(Non)Toxic Masculinity Columns

Black Liberation for Black Men

Robert Monson

As I ease into the cool, black seat of the barber’s chair, I take a deep breath. For just one moment, I close my eyes and allow the tension and anxiety that are weighing so heavily upon my shoulders to ease. I look around the barbershop and smile. Snippets of conversations float to my ear that range from who was a better boy band (*NSync or Backstreet Boys) and hear the heated exchange on why the Democrats are–(Wi-Fi signal fades…). 

I shed a tear (I am sensitive, so there’s that) at the sheer range of people in the shop today–mostly Black. Toni Morrison’s words from Beloved ring in my mind. “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs”.1

Truly, indeed.

In this place of inherent Blackness, I am thinking about Black men and refuge spaces. Why are there so few spaces that we have that allow us to breathe deep?

Even as I say that, I must sketch out a few more things. During the course of the pandemic, many Black men started to voice that they never felt at home in barbershops. Queer siblings and disabled siblings alike let out a sigh of relief at not being subjected to the so-called “refuge” spaces of barbershops. The spaces that some found liberating were ultimately exposed as painful, harsh, and toxic.

As I have sat with these stories, I have desired to think of spaces that can truly allow all of us to enter in with our full identities. 

Whose Little Boy Are You?

Whose little boy are you? This question, posed to James Baldwin, remains important. When it is answered, it reveals a lot about the person answering it. I believe that the answer to this question is the beginning of liberation for Black men. Much of the anger and turmoil within our communities hinges on the ability to answer this question with sincerity and clarity. I know that, for decades, my answer to this question would have been filled with vitriol. 

I was the son of an angry man. 

I was the son of a workaholic. 

I was the little boy of someone who did not love me back. How, then, could I build a life of stability, care, or meaning?

For years, I determined to do just that…based upon pure spite.

It didn’t take long to realize that everywhere I went, spite followed me. Even though I was a relatively kind person, deep down, all I could build were spaces of spite that left vulnerable those who were most in need of protection. 

As I take a step back and survey Black men that I have known, I wonder how they would answer the question posed to Baldwin. What type of spaces have they built? Although I have enjoyed community with Black men all of my life, I can honestly say that many of those spaces haven’t felt like they were characterized by support, mutual dependence, and love–although I do feel that this is shifting. 

We are shifting. We are coping. We are trying. 

Black men are dealing with a culture of death that threatens our sacred spaces and what it means to be in community with one another.

We Gon’ Be Alright

We gon’ be alright
Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright

Kendrick Lemar

As Kendrick Lamar blasts through my speakers, I take time to sift through a set of questions that someone posed to me about liberation work. “How will you know when you are finished? What is the end goal of liberation?” These are difficult questions. Black men are not a monolith. I don’t want to speak for all of us any more than I want someone to speak for me, which is why I find myself becoming a student and listening more often than not. 

I can say that, for me, the end goal I envision is freedom. All of us free. Free from racism. Free from terror. Free from inner turmoil. Free from the bigotry that keeps us apart. Love is the goal—as corny as that might sound. 

1 Toni Morrison, Beloved, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 103.
2 James. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Dial Press, 1963), 28.