We all sat bug eyed around the living room of my sisters tiny two bedroom apartment, shocked at my fathers’ unexpected outburst. “I would rather die!”, he shouted again. “Go’an head”, he yelled, “leave me here to die!” My sisters and I sat frozen around my father in fear, I could count on one hand how many times I’d heard the man raise his voice. “Wow, all of this over some French fries”, I thought to myself, before my father suddenly began to sob right there on the living room sofa. Immediately we poured ourselves onto my father, promising to solve the food problem in the morning, unsure of what more in that moment we could do.
The last time I saw my father cry was when we lost his mother, he spoke of the shame he felt in not being able to have brought her here to America, confessing that this American dream of his often felt like a nightmare. My father wept with us that day, well before retirement and rough life transitions, college graduations and funerals for best friends. That was decades ago, this day was different. “Your father is fine”, my mother morosely explained the next morning, “he’s just disappointed that his daughters don’t consider him”, she continued. “Pray for him if you’re worried, but there’s nothing wrong with Daddy.” Except there was something wrong, that something was depression.
As I peered through the pile of headlines down my homepage, all of them suggesting that we “Pray for Kanye”, I thought back to that frightful moment with my father, the moment I realized something wasn’t quite right. I was reminded of my mother’s response, her casual dismissal of my dad’s brazen breakdown, and I asked myself, Why can’t Black men cry? When is it alright for Black men not to be alright? The answer appeared to be never. While growing up in a gendered world rendered me defenseless against the guidelines of my genitalia, the silver lining in that folly was that I’d been afforded permission to feel, and feel freely I did. My brothers, on the other hand, while forbidden to feel, were permitted to think, because well, that’s what boys were born to do, a concept we here in the West borrowed from Ancient Greece.
Recognized as a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in 3rd Century, B.C. by Zeno of Citrium, Athens, Stoicism emphasized the “magic” of emotions, promoting the practice of focusing on what man-kind could calculate and control, ie. opinions, impulses, dislikes and desires, and forgoing what was thought to bring about nothing but foolishness, that being human emotion. Stoicism celebrated self-control as the pinnacle of modeled masculinity, labeled crying and complaining as feminine characteristics, and encouraged followers to mourn in silence like ‘real men’. As the practice of practical transformation caught on, it crossed paths with the pages of the Christian Bible. And while many theologists have offered that the two exist in complete conflict to one another, doctrine tells a different story.
The Bible, while celebrating the width of Jesus’ empathy, regularly emphasized his ability to remain safe from the sorrow of his own emotions, and He wasn’t the only one. Jesus called for the forgiveness of his crucifiers while nailed to the cross because the purpose of his pain was more important that the pain itself, thus making using his last breath for prayer the more practical decision. And in the story of Job, the Bible tells us about a man who loses his children, his wealth, and his health and still refuses to lament over his great losses. Instead, he finds his fate purposeful, scraping the strength to deny himself the humanness of the grieving process in an effort to demonstrate an evolved sense of self. Something God rewards him greatly for.
And then there’s the story of Abraham, a man who waited 100 years for God to bless him with the birth of a baby boy, a boy he named Isaac. One day God would call upon Abraham to take his son to Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice, Abraham would oblige without objection. And as he stood atop of this mountain, knife in hand, holding it over the bound body of his beloved son, it would take an act of the angels to stop him from obeying this odd command. All in all, it was the stoic solution to a potentially painful problem. Something God would see as solidifying Abraham’s strength and sensibility, all the makings of a masculine man. And as boys, particularly Black boys, grew up with these images of morality and masculinity grounded into their guts, they internalized that to be strong was to endure your suffering in silence.
It should surprise no one that deep within these patriarchal portrayals of manhood, we find mutilated, muted men. Compounded by the complexities of race relations in America, we find that these muted men, when rich with melanin, are often dealing with the duality of both social and psychological silencing. Not just expected to be strong and silent as men, but being subjugated to daily degradation, a systemic lack of available resources, and an unwillingness within the community to call this crippling state of existence what it is, a crisis. When this happens, when Black men are forced to live under the expectation of emotional stoicism, both out in society and in should-be safe spaces, the weight of the world’s aversion to masculine motility becomes too much. And we begin to encounter the cracks, often falling victim to them ourselves, as proximity renders us vulnerable to Black men’s victimization.
My father had upheld his end of the bargain for as long as his psyche could keep up the façade. This man who’d served as a child soldier in his country’s civil war, felt the abandonment of his father, and lived a life of poverty both in the country of his origin and the destination of his dreams wasn’t breaking down over dinner, he was breaking down over decades of an inability to be broken. This life of emotional stoicism had manifested itself as depression in my father, a diagnosis he shared with 6 million other men. And in others, this inability to explore an emotional existence sometimes manifests itself as anger, rage, emotional instability, substance abuse, or even self- medication. Black men are not alright, and it’s not alright to stay silent about that, especially when in this instance, silence has proven poisonous.
Perhaps, we should pray for Kanye. But there’s much more we can do for Black men like him, like my father, Black men sharing this silent experience all around the world. The reality Black men are forced to feel in quiet does not absolve them of the narcissism, the misogynoir, the patriarchy that they practice out loud. And we know that these oppressive practices and behaviors are not the Black man’s brainchild, but they are complicit and therefore culpable in how these ideologies infiltrate their communities, their homes, their relationships, and all other relevant interactions. These ideations are not to be misidentified as mental illness, nor are they the Black woman’s wounds to heal.
But if we have the capacity, we can educate ourselves, know the signs and symptoms of mental health in Black men and boys so that we can equip ourselves with the empathy needed to navigate these situations. We can do our part to stop the stigma in our own circles by encouraging our nephews, neighbors, students and sons to express their emotions, even if the world refuses to be receptive. And if we have the emotional capacity, we can act as safe-spaces for the free facilitation of Black men and their feelings, or refer to them to safe- spaces in our surrounding community. It’s okay for Black men not to be okay, it’s not okay to do nothing about it.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from mental illness, you are not alone and you are worth the help.
Here are a few free Mental Health Resources:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1–800–662-HELP (4357)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273-TALK (8255) Hearing impaired: 1–800–799–4889
National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1–800–448–4663
Ways to support the Writer:
Available In Stores 9.10.2020