Boys to Men: Unlearning What We We’re Taught

We’re taught to hold it in or not feel at all. We’re taught that emotions make us weak. It’s time to unlearn that.

Photo by Alekzan Powell on Unsplash

Want me to give you a reason to cry?”

That was my uncle, and those are the words that reverberate in my mind. I was six years old, frozen, naked, and afraid. Except my experience didn’t involve white people, camera crews, or the survival skills that you’re taught in the Boy Scouts. I was getting ready to shower when he started banging on the door.

“Jay, open this door! We need to talk!” The impact of the pounding made me flinch, and the door continued to shake in the frame long after he put his fist down.

“Hold on. I’m getting ready to shower,” I stammered. That was a mistake. I already pissed off him and now I was ignoring him.

“I don’t care! Open this door!” he demanded.

I wish I could remember why he was so angry, but I don’t. All I remember is feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.

I opened the door and immediately covered up. Over the years, my uncle became less of an ominous figure. He stands at just over six feet tall and is rather lanky. Balding since he was in his twenties, he always sports a clean-shaven head and face. But to a six-year-old, he was a hairless giant that wore gold jewelry and never smiled. None of the men in my family smile unless they’ve made a joke or they’re laughing at you. Even then, any sight of their teeth is immediately followed by an obligatory ice grill.

Always calm and measured, that was the first time that I heard him raise his voice. I was terrified.

“Where are your clothes?” he asked. The confusion on his face was clear.

“I told you, I was getting ready to shower.”

“That doesn’t matter…”

He continued to yell and somewhere in between his outburst and his exit, I apologized. But that wasn’t enough. The moment was too much, too sudden, too jarring, and as the tears formed, I knew what would come next.

“Stop crying! Want me to give you a reason to cry?” The vein that runs along his left temple was elevated and I could see the tension — the rage building in him.

I shook my head and wiped my eyes. I was trembling, but that wasn’t allowed. 
Tears are not an acceptable form of currency. They won’t buy you forgiveness, a second chance, or peace. Tears in the eyes of Black boys are invitations for more pain. I often look back at that moment and can’t help but think, “If I’m crying, isn’t there a reason?”

The slam of the bathroom door could be heard and felt throughout the house. That moment, and others like it, taught me what I did wrong and how to conduct myself accordingly. I should meet aggression with aggression. There is no other option; not for me — not for us. As a child, they taught me not to cry. Crying was reserved for the death of a loved one, and even then, I was expected to “stay strong.” That moment was over 25 years ago and I can recall every time that I’ve cried since.

It was 1996, the year that they killed Tupac Shakur; the height of the East Coast-West Coast rap beef. It was a time when the performance of manhood was far more important than the real thing and my sole job was to avoid appearing “soft.” I went from an outgoing toddler with an easy smile to an agitated adolescent and guarded adult. My frown was permanent, my gait askew, and I perceived overt displays of joy as weakness. My demeanor garnered reactions like, “Why don’t you smile more?” and my mother’s go-to, “Fix your face.” Some will never know the price of a smile for a young Black boy. Some will never know the true cost of joy.

Tears are not an acceptable form of currency. They won’t buy you forgiveness, a second chance, or peace. Tears in the eyes of Black boys are invitations for more pain. I often look back at that moment and can’t help but think, “If I’m crying, isn’t there a reason?”

College brought me to a place where strangers happily bared their teeth and nodded at each passerby, simply to acknowledge their existence. As illogical as it seems, I took these as acts of aggression.

Do I know you?

Why are you smiling at me?

Do you want to fight?

Defending whatever misguided notion of masculinity that I held onto was paramount. J. Cole accurately captures the sentiment in his song, “Let Go My Hand.”

If I said I was the toughest growin’ up, I would be lyin’
I had a fear of gettin’ punched while everybody eyein’
Add to that a constant fear of dyin’
By gunshot wound, or other violent type of endings
I kept a tough demeanor on the surface but was mostly just pretendin’

The irony is that I never had to truly come to blows for the sake of defending my perception of manhood. I either built an impenetrable facade or was too fatigued by the battle that I waged within myself to ever raise my fists to another. At least, not for a real reason.

My uncle taught me how to fight at a young age. My father was nowhere to be found and my uncle made it his responsibility to ensure that I could throw hands. When he’d babysit, he’d pit me against his girlfriend’s son. We were about the same age and height. While I was a stocky kid, he was wiry with a longer reach.

