A few days ago a friend and I were having a conversation when she mentioned an acquaintance of hers who died of a gunshot wound. When I asked her what happened, I expected to hear another story about a brother getting caught up in the streets and losing his life. When she told me his death was a suicide, I was surprised, and said I was sorry to hear it, but my immediate thought was that it was too bad he wasn’t strong enough to handle whatever it was that drove him to that point. I knew how wrong it was of me to feel that way, but I did, and it reminded me how deeply ingrained the idea of the strong Black man who can handle anything life throws at him is, and how conforming to that idea has damaged us.
To be a Black man in American society is to be forced to deal with psychological stress every day. Institutionalized racism, economic instability, and the constant threat of physical danger can do a number on a man’s mental state. When we feel the weight of that bearing down on us, our pride often keeps us from speaking to anyone. Those of us raised in religious households were taught that if we’re wrestling with inner turmoil, God will work it out, to pray over our difficulties and find peace, but we’re not told what to do when peace doesn’t come.
Recently, more Black men have been coming forward to to talk about their experiences with emotional issues, but the stigma attached to mental health disorders still lingers.
Recently, more Black men have been coming forward to talk about their experiences with emotional issues, but the stigma attached to mental health disorders still lingers. According to the CDC, younger men of color who reported daily feelings of depression or anxiety were less likely than their white male counterparts to take medication or talk to a mental health professional. The discussions around mental health that Black men have are usually very negative when it’s discussed at all. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other psychological issues are often seen as character flaws instead of medical conditions.
Black men have never been taught how to deal with their emotions. It’s something I’ve had to wrestle with in my own life. The signifiers of manhood in the neighborhood I grew up in were who could fight, pull the most girls, who could talk the loudest, and who could destroy a verbal opponent playing the dozens, or “ranking,” as we called it. I embraced all of that, encouraged by the examples of older men in my family and the friends I grew up with. For a long time, those skills made up most of my self-image. I eventually grew out of that, which marks me as lucky, I guess. But for so many African-American men, being cool, saving face, appearing to be in control of your emotions no matter the circumstances, is a persona we gravitate to almost instinctively.
We have a lot invested in being emotionally cool. It may have started as a defense mechanism against the powerlessness we suffered during slavery. Having no freedom of movement, not being financially compensated for the inhumane conditions we labored in, not being able to defend our women as slavemasters violated them, Black men may have embraced stoicism as a form of survival, as armor in the face of slavery’s unrelenting brutality and the later indignities of Jim Crow. If you look at it from the perspective of ensuring our survival, its been an excellent strategy. But at some point, that armor became less of a protection for our collective psyches and more the dominant characteristic of them.
Acknowledging pain and showing our emotions is considered soft or feminine, weaknesses to be driven out through beatings and ridicule. Male expressions of emotion become reserved for certain occasions like the death of a mother, or the birth of a child. Every other life event is supposed to be met with the same stoicism that sustained us in the fields.
From the day we’re born until the day we die, the message Black males get is, “Don’t be no punk! Be a man! Only sissies cry.” When we suffer physical or emotional trauma, “shake it off” or “get tough” is the only advice we’re given. Acknowledging pain and showing our emotions is considered soft or feminine, weaknesses to be driven out through beatings and ridicule. Male expressions of emotion become reserved for certain occasions like the death of a mother, or the birth of a child. Every other life event is supposed to be met with the same stoicism that sustained us in the fields.
But there’s a physical and psychological cost to suppressing your emotions. Regardless of how tough we claim to be, our feelings are there and if they’re stifled for too long they will eventually explode, often in personally destructive behaviors like self harm, self medication through drugs and alcohol, or external acting out like emotional and physical violence towards the women we claim to love.
So many young men go out into the world with feelings they can’t name, and no one to share their confusion with. I think this is why Black men idolize Tupac so much. I remember being out on the street the night he died and seeing groups of young Black men with their heads down, reciting his lyrics while blasting his music. It was the first time I’d ever witnessed street cats break that hood stoicism for the death of someone that wasn’t a part of their crew. It was like their big brother had passed away. He was the only major figure in the hypermasculine world of hip-hop who was allowed to display more than “hardness.” Although it was tempered with the thugged out imagery that became the definition of hip-hop realness, he used his life and his music to speak about his emotional pain and vulnerability and became a symbol for a generation of young Black males looking for a way to access emotions they were taught to suppress. When he was killed, I think a lot of young men felt they lost someone they identified with who could express the emotions that their egos, or their upbringing, wouldn’t allow them to.
Its impossible to be a fully functioning human without embracing every emotion that dwells within you.
What are the attributes of a man? Most of us will answer ‘strength’, but what defines strength? It’s impossible to be a fully functioning human without embracing every emotion that dwells within you. To limit your emotions limits your life. We need to expand the definition of what strength is and what a man is. For a man, especially a Black man, to acknowledge vulnerability in a society that preys on any perceived weakness can feel like opening yourself up to attack from enemies out to destroy you. But something has to change.
Damaged people create damage. When you have whole communities of men who haven’t been taught to express any emotion except aggression or know any type of conflict resolution beyond escalation, every confrontation has the potential to turn deadly, which has repercussions for us as a people far beyond any one incident. We need help. Too many of us are locked inside emotional prisons and the cost of maintaining an uncaring, untouchable image is literally killing us.