Expressing my view!

Sharing with whoever would read my thoughts

Recapturing the Black Male Image

This is the text of a speech given at the 3rd annual men’s conference hosted and sponsored by the York College Male Initiative Program on the theme of “Recapturing the Male Image,” held on September 18, 2008 at York College, City University of New York.

The conference was organized by Jonathan Quash, director, York College Male Initiative Program and the Master of Ceremonies was Roger Scotland, president, Southern Queens Park Association. Other speakers were Dennis Rahiim Watson, president, National Black Youth Leadership Council; Alex O. Ellis, author and motivational speaker; and Minister Abdul Hafeez Muhammad, CEO, Center for Self Improvement, and Minister, Mosque No.7, Harlem, NY.


Thank you Mr. Quash and Mr. Scotland for affording me the opportunity to speak on and examine what it means to recapture and restore not only the male image, but from a deeper level what it means to be masculine. I’d also like to express my admiration and the honor I feel in sharing a podium with Minister Kevin Mohamed, who leads a religious faith at Masjid No.7, a place I learnt about after reading of one of our most recent African-American leaders, Malcom X, Alex Ellis, whom I met in June when he was honored for his work and commitment to the uplifting of African-Americans as one of The Network Journal’s 2008 40 Under Forty Black Achievers; and to Dallas Lee Bell, who has become a close friend.

Gentlemen, there is reason enough, given the history of struggle and suffering of Black men, not only in the United States, but the world over, for us to sit here to listen to speeches on restoring the Black image and Black masculinity. This is a discussion that is long overdue, not only because many of our leaders have addressed the issue before, but with particular emphasis on the Black man’s journey forward as this century unfolds. With the US and the global economies rapidly spiraling downward, most of us are preoccupied with either preserving our jobs at all costs or doing whatever is necessary to identify solutions to the individual economic crises in our lives. I commend you who are here, because your presence says that you are interested in not only redefinitions of Black masculinity, how you can do so for yourselves.

Gentlemen, while I will attempt to highlight patterns in male behavior and examining those issues intrinsic to masculinity, I am more interested in assisting with advancing discussion of the psychological health of men, at the fundamental level, which impacts on their outlook on life, their attitude, relationships and those factors influencing their behavior, and ultimately what it means to be masculine.

Men have struggled with a multitude of issues, chief of which are challenges to their masculinity from other men, who are competing for the attentions of women and from women, whose fundamental purpose is the continuity of the species. Today men see how women are assuming more direct, up front leadership roles. As Wendy Williams speaking on 107.5 WBLS yesterday afternoon said, that men are intimidated by progressive, strong and intelligent women. In truth, women have always been in charge. Our culture and society, our literature, art, music and our life experiences are replete with examples of women actually in charge. We know of the extraordinary examples of leadership from our mothers, especially our Black mothers, who have juggled, balanced, scrimped, saved and sacrificed for their families to keep the family unit together.


Who better to ask about the Black male, than a Black woman?

One of the subjects of conversation at a recent post wedding lunch I attended was about how Black women defined masculinity. One woman said that Black masculinity can be seen in three distinct ways: men accepting themselves, accepting responsibility for their actions and men taking care of their children. But when asked what could Black men do to correct their image, she replied that Black men have been “let off the hook” by Black women who have made excuses for their men. Black men, she added, need to step up and take charge. She admitted that culturally, from the perspective of her parents and grandparents, especially her female lineage, that men have to be taken care of. She added that Black men need to recognize that first and foremost they will never understand women, and that men have to understand and accept that as a species, there is and will always be a tension between the two sexes.

Another woman who has been working with men in social service roles for more than 10 years said that Black men have long term trauma to deal with, which is the combination of past and recent injustices, the lack of education, and absence of mentors and support for other men in leading roles or positions in society. The male ego, she said, is a big part of their problem and it prevents men from being able to receive feedback, support and help, because, many have never been taught to be sensitive to their own emotional needs.

But, I believe that for the Black male, as opposed to any other ethnic grouping, understanding his rather weak or non-existent efforts at finding himself, he has to begin to heal from within.


In Robert Bly’s 1990 book “Iron John” as he examines masculinity, he puts forward succinctly that: “We are living at an important and fruitful moment now, for it is clear to men that the images of adult manhood given by popular culture are worn out; a man can no longer depend on them. By the time a man is thirty-five he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life. Such a man is open to new visions of what a man is or could be.”

