Kevin Powell On Moving Beyond His Own Toxic Masculinity
Raised in the inner city by a single mother, Kevin Powell grew up steeped in the macho norms of a tough environment, compounded by an absent father and severe poverty. After having to face his demons in young adulthood, he embarked on a remarkable journey, emerging as a great writer and activist, and a leading advocate of a new form of redefined manhood — one anchored in nonviolence, love, and healthy self-expression.
Kevin’s story is powerful, and he’s written about it extensively in the 13 books he’s authored, including The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. His latest book, My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man., is an emotionally naked and deeply engaging autobiography of America, by tracing the influence of his remarkable single mother, a woman who shaped his entire life, threaded with his lived experience. Powell strips away symbols and pretensions to get to the root of who and what this nation really is, and how it came to be, and why we are struggling so mightily in these times.
That’s also how he approached his 2018 Bioneers keynote address. He boldly and bravely discusses his experiences with toxic masculinity and his journey to redefine what it means to be a man. He touches on the importance of gender equity, ending sexual abuse and redefining manhood to address the ways that violence has been baked into our cultural understanding of masculinity.
I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. I’m the product of a single parent household, a single mother. My mother, like many African Americans, migrated from the South, from Texas, from Alabama, from Louisiana, from South Carolina, where she’s from, to places like Oakland, California, like Richmond, San Leandro and Hayward, or Brooklyn or Jersey City, where I was born and raised. She was in her early 20s. Being born in 1943, she had already survived the racism and the sexism and the classism of the American South, where her birth certificate said colored, not black, not African American — colored.
She dealt with sexism growing up because only her brother was allowed to graduate from high school. All the girls had to work. My mother started working when she was 8 years old in cotton fields. She only got to the eighth grade. She was basically groomed not to have a career other than being the help for the privileged and powerful in her community.
So she got on a Greyhound bus, as many black women did during those times, and she packed her life into suitcases and she and two of her sisters came up north, and they shared one bed in a one-room apartment in Jersey City.
At some point, my mother met my father. She was in her early 20s. He was in his 30s. She fell in love with him, and he fell in lust with her. e manipulated my mother and he got her pregnant. When it was time to give birth to me, my mother was forced to call a taxi cab because she’s was poor, black woman in America. There’s no resources. There’s no cars. There’s no drivers. There’s nothing. he had to go to the hospital in a cab, and that’s how I was born.
I only saw my father — my first introduction to manhood — three times in my life, between the time I was born and when I was 8 years old. My father pretended several times that he was going to marry my mother. He would play games with her. He’d say, “Well, let’s get married.” And then he would pull back. My mother would call him periodically to ask, “Can you help us?”
He was a truck driver, so he had money. He actually lived in a house that he owned, but we were living in a rat and roach-infested tenement. The one time I went driving with him in his truck, I was 6 or 7 years old, there were images of naked women. When he saw my discomfort at the nudity of these women, he started laughing and basically said what I heard from older men throughout my adolescence and youth: “This is what it is to be a man.”
When I was 8 years old, it was a rainy day and my mother said we were going to go to the drugstore down the street to a payphone — we didn’t have a telephone in the house — and she called my father. She asked him, again, “Can you help us?” On this particular day, his toxic manhood said, “You lied to me. He’s not my son.” And I look like my father. He said, “I’m not going to give you another nickel for him ever again,” and hung up the phone on my mother. My mother was devastated. She shared with me what my father had said. Right then and there, this 8 year old Kevin Powell had a father hole, a manhood hole that was as wide as the Grand Canyon, emotionally, spiritually, and every which way you can imagine.
Confronting a Flawed “Masculinity”
Whether you have a father or father figure in your life, or no father at all like I did, the reality is most of us who grew up in this society, whether we’re white, black, Latino, Latinx, Asian, Native American, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, most of us who identify as males are still bombarded with the same images. This is what boys do. We wear blue. This is what girls do. They wear pink.
Boys don’t cry. Boys have to be tough. Boys, from early age — 5, 6 years old — start to police each other. We start to use sexist or homophobic or transphobic terms to describe boys who might be a little different than the so-called norm.
That was me, in this hyper-masculine culture. I played sports growing up. I loved football. I loved baseball. You better believe that I fought every chance I got; “Meet us in the lunchroom if you want to settle this.” It’s this right of passage many of us go through in our families, in our communities, all over the country and around the world — unless you have a parent or parents or an adult who checks you as a boy and says, “This is unacceptable to refer to girls in this way, it’s unacceptable to police boys this way, and it’s unacceptable to learn that to be a man is to be violent.”
We would run around school, in fourth or fifth grade, boys grabbing girls’ body parts, not realizing that we were learning rape culture at 8 or 9 years old. Not realizing that when we used terms like gang bang, that’s what we were saying. I remember in my neighborhood there was a girl — and I’m embarrassed to admit this — but the boys made a decision very early on with this girl that she was sexually promiscuous, and so her name became “Whorey Dory.”
Meanwhile, the boys can do anything we want. But the girls, if it was even thought they had done something, we twisted it around as if there was something wrong with them, just like what we did with Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
It’s not just our families and communities that shape us, it’s also the schools that we go to. It doesn’t matter if you go to a public school or some elite private school. My mother went to school through eighth grade. I was raised in the first generation after the Civil Rights movement. I went to the so-called best public schools in Jersey City — integrated schools. I was an A student. My mother did not tolerate bad grades.
