Before we know what it is, boys are measured against the invisible standard of masculinity. In the African American community, not fitting the standard makes you a target that needs to be fixed by any means necessary, even if it requires you to end up on the wrong side of the fists of those love. So, like Gordie, a late-thirtysomething from Los Angeles and New Orleans, many young men pretend and perform for as long as it takes, praying for the moment when the curtain falls and they can be free to be themselves.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a man beyond what my mom said. I didn’t have any positive male role models who took a vested interest in me. The things I learned from about men were from the outside looking in. It was me listening to women and being the fly on the wall as they explained their idea of what a man was.
I thought men were really tough, aggressive, and that they were providers. Most of the men in my life were, but they weren’t very emotional. They would say “man up” and toughen up. They never showed weakness or their emotions.
For a short time, I played with dolls, designed dresses, played hand games and was very effeminate, which wasn’t considered acceptable. So I tried to figure out what kind of guy I needed to be. I didn’t like being punished or scolded so got better at discerning negative reactions from adults when I did things I felt were natural.
My mother would always say, “Little boys don’t do that, gentleman act like this.” And I would try to act more like that. My grandfather was a male figure who detested that femininity in me. He would take me to my cousin’s house and would have them whoop my ass. They would throw me around the yard to toughen me up. I learned that if I didn’t want that to happen, I needed to be tougher, faster.
I wanted to be more like my cousin, who was only a few years older than me. I always thought his life was easier. He was the perfect size and everyone liked him. He grew up playing sports so by the time he was in high school, everything was effortless.
His mother was a speech pathologist so he could always speak well and was always in oratory contests. He was attractive in that way. His parents really knew what they wanted in their children, and they trained him to be as such. He was this well put together all-American guy. He knew how to act amongst his peers.
My grandfather was a male figure who detested femininity in me. He would take me to my cousin’s house and would have them whoop my ass…. I learned that if I didn’t want that to happen, I needed to be tougher, faster.
Most of the things I went after in high school were because he did them. But that was just what everybody saw. Later, we became close because we both identified with being something that other people wanted. It turns out his brother was a natural at everything he was made to do. His brother was a prodigy on his own, but he had to be taught that. He grew up having to fill his brother’s shoes. And I grew up wanting to be that. When we finally got closer, we realized he was just doing what he’d learned as well.
When it comes to how the African American community sees masculinity, I think it is confusing because there are three different versions but no clear idea of which one is “right.” You have the hyper-masculine athlete that is great at everything. You have the men we define as “men” because they can have any woman they want and are charismatic, but lack commitment. And then you have the hip-hop guy who is rough, comes from the streets, and knows how to take care of business.
But in these versions, we have no idea of what a man of substance is. It’s really steered by what is popular. You have men like P. Diddy and Drake who are successful, but we even see them fighting in a club because that’s what we consider manly: dope, street cred, fighting and holding your ground. You don’t see men like Barack Obama as the standard.
I silenced certain parts of me so the other parts people liked would shine. But the real me I’d hidden and tucked away in compartments.
In the 1970s show Good Times, there was an episode where James, the oldest brother, was going to hustle for money. It got me thinking because it wasn’t good for him to do, but at the heart of it was this whole idea of taking care of your family, leaving a legacy and being a man of your word. But you don’t see that much now. I grew up reading and idolizing these men, but I realize that’s not what’s popular right now. Great men have become the exception, instead of the standard.
Overall, I have more experience with men who are not good examples, than those who are. The men in my life were passive in taking care of things, financially irresponsible, selfish, near-sighted, self-centered, reactive, and absentee. But my own definition of what a man is has changed, as a result of that.
I see men as people who take responsibility and are mature about it. They don’t put themselves last, but they take care of their responsibilities. They are kind, exercise your strengths, take initiative, and do things to completion. In the past five years, I’ve realized I silenced certain parts of me so the other parts people liked would shine. But the real me I’d hidden and tucked away in compartments. Now, I’m working every day to embody my own definition of what it means to be a man, and on my own terms.
I grew up idolizing men like from the 1970s show Good Times, but I realize that’s not what’s popular right now. Great men have become the exception, instead of the standard.