Liberation Conversation: Meaningful Black Manhood in an Object Permanence Society
I have learned/
some few things/
like when a man walk manly/
he don’t stumble/
even in the lion’s den
— lucille clifton
I’m in my 40s, heterosexual, educated (take that with a grain of salt, after all this is America so that not the exactly the same as actually being intelligent), single, no children (well, none that I, the state nor any woman I’ve been involved with are aware of) — and never married. These categories have no distinguishing function individually but collectively they make me an zoological oddity of sorts. So it’s not uncommon for Sisters to ask me why I am single, with no children — and in this day and age, depending their degree of interest, their boldness and/or their degree of investigatory skills (nosiness), they may ask if I’m gay — though not always right away. Given the furious flux and fluidity of rapidly vacillating sexual identities, it’s not an unfair question.
I look younger than my age, although the seasoning in my goatee, which seems to get saltier by the day, suggests a full growness. I also possess a youthful exuberance, so the incredulous questions are as likely to come from women my age as from their twenty-something daughters or from women my mother’s age who have decided that Jesus is taking too long to take the wheel in helping steer their thirty- or forty- something daughters to a suitable beau, so they’ve decide to put God in the passenger’s seat and take the wheel back.
Sisters sometimes ask why I’m single as a compliment — an admiration. Most often this occurs after three critical bonafides have been clearly established: Heterosexual. No kids. Educated. (Keepin’ it real, within the current arrangements of our sluggish understanding around sexual identities there is no suspense if you are a single gay man, in your forties, with no kids. All human complexity having suddenly been erased by a single word: Gay.) Having established the proper bonafides — Straight. Educated. No children. — most often I am reasked the question, this time laced over an unvoiced suspicion that seems to insinuate I must defective or irregular in some way, their tone sounding as if they are questioning a seller on craigslist about a pair of Louboutins being sold for way, way below retail value.
Sometimes a sister will begin to slowly restate each question as if it were a critical piece of evidence necessary to solve a crime before arriving at the self satisfied comfort of confirmation bias, the heat generated by the spotlight of her gaze, making me sweat like I’m being interrogated by McNulty on The Wire and McNulty — or in one of those Black houses in Chicago, where Chicago Police illegally detained and tortured so many Black people — as if trying to get me to confess for a crime I didn’t commit. “You must be afraid of commitment then.” “Single? No children? Never married? Oh youre a player, I can just tell.” Sometimes the questioning is so intense that for days afterwards I find myself searching for the wife and children I don’t have.
In America, we don’t invest much time these days getting to know one another. Mostly we look for boxes to fit each other in and if we cant find a box that is suitable we squeeze one another into boxes designed more for the comfort of our assumptions than for understanding them. It’s our way of being comfortable in the boxes we’ve been squeezed into by the assumptions and expectations of others. It seems to require too much effort, deliberation and cognitive flexibility to consider that perhaps the problem is not with the person but with the idea that people should fit into boxes in the first place.
Often the Sisters ask the question with the skepticism of a conspiracy theorist, their artfully Korean threaded eyebrows raised like McDonald’s arches: “Now, WHY are you single? The word “single” is the Trojan horse whose purpose is to infiltrate and launch the salient question: And, you’ve NEVER been married? How old are you again? And you’re single? Why are you single? Using Occam’s razor to cut to the chase, my answer is usually “I’m single because I’m not in a relationship.” My answer has the convenience of simple eloquence and the added benefit of being true.
The higher quality of truth is that in my thirties I wasn’t ready — I’d convinced myself that I could play a role but like all poor actors my talent betrayed me. I’d learned to play the role of an adult, without actually being one. When I was about thirty-five I had a profound realization: I was a nice person, but not a good man. If you think about it for a minute the paradox evaporates. My failure to appreciate this distinction sooner resulted in quite a bit of unintentional emotional harm to women who had the misfortune of having chosen to love on me. I thought I cared for them a great deal. Our actions have a way of telling truths about us our minds aren’t quite ready to accept. In short, I consciously and unconsciously wasted sisters’ time, energy, attention and love. That’s what kids do — play with things until their interests’ wane and then they move onto the next toy.
