks. And most of all: do not fall in with the wrong crowd.
As we grow from youth into early manhood, it is impossible to avoid seeing other Black males culled by the system that our parents used their words and instruments to protect us from: Failing, suspended, and expelled by schools, snatched from their families by Children's Aid, consumed by substance addiction, or dragged into the maw of the carceral system. Often times, falling into one of these traps is a guarantee for young Black men that we will be ensnared by the others, and those who do survive these trials often learn lessons about our masculinity that are less about "living" than they are about finding the narrowly prescribed path to mere survival.
In his book published in April, Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity, Canadian author and lawyer Jamil Jivani scrutinizes the socially destructive effects of trauma inflicted on young and marginalized men of colour. For Jivani—born to a Black Kenyan father and raised mostly by his white Canadian mother in the suburbs of Brampton and Mississauga—these boys are not only trapped by the same system he managed to overcome, but failed by counterproductive cultures within their communities. In fact, the circumstances of his own life, took him precariously close to being just another one of those nameless and unremarkable young Black men inevitably fed into the machine.
In his early teens, Jivani fought in school, listened to rap music that "glorified violence," and carried a knife in his knapsack. He was angry at being racially profiled by police, and fantasized about claiming money and power through selling drugs. "The world looked in fear at young men who acted like gangsters, appeared in mug shots on television and added to the crime statistics in newspapers," Jivani writes. "I saw guys trying to make money where money was hard to come by, commanding respect in their neighborhoods and playing a small part in a corrupt system conspiring to hold our community down."
Jivani became friends with another young man named Lucas, who filled the role of older brother and hood mentor, and who helped him deal with his father's increasing detachment from the family. Lucas dressed like NBA legend Allen Iverson, flirted easily with girls at the mall, and knew how to handle himself in a fight. "Lucas was the coolest guy I knew," Jivani wrote.
But none of those skills could save Lucas from winding up in the statistical pile of lost Black boys; he was constantly in trouble, in and out of jail for fights and other minor infractions. Jivani was on his way down the same path, and at one point asked another friend to find a gun for him. His friend never came through, though, and Jivani was forced to confront where his life was headed. What if he did get his hands on that gun, and police were to catch him with it? Would it not demonstrate exactly why they treat young Black men the way they do? And what would it do to his mother who, Jivani now acknowledges, "was the only good thing in my life?"
It was time to wake up. Jivani was forced to overcome his anger about his father's withdrawal from, and eventual abandonment of, the family, as well as his anger at being racially profiled by police as a young man. He then chose to aspire to greater heights, which meant taking school seriously and thinking about a life beyond the gaudy, empty promises of rap music. It also meant leaving behind most of his friends, including Lucas.
In Jivani's freshman year of university, he received a phone call from prison. It was Lucas, who was behind bars again. After their talk, Jivani looked up the Crime Stoppers release, and was shocked to see Lucas described by authorities as "violent" and "dangerous." For Jivani, the bulletin was something of a signpost, indicating how far he himself had once "strayed from mainstream values."
But Lucas kept calling while he was locked up, and in their difficult conversations, Jivani implored him to change his ways. "To me, I was returning the positive encouragement he gave me when I needed it," Jivani writes in his book. "To him, I just didn't understand the situation. He was convinced there was some conspiracy against him. Prosecutors, witnesses, police officers, and judges all wanted to get him. Being in jail wasn't his fault."
After the charges were dropped a few weeks later and Lucas was released, Jivani confronted him, urging him to take responsibility for his behaviour. But Lucas insisted that Jivani was taking the side of a government that conspired to keep him imprisoned."My morals started to change, and Lucas's didn't," writes Jivani. "And our friendship couldn't survive that difference."
When young boys are inculcated by negative images and violent rap music, Jivani argues, the social ills associated with poverty and marginalization—divorce, births to unmarried mothers, and the waning influence of religion in family life—soon follow. These are common motivations that drive young men to destructive violence, all over the world. "Instead of attending classes or doing homework," he says, "young men are spending their time on the street, on the internet and with their peers (who are more likely to be disengaged from schools)."
