Black Men Are Only Good When We Are Exceptional…Or Dead.

Black Women's Silence Has Never Gotten Us Free, Love.

 

All of this talk about Jay-Z has, not surprisingly, made me feel some kind of way.

I remember getting a call from my friend a few months ago, a Black woman, who lived in the New York at the time. She had been on my mind because she is a fountain of joy overflowing with the strength of truth telling. I wanted to talk to her because someone I cared about had just been sexually assaulted and I needed help processing it. I needed help figuring out how to be supportive.  Before I got a chance to talk with her about my friend, she told me about getting sexually harassed on the subway and she wanted to talk it through with me.

I listened to her story and tried, as best as I could, to be supportive of her. Eventually, she got to the point that all the Black women in my life get to in stories like this. The point where they say “but I just didn’t want to say anything because I feel like Black men are already so attacked right now, you know?” I had heard it before. It was the same reason that the person close to me did not want to report what had happened to her.

I was immediately filled with rage.

The rage of my friends being unsafe. The rage at understanding that these assaults are not isolated incidents. The rage at the reminder that they had just killed Philando Castile and it was not safe to be a Black man in America. But mostly the rage that my persecution was used to silence my sister. Rage that Black men could simultaneously be so monstrous that we need to put down for caring a pen and so fragile that talking about street harassment would tear us asunder. Rage that rage was the only feeling I knew how to feel.

I told my friend the only thing I could: “Black women’s silence has never gotten us free, love.”

To which she replied “But we keep trying it, don’t we.”

We do.

 

“If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” –Zora Neale Hurston

 

Black men have survived the middle passage, slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow and lynching. How have we gotten to the point where we think Black men can’t survive the truth? Black people need Black women to break their silence.

Patriarchy, like all forms of oppression, breeds in isolation. Black people cannot get free if 51% of our people are in chains of a Black man’s making. AND, at the same time, I can’t shake the weight of the reality that Black men are only good when we are exceptional…or dead. And let’s be honest, usually only when we are dead.

I wonder sometimes. Did anyone ever call Mike Brown a good kid to his face, when he was still alive for it to matter? Did we tell Eric Garner he was a good father for doing whatever he could to bring home some change before his daughter told us to organize? Did people tell Trayvon that he had a bright future before a white man robbed him of it? I doubt it happened very often.

Black men are mostly talked about when we ain’t shit, absent or dead. Oh, there’s Idris’s too fine ass or Jessie Williams before he started dating white women… but they are exceptional. We only talk about them in contrast to other men, especially other Black men. The serial rapist Bill Cosby had more Black people capping for his lying ass than any Black man I know personally…because he was exceptional. He used to be exceptionally respectable and now we know he’s exceptionally fucked up.

Again, Black women hold me down. They always have and history has shown that they probably always will. In private, Black men support me while holding me accountable. Yet for the most part, besides my chosen and blood sisters, even the Black women who support me, praise me for being exceptional. I’ve done “the work.” I read bell hooks. I support the women in life in visible ways. I have mastered performative solidarity. I’ve learned how to be what my friend once called “a safe nigga.”

It’s rare that I am told that I’m still worthy of being loved when I’ve fucked up, especially from other men. It’s rare that people remind me, when I come home tired and angry from walking through a white world, that I’m still worthy of being loved. Like my uncle used to say, ain’t no body going to thank you for paying the bills on time, but they sure do holla when it gets shut off.

There is some sad truth to the old Chris Rock joke that niggas always want credit for some shit we supposed to do. Imma be honest. I really need that shit. Part of my on-going journey in overcoming patriarchy is to be in touch with my pain and be real about my needs. I know I am responsible for meeting 80% of my needs myself but that other 20% can be so crucial. I need, and I think Black men as a whole need, some public validation that even when we are alive and unexceptional, we are worthy of love. We need it from Black women and Black GNC folk but mostly, I think we need it from each other.

I think honestly I’d settle for the recognition that these social expectations are literally killing me. Paying the bills on time is a struggle when the bills are more than you make every month.

Sometimes I wish people recognized that the way I used my overdraft protection and post-dated checks like credit is Black boy alchemy. Me and my brothers are stretching a week’s pay to a month’s electricity like an old testament prophet.  I wish people realized that my ability to remind my sisters that they are beautiful despite what society tells them is the art of Black male healing that my grandfather taught me.

I wish that I had been taught that my desire to push people further, to realize their full potential, could be sacred masculinity; that I didn’t have to tear folks down to build them up. I wish we talked more about Black men who didn’t need to drag Black women over the coals in order to heal and get their shit together. I wish we could have a holiday to thank all the Black men whose aggressive posturing towards white people on street corners is the only reason I can afford to live in my neighborhood.

