An all-too-rare show of Black masculine emotion was on display at the Staples Center during Kobe and Gigi Bryant’s memorial service on Feb. 24th. In an arena where competitive bravado, anger, elation and despair are far more often witness, the safe emotional space of a homegoing allowed an outpouring of open grief.
As Shaquille O’Neal remembered his other half in the competitive but loving Los Angeles Lakers “leadership duo,” his voice was hoarse and his massively broad shoulders seemed ever on the verge of collapsing. He’d push them back out, and they would fall inward again with the burden of grief. His voice trembled.
Michael Jordan wept, then paused as he described the love he had for the “little brother” who never stopped pestering the basketball legend for advice, and remarked, “Now he's got me ... I'll have to look at another crying meme for the next — I told my wife I wasn't going to do this because I didn't want to have to see it — for the next three or four years. That is what Kobe Bryant does to me.” He was referring to the ubiquitous crying meme inspired by his tears during his 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It is frequently used in a mocking way, but he reclaimed it in that forum as an open display of his authentic self in mourning.
As I watched the livestream of the memorial service, I was moved by the emotional candidness of so many eulogizers. I hope that it marks the beginning of a greater acceptance of open vulnerability, and exploring what that can mean for Black men. Guidelines released by the American Psychological Association in 2018 warn that traditional masculinity — characterized by a stoic attitude, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — can be psychologically harmful. “Socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly,” according to an article that the association published about the guidelines.
This hope for greater acceptance of Black men and boys expressing emotion has been echoed repeatedly throughout the past year, by thought leaders from across the country who I have interviewed as host of the second season of the podcast series Black Boys and Men: Changing the Narrative. We analyzed stereotypes and dispelled myths, but also engaged in conversations around belonging and mental health. Time and time again, guests mentioned the need for safe and effective spaces where they could reveal their feelings without repercussion, and engage each other for support. The insights they shared include:
Be Like Mike
“I have a network of men that it is OK to cry in front of them,” declares Shawn Dove, CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, in Episode 2. “And I will say this: Over even the last generation I have seen a shift, particularly in the lives of Black men and boys.” This is important because there is a historical stigma within the Black community around seeking help for mental health struggles.
Dove recalls separate conversations with his biological father and father-in-law, both who left their families at some point. “What was eerie was they used the same terminology. They both said that I felt the walls closing in on me and I just left. That generation of men did not have permission to say to another man, I need some help. I am hurting. And we certainly still have a long way to go.”
Be Both Vulnerable and Accountable
“As men, we underestimate the power of vulnerability,” says Malcolm London, a Chicago poet, activist and musician who has co-hosted Open Mike Chicago with Chance the Rapper, in Episode 4 of the podcast.
Poetry created a safe space for London to be creatively vulnerable, to engage other men and de-escalate tension through word battles rather than fist fights. Yet, that wasn’t enough by itself to loosen the grip of toxic masculinity on his life. In 2012 he sexually assaulted a young woman, and three years later went through a restorative justice process with her that involved meeting face to face in a guided process so that he could be held accountable.
He believes such process also can be useful between men. “Particularly, Black men need spaces where they can confront each other without replicating the same forms of violence that we experience right [now] and we need spaces where we can hold each other accountable.”
Love Yourself, Then Your Brother
Self-acceptance is an important part of being able to let down one’s guard and engage, says Carlton Mackey, director of the Ethics and the Arts program at the Emory University Center for Ethics, and the creator of Black Men Smile, in Episode 8. “I feel more at home with other Black men than almost any environment as I have grown to feel more at home within myself.”
“I think one of the functions of toxic masculinity is that we create these spaces where the sense of belonging is based on all these divides. And sometimes we internalize those and we feel as if we have to stack up,” says Mackey. “You’re looking around and you're trying to see, Do I fit? Do I stack up against him? Are my muscles the same size? Am I as smart as him? Am I too dark for this room full of light-skinned brothers?
“These silent, internal conversations make us feel uncomfortable around each other because we’re insecure within ourselves and our own being,” says Mackey. “As we become radically in love with ourselves, we can spend less time having internal conversations about how we are not our brother or how we don't stack up…We can spend less time thinking about the pecking order and think about a brotherhood.”
Rose Pierre-Louis is the host of Black Boys and Men: Changing the Narrative, Season 2 and the chief operating officer of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Look out for more Season 2 episodes later this year.