It's a vexing thesis with many loose threads, all of which led me to nagging questions. The biggest one was this: I resemble the archetype of the young Black man whom Jivani cautions about falling into the trap of gang subculture—and I do not believe myself to be an exception. So why has it become common wisdom that Black men must overcome our own nature, and our own culture, in order to be seen as self-actualized human beings?
I was not born into a nuclear family. I grew up in the Ontario suburbs of Rexdale, Malton, and Bramalea which, for right or wrong reasons, have earned a negative reputation in the Greater Toronto Area. I can easily recite the lyrics to the full discographies of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. I got involved with the wrong crowd in my teens. I still bear a knife scar on my forearm from the time I was jumped at Islington subway station.
Since the time I was stopped, frisked, and had the contents of my knapsack dumped into the snow by Peel Police searching for drugs when I was in high school, I have been profiled several times. The experiences have left me with a distrust for police that, at times, borders on the irrational. I performed far below my abilities in school, and in my youth, I harboured a fulminating anger toward a world that I felt had no place for me.
And despite all of that, Jivani's thesis feels wrong to me. My hatred was not instilled in me by cultural factors like the hip-hop music I listened to, and I didn't turn my life towards writing because I made a conscious choice to move back toward "mainstream morals." Rather, my choices were affected by the difficulty that I've had—as many Black men have had—dealing with a masculinity that is a binary between crime and what Jivani describes as "mainstream morals," a masculinity so often defined by the male role models in our lives, or by their absence altogether. Our choices are a fight against destructive forces, in the struggle to construct a version of masculinity that enables our survival.
2. Of the faith in fathers
I speak with my biological father over the phone no more than once a year—and only then because it was part of my year-old pledge to forgive him for walking out on me at the age of 10.
When my father and I talk, we rarely have much to discuss besides the difference in weather. I live in Toronto, and he lives in Kingston, Jamaica, with two children of which I am aware. Other than that, I don't know very much about him. Occasionally, he tells me that I should give up on writing and find work in a skilled trade.
I sometimes wonder if his heart broke, as mine did, the day he decided my life was better off without him in it. Had the same wounds been torn open inside him? Did he know the child who once revered him as a giant would come to hate him? Did he even care?
I don't know, because I don't ask. As a matter of principle, I tend to not ask personal questions until other people have opened up with me first. I used to think it was my own aversion to nosiness; I don't appreciate the feeling of being interrogated when I'm asked about much more than my height and shoe size. But in the last few years, I've come to realize it's because moving past the polite banter of acquaintance requires taking a risk on my part: making an emotional investment in somebody who might leave me one day.
The last time I saw my father, he towered over me as he held my small hand in his paw. Now that I've grown up, I'm told he is several inches shorter than I am. My broad chest is an inheritance from my great-grandfather, and the source of my height is a mystery. To my knowledge, my father now has seven children, including myself. I don't know all of their names, and I could be wrong about the number. He told me that he has a son heading to college; I don't know which son, or what school he'll be attending. He told me two days ago that he's 64 years old. I'm likely to forget. And my father knows even less about me.
The threnody of the fatherless Black boy is a familiar song in the community, and I've spent excessive energy trying to rewrite its lyrics for myself. More often than not though, it's been a rudderless drive towards self-improvement: A childhood speech problem corrected by frequently embarrassing trial-and-error attempts at public speaking; a natural introversion, stretched and spindled over the artificial charisma of sales training and leadership camps; a skinny, bow-legged body swelled by years of weightlifting, contact sports, and an acute image disorder; a refusal to honestly acknowledge my own sexuality—that I was attracted to men, women, and frankly a whole spectrum of identities—until my thirties. I spent a lifetime binge-consuming the socially prescribed methods to make myself a whole and complete man, and every accomplishment left me only emptier inside.
Had my father been present in my life, how much different would I be from the person I am now? Had he taken me to church every Sunday, would I recognize the person I might have become? If I had had him as a role model—a man who believes in the subservience of women, and that same-sex attraction is a perversion—what kind of father would I be to my own children today? Had his presence been available to influence me, rather than his absence filled by various role models throughout my life, what kind of Black boy would I have turned out to be?