Sometimes I’ve wished that there were more writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. I wish there were more writers who could express their love for me. I wish I could tell all the little Black boys jumping rope and being carefree that they are the real MVP. I wish I was better at telling my own father that I love him. I wish everyone knew him like I did.  I wish I could explain that I forgive him for being so tired every day when he came home…cause the bills were always paid on time. I wish we knew how to do that while recognizing that my mother paid more bills that he did.

I wish there was way to be real about the fact that my mother learned how to carry all that weight and still smile and play puppet games and that the difference in their capacity for affection is real and fucked up and still doesn’t detract from the fact that my dad loved me and showed it. He showed me he loved me in the only way he knew how, until he learned to show it better, to say it better, to apologize for not showing it in healthy ways and do better to love by building us up without tearing us down. I wish we knew how to praise him for learning how to love without losing sight of the system that never taught him.

I believe, and will always believe, that Black women need to speak their truth and their pain. The truth of all those 0-4:33 women show us how much work we have to do. It forces us to be better. But I need our politics to tell the whole story: that we are still good while we are trying to get to better.

I need a politics that acknowledges the Black men who stay, who hold families and communities down. I need a politics that acknowledges the Black men who show up and quietly do the work. I need a politics that can praise Black male charisma as divine and beautiful and necessary even as it challenges its centrality. I need a politics that can hold the reality of rape culture in one hand and the capacity for Black men to address harm without causing more harm in the other. I need a politics that can hold the capacity for violence in Black patriarchy and the reality of Black male growth.

I need a politics that can hold all of me and love me even, maybe especially, when I’m not exceptional.

I need a politics that can love me before I’m dead.

Call Me in Until You Need to Call Me Out

Reflections On Being A Leader in a Leaderful Movement

 

Rape Culture is real. It is omnipresent. It is destroying all of our movements.

I don’t know how to start this essay. I don’t really know what to say or how to say it so I’m going to be real and raw and honest. I am a local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement here in DC, which is a movement for the liberation of ALL Black People and a necessary but insufficient piece of a larger movement for collective liberation. I am leader whose followers are also leaders. I am leader who often has no clue what he is doing but decides to put himself out there because he knows that the work needs doing. I organize within a social network that is a web of mutual support, Black excellence, gorgeous righteousness and, let’s be real, shared trauma.

I organize for the liberation of my people all while suffering from the post-traumatic stress of having existed for 26 years as a sensitive human being in an insensitive world. I have been Black in society that can’t recognize the humanity of Black people. I have been struggling with mental illness in a world that would rather profit of my suffering than talk about it. I have come to terms with my attraction to all genders, including my own, in a world in which that means I cannot be seen as fully Black, really a man or completely human. All of this trauma infuses every decision I make as an organizer, as a follower and as a leader whose followers are also bomb ass, revolutionary leaders.

I say that, because it needs to be said. In the next few days I imagine a lot a of conversations will be happening about who will work with who and how people should have handled beef. I imagine a lot of people will have opinions about who did and didn’t say what where. We need to remember that we all are working through our trauma in real time. We need to realize that it is unacceptable to be traumatizing people through patriarchy in liberation struggles. We need to remember that there is a time to call people in and there is a time to call people out.

To many women have spoken to me about a desperate need to hold men in leadership in DC accountable for me to remain silent.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t remember where I was when Mike Brown was lying on the ground for 4 and half hours. I don’t remember when I first realized that I was watching the public lynching of a Black boy on television every time I watched cable news talk about the “thug” “Big Mike.” I don’t remember when I realized that the Black Lives Matter Movement was giving birth to my generation’s Black Liberation Movement.

I do remember the feeling of needing to do something, anything, after Darrin Wilson was not indicted for the execution of Michael Brown. I remember the feeling of anguish that led me to start writing nearly daily on race, racism and white supremacy after seeing how white allies showed up in spaces. I also remember when Black women leaders inspired me to get off my blog and hit the streets

I remember when my now good friend Lydia and I met at an action she planned. I remember being grateful that she brought the movement to my city. I remember talking a long lunch to interview Erika Totten and Dominique Hazzard at a day of action in November. I remember hearing Erika say that she couldn’t not get into this fight. I remember them inspiring me to get off this blog and into the streets.

Once I was in the streets I remember a shared sense of organizers not really knowing what they were doing. This is not to say that people didn’t have skills, or talents or expertise. This meant that people were angry, and traumatized and were making plans as we were executing them. I remember showing up to actions and people asking me to pitch in. I remember when I decided to be an organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement because there was shit I wanted to be happening that just wasn’t.

There were a couple of months that I was organizing around Black Lives Matter but I didn’t consider myself a leader. I would read about the next shooting, the next beating, the next sex trafficking police officer in 7D and spend hours on Facebook looking for the event that addressed it. When it didn’t happen, I would send out e-mails to all the “real leaders” and wait for a response, wait for someone to step up and let me follow them. As the other organizers got busier, and replies started to be, yeah, you should do that! That’s when I started to think about leadership.