Bly suggests that many of the fairy tales and myths in which we find glorifications of manhood and masculinity, such as Zeus and the Greek pantheon, and the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, have lost their luster, because through our experiences we have seen them to be false, but that representations of positive leadership still do exist, as in the value of King Arthur’s influence as a mentor to young men, forming and strengthening bonds that value and celebrate masculinity, though tied to violence; and from the story of Iron John, of moving from the mother’s realm to the father’s realm. Bly states that he does not want to turn men against women or to return men to the domineering mode that has led to the repression of women and their values for centuries, as a challenge to the women’s movement. He suggests that the male movements and female movements, though related, move on separate timetables; alluding to the psychosocial damage men endured at the start of the Industrial Revolution, a grief which now cannot be ignored.

The dark side of men is clear, says Bly. Man’s mad exploration of earth’s resources, the devaluation and humiliation of women, and the obsession with tribal warfare are undeniable. And, while genetic inheritance contributes to their obsessions, culture and environment, particularly, defective mythologies that ignore the depth of masculine feelings and emotions, assign men a place on a pedestal or in the sky instead of the earth, teach obedience to wrong powers, work to keep men boys, and entangle both men and women in systems of industrial domination that exclude both matriarchy and patriarchy.


In support of Bly’s position of how under siege Black men were and are, Jackson Katz in his documentary film, Tough Guise, examines the place of men in today’s society, arguing against stereotypes and providing concrete solutions. Katz says that men often wear masks to hide their vulnerability. He suggests that the concept of real men is based on physical strength, the ability to intimidate, being a sexual stud, and being perceived as tough and strong. Any male not measuring or conforming to this narrow box defining manhood, is called a pussy, bitch, soft, girly, queer, wuss, and fag, among many names, which are also used to keep men boxed in, in those definitions. The media, too, has helped to propagate the stereotype that the definition of masculinity is the connection between being a man and being violent.

We learn from our family, friends and from the prevailing media, that men are represented in positions of dominance and control who use masks or guises to hide their insecurities. In Black communities, this is usually strong because there are very few positive images to challenge those masks and as James Baldwin said, when men can no longer love women, they also cease to love or respect or trust each other, which makes their isolation complete. Where it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend, the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased. When this possibility has ceased, so has the possibility of growth.

Statistical definitions of American masculinity show that 85 percent of all murders are committed by men and the majority of all female murders are women defending themselves from being battered. An estimated two to three million women are battered in their homes every year. It is estimated that one in four men will use violence against women in their lifetimes, 90 percent of serious violence is committed by men, 95 percent of domestic violence is committed by men, 95 percent of all dating violence is committed by teenage men, 85 to 95 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by men, and 99.8 percent of people convicted of rape in prison are men.

But, by calling attention to these problems, one is not anti-male, one is simply focusing attention on the problems plaguing the lives of men and which have been affecting us for millennia. While we acknowledge that women have made strides and progressed significantly, men are responsible for at least 24 percent of all crimes against women, and men on men crime is a staggering 76 percent. There are many men who are walking wounded, walking traumatized by violence acted out on them by other men, from bullying in schools, on the job, or on the block where they live; from their siblings, friends, family members, and notwithstanding in these numbers, thousands of boys are abused annually.

This statistical data show that large numbers of men and boys are inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others, where most of this violence that is perpetuated is cyclical – at least 81 percent of men who commit domestic violence were either abused themselves as children or witnessed it in their homes. Dr. Jeannine Bookhardt-Murray of Harlem United, a non-profit agency here in New York City, wants the discussion of post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, in adults who were affected by some type of trauma as children, to be increased. She suggests that in children, the effect of trauma, whether it is psychological, physical –witnessing violence or abuse, or sexual abuse; leads to a compete rewiring of that child’s neurological system and as that child grows into adulthood, their particular outlook on life is determined by that traumatic experience – they see life through the filter of whatever was their experience, taking it as normal. She’s pushing for greater treatment for adults who have come to recognize this as a particular problem that can be addressed with talk therapy, to help them realize that the way in which they see life, the choices and the decisions they make are affected by that early experience and it is not a healthy way for them to live. There have been successes in reversing the effects in child growing to adult PTSD sufferers and in adults who have themselves experienced a serious trauma. When I wrote a four part series on domestic violence, I saw the perpetuating effects of childhood abuse and trauma, and the combined attempts by Connecticut’s family and criminal courts to break that cycle.