Black masculinity has, for centuries, been shaped under the vigilant gaze of a white-dominated society that at once fears and admires it. And for too many Black men, that has reduced our experience into a binary—either Yale or jail—that prevents us from experiencing humanity on our own terms, with serious implications for the way we engage with the world and other people.
That rigid binary, imposed on my father and likely his father before him, prevented us from having a relationship when I was young, and prevents us from having a healthy relationship now. Through scholarship, community leaders, and writings about the unique social location of Black men, I've had to continuously reshape my own Black masculinity—not only as an abstract concept, but to answer some deeply personal questions for myself: what is there left for a man like him to teach a man like me, now with two daughters of my own?
Moreover, what lessons are Black men learning in a culture whose rules of survival ensure that we can never truly be free?
3. Exceptional men
Even before Bill Cosby was barnstorming across America, telling Black folk that police kill Black boys because of stolen pound cakes and Coca-Colas, a stubborn dualist perception about Black maleness existed in popular culture. On one hand, there was the image of the savage freed Negro raping his way across the Reconstruction-era south, best exemplified in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. On the other, there was Sidney Poitier introducing the white folks of a post-Loving v. Virginia America to respectable Black men in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
This dichotomy highlights the issue of "respectability politics," as we now call it. The causes and consequences of that binary view has, for over a century, defined Black masculinity. It holds that no Black man exists in a vacuum, and that deviant behaviour by one of us reflects poorly on all of us. To avoid discrimination in a white-dominated society, assimilation into white social norms was necessary—that is, drowning our accents and mannerisms in the shallows of the white mainstream, and avoiding drink, gambling, and the music that inevitably led to degradation of our character. In short, it meant trying to become what Jivani became.
But respectability politics was as stifling an existence for Black men as the segregation laws designed to ensnare us—even if it was our own men enforcing them. In the aftermath of white enslavement and segregation, respectability politics became a path not only hewn roughly parallel to white patriarchy, but filled with the caltrops our respectable predecessors had scattered in their wake.
That idea is perhaps exemplified by the concept of the "Talented Tenth." It's a term that was originally coined by Reconstruction-era white liberals in service of training up leaders within Black communities, but brought into popular consciousness by W.E.B. Du Bois. Black people, Du Bois argued, would benefit from a classical education in a post-slavery Black society, rather than the basic education in trades that would be in keeping with Booker T. Washington's infamous "Atlanta Compromise," which proposed that emancipated Black people in the South abandon their efforts towards equal rights and submit to white political dominance.
Du Bois believed the future of the Negro race lay in developing "exceptional men." They're the cream-of-the-crop 10 per cent of us who could save the masses from the "contamination and death" of our worst—thugs, criminals and the men of loose morals that Jivani categorizes as those whose lifestyles are glorified in gang culture, like DMX, like Jay-Z, and to some extent, like his former friend Lucas. Exceptional men, on the other hand, are personified by Black politicians, power-holders, and intellectuals—people like Jivani himself.
But the spectrum of masculinity is far more nuanced than Jivani and his intellectual predecessors, like Du Bois, would have us believe. Their thesis boils down to a premise that holds that the options for Black men, in a white-dominated society, are limited to a binary of performances: either intellectual or thug. The places in between are, until recently, spaces that Black men have rarely been able to safely explore.
4. We real cool
In my early thirties, I had a corporate job, an apartment overlooking the harbourfront, and plenty of savings in my RRSP accounts—and I was as depressed as I'd ever been.
But Black men who "made it" weren't supposed to have these kinds of feelings, much less show or talk about them. Instead, I covered my roiling psyche with the performance of the young Black professional. I documented my frequent trips to New York and the nightclub scene on my social media pages, spent my bonus money to make myself over in the image of an Esquire model, and lost my evenings and weekends to the pursuit of sex.
I wasn't happy, but that wasn't the point. The point was to convince everyone around me that I was a capable Black man who had it all figured out—that I was the exception.
