What happens when you don’t have any male figures to show you what it means to be a man? That’s easy—you make it up as you go. You find people you admire and look up to, and you emulate them, even if they are just as clueless as you are. As Tristan, an early-thirtysomething from New Jersey and the Caribbean (Guyana and Trinidad) realizes, the learning process never ends.
Growing up, my experience with manhood and masculinity is a little different than most since it was just me, my brother, our mother and her four sisters.
We’d pick and choose the guy we wanted to emulate at any given time. If it was a bad choice, we would hear something about it. There wasn’t anyone in particular we were told we should look up to, so we winged it.
For us, we would pick friends that we wanted to emulate. I don’t know who they emulated, but we would emulate them. We had an older kid who was maybe a year or two older (17), but he hung out with us. But there was someone he also emulated and looked up to.
There was this one scenario where we all got together with Ron, my brother, Shay, Jose, Naze, and Peewee. One person said, “Let’s go and take picks from the little rich white kids!”
We went over there and we were walking around. We got into some arguments and ended up getting chased through the neighborhood and getting arrested by the police.
My mom didn’t like that because she had to come and get us and didn’t like police interaction. She whisked us out of the neighborhood within a next couple of months, and we were gone. And she never looked back.
I started to view other black people in a negative light, specifically people who identified as more “hood.” They had a specific mannerism, type of speech, and type of dress, and they were the ones who gave me the most trouble.
High school was important because it was such a negative experience. My friends were predominately white in part because earlier in my life I experienced such negativity in the black community because of my height, skin color, etc. Because of that experience, I started to view other black people in a negative light, which only got worse as I got older, specifically with people who identified as more “hood.”
They had a specific mannerism, type of speech, and type of dress, and they were the ones who gave me the most trouble while growing up. Subconsciously, I would draw away from them, and instead gravitated to other groups that just weren’t like that, whether it was Latino, white and other black friends who were more like me. Post-high school, being a man was whatever was most appealing at the time to women.
For example, at one point, I would put lavender in my baby oil and I would have it on my body, and I even used a lavender spray and would iron it into my clothes. I did it because I felt that women liked sweet scents versus the male fragrances that were described as “guy friendly.” I knew I couldn’t go into the store to get a lavender scented cologne, so I created my own—and it worked. When I did it, I felt better, I was more accepted, and I got along with women.
At the end of the fight, he felt like I abandoned him, and I felt like I let him down. So, I focused my attention on getting bigger and stronger…if you couldn’t protect those you cared about, it meant you were weak.
Strength was also a part of it, which is why I started working out and getting bigger so that I could physically protect others. That was sparked after a negative experience where I wasn’t able to stick up for someone like I wanted to: We were in a Portuguese fest in Newark, and we ended up in a fight that could have been avoided with some strength posturing.
It was me, a male friend, and his girlfriend. She was jumped by a bunch of girls and beat up pretty bad. I couldn’t help that because as a man you can’t fight women. But my male friend got jumped by four or five other guys, and I wasn’t there to help him because I was making sure his girlfriend was okay.
At the end of the fight, he felt like I abandoned him, and I felt like I let him down. So, I focused my attention on getting bigger and stronger to dissuade people from that course of action. I learned that if you couldn’t take care of someone or you couldn’t protect those you cared about, it meant you were weak. And that’s the last thing I wanted to be.