Masking, says psychologist Derek Hopson is that we still react to images of what we believe we are. In relationships we get caught up in presenting an image or a mask. Men want to come across as strong and confident and in control, and really tone down soft emotions. Men would rather appear powerful and capable, but in doing so, not acknowledging the common fears and hurts. Many men put on masks to act tougher and more macho when they are around a lot of people, as if they have something to prove. Little do they know, or perhaps they do know and don’t care, that everyone can see right through them, can see the facade behind which they are hiding. Isn’t that why men don’t cry, or not supposed to cry, much less in public? As Jay-Z says, “I can’t see ‘em comin down my eyes. So, I gotta make the song cry.” Or, as 50 Cent says, “After a while, it’s not acting when you have to suppress your feelings. Everybody has feelings, but there are some people who have trained themselves over time not to be out crying and doing all kinds of shit. Where someone else would cry, we replace those feelings of anxiety and get angry instead.” Many women state that when alone with one person or in an exclusive setting, their man becomes soft, revealing his vulnerability. It is our society and culture, some argue, that cause us to put on masks in order to survive in whatever peer society we are in. A direct result, however, of suiting up in the macho armor is that the person behind it is transformed into someone else who becomes entirely un-recognizeable, even to themselves; they no longer know who they are or are unable to separate the macho persona from the real person. It is in our best interest as individual men, to pull back the curtain, lift the mask and remove the tough armor, to reveal, to see not only what’s happening to the man inside, but to help him heal. Perhaps the aware man is one who is not afraid to let others see him shed tears, even if he’s on national television. Some women actually say they prefer a man who displays his emotions because not only is he in touch with himself, the feminine side, but with someone who is sensitive and can empathize with them.


We know that as a species, living in isolation is not only unhealthy, but down right antisocial. As fundamentally social beings, does masking our feelings and emotions affect our inability to commit and bond with another, and is it written in our genes? A recent article in The New York Times “Bonding Gene’ Could Help Men Stay Married” by E.J. Mundell that was published in Health Day News, discussed a report issued by Swedish scientists into the male genetic predisposition toward monogamous or “husband material” behavior in men. To understand monogamy, scientists examined differences in the vasopressin 1a gene of male and female voles and discovered that variations in the gene influences activity in the male vole. This made the scientists wonder if it would be the same for men when they looked at the same gene in 552 pairs of male twins. What they discovered was that all of the men were currently in a relationship that had lasted at least five years, and 18 percent of the men had remained unmarried. The men were subjected to psychological tests assessing their ability to bond and commit. They found that men with a certain variant, known as an allele, of the vasopressin 1a gene, called 334, tended to score especially low on a standard psychological test called the Partner Bonding Scale. They were also less likely to be married than men carrying another form of the gene. And carrying two copies of the 334 allele doubled the odds that the men had undergone some sort of marital crisis (for example, the threat of divorce) over the past year.

Dr. John Lucas a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College said that the findings made sense, because it’s well known that genes help drive much of human behavior, including mate bonding, but the vasopressin 1a gene is likely not the only factor influencing a man’s ability to form true and lasting bonds. And, it is unlikely that a single gene is the cause of an inability to maintain monogamous relationships, rather it is likely to be multiple genes that are expressed incompletely and interact with the environment. Lucas pointed out that what psychologists call “temperament”—the individual palette of emotions and behaviors that even babies display—is probably “hard-wired” by our genetics. Temperament, through training and experience, becomes personality, and personality is a complicated situation, because it involves the ability to commit, which men would readily use this single genetic inability as an excuse not to commit to relationships. But as another scientist said, taken together, the effect of the studied gene variant on human pair-bonding behavior is rather small, and it can not, with any real accuracy, be used to predict how someone will behave in a future relationship.


From this perspective, of commitment and bonding, the lack or inability to bond, to commit to another or receive acceptance from family, friends and even loved ones, has led to many Black men spiraling downwards into a depressive funk. Some of the signs of a person suffering from depression are withdrawal from friends, family, co-workers; no longer taking pleasure or joy in things or activities they once did, they appear sad, have a pessimistic out look on their lives – see the glass as half empty rather than half full, and in many cases have become secretive – most likely into some type of substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol, have become sex addicts, and are sometimes violent.

