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  • Dr. Obari Adéye Cartman

Black Men Should Only Cry Sometimes

I was moved by the visual image of Tyrese crying about his daughter. There is certainly more to the story, Black folk be needing all the details before we decide someone deserved compassion. But without trying to judge or diagnose him I wondered why I was moved by Tyrese’s tears but embarrassed by these two Black men crying:

We had this conversation at a 4:44 inspired roundtable about Black men’s mental health, the response in the room was mixed. The question was do Van Jones and Gianno Caldwell look weak as Black Men for crying about Trump? I’ve already urged us to move beyond the gender coded language of weak = woman. What to do then with the meaning of a cry. Does it matter why? To be disappointed that Trump said something racist suggests to me a level of unhealthy delusion to begin with. I don’t think Trump deserves that kind of power in their minds. If they expected buffoonery from him I imagine they wouldn’t be surprised by anything he says. Maybe they expected in him a savior, which actually would be sad.

In 4:44, Jay-Z’s most gangsta rap album yet, he said “I never wanted another woman to know/ Something about me that you didn't know/I promised, I cried /I couldn't hold”. He cried because he got caught? Maybe that’s harsh. I really do appreciate how much vulnerability he expressed. A theme throughout the album was how much pain he would feel if he lost his daughter, which I speculate opened him up to also feel the loss of his wife. “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/But you can't heal what you never reveal.

A white guy, Neal Brennen, in his beautifully insightful stand-up comedy said “I actually think Black dudes appreciated how openly sad I was because Black dudes aren’t allowed to be openly sad in public. The only way a Black dude can openly express sadness in public is if he does it with a saxophone.” The question is definitely about expression. We know men feel, despite our best attempts to hide it. We know men mask sadness and fear as anger. We know men self-medicate to not feel. It seems, however, that without more nuanced direction around emotional expression young men will continue to dismiss the prevailing plea of our time, to reassess the building blocks of our masculinity from the ground up.

I sell a shirt that says “Men cry…”. It gets a lot of scoffs from men. While it serves as a reminder to men that we are human, that emotions are not a woman thing, it only works if it’s effective. I’m wondering if we need to also teach crying sometimes doesn’t mean crying all the time. Perhaps men have been holding it in so long they fear opening a flood gate. Black men also still have to survive the harsh realities of their block or board room. I don’t want a man to start sobbing at work if his boss chastises him, but I also don’t want him to pretend like he wasn’t hurt. I want him to recognize the shame in his body, to allow it to pierce him deeply, notice where it hits him in his abdomen, make a connection between that feeling and his fear of losing the security of a job, hold a straight face, keep eye contact, and get back to work – not drown his sorrows at a bar or strip club before he goes home. I don’t want a young man to think he has to try cry in the middle of the cafeteria when an upperclassman makes fun of his shoes. Instead he should feel his chest pounding, eyes watering, try not to blink, take deep breaths, take the L, force a smirk, walk slowly to a bathroom stall where he can sneak a muffle cry in his sleeve, and go back to class – not go to snapchat and tell his cousins to meet them after the last bell.

On the other hand, my younger brother has never seen me cry. I had no idea until he said it recently. It seems incredible to me because I cry all the time. There are songs, movies, even commercials that have made me cry. I’ve cried so often because of our mother I can barely look her directly in the eye anymore. I can cry in an instant at the thought of my son getting hurt or dying. I love crying. I feel so much lighter after a good cry. It’s not even that I hold it in when I’m around my brother, it doesn’t even come up. My instinct or man training or perceived duty to protect him from the burden of my pain makes it so that I don’t know if I’m capable of feeling that intensely in his presence. Sounds like a man box when I describe it that way. What does that teach younger men, if I only cry in my car alone? How will they every know it’s okay?

Men kill that don’t cry. Themselves and others. We not gone change the entire culture of manhood overnight, but we can work more urgently to create safe trusting space for men to gather and cry. Or just share. And we can teach men as soon as they can speak how to attach language to emotional experiences they naturally have. We can teach the cleansing power of tears, and encourage men to AT LEAST cry alone. And how to use the emotional signals our bodies to give us to interrogate their source. To include the power of emotions as a part of decision making and successfully navigating the world as a Black man. It a tough world for all of us. We are already clear that trials and tribulations just comes with the job of being a Black man in America. Accordingly then crying should also be taught as a natural part of life too. Sometimes.

(I actually only like this video a little. It asks Black women to let us cry. I don’t have those kind of women in my life, that don’t already support emotional expression, but apparently there’s enough men that do so here yall go..)

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