I don’t ever recall saying to myself or even thinking “I’m about to waste this sisters time.” Mostly I was just doing me. It wasn’t intentional, the harm I was causing. Harm, however, doesn’t have to be intentional for it to be harmful; it just has to be effective. Nice people do unintentional harm all the time. Up until that realization I hadn’t noticed I was lost, so I couldn’t find myself because I wasn’t even looking because I didn’t know I was lost. Self-absorption is a helluva drug.
Being lost and unable to locate myself, I couldn’t possibly offer anything of substance to anyone else. By lost I don’t mean meandering in search of a career or other benchmarks of success. I was meeting those. I mean lost in the sense of not being clear about the kind of man I wanted to be, how I wanted to move through the world, not as consumer and debt aggregator, but as a spirit on a human journey. To be a person with personal accomplishments but no sense of their personal legend, no sense of what tethers them to this world in meaningful ways is rather like pouring water into a colander, you recall the pouring motion, you simply see no evidence of the effort.
These revelations helped me crystallize my options: Be single by choice or be single by divorce. As I looked around at the wreckage of premature partnering of friends whose marriages had been aborted long before they said, “I do.” Good people propelled by the gale force of chronology, societal expectation and a clock no one ever heard or saw but felt, decent people who didn’t really know each other because they hadn’t really learned themselves were now thrown into the vortex. These marriages rooted in a kind of dyslexic algebra in which couples attempted to solve for X without working with any known quantities.
Observing this romantic dyscalculia up close, the arrangement of my options didn’t seem estranged from reality. I went with single by choice — I still had work to do. There are plenty of decent brothers who simply haven’t learned how to be meaningful men in committed partnerships. For many of us, we’ve seen few, if any, positive examples up close, and thus we underestimate the amount of sustained effort healthy relationships take. So we become discouraged, lose focus and surrender to self-sabotage. Or we do cost-benefit analysis and decide quietly that the sustained spadework of self- development offers little immediate rewards: You can get a great woman without being either a nice person or a good man. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about.
Our communities are filled with decent brothers who opt for a cool pose, an impoverished malehood masquerading as a quality of manhood that is exalted and celebrated by other men similarly situated in the world rather than engaging in the soul-work needed to develop into meaningful men. Estranged from our best selves and hungry for power — rather than strength — in a society that works overtime to keep us down and out and powerless, many of us confuse force for power, domination for strength, sexual conquests for virility. Many of us seduced by luxurious impotence of patriarchy view the domination of Black women as a sign of power, viewing spastic virility as confirmation of our manliness, mistakenly reveling in the banality of our fratricidal self-destruction as evidence of our warriorhood.
Our spiritual traditions — by our, I mean African — on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and across the ages tell us that souls vital with spiritual potency elevate themselves by elevating others. They resist the disease of domination, look to build and advance communities based on inspiration rather than manipulation, understanding that complementarity between women and men can take us places our hearts can see even if our minds have yet to imagine.
Walking in the Lions Den: The Quest for meaningful Manhood
Overcoming the psychic trauma done by white supremacy, the alabaster madness (white racial animus) and its post traumatic effects can only be achieved by doing the soul-healing work needed to rediscover our divinity as Black men. Achieving a quality of manhood that is meaningful means you have to be insatiably curious about what your most beautiful self looks like, possess the courage to battle your inner demons, be patient enough to understand that sometimes the questions are the answers, developing along the way an inner-confidence so diamond hard in its certainty that it expresses itself as humility, and a self-love that is experienced by others as generosity. Our accumulated hurts are like a thousand paper cuts on our souls. The work of healing ourselves is about as hard as trying to lose our shadows. It requires courage, imagination, curiosity, generosity, patience and inspiration. We can do it because we have done it before. We simply have to remember that growth is about being, becoming, belonging and doing, authentically.
As we increasingly develop a critical mass of African (American) men who love women as a practiced principle, luxuriate in them as equals, and see protecting them as essential as oxygen; meaningful men who teach every boy they come in contact with to live, love and build around those same truths; protectors who see every encounter with girls and women as an opportunity to model the mastery of manhood over extended adolescence of malehood, we will have begun to take the penultimate step towards completing our emancipation.