According to Terri Williams, who examines depression in Black men and women in her book, Black Pain, Black men who live the reality of the statistics have adopted a “who cares” attitude to guard against the disappointment of dashed hopes and the lack of chances of becoming someone in a culture that at every step says the color of their skin means they are inferior, not worthy, or just nothing. She quotes Erin Texiera of the Associated Press who said that everyday African-American men consciously work to offset stereotypes about them – that they are dangerous, aggressive and angry, smiling a lot, dressing conservatively and speaking with deference: Yes sir, No sir or ma’am, and many are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into elevators or stand too close in grocery stores. Williams also quotes Vernon Slaughter, an Atlanta-based entertainment attorney and former music industry executive, who said that his depression was one of the causes of his marriage dissolving and accepted that it was the reason for some of his mistakes in his career. Describing his depression, he said that it was the real reason some people may have thought he behaved unusual at times, even for himself. He admits that is deathly afraid of becoming old and helpless because of what he feels is his chronic pain. He is afraid that his chronic pain and the depression it has caused him will leave him with no one to help take care of him and with very little savings, and that all of his education and professional achievements couldn’t save him from depression and the damage it does.

A depressed Black man doesn’t always look like he’s down in the dumps, instead he could be the most energetic person, on the go all the time. He may be accomplished in many socially acceptable areas – career, family, church, sports and school, or on the flip side, he may be the man who just can’t stop making everything worse for himself and for those around him. A depressed man, especially a Black man, is most afraid of ending up with unbearable feelings and not knowing how to handle or deal with it, which often explains the underlying and unexplored depression that leads to self destructive behavior and actions. How many men do we know who to deal with their emotions resort to intense alcohol use, become so intoxicated that they loose control, beating up their partners, lovers or wives? How many men do we know, or ourselves, who choose avoidance or other activities instead of dealing head on with the feelings welling inside us, confronting what is troubling us, saying that we don’t understand or don’t like something?

In our community, the numbers of Black men dying everyday from heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse and addiction, from HIV, from violence, and from being incarcerated are not because they chose to live their lives on a destructive path, they have been forced to do so by the society and culture in which they live. But while this can be used as an excuse and a crutch to wallow in self pity, many men are eschewing the pressures of these oppressive factors: selling drugs, dropping out of high school or college, contributing to making babies with women they can’t support, spending most of their best years in prisons or their lives cut short. Added to this litany of woes men have to contend with, they also have to deal with the societal institutions that fail them: poor housing, none or inadequate healthcare, unchecked crime, poor or ineffective education, real and perceived injustices, and welfare programs that are like an addictive drug – hard to shake off.

As Nathaniel Brand said, self acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself. It is against these odds that many men are proving resilient: they are going to school and doing well academically, are embarking on careers, are entering into mature and healthy relationships – whether with each other or with women and are making a decent living: they are building and restoring their lives. Men are stepping up and taking responsibility, not only for their lives, but for their actions and choices – which are more informed.


In recent months we have seen and heard the statistics of the number of Black men who are HIV positive. While the statistics is helpful for politicians and corporations to get more money for their pet projects, for Black men, it should serve as a clarion call to wake up. In late August, the New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released some startling numbers. According to The New York Times, HIV is spreading in New York City at three times the national rate — an incidence of 72 new infections for every 100,000 people, compared with 23 per 100,000 nationally. Within New York City, whites were infected at four times the national rate, Hispanics at three times the national rate, and Blacks at almost twice the national rate. Blacks, and men who have sex with other men, are the groups at greatest risk of contracting H.I.V. Men accounted for 76 percent of new H.I.V. infections and women for 25 percent. Blacks made up 46 percent of the newly infected; Hispanics, 32 percent; and whites, 21 percent. Those under age 20 made up four percent of the newly infected; those 20 to 29 years old, 24 percent; those 30 to 39 years old, 29 percent; those 40 to 49 years old, 29 percent; and those 50 and older, 15 percent. Sex between men was the main cause in 50 percent of new infections; high-risk heterosexual sex in 22 percent; intravenous drug use in 8 percent; and unknown or uncertain causes in 18 percent. In the boroughs, Manhattan accounted for 35 percent of new infections; Brooklyn, 26 percent; the Bronx, 19 percent; and Queens, 17 percent. New H.I.V. infections among men under age 30 who have sex with men, 77 percent were Black or Hispanic men, as were 59 percent of new H.I.V. infections among men ages 30 to 50 who have sex with men. Nearly two-thirds of the city’s new infections occurred in people 30 to 50 years old.