"It's all a performance," says Brandon Hay, the founder of the Toronto-based Black Daddies Club. He sips his coffee and contemplates for a moment, rolling his wide shoulders. Hay is a large-bodied and soft-spoken man, and as we chop it up at a Starbucks in Scarborough, Ont. and more than once we draw stares from patrons passing us on the way to pick up their orders, I wonder what people make of the two of us. Our meeting came before an incident in Philadelphia, where a Starbucks manager called the police on two Black men who were waiting quietly for a friend. But we're both heavy-set and bearded, and large Black men are always aware of the space that our bodies take up—of white folks' fear that too many of us in one place will only lead to violence. On the other hand, maybe the other patrons thought nothing at all.
"The performance is how we [Black men] express our masculinities," Hay says. "Those are the traits and behaviours we pass on."
Hay suggests that much of what comprises Black masculinity is emotional scar tissue built up over years of racialization, and centuries of subjugation intended to imbue us with a sense of intellectual and cultural inferiority. Fitting one's self-conception into the two extreme ends of socially constructed Black masculinity often leads to unhealthy behaviours to which neither the Talented Tenth nor the so-called gangster subculture are immune.
"You play the performance," Hay says. "It's bravado. Society tells you that no matter what you do, you're not good enough. So you make up with the performance. Sometimes it looks like balling, having that new pair of Jordans, spending cash that you don't have. Sometimes, even when you have the money, it comes out in the way you treat women, having multiple partners. But it's all a performance."
In 2007, Hay founded the Black Daddies Club as a way forward for men, especially those struggling with these issues. He saw Black fathers struggle, but try to brazenly overcome, social isolation and a lack of support networks. The club organizes monthly meetups, pairing young men in the community whose own fathers may be absent with mentors. The group's Facebook page is filled with resources not only on usual parenting topics like summer community programs and anti-bullying, but also the perils of toxic masculinity and hyper-connected social media cultures. "Some fathers will say ‘I want to spend time with my kids, but I don't have the funds,'" says Hay, the Black Daddies Club founder. "Trying to create things as simple as helping dads take kids out to a Raptors game, an Argos game, and art exhibits, it not only gives the fathers a support network, but helps kids who don't have the benefit of a father at home.
"It's trying to create a space where there's a need," Hay says. "Where we can heal, and we can connect."
That act of connection is crucial for Black men, especially given the widespread belief that fathers are hard to come by in the community. It's a pernicious and mainstream perception about the Black family that traces its roots to a 1965 report by U.S. assistant secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In it, Moynihan wrote that the shifting dynamic of the Black family—that is, how it was increasingly being run by mothers alone—was a symptom of its greater dysfunction. "In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure," the report reads, "which, because it is too out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male, and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well."
However, the real truths about the absence of Black fathers are far more nuanced. At first glance, a look at the evidence across North America seems damning: For example, a 2004 StatCan study on social trends among Black Canadians found that 46 per cent of Black children lived with lone parents (compared to 18 per cent of their peer demographic group at the time). And in keeping with a long-term trend, the Centers for Disease Control released a study in January that found 69.8 per cent of Black American children born in 2016 were indeed born to unmarried mothers.
But within the broader context of data available on Black family life, statistics tell another story. The overall Black birth rate, according to available data in the U.S., has been steadily falling for years. Teenage pregnancy in Black communities has also been on the decline, and childbirth rates among married Black women have dropped below their white peers. Given the falling fertility rates in Black communities, out-of-wedlock births—which are hardly unique to Black communities—have come to represent an outsized portion of those births.
In other words, with a far lower number of overall births to report, each child born out-of-wedlock makes up a larger percentage of those births than in the years before. And by focusing on the raw numbers, while stripping away context that includes, for example, social and economic reasons behind a Black teen pregnancy rate which has fallen drastically enough to bring down the rate for America as a whole, the inaccurate stereotypes about Black sexual libertinism have been kept intact.
"People don't keep up with the data," says Roberta Coles, a sociology professor at Marquette University, and author of The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers. "One of the first things I do on the first day of class is ask [students] whether they think that family is deteriorating, or getting better. Most people think it's getting worse. When I ask them why, they think the divorce rate is going up, that teen pregnancy rate is going up, that the crime rate is going up. They don't know that all of those things have been going down for a couple of decades."
