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.