I have encountered many teenagers and early 20-year olds who are HIV positive, and many who are in their 40s who have been positive for over 10 years. I have also encountered many young men who have become complacent by the advances in HIV treatment that they prefer to engage in unsafe condom-less sexual practices. But this is not confined to the Black same gender loving community. Yesterday morning I heard on the Steve Harvey Show, again on 107.5 WBLS, Steve Harvey reading a letter from a young woman with a young daughter who described herself as successful and accomplished, and who had met a man online – despite the criticisms, more and more people are turning to online sites to meet potential long term or instant sexual partners. After dating for a few weeks, she and the man had sex. Before going that far, she enquired whether he was HIV negative and he assured her that he was negative. She was apprehensive about not using a condom with him. And, as they continued to see each other, she repeatedly asked him to provide proof of his negative status, which he always avoided or brushed off. Then after a while he stopped returning her calls, responding to her messages, and when she called his job, he became verbally abusive to her. A few months ago she said she went for a HIV test and it came back positive. She was asking Steve Harvey what she should do.


When Dr. David Malebranche was appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, in an interview with Keith Boykin, he was asked what more the government should do to address HIV/AIDS. Dr. Malebranche said that there is need to focus more on the social factors to address HIV with two answers to the question.

“One would be the prevention and one would be the treatment. From a prevention standpoint, we need to focus more on the fundamental social causes that are driving the epidemic and things like poverty, mental health, substance abuse, as well as the education aspect, which always has to be a part of it. But I think people are missing some of the bigger issues around finance and mental health. There are still civil rights…issues in front of us both as black men and homosexual men…[but] the barriers we face are more internalized…oppression, disempowerment, low self esteem, discomfort with who we are…those kinds of things,” he said.

We have all, at one time or the other, struggled with these issues: self-esteem, self-confidence, identity, masculinity and sexuality or sexual orientation. Ours is a society that is money conscious, even our illnesses have profit margins. In all the hoopla about HIV and its devastating effects on Black gay men, the increasing numbers of Black women who are infected by Black men, and all the many different pharmaceuticals to treat the disease; prevention means testing, “scripting,” dispensing and the distribution of NYC packaged condoms, and for the many agencies that have become a kind of cottage industry, data collection for reporting means more funding. And, while there is some talk therapy on an as needed basis, not much is being done, as another element in the arsenal of prevention, to address the psychological needs of the Black gay community.

Many of us have seen the pain and suffering in family, friends and co-workers, or have experienced the pain striking at the core of who we are. In sharing in the lives of three close friends, I recognized their pain and I saw that the behavior of Black gay men, their attitudes, their decisions and life choices, and the effect of depression on their outlook toward life – all emanated from damaged psyches. One friend, a father of two, has been in and out of mental institutions as he struggled to get a handle on his depression, which caused him to abuse drugs and engage in unprotected sex. Another friend, a colleague, who has written openly about his depression, is still an unacknowledged alcoholic, who would on occasion, when the stresses of life become too much to bear, would withdraw and be un-communicative from friends and family for extended periods. And, another 25-year old friend, who attempted suicide four times, is already an alcoholic and as a sex addict, engages in unprotected sex.

After hearing the stories of these friends, I became aware that even though a number of books have been published about depression affecting Black people, men and women, Black Pain by Terri Williams and Standing in the Shadows by John Head, nothing, apart from academic papers and essays in medical journals, addressed depression as a mental illness in Black gay men and Black gay HIV Positive men. While the issue of depression, its symptoms, characteristics and treatment is universal, and accepting that ethno-socio-cultural elements are contributors, I recognize that for Black gay men and Black gay HIV positive men, differences do exist at the fundamental level.

Black gay men are still regarded as sexually irresponsible members of society who continue to engage in unsafe and risky sexual behavior; are still considered socially challenged – unable to maintain stable relationships and jobs; and indulge in abuses, whether drugs, alcohol, or sex.

Dr. Alexander Vington, a Brooklyn-based psychiatrist and head of Vaya Institute advocates a radical shift in addressing the pain at the core level of the experience of Black men. Dr. Vington’s program is a fundamental paradigm shift from conventional methods of treatment to more involved self evaluation, awareness and internalized healing, in people all over; with practical applications for Black men who are in pain. With treatment Black gay men and Black gay HIV positive men could live more wholesome, healthy and productive lives – improving themselves and making valuable contributions to their families, friends, relationships and communities. The National Black Psychological Association is one of many organizations where one can find Black psychotherapists who understand the Black experience and who are culturally aware – for African American, Caribbean American and African, to offer counseling to Black men, gay men and HIV positive men, regard less of age. If a person cannot afford the price of a therapist, he should ask about a sliding scale or look up one of the social service agencies, who often have a psychological professional on staff, to begin to address their issues.


October 8, 2008 - Posted by | African-American News, Male Health | , , , , ,

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