As far as fathers and families go, an unmarried mother with children doesn't necessarily constitute a "single-parent household." Black couples may postpone marriage for longer than their peers, but a two-parent household isn't validated with a marriage certificate. In fact, a federal U.S. study from the National Center for Health Statistics found that Black fathers are more actively involved in their children's lives than many of their peers.
There's also statistical evidence that suggests the alleged absence of Black fathers goes to deeper systemic problems. "As you go up in age, across races, women start outnumbering men, because men die earlier," says Coles. "They take more risks, they work in more difficult, or dangerous jobs. They commit suicide more often than women, are more often the victims of homicide, et cetera. That's true across all races. But it was more true for African Americans, even as late as 2010. White women start outnumbering white men in their middle thirties, but Black women are outnumbering [Black] men somewhere between 18 and 24."
Coles also noted that more male babies are born than female babies, but their survival rates taper off much faster, hence the gender majority switching off in adulthood. But due to higher mortality rates, including infant mortality and miscarriage, fewer male babies are born in Black communities to begin with. "And then also you have to add in that mass incarceration rate, which skews the numbers even more," says Coles.
This often leads to what she refers to as "social fathering," where grandparents, cohabitive (but unmarried) step-fathers, and mentors step in to fill the gap. And indeed, in communities where Black fathers do face a higher risk of being killed or incarcerated, the conceit that "it takes a village" is less an ethos than it is a means of survival. Not only are Black men responsible for their own families, but they often provide role models for unrelated youth in the neighbourhood.
"My dad was the community dad, for a lot of guys I knew," says Toronto Police officer Rodcliff Chung, who in many ways has replicated his father's role as the "community dad" through his participation in local youth programs, as well as by running a group home in Scarborough, Ont. "[My] hat goes off to women who do it by themselves. Raising Black sons today is not easy. But when you lose a dad, that positive figure, that male role model? You're taking a lot away from [young] guys."
There is a discernible benefit to having those community fathers around. A study on race and economic opportunity, led by researchers from Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau, and reported in exhaustive detail by the New York Times, demonstrated that even class advantages do not prevent Black boys from being heavily affected by systemic racism, and that the biggest difference was a father figure. Ninety-nine per cent of Black boys in America will fare worse than their white peers over time, the study found, and only 21 per cent who grew up in rich households will themselves grow up to be wealthy. But in communities where a higher percentage of fathers were present, poverty rates trended lower, and residents were less likely to report local discrimination and racial bias.
5. Led astray
"Every Black boy needs a positive guy that you can look up to," says Chung. "You have to. There's gotta be someone."
Officer Chung is a tall and lean Black man, with a bald head and a neatly trimmed beard. He meets me in a Tim Hortons in Ajax, Ont., dressed like a hip pastor—leather jacket draped over a sweater, with dark denim jeans—and walking with the confidence of a church elder. But even this officer of the law has fears about his Black body being criminalized, just like the rest of us. "Even right now," he says, "when I'm not in uniform and I'm driving my car, my heart races, man."
Officer Chung isn't used to toeing the company line where it comes to talk about racial profiling. As a former community liaison who worked primarily in Black neighbourhoods, Chung was one of the first officers with the Toronto Police to publicly attest that the TPS engaged in racial profiling.
As a veteran officer, Chung empathizes with young men who feel targeted by police, as well as the education and child care systems. "The schools and the judicial systems fail these kids at a young age," he says. "It's almost like they're told from the outset that they're bad, they're violent. It's all about how they make other people feel, as opposed to what they're actually doing."
Chung's opinion on the institutional view of young Black men isn't just anecdotal. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for instance, found that participants, both college-aged students and active police officers, viewed Black boys as older and less innocent.
Other studies have found that Black students are suspended far more often than their peers, including one by the Toronto District School Board that concluded that Black students make up nearly half of all suspensions. While the data was not parsed to show the rate of suspension for Black boys in particular, studies in the U.S. have concluded that Black boys are indeed punished at a rate that far exceeds their peers.