When I think about it, I didn’t learn anything about Black history or Latinx history, or Native American history, or Asian history, or queer history, or poor people’s history. In my 13 years of school, I learned about Betsy Ross sewing the flag. I learned about Florence Nightingale, vaguely. Helen Keller, even more vaguely. And then Rosa Parks because she served double duty with Black history and Women’s history. Now we’re laughing about this, but if you want to understand patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, rape culture, ask the average male in your life: Name me five to 10 women in American and world history, and see how silent most of us go.
Even though I was raised in a single mother household and it was a matriarchal family, the reality is, the things that we were studying — whether it was math, science, history — were all through the lens of men, as if women didn’t exist. I knew from the time I was 11, 12 years old that I wanted to be a writer because I discovered this very hyper-masculine male writer named Ernest Hemingway. In my 13 years of school, the only woman writer that I even remember was Emily Dickinson.
It’s not just there, it’s also pop culture and the mass media culture. I grew up loving TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie, where she called Major Nelson “Master” and he would put her back in a bottle. I’m thinking to myself, years later, “Wow. Boy was that reinforcing patriarchy and sexism.” Or I’d watch Happy Days. The Fonz would snap his fingers and women would just fly out of the ceiling. As a boy taking this in, think about the devastating effect of these images, just like the devastating effect of black folks seeing images of ourselves only in certain stereotypical ways.
This is how I was socialized. Fighting was normalized. Violence was normalized. Respecting women and girls as our equals was not part of it.
I get to college at Rutgers University in New Jersey. First year, first semester, probably the first week, an upper class male student said to me, “There is so much sex on this campus, we don’t need electricity to keep the lights on.” I realize there’s a whole kind of pimp mentality going on. There are student leader pimps, there’s fraternity pimps, there’s athlete pimps, there’s even faculty and staff pimps, where the men were running amok with women and girls. I would hear stories about domestic violence. I would hear stories about rape.
Unfortunately, I began to become like my father — irresponsible sex, reducing women to two things, caretakers or sexual objects. Because I grew up in a violent environment meant I was violent in my early life, sometimes towards males, sometimes toward women in college.
Owning Up & Moving On
It hit a crucible for me after college. I was living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1991. A girlfriend and I were living together and we got into an argument. My male rage, my anger, my fragile masculinity, when she challenged me, pushed her into a bathroom door. I’m not proud of it. Years later I would apologize to her and she would accept my apology. But here’s what happened in that summer of 1991: There were women and a few men, who said to me, “Kevin Powell, you are a hypocrite. How can you talk about injustice in the world when you’re participating in the oppression of half the country and the world’s population?” That was devastating to me. This is why we need to have honest, open conversations with one another. When I look at a Bill Cosby, a Woody Allen, a Roman Polanski, a Matt Lauer, a Charlie Rose, a Harvey Weinstein, I’m saying to myself, “No one ever checked these very damaged human beings as they were doing damage.”
Equally devastating was when some women said to me, “You need to read bell hooks.” Not only did I grow up not learning anything about women and girls in our history, but in my four years at Rutgers University, the only woman writer I read was Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That was it. And here I was, thinking I was this brilliant young man, but when women leaders at Rutgers University would challenge us on our sexism, we would say disparaging, disrespectful things to them, because what men like to do who are engaged in toxic manhood is silence women and girls.
I was told, after that incident, “You need to own your mistake.” I was told that men must get help. What did that look like for me? It meant therapy. All those traumas that I grew up with, I was now passing along and taking out on other people, including women.
Men, we need to start listening to the voices of women and girls. I was in my 20s, taking all of this in. What was said to me was, “You need to become a consistent ally to women and girls.” How do you become an ally? You must read: bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. I’ve realized I was completely ignorant about women, like many of us are.
It was hard to read things where women were saying what they had experienced at the hands of men. But we don’t have the kind of transformation that Bioneers represents if we as people, no matter how we identify ourselves, are not willing to take a hard look in the mirror.
The last thing is that you have to do the work. For us, as men, that doesn’t mean being around women all the time. You’ve got to do that work with men and boys. For me, it began in 1991 with a terrible experience. I never engaged in that kind of behavior again. It was a journey to move from toxic manhood towards trying to figure out what healthy manhood looks like.
Here I am trying to figure this thing out, and there’s all these wacky definitions out there about manhood, in rock’n’roll, in jazz, in hip hop, in movies, on TV, in books — I had to question everything. That’s how you begin to redefine manhood. You’ve got to ask yourself: “What’s wrong with love? What’s wrong with peace? What’s wrong with nonviolence?”
In my humble opinion, 27 years later, I’ve written about it in essays like The Sexist in Me, Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist. These are the different periods of my life. I wrote a piece in my new book called “Harvey Weinstein and His Toxic Manhood is Our Toxic Manhood” — because it is. Bill Cosby is us. Woody Allen is us. Roman Polanski is us.
It’s not just writing about it, it’s speaking about it, doing workshops. I’ve worked in prisons, colleges and universities, communities, community centers, religious institutions. This is an ongoing conversation. What I’m happy to say to you all is that over the last 27 years, I’ve seen more men get involved, but we still are a very small part of the solution.
The New York Times magazine said a few years back that ending violence against women and girls is one of the major human rights issues on the entire planet. Even if you are not the kind of man who would ever call a woman a disrespectful name, touch her inappropriately, touch her without an invitation, rape her, molest her, assault her, God forbid stab her, shoot her, murder her. Even if you’re the kind of man who would never engage in those things but you have men around you engaging in toxic manhood and in destructive language and behavior toward women and girls and say nothing about it? You — we — become just as guilty.
My great hope, in spite of all this happening right now, is that #MeToo will not only empower women like the Civil Rights movement empowered black people — my hope for us as men is that we understand that as women are using their voices, it should be the wind behind us in saying, I want to be a different kind of man and human being.