mama used to say

Editor’s note: This is part of a series from our Rethink Masculinity program with ReThink and DC Rape Crisis Center. The author stylistically decided to not use capitalization.

The popular rhetoric in 1996 was “the black male is an endangered species.” death, destruction, and detention awaited each black male as he navigated the job market, everyday life, and even grade school — the latter sounds hyperbolic until you consider the school-to-prison pipeline (sidenote: i agree with bell hooks that the endangered species language is rooted in dehumanizing black males as animal-like or beasts). when my parents were going through their divorce, my mother stressed a particular statement to my brother and me — repeated as a refrain in the endangered species sing-along. it wasn’t flowery. she made her words plain: “break the cycle.” at the ripe age of 11, i thought i had a solid grasp of what she was saying. i took her words as a stern warning: as long as i made honor roll here and there, did my chores consistently, and stayed out of trouble, i was breaking the cycle.

unfortunately, my mother didn’t specify what breaking the cycle meant and i assumed too much. i assumed her sons surviving their teen years without criminal charges and unplanned pregnancies would be breaking the cycle. twenty years later, my mother’s words have revisited me and have knocked me down.

my mother was referring to my father and the pattern of behavior displayed by the men of that lineage. my father looks exceptional on paper: 20-year Army retiree, college-educated, art dealer. however, his life hasn’t been one of interpersonal triumph. his father and grandfather were abusive and womanizing. he became an abuser and womanizer. and with this being the norm, my father repeated what he witnessed as a child and inflicted this same harm on others. he had four sons: the oldest was killed and the remaining three speak to him on average every 6-7 years if lucky. i see now that my dad’s notions of masculinity kept him emotionally inept and prevented him from breaking the cycle of violent and harmful behavior.

reflecting years later, this is some kind of wonderful and terrible. wonderful, for i’m more introspective, taking account of my actions, examining my role models, and analyzing what’s been considered “normal” for guys like me but “trash” for people dealing with guys like me. terrible, for i’m left with this sunken feeling that i waited a long time and all of these activities are long overdue.

in these last few months, “breaking the cycle” has become an ongoing and intentional pursuit. for me, breaking the cycle includes several things:

  • actively unpacking the ways i practice toxic masculinity through waging violence on others, hiding behind my exterior, being a womanizer, and a laundry list of other offenses.
  • learning and practicing vulnerability with the people i say i love and care about.
  • examining how i define love, care, and respect, essentially going beyond hallmark cards.
  • doing the heavy lifting of my own emotional labor and not solely relying on others (often women and/or queer folks) to be further burdened with MY reluctance to address MY issues.
  • addressing my past in therapy and investing time and energy into my mental health care.
  • redefining what it means to be a strong, black man within a society rooted in white supremacist patriarchy.
  • holding space for others; availing myself for the discomfort that may arise when i am present for others.
  • checking my privilege and being critical of how i am oppressing others because yes, i can oppress others.

i appreciate collective action for safe spaces, rethink, and the dc rape crisis center for investing in the rethink masculinity course. i’m thankful for the facilitators: daniel, sam, tahir, ben, and amanda for bringing themselves to this 8-week workshop. i was challenged each week and left yearning for more but always equipped with new tools to navigate the next week with healthier alternatives. the guys in the workshop who were my classmates were awesome, open, affirming, and deliberate. they showed me that i wasn’t the only male with these similar struggles. i’m determined to keep this momentum going. and i plan to break the cycle alongside with others.

my mother has shouldered most of the emotional labor in raising me. her foresight saved me from much calamity and it’s with this acknowledgement, i want to be fully present for her. finally, i’m heeding her 20-year-old advice. i don’t want another generation with my dna to struggle in the same manner with their masculinity. i want healthy masculinity to be the norm. i want to set the standard. i want to break the cycle.

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