"Just by being Black in certain communities, there's a great chance that you're going to be criminalized," says Kofi Hope, executive director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. "Once you've been arrested, even if it's a young offenders charge...your chances of re-offending go up massively. Because now you begin to believe what society tells you—that you are a criminal."
When young Black men internalize that belief, the result is often internally empowering, even as it puts them on a path towards what Du Bois described as "contamination and death." And when they feel a loss of control over their lives, Black youth sometimes turn towards a toxic source that offers some measure of power: white fear of the Black body.
Growing up, when Chezlie Alexander transferred from a high school with a diverse student body to a primarily white one, he was one of the few Black students in attendance—so at that school, he covered for his own anxieties by projecting an intimidating standoffishness. "There's currency to being the guy who can walk around with the attitude, ‘You should be afraid of me,'" Alexander said. "People were either really threatened by me, or they wanted proximity to the Black guy who knew how to throw hands. I could feel, whatever space I was in, that people were disoriented by my presence. I would use that to my advantage."
Alexander, a community strategy lead for Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services, believes this is often a phase for young Black men who discover that society sees them as a problem. "For the most part, the word ‘gang' is a police construction," Alexander says. "Gangs do exist, but for the most part, these are kids who grow up together, on the block, and they have each other's back. These boys went to school together—played sports together, hung out together as children in each others homes."
Chung, who has seen these kinds of attitudes up close as a police officer in Black neighbourhoods and in the group home he supervises, says white fear of the Black body feeds the attitude like oxygen to fire, simultaneously affirming the power that young Black men have to instill fear, while hardening the belief in their role as social outsiders. "In my group home, the Black kids that I get can be very intimidating to the average white person," he says. "They'll act a certain way, because they know they're feared. But when they come to my program, that behaviour stops." His approach is simple: understanding that these young men are simply youth in need of guidance.
The dissonance between what works and how young Black boys are often treated, says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a criminologist and assistant sociology professor at University of Toronto, Mississauga, is the gauntlet that guides young Black men toward crime. "I don't think there's anyone who's born and in their early-life experience says, ‘I want to be a screw-up and not make anything of myself.' Personal responsibility plays a role for sure, but I don't think that we can negate the impact that social realities have on the motivation and drive of young Black men."
And those realities come with serious consequences. Black boys are vastly underrepresented in gifted classes; at the same time, they're often streamed into remedial programs below their capabilities. Unsurprisingly, the educational attainment of Black males lags behind their peers, which subsequently contributes to high unemployment rates. For Black men who do achieve a postsecondary education, their likelihood of getting a job is roughly the same as that of a white college dropout. And for those with no criminal record, chances of finding a job are lower than that of white men with spotty background checks.
"It's a slippery slope that starts very young," says Hope. "It's not just the criminal justice system, but the schools themselves. You're fighting suspensions, you're fighting expulsions, you're fighting constant punitive disciplinary measures. By the time school ends, or you drop out, money isn't coming in, and a lot of time is on your hands. It's very easy to fall into a lifestyle that has you build skills that let you survive on the streets, but hurt your chances of long-term employability."
That slippery slope, for Black men, often ends in a place that claims our bodies—if not our minds.
6. It takes a village
A friend recently asked me: "What were your touchstones?"—meaning, at what point did I realize I was not heterosexual. There were several, including peculiar feelings I had when watching the vampire movie The Lost Boys for the first time, and other feelings towards some of my male classmates that felt wrong. I accumulated these feelings over the course of decades. And having internalized church sermons promising that acting on my feelings would lead me to the fires of hell, I carried that strain weight well into adulthood.
On my 32nd birthday, I had a nervous breakdown. That night, the rot of self-loathing had spread to a corner of my mind that I'd long ago locked away for the sake of self-preservation—that suicide was unthinkable, and that I would leave my family in a state of emotional wreckage if I went through with killing myself. I checked into the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, explaining that I was overwhelmed with the urge to climb the stairs to the roof of my apartment building and throw myself over the side.