This challenge is not singularly gendered: We need more meaningful women too. Lots of Sisters — too many — waste prime developmental years misdirecting their feminine power, fertile with soul-promise, away from discovering and developing their best selves, towards miniaturizing their best selves to fit the deforming contours of patriarchy, bending their feminine force toward male fantasy, trying to be the ideal woman for some generic man they’ve imagined to exist and hope to find. Instead of investing in the kind of soul-work from which emerges centered women, certain in their immutable connectedness to the sacred feminine, self assured in their worth, confident in their gravitational force, resolute in their ability to pull into their orbit what is consistent with their highest selves.
Hard truth: many sisters will go unpartnered not because there is a shortage of meaningful Black men (though, there is some of that) but because they have been provided such a steady diet of unmeaningful ones their taste for the meaningful ones has been ruined. Is there a partnering requirement anymore useless than: “I need a man with a little thug in him”?
In a climate in which intimate partner violence is a problem for women and for men, one has to ask the question: What is thuggery useful for exactly, except an ass whuppin’? Swagger I understand, thuggery…uh, no. Which speaks to the emaciated quality of what passes these days for adulthood. This crisis of adulthood is a societal problem and you can no more understand it outside of American culture than you can understand fish independent of water.
Growing Older Without Growing Up: Adulthood in an Object Permanence Society[i].
We live in an Object Permanence society. Acculturated to view and value the accumulation of objects as the evidence of maturation and success, to see each other as objects — of desire and pleasure, instruments for upward mobility, levers of happiness — and to mistakenly equate our responsible management of these objects with adulthood. Its debilitating contours are intimately familiar — capitalism, our national religion; idolatrous consumerism, our form of worship; a plutocracy thinly disguised as a democracy; corporate piracy cloaked as honest commerce; Social Darwinism masquerading as a humane social contract; an obsession with property over people; debt as the barometer of social value and mobility; white privilege and insecurity offered with a straight face as meritocracy; manic individualism misrecognized for individual freedom; the commodification of everything including people, and the attendant alienation, the isolation, the ennui, all of which require higher and higher doses of narcissism to anesthetize us from the pain of living in a society growing increasing inured to the value human connectedness.
Social media is not evidence of our connectedness; to the contrary they are evidence of the absence of it and a deep seeded desire for it. Social media is the simulacra of connectedness — the copy of the copy of the copy of what it feels like to be deeply connected. The devaluation of our human connectedness produces in us an ever-increasing desire extract existential meaningfulness from things; to place increasing faith in the feeble notion that happiness can be found through narcotic consumerism. The strenuous effort to be seen as having value — to exist — produces a kind of manic individualism and narcissism that have become increasingly prominent features of our societal personality.
Our social gospel has become one of self-referentiality. Our national obsession with fame, reality television and social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat are all muted cries for increased human connectedness, efforts to reinvigorate ourselves with existential meaning, to try and overcome the isolation and ennui in a society, which values us only as objects that spend and accrue debt, scattered efforts to imbue a desacralized society with spiritual vitality.
What do the increases in depression, suicide and over medication as dietary requirement in the world’s wealthiest nation tells us about the emptiness of accumulating things? What does it tell us about the disastrous consequences of having lots empty people surrounded by things? Of the kind of imbalance in human equity and connectedness that occurs when people view and experience themselves as just another thing among other things, disposable cogs in a machine that chews up lives for this odd God Europeans thought up called profit?
This has a profound impact on the quality of manhood and womanhood across our society, and on our ability to create sustainable relationships. How do you create a value in the sustainability of relationships in society predicated on the disposability of everything? The itemization of one another as if we are ordering from a restaurant menu is emblematic of the commodification of people run amok. We use dating sites like takeout menus, ordering everything from height to hair color, with the expectation that we should get exactly what we ordered — and if not to send it back. And when questioned about our “shopping list” we talk about not lowering our standards.
