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Dear Black Boys & Black Men: thank you, bell hooks (pt 3) [LONG]

Our power, pain, and potential are constantly being redefined, reconstituted, and repressed across individual, interpersonal, and institutional lines. So much so that we may have tenuous, tempestuous, or tough boundaries that make it difficult to distinguish a) our power of b) our power over and c) our power to…so, what’s power?

Maybe I do not fully understand power— my own power, my own strength; maybe I do not feel like I have any power or any strengths; maybe no one recognizes my power, my strength; maybe no one helped me find and nurture my power, my strengths, especially in healthy constructive ways; maybe I have learned that my understanding and application of power are synonymous with my force and control over another…It’s all society man, right!?! Boy, when will I take accountability?

I am even willing to extend my hand, not in support but instead to cold-cock my own blood, my own kin, just to show my older brother that “I am THE MAN!” "That NIGGA” “a real one.” I substituted humiliation for humbling to make sure my younger brother didn’t grow up a punk, a pussy, a bitch-ass nigga. Queen Latifah inquired: “Who you calling a bitch?!”

I ain’t no punk, no pussy, no bitch. I have to say this while holding my nuts, right!?! In actuality, both my premeditated and preemptive strikes come from a place of fear, doubt, insecurity, and or ego. Kanye once said: “No one man should have all that power!”

On a personal level, I call into question what some label as “toxic masculinity,” from the homophobic banter and inappropriate dick jokes to the various types of violence enacted on those who deviate from or do not fit into the box of “real man.” I know a “real man” when I see one or when I feel the knuckles of “their” fist cracking my jaw. Growing up with only brothers, I had to learn how to maneuver and mask any vulnerability and "demonstrate" power in order to elude any and all violence from other men, no, people who may be experiencing the same internal tension and or deep skepticism about the seemingly static yet dynamic conceptualization and manifestations of gender. And oh, I attended an all-boy school in the South. 'Nough said.

At times, we, Black boys and Black men, are disempowered as victims; other times, we are empowered as agents and abusers, sadly; many times we are bystanders or more so (un)conscious cultural transmitters, witnessing, condoning, (re)producing, and reinforcing self-deprecating, self-defeating, and self-harming beliefs, behaviors, and bondage…all this from unrealistic, exclusive masculine standards, ideals, and sociocultural narratives that have been fed to us for years. What would Beyonce really do if she were a boy, especially in a room of purported "hypermasculinity"? Mind you, this hypothetical room includes more than just men.

Patriarchy and feminism (as ideological frameworks) have told me and continue to remind me that I, in this so-called “male-identified body,” am the beneficiary, the enforcer, and eventual casualty of a particular set of gendered constructs, unwritten social contracts, and codes of conduct. These two warring frameworks also put forth that only select groups of people are to take responsibility as if some people are above, impervious, and or unsubjectible to dominant gender identity politics and the commission of gender violence.

Whether self-righteous, chauvinistic, or indifferent, people are entitled to their personal perspectives and self-truths; however, I want to be mindful of how a complex matrix of surface-level interpretations, (mis)understandings, traumatic experiences, and social role modeling mixed in with systems of power, privilege, and prejudice have relegated or imprisoned us in one box or another. Not to mention, there are (in)tangible risks and rewards associated with our daily gender performance and gender policing. Lil’ Kim hits me hard when she spits: “I treat y’all niggas like y’all treat us…and if I was a dude, I’d tell y’all to suck my d*ck!”