I would eventually be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, having carried the symptoms for more than two decades. For years, I knew that something twisted was growing in that empty space inside of me, but I lacked the language to describe it, and the courage to talk to a doctor. The multiple identities I'd built—some to ensure my physical well-being as a youth, others I'd constructed to survive as a Black professional in the workplace—collapsed underneath the strain of years of undiagnosed depression. Much of that was due to a truth that I had, in futility, attempted to bury in the back of my psyche for years: that I was a closeted queer Black man.
It wasn't much more than a year before my hospital stay that I had my first same-sex encounter. It awakened a hunger in me—as well as a guilt that quickly spread. I tried to drown it in alcohol. When that proved fruitless, sex with women was the next logical step. But the online dates and nightclub encounters that led to one-night stands couldn't relieve the gnawing.
The rift between my sexuality, my religion, and what I thought to be my cultural identity as a Black man only continued to widen. I began experiencing panic attacks, and there were days that I couldn't bring myself to get out of bed. And so, one evening, I nearly chose to end the painful episodes. That was when I checked myself in for treatment.
In the process of getting well again, my mind kept returning to my father, who was not there when I needed him the most. At the time, I knew that even if he still lived in Canada, he would have little to offer in the way of support. My father belongs to a cohort of Black men who allowed their masculinity to be reflected through producing a number of sons and daughters, with a number of different women. Raising and providing for those children wasn't necessarily something he saw in his job description.
So he wasn't around to scoop me up from the mental gullies in which my depression so often left me; my mother stepped up and did that. My father wasn't there to help me through my body image disorder and encourage me to channel it into weightlifting; my best friend did that. While an existential conflict welled up inside me for decades, my father wasn't the one to help me understand it was my repressed bisexuality; my mentor, a gay man, offered me the kindness and patience to work through that.
My father's version of masculinity, steeped in rural Jamaica's culture of religion, leaves no room for the fluid sort of masculinity I had come to inhabit. Jamaica's rigid and often violent enforcement of heterosexual norms was a product of the Anglican church stripping so much away from us, including our Akan ancestors' much more nuanced view of gender and sexuality. My father's version would also leave no room for my struggles with mental health, as such things are not openly spoken about.
I can speak about them now. But my experiences in working through my masculinity left me with many scars, and it demanded something of the people around me, the support network of family, friends, and mentors.
That isn't at all unique to me; the Black struggle with masculinity may be a personal one, but it doesn't happen in isolation.
7. The weakness of your men
"What does healing look like for you?" I ask Hay as we continue our conversation about Blackness and masculinity over coffee. He sighs, searching for the right words. "Think about an airplane in an emergency. When that mask comes down, you have to take care of yourself first. And we [Black men] haven't done that. We haven't figured out ways to heal."
"Because we absorb anti-Black racism as Black men, Black men are dehumanized in a North American, if not a global context," he says. "We're all walking around with this hurt that we end up having to find our own ways to heal. And often times we're inflicting that hurt on each other in the community."
Ever since Frances Cress Welsing published The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors—a 1991 book that held the ahistorical hypothesis that white Europeans brought the blight of homosexuality to the continent, and that a white supremacist agenda existed to conquer and disperse the Black race by de-masculinizing its men—the performative homophobia that has become almost inherent to Black hyper-masculinity has been honed through intellectual artifice. Though several leaders in the Black literary and civil rights tradition were quietly known to be gay (e.g. celebrated author Langston Hughes), or openly so (activist Bayard Rustin and author James Baldwin), homophobia has become an accepted and stereotyped facet of our community. It has been further entrenched by the influence of the church and its mostly male leadership, as well as hip-hop, where rappers like Lord Jamar of the legendary trio Brand Nubian, T.I., and Lil Boosie have railed against the "gay agenda."
Travoy Deer, an activist and professional dancer known as "TravoyintheFlesh," had to learn to navigate that as a young man. Deer, who previously spent time as a drag performer in Toronto's gay village, recalled a time when his sexuality, known to people in the neighbourhood, became a problem in the space that heterosexual Black men normally feel the safest: the barbershop. "I don't know if someone said something before I came in, but I remember a new barber, who was fresh from Jamaica, made a comment about me. My barber flipped out. He said, ‘They're gonna come inside the store, and we're gonna cut their hair. Get over it.' "
Deer's construction of his own masculinity, he says, was an assertion of his right to exist freely in a social environment that was often harmful to gay men. "Every day, I had to learn, and unlearn about my own life. I'm an overachiever. I've gone the gangbanger route—been there, done that. I've gone the queen route. Now I'm giving myself the space to be myself, in my version of masculinity."
