Education, Father Facts & Information, Fathership, Men, Our Youth, Stories

Unharm Your Sons: A Therapist and Suicide Attempt Survivor’s Plea to Black Fathers About the Culture of Black Masculinity.

Black boys, especially those with mental health issues, need all the guidance, protection, and nurturance that we can muster.

Content warning: depression, self-injury, suicide, trauma

“I swallowed all of them!” I blurted out, as I burst into my parents’ room frantically.

Barely looking up from the TV, my father glanced me over, up and down, as if a passerby had cut him off on a busy crosswalk. “Take him to the hospital,” he grumbled. He then continued flipping through the channels, as my mother darted up to find her keys, purse, and shoes, scurrying all around the house in a state of panic. Her visceral, instinctive reaction seemed much more rational, considering the urgency in my voice.

More than a decade later, Black boys like my 15-year-old self still live in a state of emergency. From 1993 to 2012, the prevalence of suicide attempts among Black boys nearly doubled, and the rate of self-injury has climbed steadily in recent years. Despite these staggering figures, few therapists and mental health advocates have given this public health crisis the level of attention that it deserves.

What is more, there are times when many Black parents, particularly fathers, seem just as apathetic. I noticed this tendency while working as a school-based therapist in predominantly Black schools in Philadelphia. One father, for instance, attributed his son’s wrist-cutting to him “hanging around too many girls”. Another told me that “being around his mother, grandmother, and aunts so often” had instigated his son’s depression.

I have always vacillated about airing any of the Black community’s “dirty laundry”. But I intentionally retell stories about Black boys’ mental health, in order to shed light on a pernicious and self-destructive cultural norm in the Black community: toxic masculinity, or the belief that violence, sexual aggression, and emotional detachment epitomize manhood.

Historically, Black men have opted into toxic masculinity to preserve their sanity, and to protect and provide for their families. Beginning with slavery, America’s sociopolitical structures and institutions have upheld a racially stratified, patriarchal class system that, to varying degrees, has oppressed everyone, except wealthy White men. This reality, coupled with a desperation to escape racialized poverty, left Black men with no other choice but to attempt assimilating into the dominant culture.

As they say, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

However, most Black men can attest that assimilation has not elevated their social status in the slightest. And the harder Black men have tried to outdo White men as patriarchs, the more they ingrained exaggerated toxic masculinity, or hypermasculinity, into the culture of Black masculinity.

Today, Black men continue to inherit and pass down a legacy of trauma stemming from generations of hypermasculine gender socialization, “the process through which children learn about the social expectations, attitudes, and behaviors typically associated with boys and girls”. This learned mentality explains why Black fathers often teach their sons that “real” men do not acknowledge their susceptibility to crippling emotions like fear, pain, and sadness. Like toxic masculinity, hypermasculinity demands that men prove their manhood by dissociating from their inner emotional lives and vulnerability.

What does being a father mean to you? Tell us your story. Photo by Tyrone Z. McCants / ZIrePhotos 

Here, vulnerability does not mean being open and exposed to harm or danger, in a literal sense. Emotional vulnerability means openness and transparency in safe spaces and in the context of safe, trusting relationships, like the one between a therapist and client, or a parent and child.

Emotional vulnerability is a fundamental building block of emotional well-being and mental health, and thus, discussing how Black boys are socialized to disown and reject it is key to combating their high rates of suicide and self-injury. Moreover, emotional vulnerability is central to emotional intelligence, which has been found to serve as a protective factor against depression and suicide. Many studies show that having the emotional vocabulary to simply name a troubling or uncomfortable feeling is cathartic in and of itself.

Regrettably, disowning vulnerability has stunted the emotional development of many Black boys and men, myself included. Many of us never learned how to process and cope with feelings, let alone the psychological toll of racism or mental health conditions. Instead, we learned never to let our guards down, and to repress any self-expression besides “manly” displays of anger or rage. In the long run, this way of thinking leaves Black boys and men with one of the most devastating consequences of hypermasculinity: a void of deep, personal connections with others.

Anyone who works with kids knows that just one stable, trusting relationship with a supportive adult can save a child or youth from slipping through the cracks. Why, then, do we socialize Black boys to shun the emotional vulnerability necessary to build these enduring, nurturing connections?

The Rising Son Project – Brooklyn NYC.                                     Photo by Tyrone Z. McCants / ZIrePhotos

 

 

I began working in school-based mental health because I had hoped to be the advocate whom I needed when I was younger, and to empower Black boys with the kind of tender mentorship that I had never received from Black men while growing up. As a Black man who gives himself permission to feel, it brings me joy to know that many Black boys see their reflections in me. Still, I am keenly aware that there are many more Black boys who need the affirmation that I offer, than there are Black male therapists and educators like me.

