“Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty and the capacity to remember were native to man.”
-Richard Wright, Black Boy
I sat across from my friend, staring deep into his small, dark eyes. His broad shoulders slugged over the frame of his body as he pulled food to his mouth. He ate in the same way he chose his words, deliberately. Our year-and-a-half friendship developed beautifully and organically as we ran miles through the streets of DC and in that time we had come to cultivate a bond, a closeness which permitted a degree of emotional agency between us. He knew my questioning was only pointed towards understanding him better. I knew his sometimes reticence was another layer of trust to carefully earn.
Empathy, for me, has always been the end game. And because we–this black man and me, a black woman–had lived different experiences both in the make-up of our gender but also our socio-ethnic backgrounds, his world was one I wanted to walk in frequently; to trace the steps of his lived experiences and report back my findings like any good sociologist. So I asked him, while tucked in the corner of the burger spot that had become our place of respite, “Are you happy?”
“Am I happy?” he repeated while folding his arms in front of him as tried to discern the intent of my question.
“Yeah. Are you happy?” I asked once more.
For some time I’ve found myself heavily contemplating the emotional state of black men. As a black woman, I’ve been able to retreat in the communal safety of sisterhood. If my heart is broken, I call my girls. If I’m uncertain about my future, my mother is an email away to remind me I am a young woman of promise. And the Internet–for all intent and purposes–has many elements of feminine affirmation. Self-care articles telling me to focus on my mind, body, and spirit are pervasive in my news feeds. As a woman, no matter how I’m feeling, I’m never short on a remedy to get myself back to a place of happy. More directly, joy is always at my beck and call because as a woman, I have been given full permission to feel joyful–to embrace happiness. In this way, I am privileged. But what of the black man? Where does he go to find his rest?
“I’m happy sometimes, but not all the time. Happiness isn’t the goal.” My friend responded. I sat quietly, allowing my silence to give him comfort in sharing. “As Christians, we’re not called to be happy all the time. We can be joyful but joy doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy,” he continued.
Compromise of emotion is not foreign to the men I know. For them, it seems a constant battle of will. To carry the weight of societal expectations, to perform masculinity: that is to be “strong,” void of emoting is to forsake the full embrace of happiness. It is to see joy as a sustaining undercurrent, not a feeling. My friend is right. Joy is not a constant feeling of nirvana. I do, however, remain concerned that men–black men–in particular are imprisoned by a crown of thorns.
There is a perpetual mocking when you are a black man. The world tells them strength means to be empty because historically, black men preserved their lives by not smiling. Any sign of humanity (a smile, a joyful whistle, a wink) could be deadly. To be stoic was necessary for survival, and so the code was passed on from dirt roads in the south to street corners across cities in the north. They learned to carry this stoicism with a degree of honor. The toughest man was the one who was impenetrable. The one who could not be knocked over by love was the one who was admired the most. But happiness? There was no room for it and certainly not joy.
Our constant policing of what it is to be masculine does not help. From respectability politics, which tells black men that sagging pants and slang are undesirable traits to the notion of being loving and sensitive as signs of weakness, black men are boxed in a room of double speak. Love that woman but not too much lest she take you for a fool. Be cool but not too cool. Be black but not all the way black. The implications of this policing are devastatingly consequential.
In 2012 a man who I loved and who loved me dearly cracked under the pressures of his self-imposed masculinity. How can I take care of her, he paced the room asking himself. Never mind that I could take care of myself. How can I protect my heart while still loving her? We never recovered from the breach. In 2013, I watched my older brother, a man whose smile could tear the roof off any room, suffer from a psychotic lapse. The diagnosis was schizophrenia. Stories like these are limitless among black men in my inner and extended circles: the guy who everyone thought had his life together suddenly commits suicide, the man who silently drinks his depression away, the numbing aid of hypersexualization. And still we tip-toe the question,”Black man, are you happy?” Even when they answer the hope of joy is deferred.
After dinner, my friend walked me to the bus stop. The city was unreasonably mild for a February night. There was a lightness in the way he moved following our conversation. Perhaps, all he needed was a safe place to share his feelings. We had come no closer to any conclusions but the dialogue was there. The space to be open, honest and raw was there. He waited as I boarded the bus, not wanting me to be too far from his sight. “Text me when you get home, okay?” He asked. His crown of responsibility never once leaving his head.
I filed to the back of the bus surrounded by older black men whose faces told stories of their own crowns. They looked heavy. I could see my friend from the window and so knocked to get his attention. He pulled his head up, his eyes locking to mine with a smile spanning ear to ear. Maybe, for a moment, he found his joy.
Shakirah A. Hill is a culture writer living in DC. She enjoys good food, pretty clothes, running and hopping on airplanes. You can follow her meanderings @shakirahadianna and check out more of her work at shakirahadianna.com.