“Not that way,” my uncle instructed. “Jay, are you a righty or lefty?”

“Righty.” My right hand has always been more dominant, but there are things I prefer doing with my left. When made to fight, I instinctively brought my left side back and led with my right.

“Then put your right leg and right arm back,” he said. “You’ll get more power from that hand.”

I did what I was told, but it felt uncomfortable. Although, whatever the stance, what I was learning felt right.

“Okay, fight!”

We pranced around in circles, sizing each other as we’d seen on TV. Instead of a ring, we occupied a carpeted basement with minimal furniture. The only rule was to avoid my uncle’s CD collection, which filled up the bookcases that formed an “L” around us. We’d throw punches to the body and do our best to avoid the face. It never needed to be said — we understood we wouldn’t get to fight again if we went back to our moms with black eyes. Each time, we went back and forth for a few minutes before getting tired and collapsing onto the ground. The thick red carpet absorbed our sweat and provided us with some much-needed rest. It was fun and, in more ways than one, it taught us that this was how we’d get what we want in life. This was how we solved our problems.

At no point did I feel like what we were doing was silly or that I should tell my mom. That’s just what men do. Fighting makes us strong.

How do you feel?”

That was my graduate school advisor. Social work students have to complete process recordings for every session that we held, and they were maddening. Imagine having the most nuanced and detailed conversation for an hour and having to write it all down, verbatim, from memory.

Aside from providing a script of what happened, we needed to analyze and identify how we felt about what was going on. I consistently failed.

“How do I feel about what?” I sheepishly asked.

I was interning at a senior center in Brooklyn and we held supervision wherever we could find some free space. This session was in the back of the recreation room, where we pulled two chairs to the side, right in front of the utility closet. I remember the overwhelming smell of Pine-Sol coming from the recently used mop and the squeak of my shoes on the damp parquet floor. Jim, a white man in his sixties, often sat with his legs folded, reserving the right to unfold them at any point, for dramatic effect.

“About what the client said,” he explained while dropping his other foot to the ground. He leaned forward to add some more showmanship to his performance.

“Were you deflated, annoyed, pissed off? Were you hungry, humored, or even horny?” He raised his salt and pepper eyebrows and rubbed his fingers through his matching goatee.

“Horny?” I replied, unable to hide the smirk on my face. “Why that one?”

“It’s a feeling,” he said in the driest way possible. His voice, affect, and aura was deadpan and lifeless. He stared, with his blue eyes peering over his glasses. I hate when people lower their glasses to make a point.

“I felt nothing. I don’t know how I felt.” That was the truth. I didn’t and my feelings never occurred to me. Why would it matter how I feel? This isn’t about me.

“Then that’s where we need to start. You can never become good at helping others process their emotions if you don’t even know how you feel.” He leaned back in his chair, folded his legs, and placed his hands behind his head. He smiled and raised one finger in the air for emphasis.

I looked back down at the page and recited the words, as if for the very first time. My clients ranged from seventy-two to one-hundred years old. They all experienced significant loss, and this process recording was about a session with a grieving widower. She described the pain of losing her soulmate and I didn’t allow myself to feel anything. I was numb. No doubt the result of years of practice.

My advisor was right — it was a problem that I needed to work on. I started keeping notes on interactions and how I felt about them. I pushed myself to describe emotions that went deeper than happy, sad, or angry and I allowed myself to cry whenever I needed to. Most of all, I challenged those around me to do the same. I’m forever unlearning antiquated behaviors and challenging what I’ve learned about being a man. It’s a process, but I owe it to myself.

It’s 2021 and I’ve had more conversations about mental health, seeking therapy, and being honest about our emotions than ever before. My friends welcome discussions about our fears and teary eyes are met with a shoulder for support. I see parents teaching their sons how to spar with words long before they‘ll ever need their fists. Black boys and men are learning that there are more emotions than anger, and we deserve to feel and acknowledge them all. I like where we are.

My ten-year-old cousin often says, “I’m triggered,” and counts to ten before reacting to something jarring. Two decades separate us, yet he’s so far ahead of me. He’s taught me a lot about remembering to express how I’m feeling and being honest about my emotions. I’m still learning, which is why it’s a surprise when he says, “I want to be like you when I grow up.”

I want him to be better than me, and this is a start.

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