When I was 5 and learning to ride a bike for the first time without training wheels, I accidentally hit a crack in the sidewalk that sent my little body Peter-Panning 10 feet away from the seat. I landed headfirst into the concrete with my legs pointing straight up in the sky like a crunched-up French fry. As the bodily pain increased, creating watery eyes, my emotions immediately shut off upon hearing my mother’s voice from the porch yell out, “You betta not be crying?!!”
What does Black male vulnerability look like in America? Is it a weakness that must be dismissed at a young age to survive and advance within a racially oppressive system? Is it the freedom to drop one’s guard, trusting a Black woman will enter his heart with a grandmother-style care and not a Trojan-horse betrayal? Is it the ability to shed tears openly without the questioning of character or ridiculing from peers? For a Black male, the idea of vulnerability requires first to understand that it is a challenging goal to achieve, and then to search for a destiny where it can exist.
America’s societal standards condition Black males; they are to be trained from childhood by parents (or parental figures) to tuck their tears away. One such standard comes from the stereotype of their gender: “Boys aren’t supposed to cry, that’s for girls.” While another is steeped in history: America will never have empathy nor sympathy for their Black skin(s). The concept of “man up”, to develop a physical/mental toughness, is forced upon their underdeveloped minds even before puberty. The many possible threats to Black male existence—from inner-city neighborhood violence to being pulled over by a white officer while en route to a suburban home—can subconsciously force one to compartmentalize emotionally. Black adults with positive intentions will often invest time in raising young Black males to be hardened figures of manhood because it is their best chance to overcome the challenges and dangers stacked against them.
The traditional idea of manhood suggests that in order to be successful family protectors and providers, Black men must absorb all pain and punishment without complaint. A throwback television show called Soul!, that aired in the late 1960s to early 1970s, addressed this very issue. A two-part episode features legendary writers/Black voices Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in a conversation that is still relevant. Although the two icons discuss various topics such as race and politics, it was the Black man/woman relationship part of the convo that went viral a few years ago:
The shocked reaction from Baldwin is obvious through his shoulders as he sat upright. Giovanni, with a certainty in her eyes, pressed on to unapologetically elaborate:
Baldwin, his eyes upward and earnest, understands Giovanni’s position while explaining why he doesn’t believe her request to be achievable. It’s the final statement that hits with a hard human truth:
Society’s image of Black manhood forces the Black male to (un)consciously perform an identity that is pleasing to his daily surroundings. Vulnerability is understood as a display of emotion, which is only acceptable vis a vis a love of sports or the funerals of loved ones, and the fear of falling short of manhood prevents some Black men from developing a healthy emotional connection to Black women. This becomes especially precarious when finances enter the relationship equation. The Black woman being the breadwinner is a reflection of his failure, not the economy. An economy perpetuated by the same society that told him he’s a leader by gender and biblical birthright; therefore, when he finds himself unemployed on a couch, it’s not depression, it’s weakness.
Snacks is the heart and soul of one of my close circles of friends in Detroit. With an infectious laugh and grizzly bear hug that could easily lift my feet inches off the ground, he’s one of the first to pick me up from the airport whenever I visit home. Countless times within our circle, Snacks would loan his ear to whoever had issues they needed to vent out loud. Snacks would take anyone to the mall to buy an outfit for the club while always willing to pay the entry fee if I or anyone was short. The only time I wouldn’t see Snacks is when laid off from work because he often felt no need to come around if he couldn’t pay for everyone. A top-tier dresser who brags about his wife and kids like a winning lotto ticket—that’s how I’ve chosen to remember Snacks ever since receiving news of his suicide years ago.
The barbershop (Shop) is a popular haven for expressing joys and pains of Black male life. The discussion is diverse and the topics sometimes edgy, but outside of an occasional sports moment and “top 5 dead or alive” rapper list, the room for vulnerability is limited. Sure, there’s plenty of emotional outburst during debates, but rarely does the shield of masculinity get to fall. There are times when a Black male is at a Shop or within a friend circle and will feel safe to display a deep dive of internal thoughts without fear of being an outcast, but it isn’t often. According to a John Hopkins University Press study “Treatment Disparities among African American Men with Depression: Implications for Clinical Practice”:
“Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression compared with men. Paradoxically, men in the United States (U.S.) are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Traditional masculinity norms contribute to men’s under-utilization of health care services. Men are encouraged to ‘tough out’ illness for as long as possible.”
Therapy, framed by Black manhood, is only an option for the white, crazy, and the weak. Therefore, it virtually doesn’t exist as an option for Black male support. But something’s got to give.
I remember the first adult argument I ever had with my father—man to man. We were on the phone and for some minutes he listened to me vent about his shortcomings and our unstable relationship. When I was done, I could hear him exhaling cigar smoke before he calmly replied, “You gotta stop being so sensitive about things…”
Sensitivity is not a character flaw, but the inability to express feelings can create a toxic cycle that reinforces the emotionless, physically strong alpha male as the standard of manhood. Although the teaching of young Black male survival in America is an unavoidable lesson, the practice cannot continue at the cost of their humanity.