Rethinking the StrongBlackMan

About 2 years into my (now seemingly endless) project on the StrongBlackWoman, I realized that she had a male counterpart: the StrongBlackMan. Because I don’t presume to be an expert on men’s issues, I figured I’d leave writing about the StrongBlackMan to folks who were much better equipped – folks like Mark Anthony Neal (who takes on the subject quite well in New Black Man) and Kevin Powell (who doesn’t use the term explicitly but is certainly evoking the concept in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?). But after passing the buck for a few years, I’ve decided to enter the fray, especially since, as far as I can tell, the fates of the StrongBlackWoman and StrongBlackMan are bound together. Be gentle – it’s my first time.

If I were in the classroom right now, I’d begin this story on the west coast of Africa, talking about how the circumstances of the European encounter with the African set the foundation for centuries of racist depictions of Black men. Then, crossing the Atlantic into the American slaveocracy, I’d narrate how these depictions were further codified into the Tom (the obsequious servant) and the Buck (the violent, aggressive brute). Next, I’d take a leap to the nineteenth century, when newly freed Blacks began crafting the archetype of the StrongBlackMan as an ideological response to these negative depictions, using as raw material the inherently flawed icons of the Self-Made Man and the cult of Black genius. But I’m not in the classroom so I won’t start there.

Instead, I’ll start by echoing a caveat made by others: being a StrongBlackMan (no spaces) is not the same as being strong, being Black and being a man. The StrongBlackMan, like the StrongBlackWoman, refers to a specific way of being in the world – a particular set of psychosocial characteristics that are strongly rooted in racism and sexism. These are not people; they are costumes. Whereas the StrongBlackWoman is characterized by the triumvirate of emotional strength (specifically expressed as the capacity for silent suffering), caregiving, and independence, the StrongBlackMan revolves around the three core features of dominance, self-control, and pride. These three features are interconnected, but I’ll try to parse them out as much as possible.

As a core feature, dominance might be portrayed in terms of three sets of dichotomies: the StrongBlackMan wants to be seen as a master, not a slave; as a leader, and not a follower; as a producer, and not a hired hand. He is not to be owned, ruled, controlled, or influenced by any outside force. He must maintain the appearance of being powerful, tough, and right at all times and at all costs He is competitive, aggressive, and in charge of the resources that he has at his disposal, no matter how meager they may be.

The second core feature, self-control, has to do with the StrongBlackMan’s need to be in charge of his self – his emotional, moral, financial, and physical self. Within the constraints of racism and classism, he tries to embody the American masculine ideal of rugged individualism. He is a master of his own fate, allowing no outside person or institution to influence his choices, behaviors, feelings, beliefs, or values. He is an achiever, a doer, a producer, a performer. He is active, not passive; a giver and not a receiver. He can never allow anyone or anything to get the better of him, especially in matters of the heart. Above all else, he must never be punked.

The third core feature, pride, concerns the StrongBlackMan’s need to always be seen as responsible, self-confident, successful, and persevering. He takes pride in living up to the mantle of Black manhood and shuns anything that might make him appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure. He takes pride in his accomplishments, his family, and his racial heritage. In his dealings with persons of other races, he strives to be seen as a “credit to the race.” One of his greatest fears is embarrassment. He can never appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure.

The three core features of the StrongBlackMan – dominance, self-control, and pride – are bound by an underlying theme of defensiveness. Ultimately, the StrongBlackMan is not a real persona. It does not reflect the authentic nature – the true thoughts, feelings, personalities – of the men who wear its garb. Rather, it is a defense against a society that deems Black men to be unfit as anything other than entertainers, athletes, and criminals.

The StrongBlackMan is Black men’s best effort to stand up straight against the enormous weight pressing down upon them – racism, classism, heterosexism – and to say, “I am a man. I am not a boy, a clown, a body to be exploited for profit. I am not a problem to be solved, re-solved, or locked away. I am capable of greatness that you cannot begin to fathom. And I am part of the same species as you so take me off that endangered species list.”i-am-man-img

At least that’s my (very preliminary) analysis. I’d like to say that I get it, that I understand the plight of the StrongBlackMan. But of course, that’s not true. Black men and Black women both have issues, but as the saying goes, “Your blues ain’t quite like mine.” Yet the more that I learn about Black men and women – about me – the more I realize just how similar our struggles are.

As a Black woman, I know a little something about wearing a mask, especially one called “strong.” The problem with that mask is that if you wear it enough, you forget that it’s not really you. It becomes fused onto your being, twisting your appearance into some exaggerated form of what you were trying to be, just like Jim Carrey’s character in the 1990s film, The Mask. No one can get inside the real you, not even your loved ones. And worst yet, you can’t get out. Your joy, your pain, your love – it’s all tucked deep behind the mask, inaccessible even to you.

This is not to say that being strong is bad. It has its place. Dominance, pride, and self-control each have their place. But so, too, do vulnerability, intimacy, openness, receptivity, silliness, and tears. Being whole means having all these things in balance. StrongBlackMen and StrongBlackWomen are way off-balance. We are far from whole. And two half-lives do not make a life.

Five years into this project and I still have no clue what the resolution is. But I have come to the place where I understand that the healing of the StrongBlackWoman is dependent upon that of the StrongBlackMan. Perhaps the best way to start is for all of us StrongBlackWomen and StrongBlackMen to show one another our pain, without judgmenet, without criticism, and without trying to prove whose pain is worse. And then maybe…just maybe…we can really get this revolution going.

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