2018 has felt like the year of blackness. There’s Black Panther, which is still in theaters, and Janelle Monae’s afrofuturist emotion picture Dirty Computer, which displays what it’s like to be a Black queer girl in a digital world, and so many other black art surging the market. But what has peaked my interest the most is the influx of narratives focused on black masculinity and shifting the narrative on what it means to be a Black male. Below I’m going to discuss a few pieces of popular art that have stuck out to me as expansions upon black men’s ways of being.
Robbin’ Season is here and every single major character in the FX Show Atlanta has been taking L’s. I mean, it’s been an L-factory. We’ve seen Darius held hostage, Paper Boi jumped and stalked, and Earn continue down a downward spiral with little to no self-awareness of his crisis. As Darius gets woker and Paper Boi’s star rises, Earn is crashing…hard. What we’ve been seeing to date is an exploration of black male fears and pain. As uncomfortable as it may be to watch, it’s necessary to see.
Much of the mainstream presence of black men has been centered around their victimization at the hands of state-sanctioned violence or their extraordinary success at a marketable skill such as playing a sport, making music, or acting. While those are valid and necessary stories to highlight they aren’t true to black men’s daily life. In seeing Earn taken to task for being a suck-ass partner and being knocked out on a public road, Darius investigate the various meanings of life and maintain optimism even after witnessing a murder-suicide whilst falsely imprisoned, and Alfred accept his life as Paper Boi and take his career seriously we the viewers are given an array of narratives of ways to be and ways to cope in this world as a black man.
Black rappers are not just thugs who want to make it out the hood. They value their privacy and struggle with handling the thing they’ve worked toward for so long. Black men don’t just consume so much violence that they do not feel pain or experience trauma when life is lost in front of their eyes. Black men’s insecurities and anxieties do not disappear the second they go off to college. Some return home and have to piece their life back together bit by bit. And some of them still have a little bit more failure to experience. But regardless of where they are in life, black men in Atlanta are allowed simply to be and figure it out as they go.
Jermaine (J. Cole) has released yet another piece of art for the brothers outchea in these streets. Though the album is focused on drugs and other means of self-sabotage, what is most fascinating to me about this album is Cole’s usage of his vulnerability to speak about the many emotional, mental, and psychological issues which plague black men. He opens the album lamenting his inability to quell his anxiety and run from his childhood trauma and abuse. Many of us have these same issues but most times, as women, we talk about these things with our gal pals, our peers, and our family (hell I talk about it with y’all) because we feel safe to do so.
As someone with a plethora of black male friends, associates, and relatives, I can’t name all the times one of them has expressed their lack of comfort with discussing the traumas (referred to as demons on the album) that haunt them or even being in a space to acknowledge they’re being haunted in the first place. K.O.D. (and other works like it such as DAMN and Awaken, My Love!) starts the conversation and provides the language for addressing such issues in a way that Cole’s target audience finds digestible and relatable. I’m not saying there aren’t safe spaces for men to cry and share their feels. Anyone raised in a black church or who spent any time in a youth mentorship program knows that in such places black men are encouraged to cry, rejoice, and confess in order to grow. But people who do not have access to such spaces or programs should not be excluded from a safe space to feel.
Alongside this musical safe space for black male vulnerability, there is a thread of accountability for the consequences of not dealing with one’s emotional baggage. Because that’s the kicker about not facing your demons, your ignorance never just hurts you. It’s what makes “Kevin’s Heart” such a favorite of mine. As devastating as infidelity is for both the infidel and the offended, it does point to a deeper problem within the cheater. In the song, Cole makes no pleas for sympathy or forgiveness. He lays out what has happened, why it was a jacked up plan of action, and how he deserves all the consequences that come with the infraction. There is no celebration of his “plethora of women” or passing of the buck of responsibility.
There is only accountability.
If you’ve watched recent episodes of the hit series you know Bow’s and Dre’s marriage is on the rocks. To which I say, it’s about damn time. Full disclosure, I’m about to drag Andre Johnson, Sr. for a quick second in order to make a larger point.
You can’t have four seasons of Dre getting his way most of the time and believe such a dynamic is going to work until death. It’s just not. Even iron breaks and it looks like Bow has broke. Though the Johnsons are going through it (we all know it’s temporary), these recent episodes have highlighted what happens when everyone isn’t growing with the changing times. Bow’s decision to be a stay at home mother is huge! HUGE. It has an effect on every member of her family and everyone to be ajusting well to the change—except Dre.
Anyone who has kept up with the show can see that Dre is an average (at best) father, a pretty selfish husband, and a judgemental son, yet he believes he is a gift to those around him. Dre is so many husbands who contribute to their households financially, yet physically and emotionally put nothing into the management of their homes. He is condescending and deflective to his children but is present for the moments that matter like talent shows and graduations. He values his needs and issues over literally everyone else except his mama (who terrorizes Bow on a regular basis), and he is not open to compromise.
Who can sustain twenty years of that??
Yet, so many partners of these men (many times women) sustain 20+ years of just that. And that sucks.
Blackish is showing where such a dynamic ultimately leads—separation. As sad as it is seeing the two characters part, it’s necessary for health and wholeness in that family. I hope on the path to reconciliation they address all the pertinent problems to their marriage and each member is able to be reflexive and acknowledge their part in its demise. Though Dre is the worst, he is only that way because he has been enabled to be. Bow’s willingness to quell Dre’s ego, to step aside and let him have the final say, or to defer in moments where accountability was needed has contributed to the situation they are in. So much of the act of loving black men, as black women, is trying to make their home life different or better than the racist world they go out into every day. Yet, where we drop the ball is caring for and supporting them at the cost of our mental health, our sanity, and our overall well-being. I applaud Blackish for showing that being black and in love is not enough to make a marriage work…it takes so much more than showing up at your kids’ activities, not cheating on your partner, and paying your bills. It takes two people showing up every day willing to put in work.
I’m excited about all the ways black men are able to nuance the collective narrative of their lives through popular media. There’s never been a better time for it than now.
-Dr. Bri aka Doctah B.Alexandra fka Bri without a doctorate
“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway”- Steven Biko