The rigid self-conception of Black masculinity has enabled our capacity for harm toward other men and those in the trans community, and has only magnified the harm done to Black women. "We don't have healthy societal coping mechanisms to help men through trauma in a constructive way," says Akio Maroon, a womanist activist and sex worker advocate. "There's a loss of power, which they try to gain back in unhealthy and destructive ways. Where are they going to get that back? Usually through the bodies of women, who in our patriarchal society are seen as subordinate to men."
Even when sexual assault doesn't enter the picture, Maroon says Black women are often saddled with Black men's baggage. "There's an expectation that a woman needs to be your ‘ride or die.' That she's supposed to hold you down. That she's supposed to provide a safe space for you to dump your emotional garbage. Women have been socialized to be that receptacle. As a society, we're having conversations about consent, but we've never had a real conversation about the emotional trauma that Black men put their partners through."
In Maroon's estimation, the stubborn persistence of patriarchy in Black cultures has also put pressure on Black women to uphold gender norms at their own expense. "We want to build our men up. We want them to feel strong and worthy, even when it's to our own disadvantage."
Studies show that Black women are often better educated and higher-income earners in the household, Maroon says, yet they can wind up supporting men who sort through their own trauma by cheating, emotional abuse, and even partner rape. "You have men who walk around with issues they haven't dealt with, sometimes since childhood. But they just push it down instead of working through it. And that's how we get toxic masculinity."
8. Every one a star
A few years before Jamil Jivani received that fateful call from his imprisoned friend, Black feminist author bell hooks penned a collection of essays entitled We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. In the book, hooks argued that to be Black and male was to live imprisoned by white male patriarchy, stereotyped as existing in a state of permanent adolescence. "Whether in an actual prison or not," hooks wrote, "practically every black male in the United States has been forced at some point in his life to hold back the self he wants to express, to repress and contain for fear of being attacked, slaughtered, destroyed. Black males often exist in a prison of the mind unable to find their way out."
What hooks argued for was a radical change in Black men's self-conception: to define our masculinity for ourselves, rather than continuing to push the notion that Black men's survival depends on playing by rules designed by white men to destroy or limit our minds and bodies. And in the post-Civil Rights era, that self-conception has mostly failed to break free from what hooks described as our "prison of the mind."
I'm not unique. I did not persevere in difficult situations, or turn away from destructive influences. I did not work diligently out of fear of becoming a statistic. My entire understanding and expression of masculinity, as a Black man, was built and nurtured by my family and my community. Such is the case for millions of Black men across North America, as flawed and broken and excellent as we are.
Black men defy categorization. Prescriptions for some of us are highly unlikely to hold for all of us because Black men live in a world that has, for centuries, taken whatever form is necessary to ensure the destruction of our minds and bodies. Yet somehow, with the phantom pains nestled in our souls, we thrive.
While Jivani's foray into the heart of the Black male may have come from a noble place, his prescription feels as confining as bell hooks's prison of the mind—one that fortified the wall he built between himself and his friend Lucas all those years ago. After all, to cast Black masculinity as a binary is to suffocate it. To truly realize ourselves as free men, that binary should be blasted apart. Black masculinity is a spectrum, and one which we ought to explore, find our places within, and get comfortable in.
Nothing else will do.
The last time I spoke with my father, he asked when I was planning to finally come visit him in Jamaica. He encouraged me to think about moving there with my family, to abandon the pipe dreams and financial hardships of being a freelance writer. In Jamaica, he said, not only was there was steady work to be found, but the social obstacles that made life difficult for Black men in Canada were nonexistent. I'll admit—I began daydreaming about the possibility.
Then he stopped me short with a declarative statement.
"In Canada, women have all the power," he told me. "Down here, man ah man."
Men are men.
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer, and father of two.