For this reason, my plea to all Black men, especially Black fathers, is an urgent call to action: to help me help Black boys liberate their hearts and minds, before it is too late. I cannot shoulder this responsibility alone. It takes a village.

Black boys, especially those with mental health issues, need all the guidance, protection, and nurturance that we can muster. They are dying at alarming rates not just from suicide and unaddressed mental health challenges, but also from structural injustices like community and school violence, food deserts and gentrification, racial disparities in HIV/AIDS prevention, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We can no longer afford to abandon them in a societal minefield without an emotional compass to heal and advocate for themselves.

Thomas is a first time father

New father, Thomas holds daughter Veronica while thinking about the meaning of life. Photo by Tyrone Z. McCants / ZIrePhotos

It is up to us to teach Black boys that there is more to life than proving one’s manhood. Up to us to help them unlearn the generational curse of suffering from disappointment and trauma in silence. Up to us to guide them to the healing that they so desperately need and deserve. And up to us show them the importance of remaining rooted in their humanity.

So, I urge you to gather each and every Black boy you know in your arms, and be not just a shoulder to lean on––but also an insightful confidant, a vulnerable hero, and the brave example of a man who is unashamed of simply being human.

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About Proud Poppas United

A former Youth Division Aide and Mental Health Therapist with the Office of Children and Family Services turned his reduction-in-force experience into a win-win situation, and many are reaping this harvest. When Tyrone “Zire” McCants, who is also a versatile services photographer and visionary in the Phoenix, AZ, lost his job; he took his youthful interest in photography and his prior knowledge from working in a family-centered position into new ventures. He even figured out a way to coincide his two passions into meaningful opportunities to advance his cause. The layoff he faced freed him up to develop his photography business (Zire Photography & Graphics) and to showcase his skills as a prolific artist. One of those ventures that McCants created was an initiative called Proud Poppas United; which is a community-based group designed to strengthen the bonds between fathers & their children. It aims to encourage a tradition of fatherhood and family, increasing the number of active fathers in our community. When McCants isn’t intellectually cultivating his repertoire of talents, he manages to merge his interest in photography with his desire and passion for fatherhood. Using the Proud Poppas Photo Project, as his flagship initiative, he displays images which celebrate and encourage the pride of being an active father. In many minority and ethnic communities, there is a progressive concern of absentee fathers and the devastating effects of this challenge on our children, our families, and community. He also believes that by displaying these images will help to shed light on and celebrate the gift of fatherhood. He hopes that this movement will also become contagious and bring other men closer to their children and families, and encourage a presence of well-being and development in our children, our families, our communities and our people as a whole. McCants quotes that “My scope is capturing the energy between a father and his children” and that’s what he is creating through his community development initiatives. Through, a first look into the reality concerning “Responsible Fathers” many disturbing statistics and contributing factors related to absent fathers. But, to the credit of McCants, he has been able to overlook the negative stereotypes and prejudices that have perpetuated his community and rise to the occasion. Although, he wears many hats that provide guidance and leadership to the infrastructure of his life’s purpose. To all of the fathers out there with the silent victories of triumph and the principle-centered leadership; who fight depression, financial woes, relationship conflicts, the penal system and the racism of our day; McCants say’s “Thank you” for all that you have been able to get accomplished behind your veil of anonymity. You have just endured the last 13 years of this millennium, and you are still here to tell about it. Although some will say that these last few years have been amazing they are still asleep to the fact that; we (The black community) must work with higher ideals versus dollars and cents. We must look within ourselves and see us as being brave, black, accountable, and reliable. The truth of the matter is that you are embracing fatherhood but at a frequency that may not be understood. I am with you as we will not look at the diluted statistics but at the “transformational leadership” that is displayed by all black fathers and role models everywhere. Don’t give up now as our families are leaning on you in these times of difficulty to represent us to the best of your ability as the “Mighty Men of Valor.” You are the man for the job, and now it’s time to come out of hiding and show the world what real black men look like; and we represent as a tribe of Intellectual builders, teachers, warriors, leaders and Kings. “Fatherhood is not a right; it’s a privilege. Your children are the best part of you. I send my love to this new generation of fathers who have learned from the sins of the past and take a very active role in the lives of our children. ~RAPPER TALIB KWELI, FATHER OF TWO

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