Tears, Tears: On Black Masculinity

Black Men of Labor Leave the Church (Derek Bridges, Flickr).

The men I grew up around were men. They were men because they believed they were, and were adamant about remaining men, doing what manliness demanded of them: they were men because they demanded adherence to masculinity and buttressed its hierarchical dominance over the non-masculine. The men I grew up around donned this masculinity with aplomb, their brand one that was situated in the ghettos of Philly, sable skin on confrontational display, Swisher Sweets tucked behind their ears.

Characteristic of this masculinity was a thoroughgoing sloughing off of feeling anything other than lustful heterosexual desire and abrupt, turnt-up anger. Such was not an inviting comportment for someone like me, a child whose round face was given to fits of laughter, a child who wanted vehemently to feel the expansive array of emotions welling within me, a child who cried quite often.

My brother’s friends, hooping in the driveway on a rusted bent basketball rim, saw my crying as pathological. Mom would yell at me, I’d seek solace outside, and his friends—manly men that they were, or insisted on being, which is also to say demanding that I be—would chide, “That li’l nigga got issues.” Now I know they were not the inventors of such gendered dictates, their castigations citations of a more originary source. But nevertheless, I was that li’l nigga, my crying was the issue, its occurrence not permitted to commingle with what they read as a burgeoning masculinity that I, apparently, was flouting. I was that li’l nigga, growing into a big nigga, and big niggas don’t cry. Ever.

The racialized epithet has embedded within it a history of Black men being mythogenic, or comprised of “layered fictions produced by others,” serving as the site onto which white supremacist fears are projected and obliterated to preserve the natural order (see anti-miscegenation laws, rationales for lynching, and a litany of “etc.”s). Black masculinity in this instance might be understood as comprised of a certain disposition, one that inducts gender into a fold that mimics hegemonic masculinity via its validation of violence, emotional detachment, fetishization of strength. It is surely a reactionary posture, at least in part, inasmuch as it responds to a normative order that disenfranchises Black masculine subjects (notice I did not say Black men) with incarceration, economic precarity, and symbolic disavowal from the position of familial breadwinner—or what gets problematically termed feminization and emasculation. It is also a posture that nevertheless models itself off of dominant gendered ways of inhabiting the world that subordinate femininity, promote hostility toward gender nonconformance, and deify phallic domination. In other words, be a man, li’l nigga.

I could not shake its aural chatter within me. That li’l nigga got issues. I want to believe that the epithetic hailing does not simply skew pejoratively, but capaciously. What I mean is that perhaps the epidermis the epithet signifies might give way to a meta-identificatory Blackness, a Blackness that Lyndon K. Gill denotes to mean a resistance to the convenience of “identity labels in favor of more fluid principles and more concrete politics,” a queered Blackness that “make[s] us uncomfortable enough to accept a new normal and eventually wean us off of normality altogether.” My interests here lie in the atmospheric texture of our world when we’ve been weaned. The tearing with which this brief meditation is concerned is a visceral breakage that engenders an obsession with a nonnormative masculinity, a masculinity that, in this nonnormativity, vitiates its tether to masculinity as such.

I want to believe that the issues that I had do not simply skew pejoratively, but etymologically. Ever the logophile, I find insightful issue‘s Anglo-Norman and Middle French meaning as “a place or means of exit,” or its 13th century meaning as “the entrails” (of a slain combatant or butchered animal). Indeed, I do have issues, issues of the racialized gender variety, issues that sprint toward the exit carved out in lachrymose sketches on my face by way of the slaying of the masculine combatant that continually tries to overcome me. I got issues, yes, because what I glimpse in my teary-eyed moments are salty means of escape into a terrain that offers a lush habitat in the tearing of that body of work creating such a hardened relation to vulnerability consolidated into a purportedly desirable gendered subjectivity. My hope is that my tears, our tears, might tear so deep as to leave a wound in which we can live.

What I yearn for, and find present here in the faintest of glimmers, is a Black masculinity that, curiously and paradoxically enough, is not itself. Yes, I know there is a history of Black men (which is not, again, to be conflated with Black masculinity; masculinity is not confined to men) donning a kind of masculinity that acts in subversion of white masculinity’s dominance. There is a history of Black masculinity as a rejoinder, a response to an original violence that should not be taken as equivalent to that violence even when it itself commits violence. But what I want is a refusal to entertain the desirability of masculinity itself. What I want is a refusal to want masculinity to exist in any proximity to us. Because what if—and I mean this: what if—it is not enough to search for and theorize progressive/pro-feminist/healthier masculinities, salvaging masculinity by sanitizing its uncomely edges. What if the problem, quite simply, and a bit terrifyingly, is masculinity, period?

I believe in the tearing. The affiliative capaciousness that is meta-identification might allow for the presence of an opening from which might emerge a masculinity not enthralled with masculinity. From it might emerge a non-masculine masculinity, a masculinity that is no masculinity at all. I am searching, so forgive me if I reach for something not quite there. The not-quite-there is in fact what I want, something not currently legible, a gendered comportment that gains its heft on its pursuit of an imagined life in excess of the normative violence in which masculinity’s meaning is ensnared.

The tears that shed from my eyes those many years ago, and sadly much less frequently now (though I lament it dearly, and resent the physical and emotional disciplining that ripped the effusive emotion from me), cause tears. I love the homonymic resonances here. Each tear might tear the impenetrable fabric of this coerced gender performance, a performance that consolidates into an inviolable fleshy embodiment. I do not wish to abide the affective hardness the dudes around the block displayed like it was their birthright; I do not wish to scold the softness my tears allowed me to inhabit, if only briefly. In that softness is the possibility of facilitating a radically different gendered orientation, one that converges with the gender-troubling condition of Blackness (that is, as C. Riley Snorton’s work offers me, Blackness is the condition of possibility for gender mutability), exists in refusing this hardness. To foreground vulnerability and dependability, care and an openness to be affected by others, is jettisoned in masculine hardness. Hardness is too detached, too unaffected, too strong even. What I want is a weakness within which is the bestowal of another way to be that can touch and be touched, gently. I want that. Whatever that is, that is the kind of gender to which I aspire.

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Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.

Comments on “Tears, Tears: On Black Masculinity

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    Beautiful and thoughtfully hopeful piece.

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    When matriarchal communities thrived, strong women loved that tender, vulnerable spot in men, knew and still know about it, did not exploit it, and when both genders shared male kindness with female strength they achieved perfection; thriving women acknowledged the vulnerable space in men and vulnerable men welcomed strength in women. Women AND men have been reduced to shallow, simplistic shells, and as women re-acquire their strength and their power, I hope they will recognize and welcome that place in men where men are vulnerable too and together and by sharing that secret, will experience bliss and the universe will expand as it was intended. As long as we are all egotistical consumers, both genders remain barbaric commodities instead of tender creatures.

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