This piece was created in partnership with Breakthrough, a global human rights organization that aims to reduce violence and discrimination using media, arts, and tech. Learn more here.
Men should not shed tears—even if our hearts are spilling over with the kind of ecstasy that fills us as a result of being loved on by those in our lives.
Men should never be too emotional or transparent because to do so is to lack the hardness that “real men” are taught to project.
Men should love, but the best forms of our love should demonstrate our power.
These are lessons I was taught to believe were true growing up. Like so many other boys, I was socialized to express love through dominance. But today I, like many other men, know different. And I wanted to talk about how we figured that out.
I recently talked with acclaimed writer Mitchell S. Jackson and social innovation expert Michael Latt. Jackson’s recent memoir, Survival Math: Notes on An All-American Family, is a reckoning with his own relationship to love and power as he came of age in Portland, Oregon. He grew up contending with the entrenched ideas that would have had him believe that men who show love are weak. Like Jackson, Latt was socialized to believe the same and now devotes his life to championing social change through media and arts. He wants people to know that love is a healing force—one that men should not deny.
I was interested in Jackson and Latt’s perspectives on these early lessons in how men should show love, and when we learned to reject them. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Darnell Moore: It is impossible to talk about love without addressing how our expressions of love are shaped by societal ideas. I grew up thinking that showing love was to show weakness or vulnerability, which to many were signs of “feminine” ways of expression. How did societal ideas about manhood and masculinity shape your expressions of love?
Latt: Growing up [in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles in the 1990s], society taught me that opening myself up fully to love and expressing my love for someone was a sign of weakness and made me less of a man. This fear of intimacy causes men great pain and makes us feel isolated and disconnected from the people around us. Opening yourself up to love and expressing your love doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it takes great strength to be vulnerable especially in areas as intimate as love. By limiting and constraining myself and my expressions of love because of how society taught me men should act, I missed out on so much.
Jackson: [While coming of age in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s and 1990s], one of the worst things one of my homies could call me was a “sucker for love”—which is to say that I was foolish enough to not only believe in but to show expressions of love. Holding hands: off limits. Claiming a woman, protecting her: we called that saving. Now we’d call it toxic masculinity, which is true. But there were also times when that form of masculinity felt like an efficacious means of survival, a way to protect ourselves from emotional or psychic or even physical harm. I remember reading Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, which described how black men had adopted cool as a means of coping with oppression. Coolness was crucial to determining how we loved.
Moore: In my book, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America, I wrote the following: “Like my father, and so many other black men, some of us don’t really ask for what we want because to ask for love is to ask for what has been denied us so long. How many of us want what we have been told we cannot, or are not allowed to, have?” I want to be clear: Black men have been denied love by the state. Black girls and women have certainly been love’s manifested presence in our lives.
Jackson: I remember reading the conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde in Essence magazine in 1986. Baldwin claimed that black men had it the worst because of white supremacy and Lorde claimed that the black women had it worse because they too had to deal with white supremacy but also oppression at the hands of black men. How a black man perceives his place in the world is shaped by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Black women, as Lorde pointed out, have continued to be pillars for us, have continued to love us in spite of our harms, to love us beyond what we even deserve. “We are all worthy of one another,” Edward P. Jones writes in his book, The Known World: A Novel. I think the oppressors are experts at making us believe we are unworthy of love.
Latt: I can’t imagine what it’s like and how tough it is when the world around you is always telling you that you’re undeserving of love like you describe from your personal experience as a Black man. But we all deserve love, compassion, and kindness from ourselves and others. I can see how this dissonance between ingrained societal expectations of manhood and our deepest heartfelt wishes causes men great pain, confusion, and shame that can sometimes lead to acts of aggression and violence. As we grow older, we must break down and dismantle these misconceptions that have informed our views thus far. These ideas deny men full access to their emotions and feelings.
Moore: What would it look like if men loved beyond dominance?
Latt: If men saw love for the source of strength that it is, there would be so much healing and so much suffering alleviated from millions of people’s lives. Love gives us the courage to have an honest confrontation with the root causes of our pain and allows us to move past anger. In fact, we would find joy in other people’s happiness instead of feeling a sense of resentment or envy. If men saw love as a source of strength, it would lift up all communities. We would all be feminists. Love is the soil for us to plant our seeds of generosity, compassion, kindness, abundance and sympathetic joy to grow and blossom.
Jackson: That’s a damn good question. I think for one we’d have healthier relationships. We’d have happier partners. I think we’d begin to see ourselves as more courageous, and I hope we’d employ that courage in other aspects of our lives. I think if men, I’ll say black men because that’s what I mean, loved beyond dominance, we’d be better prepared to face white supremacy. Maybe it’s true what they say: love wins.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.