Such frameworks alongside the mixed messages resulting from dichotomous binary thinking have animated folks to be violent, less open, more insecure, and closed off to conversation and collaboration on a potential break away from a manufactured battle of the sexes. For example, in the academic discourse and in the streets, we see the conflation of masculinity, toxicity, and patriarchy as if “man” and “misogynist” are interchangeable; also, we operate as if gender studies is only for and about women, and as if men should be completely shut out of conversations surrounding self-love, transphobia, and sexism. In general, I, like many men, do benefit from male privilege but men, like women and our intersectional LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, are not monoliths; many of us do not desire a world of victimization and victimhood but rather a world where self-actualization and respect for human dignity and justice are goals in the march for the liberation of the oppressed. What do I know? I’m just an optimistic Black male teacher, being held accountable daily by kids who are the true reflections of a discombobulated self and society. As one of my students put it, “Mr. Dwight, maybe this whole gender thing as a system is flawed…” Sounds good in theory until it's my loved one on a t-shirt.

I know that the different waves of feminism have been serious responses to patriarchy, for millions of people have died at the hands of patriarchal power dynamics; we have made gender about a war between men and women, an ongoing battle for survival and superiority among those with “big dick energy,” the “boss babes,” and the “alpha males,” thus further excluding and othering our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Misgendering someone can lead and has led to bodily harm, murder, and ego death. Tyler the Creator claims “a boy is a gun!”

Furthermore, as for content creators and consumers alike, we can’t get caught up in the ivory tower or our social media feeds. No one theorist, influencer, or book alone will (re)present the multitude of gendered experiences; also, are we bound to get the same separatist, exclusionary, antagonistic consequences if our critical-thinking lenses, lexicon, and evaluation tools are laced and latent with prescribed, pervasive gendered notions, biases, and assumptions? A true competitive MC, Nicki Minaj will never let us forget that “these bitches is my sons!”

Rap music has and will always be the main soundtrack to my life; and before Hip-Hop takes the full rap for misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, remember, America raised me, just like it did Tupac, Kehlani, and Lil’ Nas X. Diverse and contradictory, like many of us, Hip-Hop music is where many of us found voice and validation; Hip-Hop music is also where America found a vehicle for political propaganda, conditioning, and division within our Black households, classrooms, and communities. There’s a reason (cough, cough the white supremacist corporate machine) that Pooh Shiesty is pumped over the air waves more than J.Cole. It’s crazy to think that self-love, family, and community are radical terms and tools for liberation. In other words, saying “I LOVE YOU!” is a vulnerable yet powerful declaration and a radical act against self, social, and systemic hate.

Empathetic and selfless at times yet emboldened and brazen with bravado, rapper Tupac speaks to a particular hegemonic type of gender performance: “I ain’t no killer but don’t push me.” Tupac was a complex individual, reflective of many of us—who struggle with the tension among the person, the persona, and the ever illusive (elusive) masculine archetype. Before Tupac Shakur, the gangsta rapper, there was the gangster, Tony Montana, better known as Scarface. Before Scarface, there was the cool and classy Agent 007 better known as James Bond. And before him, there was the billionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne, better known as the masked vigilante, Batman and then the gentle giant, Clark Kent, better known as the literal Superman. Made to be attractive and aspirational, these fictional male characters represent particular types of masculinity or a particular set of “masculine” traits—the ones promoted and projected on the big screens and thus imprinted in the minds of little boys and little girls everywhere. Tupac said it best: “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.”

I get it: men and women are biologically different. Gender is not a fact. Historical and cultural contexts matter when discussing the changing cultural understandings and (re)iterations of gender. Our understanding of self is the product of nature and nurture; while trying to make sense of our own biology, psychology, and sociology, individuals and institutions have disoriented and disordered us by making gender discussions a matter of nature versus nurture. Frank Ocean wants me to treat my myopia: “I see both sides like Chanel...”

From an evolutionary standpoint, I understand that men have been protectors and providers, once known as hunter-gatherers while women have been celebrated and cherished primarily as nurturers, child-bearers, and life-creators. Times have changed for sure as well as rights, roles, and regulations, so certain biological imperatives do not seamlessly fit a modern context with modern reward systems, modern threats, and modern relationships. Or maybe vice versa in that our modern contexts are not conducive to our biological imperatives. As a kid, I loved the Flintstones, both the show and the multivitamins; however, as an adult, I hope we evolve beyond the "Modern Stone Age family" through the exploration and expansion of our curiosity, compassion, and capacity to recognize and reconcile the nuanced beauties and complexities of the human experience.