Desiring someone tall enough so you can wear three-inch heels, who possesses President Obama’s intelligence and LL Cool J’s swagger is a preference, not a standard. Just as desiring a sister who has an MBA, is built like Beyonce and can also crack a safe with her lips is preference, not a standard. Some of us are literally missing out on happiness by inches …the inches of someones waistline, inches in height or inches in cup size. Part of meaningful adulthood is developing the ability to interrogate our preferences, to see if what we prefer is actually aiding or getting in the way of what we need to be introduced to our best selves continually.
In our society we have been socialized, miseducated, to view one another as commodities, and thus dating and mate selection become the marketplace, our preferences our shopping list, our objects (things we have) the currency we use to try and buy love. Children, adolescents and perhaps teenagers may not be able to distinguish preferences from standards; we adults are supposed to be able to make that distinction. Honesty, integrity, generosity, courage, compassion, spirituality, fidelity, humility, a commitment to service are standards worth preferring. They look beautiful in everyone.
My point is we all have work to do — to re-learn the elegance of personhood. This society trains us to focus on objects and material possessions as signs of maturation rather than interpersonal growth and development. So much so that we often equate the accumulation and responsible management of things with manhood and womanhood — we pay our bills on time, we are great at our jobs, we received a degree, therefore we are grown. But a law degree makes you a lawyer, a medical degree makes you a doctor; neither confers upon you adulthood, nor does wealth, fame or talent. You can go from kindergarten through graduate school and never sit in any class where the focus is on you learning about you. That’s more than tragic; it’s misanthropic.
In America you don’t really have to grow up because that’s not the goal: The goal is have you grow as a consumer, as an efficient accumulator and manager of debt, not as a fully developed person. So we merely get older without growing up, while the size of our toys get bigger and more expensive, and we end up confusing the size of our toys with our growth as a person.
As a child I had so much awe and respect for adulthood. I couldn’t wait to grow up because it seemed heroic. Mythic. And it was. The grandeur of adulthood should be mystical, heroic. But far too many of us prefer the narcotics of narcissism and hedonism to the daily heroism of discovering our divinity. In the fullness of adulthood I understand now that there are no perfect women or men, or even women or men who are perfect for us, only those whom have perfected themselves enough recognize the soul-work in someone else who is desirous of building together. And that’s it, the whole point of it: To build. Together.
Liberation Conversation: Building for eternity
Discussions about Black manhood rooted in the subjugation of Black women are simultaneously discussions about the contours of Black womanhood and Black peoplehood placed under erasure. Especially when we acknowledge that for many of us men some of the most indelible impressions of manhood came from the Black women who raised us, often alone. Ultimately our liberation conversation must be a dialogue between meaningful women and meaningful men in various configurations, committed to working together to heal our psychic wounds, to tilling soil and planting seeds of possibility that grow meaningful people, perennially.
Black women and men in various configurations of partnering and loving who continuously search for paths fertile with successful possibilities, building lives together, rooted in shared work, shared ideals for an emancipatory future, a shared commitment to mutual growth. Each of us moving without undue effort towards greater clarity about our sociology of personhood — Who we are; who we are in relation to one another; who we are collectively — and driven by a devotion to something greater than ourselves, while serving as a launching pads for the next generation of Black folks in this inhospitable and hostile matrix called America to discover new ways for us to live, love and create.
Meaningful Black folks building in this way can make “til death do us part” seem like mission statement rather than just badly misplaced hip hop swagger. I don’t know if we will be successful, as our poet laureate Mike Tyson once said everybody has a game plan ’til they get hit. I do know success requires preparation, while failure requires none. I am emboldened as I see more and more of us brothers, a brother here, a brother there, quietly, confidently walking manly, managing not to self sabotage in this hostile society, managing not to stumble “even in the lion’s den.”
Black Love is Black Power.
[i] Object permanence is a concept from developmental psychology. It speaks to the developmental stage at which a child possesses the ability to understand that objects still exist even if they are no longer visible. However, in an Object Permanence Society the relationship is inverted from person to object to object to object: We are the objects that must be seen in order to exist — to have meaning and value — which means that we must constantly work to be seen.