There was point at which it became clear that other people already saw me as a leader. It took a while for me to take the mantle as my own though. Leadership comes with a number of benefits, mainly that I get the unique pleasure of actualizing my plans and thoughts. I get to see my own plans for liberation come into being bit by bit. I get to see people move. Not just bodies on the street but minds and souls be moved by my action and writing. It is an amazing feeling. Yet leadership, true leadership like the kind this movement needs, comes with responsibility and accountability.

The weight of that responsibility grew steadily as it became more and more apparent that people expected things of me. People looked to me plan actions. People looked to me to say those hard truths that needed saying. People started saying things like, I came out because you asked me. I felt proud but also scared, unworthy and incapable of seeing in myself what others saw in me.

I remember the point at which the responsibility of leadership felt the most visceral. I had called a meeting to plan an anti-misogyny training at my house and invited my people. The people who I’m in the movement for, the people’s whose welfare makes me work to end patriarchy. Most importantly, the people I grown been accustomed to schooling me on what’s what.

I remember opening the conversation with my vision for the training and having multiple dynamite, power houses of local organizing gently push back by saying “I’m here because this work needs to get done, and I trust Aaron to hold this space.” That level of trust hit me hard. It was both an unexpected honor and, to be honest, terrifying. It was frightening because I had little faith in my ability to hold a space that honored the humanity, dignity and brilliance of the women in the room when facilitating a conversation about patriarchy.

The truth is, sexism is real and embedded in the very fabric of our society. It is foundational to how we think about leadership, self-worth, and movement building. In my mind, I too was too influenced by our sexist culture to rid the spaces I was creating of its taint.

In talking with those women, I realized that every time I hold a space the attendees have to make a decision. The women I invite have to make a decision about whether or not they trust me and the men I choose to surround myself with to create a space where they feel safe.

As a leader I cannot forget about that choice. I cannot take the easy way out and operate my meetings, my marches, my healing spaces within the oppressive atmosphere of a demented status quo. I cannot choose personal loyalty over liberation. I cannot duck out of the responsibility of leadership because silence is easier than speaking out. I cannot betray the trust of the women who continually teach me how to recognize my own humanity. That trust is important and not given lightly. That trust must be earned and re-earned constantly. Most importantly, it is not to be abused.

Sadly, far too often it is.

Far too often whole sections and scenes within movements are physically, emotionally and spiritual dangerous to women. Too often women have navigate those same uncontainable impulses to do something, anything to end their current oppression with the added burden of deciding, not whether, but how much abuse and misogyny they will endure to do so. That is sickening.

That simple fact outlines the limit of how far any movement for liberation can go without naming, addressing and ending patriarchy within the movement. Black liberation can’t move an inch past the bonds that men force on women.

Men must do more. Black men must do more. The male leadership of the leaderful Black Lives Matter Movement must do more. I must do more. We must do more.

We must transform our spaces to be the reflections of the liberation we are seeking. We must hold the men we surround ourselves accountable to our shared vision of world in which our neighbors, co-workers, sisters, mothers and daughters can be their full, beautiful, Black, female and gender non-conforming authentic selves without fear of violence. We must hold men accountable to holding spaces that do not enable, praise, or excuse rape.
Those of us who have decided that this moment is our time; those of us who have chosen to be leaders in the movement for Black liberation; those of us who strive for a world in which the overwhelming brilliance of Black people is allowed to thrive and flourish, must hold ourselves accountable to ending patriarchy.

Rape culture is too acidic to liberation to be tolerated. Sexual predation is too counter-revolutionary to be tolerated. Our collective silence, my own reservations about ruffling feathers and stepping on toes, is too violent to be tolerated. We must call each other in, until we need to start calling each other out.

I am not writing this as a model for how to be a man in the movement. I am writing this as someone who fucks up. I am writing this as someone who was silent for too long. I am writing this as someone who has to constantly apologize for how I show up in spaces. I am writing this as someone who wants all the amazing women I often follow and who sometimes follow me, to call me in until you need to call me out.

To all the men that are reading this we have to do better. We have to stop allowing men to prey on women in our spaces. We have to stop interrupting women on the mic. We have to stop defending rapist because they once were a role model to us. We have to stop shaming women for speaking their truth. We have to stop refusing to put in work for the women’s liberation movement. We have to re-imagine our conceptions of masculinity, sexuality and gender. We have to check our internal transmisogynoir.We have to step way back and remember to come forward when our support is needed.

If you have questions, concerns or push back please reach out to me. We need to come together to end rape culture. We need to leverage our power to create beloved communities and liberated spaces. We need to start crafting and implementing solutions. There have been a few conversations and events on ending patriarchy and redefining masculinity so far and hopefully there will be many more to come. Please find me on Facebook or e-mail me at wellexaminedlife@gmail.com if you are interested in joining me and other men to end rape culture.