Redefining Masculinity to Save Black Boys

If we want to successfully save black boys’ lives, we need to teach them to be strong without being violent. We need to redefine masculinity and male strength and demonstrate healthier forms of them. This hard work is the primary component in preventing men’s violence against women and other men. Through it, we can be allies with our female peers in creating healthy individuals, relationships, and stronger communities.

What are the history, trends, and effects of masculinity on black boys? The dominant stories of stereotypical masculinity saturate every aspect of human activity. They are practiced and repeated so regularly that they have become an unquestioned reality that shapes many self-destructive attitudes and behaviors associated with black boys.

One self-defeating belief stemming from these false stories is that learning and getting an education is “acting white.” Many of the young people that I’ve worked with over the years say things like, “That stuff’s for them,” or “I ain’t really wit no school and books an all that.” These falsehoods of masculinity show boys’ strength in a limited, narrow way—as only physical. They encourage boys to never show fear, never back down, never accept help, and never show vulnerability. Fed on this steady diet of negative attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and traditions that strip them of their emotional intelligence and humanity, black boys grow up to be inauthentic, superficial adults who act out a violence-filled masculinity at the expense of others and themselves.

Other false dominant stories of masculinity are that the only way to be a real man is on the athletic field, in the bedroom, and in the boardroom. These lies, promoted on the streets and on Madison Avenue, are accomplished by only a few. For the majority of black boys, these lies are a trap, because they can’t live up to them or other unrealistic expectations. We see the consequences in urban, rural and suburban communities across the country with black boys who show some athletic ability are promoted through school—even though they unable to read and write—and celebrated until their athletic eligibility is gone. We see it in the high rates of newly contracted HIV/AIDS infections amongst black men, and we see it in the incarceration and death rates of our street corner CEOs.

That black boys are at the bottom of most positive social indicators and at the top of the negative can be traced back to how we as a society teach them—consciously and unconsciously—to be men. We see this unifying thread in the disruption of black families, high dropout rates, multi-generational incarceration, domestic and sexual violence, black-on-black crime, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.

Still, I am male positive and have seen the benefits to teaching new forms of masculinity for so many boys and young men. I’ve seen them start our programs acting out in stereotypically masculine ways but then embracing an opportunity through our Men of Strength Club network to be strong without being violent. Then they begin creating their counter-stories of masculinity—a masculinity that allows them to be proactive, pro-social, empathetic leaders in their own lives and in the lives of others. They become free to follow their passions and interests as empowered, gender equitable leaders.

For black boys, good grades, college acceptance and graduation, traveling around the world, and good jobs are a must, and these accomplishments should be applauded. But these achievements will not prepare boys with the skills needed to be emotionally and socially well-rounded people. Black boys must be nurtured with a masculinity that teaches empathy and stresses relationships and connection. These are the markers that must be associated with what it means to be a man, and are just as important—if not more so—as a high-paying job.

We as black men must model real strength and gender equality with our female peers, and create counter-stories of masculinity to model for our boys. We must give black boys opportunities to explore and identify masculinity’s positive potential in its broad and complex reality. Only through this hard work can we close the achievement gaps in the economic, social, educational and political lives of black men and boys.

6 Comments

Hey Neil. Thanks for this great post, and your work with MCSR! The Men of Color Health Awareness (MOCHA) initiative in Springfield, Massachusetts (www.mochaspringfield.org) has been another great model for this work. - Steven

How can you teach these young men masculinity when you have the parent (feamle) of these young men refering to them as "my baby"? or defending them when they are clearly wrong.

In My opinion from being involved with so many single women the problem is not the young people. The problem is the adults raising them.

The Redefinition of Black manliness is right on cue. I am CEO of Islamic Charities of New York, we serve the Mid Hudson Valley of New York, providing services to youth and families. I am a Chaplain, Family Therapist, I am also at Lincoln University, in PA, studying Human Services and I specialize in program development, recovery and systems. I have watched children in our communities, grow up, fail academically, and grow "BabyBoy" type characters that lead to dispositive social roles and conflicts. The fear of "acting white" related to "talking white" and being viewed as "not gangsta" and being w/o street credibility reinforces the delusional alter egos being generated by our youth. Since there is an incarceration of Mind being postulated we must speak toward its liberation. Reformation of Black Manliness and ultimately the overhaul of Black thought is what is being postulated here. I understand and support any such efforts thank you for an exemplary report.
Imam Hamzah Al-Ameen,(MHS). 12/30/2010

This article is great and I don't believe blaming our sisters is a solution to the problem, Femininity in of itself is a corner stone of Masculinity, the valley defines the mountain. Fredrick Douglas voices this construction of male Identity in his autobiography. TO be fully alive civilly in this country is to be male- so to be free in this country is to be male, preferably white male. The construction of the myth of masculinity being so unreal has left our brother to strive toward and unbalanced life defined by an illusion of what it means to be in a male body

I am a high school teacher in an urban school. I have an A student, hard-working, kind and honest, who came to me today heartbroken because his mother told him that he needs to be "more of a man". What she really meant was, "stop being gay". It is sad enough that this child is bullied at school, but to not be able to seek refuge and acceptance at home is heinous. I told him a man means being respectful, hard-working, accountable, honest...and that he was already all of those things.

I am a high school teacher in an urban school. I have an A student, hard-working, kind and honest, who came to me today heartbroken because his mother told him that he needs to be "more of a man". What she really meant was, "stop being gay". It is sad enough that this child is bullied at school, but to not be able to seek refuge and acceptance at home is heinous. I told him a man means being respectful, hard-working, accountable, honest...and that he was already all of those things.

Add your voice