After recently watching the old prison film Blood In, Blood Out, I couldn’t help but to think about how context can invite primitive survival instincts and precarious group dynamics. Jail is an extreme case because people there can collude and deflect at any time out of power lust, transaction, or coercion. There’s no real loyalty or love in jail. Some would say there’s no real love or loyalty in the real world, especially if my "manhood" has been socially constructed and based on externalities such as my productivity, my provision, my punches, my penis, and my positionality against homosexuality —nothing to do with my interiority, my internal moral character, or my integrity as a fully-humanized whole being. I want to make this very clear: my gay brothers and trans folx are not my enemies or threats and if so, what are they a threat to? No more scapegoating. I'm done with ignorantly targeting other marginalized peoples, including my own kin(d). How much lower can I go? How much longer can we fight at the bottom and for the bottom? We can't let the system continue to play us like that. In between the visits from my mirror to my classroom, I battle incessantly against not only predominantly white institutions but also my own institutionalization. Transparent about her childhood miseducation, Lauryn Hill challenges me to look inward: "How you gon’ win when you ain't right within?”

Like my favorite musicians, I recognize art, the art of living. There is an art to being, laughing, and loving as any gendered being. We are born into this mess; according to some people, we further “mess it up” by questioning, picking at, and tampering with pre-established concepts of gender. I am not saying anyone is right or wrong. I just want to focus on beliefs and behaviors and to question what’s healthy or unhealthy, or unifying or divisive. I just want more internal and external dialogues to ensue.

We do not allow ourselves and we are not allowed the time, space, and power to define who we are and who we want to become. Label me “beta” for caring about myself and being unwilling to work myself to death, just to be encased, replaced, displaced and or erased by constrictive gender roles and capitalism. Label me “toxic” for setting boundaries in my relationships. Label me a “real one” for actually being honest with myself and others around me. Label me a “pussy” for reading bell hooks and welcoming anyone as my comrade in the struggle against institutional racial and gender discrimination. Jay-Z told me: “I do this for my culture…show ‘em how to move in a room full of vultures…label owners hate me, I’m raisin’ the status quo up…”

Healthy, loving social relationships and social networks will always be one of our greatest tools and most advanced technologies, my brothers. When he wasn’t calling women (and men) out their name, Tupac taught me another bad word, the “H-word,” to curse out white supremacy and patriarchy: “It takes skill to be real. Time to heal each other.”

I love you, Black boys and Black men. Thanks for holding space. I hope I'm not alone when I say accountability is hard, really hard and the separation anxiety is real as I consciously reimagine my relationship with various belief systems and social structures. And ain't nothing wrong with raising our hands and asking questions. Especially as an English teacher, the more I punctuate my words with question marks, the closer I am to my own liberation.

Oh, I almost forgot the original question: so what's power? If we don't make sense of our individual and collective power(s), then just stand back and stand by as power is exercised from us, against us, and over us. Black boys and Black men, we are artists, naturally because we have the innate power of our imagination, our power over self, and the power to co-create new intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional peaces/pieces, positions, and pathways.

Until we meet again in the cypher,


Inspired by and dedicated to my teacher, bell hooks and my student, A.M.

Fair Use Disclaimer. I do not own the rights to the copyrighted content such as album titles, song titles or lyrics mentioned in this piece. The following copyrighted content is cited or mentioned:

  • "Power" by Kanye West

  • "U.N.I.T.Y." by Queen Latifah

  • "Suck My D*ck" by Lil' Kim

  • "A Boy is a Gun" by Tyler the Creator

  • "Did it on 'Em" by Nicki Minaj

  • "Chanel" by Frank Ocean

  • "Lost One" by Lauryn Hill

  • "Izzo" by Jay-Z

  • "Changes" by Tupac Shakur featuring Talent

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