Disclaimer: This is a really long post. Good luck.
Another disclaimer: My thoughts on all /most things are not my own. I have read and read and read to try and inform myself on these things. My utterances are often regurgitation of the thoughts of others, contemplated and altered or added to, to explain my understanding. I dislike people who speak authoritatively on issues they do not have enough information on. What is enough? I also do not know. I stay cautious though. Of commenting on black masculinity. On anything really. This is where my head is at right now.
I never let my nail polish chip. well, I never used to. My OCD dictated that I had to paint them every Sunday with optional touch-ups every Wednesday and Friday. This was the one ritual I never flaked on and so it went on undisturbed, until I discovered bell hooks. (Her pen name is stylised this way on purpose.) Anyway… .
bell hooks is an American feminist and social activist. She is also an author. I stumbled upon her during my “find your feminism” phase. Because, contrary to popular belief, most feminists are not born with a clear understanding of what being a feminist is or means to them, or where, in the multilayered fabric of feminism, they lie. Like many young, African women, the fruit of conservative families and diluted histories, I had to embark on the journey by myself, for myself. I too, subscribed to the heteronormative patriarchal tendencies spouted by religions and cultures in my immediate world. Even when I questioned them internally, I acquiesced, because surely, the elders knew better than I. (Insert eye roll of appropriate intensity). I still read and have conversations with women and men in a bid to solidly locate myself somewhere in this fabric. What I do know for sure, is that equality and choice are the foundation of my feminism.
I stumbled upon bell hooks’ “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” on a Sunday afternoon. I was day drunk (of course) and looking for something to learn as I painted my nails. I was probably looking for some light reading on why Hollywood refuses to pay female actors the same as their male counterparts, or whatever happened to so and so (insert former child star of choice). The book is collection of essays on how white culture marginalises black males. Because she is American, it is obviously Afro-American-centric, but many of her thoughts can be extrapolated and understood in the context of our own brothers, fathers, friends. She suggests that black males are forced to repress themselves in white America and that the ways in which racist and sexist attitudes developed in America criminalised and dehumanised black men (and boys), have harmed the black community.
Throughout the book, she explores the economic exclusion of black men and their fetishisation. I could go on for days about the mindfuck of oppression and dehumanisation of slavery and its effects, but then, I would never make my point. It’s a difficult book to read, but not because of the subject, but rather, because of the way in which it’s written. There are numerous thoughts and the anthropological background needed to fully grasp all of them is daunting. (Also, it’s extremely long and there are no car chases). It took me a good 7 months to power through. It left me tired and unable to fully immerse myself in my nail painting ritual. Because when I wasn’t earning my monthly SMS, I was reading this book, printing pages, highlighting passages and trying to understand things (there were so many things), conducting research and reading the works of writers in response to the essays. I doubt I committed this much effort to my dissertation. I deserve (more) wine.
As I read, I often thought of African men and the way history has been unkind to them and the effects of said history. I read about the shortness (height) of certain ethnicities, particularly the men, because of the advent of imperialism and mining. Labourers were sent underground for unhealthy periods of time and exposed to chemicals without protection. This resulted in health complications, one of which was stunted growth in the men who lived and worked in mining towns. No wonder mining is called the male version of prostitution. (non PC term, I know). Then we make jokes about how South African men are short like they voted to be. (Yes this is a generalisation. I am making it in relation to the above, don’t come for me). There are hundreds of examples of threads that run through black men that contribute to their conduct and understanding of the space they occupy today.
So I started asking the men in my life about their perceived roles in the world they find themselves in. And the more we spoke, the more my heart broke. The angrier I got. The more I empathised. The more helpless and jaded I felt.
My conclusion is that men don’t even realise that they are problematic. Despite all the noise women have been making. They don’t get it. But then again, some men do. Through willingness to open their minds and come to the table, they get it. Or are beginning to. That’s when I get mad.
If some men can do it, what’s holding the rest back? (insert hysterical laughter)
A very tangible example of this is sending a girl to school and encouraging her to be anyone she pleases, until she gets home and has to don her humble-submissive garb and be the exact opposite of the person you’re hoping will enter the working world, and behave like an equal. We’re creating people with complexes who don’t understand why the world gets mad when they don’t exercise the agency they are taught to doubt. And I see this everyday on social media where men you laugh with say things that give you whiplash.
I went a step further and turned to social media to try and get a sense of where my generational peers stand. How they understand themselves and the spaces they navigate. In world where they are bombarded with information on feminism, equality, mental health, gender role-redefinition etc.. I used three of my personal favourite content producers.
The first is The DojoSA Podcast. The Sensei and Archbishop are two uncensored men, living in Johannesburg who talk about it ALL. I appreciate their candour, and although I don’t agree with them on a lot, their open invitation into the mind of the average man is a breath of fresh air. What I particularly like is listening to the growth. They don’t think the same way today, as they did when they started, particularly when it comes to interaction with women, and it’s testament to the fact that opening your mind won’t disappear your brain.
The second is Broke Niggaz – a vlog produced ANARCHADIUM. The series follows a group of young (early twenties – you know, when college and life are blurry and you’re just trying to figure yourself out) black men. They have conversations, they groove, they collaborate. It’s some dope footage. I wish I’d had them when I was 23 and trying to get uguy from around the way to state his intentions and be a supportive, present adult. (Laugh with me). It’s relatable and authentic. None of it perfect but I get the sense that it isn’t trying to be. They talk about interpersonal relations and how navigating humans is a minefield. Sometimes the answers aren’t black and white. I find their self awareness refreshing in a way that isn’t like going to church, but like hearing an unedited version of your favourite song. They check themselves. Listening to the Broke Niggaz discuss wokeness, #FeesMustFall, and general febaring, feels like all the things the world is throwing at them are being met with an informed, world view. Again, not perfect, but welcome.
My final source is a mini documentary from back when I was a Tidal user. They went and cancelled my subscription and hiked their fees so I’m now like the rest of the muggles – receiving my JAY-Z and Beyonce information a day late. The mini docu is entitled “MaNyfaCedGod“. It features Jigga, Chris Rock, Meek Mill (yeah, the dude that shouts all his raps and gives you anxiety. He also had a kind-of beef with Drake, LOL) and even Trevor Noah. In it, black men discuss their conceptions of masculinity and how these have evolved over the years. Lots of buzzwords and tooting-of-one’s-own-horn about how far they have come. Which is understandable and laudable, but in the same breath, draining, because these are grown men. By the time you are in your thirties or fifties, you’ve left a trail of poor decisions that can be excused by your fragile, toxic masculinity and unawareness back then. And perhaps they only saw the light because their actions were so amplified. A luxury so many do not have.
These platforms are important. Important as a glimpse into the black man’s understanding of his place, role and trajectory. They are the beginning of thousands of offshoot conversations which interrogate the meaning of masculinity. They why, particularly. And perhaps they won’t go far and the conversations will turn into a drink-up that nobody will remember. But maybe, just maybe, if men understood WHY they have been socialised to relate with the world the way they do, feminists would have less to shovel. Because wow, the shovelling is trying.
I’m conflicted after all of this, because men are indeed, trash. It’s bigger than they are. And arguments that women can be the sole change of the relationships between groups stand weakly beside those that require more from men. To have voices as loud as those of the women they victimise. Or louder. Not to speak on behalf of, but with. Next to. And my conflict lies in the desire to understand my personal role in this world, whilst taking time out to listen to the men I love. Perhaps over wine, late on a Sunday afternoon. Whilst they paint my nails and I read some smut about Justin Beiber’s abs.
Fresh manis and patience.
The Empress x