(Non)Toxic Masculinity Current Events Columns

Ralph Yarl, Jordan Neely, and Refuge for Black Men

Robert Monson

The headlines have been violent lately. There is no way to describe it other than that. Each week I brace myself to receive news that will rock me back on my heels. 

Sometimes, I am tempted to cut myself off from the news in a misguided attempt to shield myself from the reality of our current society. I can’t run, though. Neither can I disassociate. 

I internally hold space for many Black men. Those who have been brutally taken from us. Those who are living and breathing. The anxious. The fearful. The brilliant. Those making a way out of no way. And yes, even those who are destructive inside of our communities. They all pass the time in the chambers of my mind.

As of late, two particular young Black men have taken up space in my internal consciousness: Ralp Yarl and Jordan Neeley. 

Ralph Yarl

It feels like just yesterday that I was opening up my phone to see the headlines of a young man, Ralph Yarl, who was shot after he rang the wrong doorbell. My stomach sank, and I knew that I would be in for a wild ride. 

As I followed the story, I was sickened by each harrowing update. To think of this young one simply living his life–going to pick up his brothers–and an honest mistake almost costing him his life. 

The man who shot Ralph cited fear as a justification for why he fired his gun from inside the house. Fear. A common thing to hear when Black bodies, especially Black male bodies, are scrutinized. 

While I am glad that Ralph Yarl did not die, I find my mind frequently drifting to thoughts of his well-being. Of what being shot means for both his body and emotions. I’ve heard people say that he should’ve checked the address that he was at carefully. No amount of perfectionism can stop our bodies from being hated or feared, though. 

Jordan Neely

Fear also marks the death of Jordan Neely. Jordan, only 30 years old, was strangled to death on a subway train in New York City by a veteran of the U.S. Marines. I am aware that there is footage of his death circling, but I determined within myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t watch any more footage of Black men being killed. It is a self-care ritual. It is a self-preservation ritual. It is a way for me to protect my mental health. 

I don’t need to see another second of footage of Black men being harmed in order to believe that we are in crisis. That we are harmed in a society that prioritizes the well-being of white folks in very insidious ways. My body holds the tension of the fears that I carry when I walk out the front door of my home. 

The reports of Jordan Neely’s murder are wide-ranging and sometimes confusing. The one consistent element that I am able to piece together is that he was making a commotion and signaling that he was in desperate need of food. Time will (hopefully) tell of all that transpired on that subway. What I know right now is that there was a hungry young man who, although he may have made people feel uncomfortable, did not deserve to die. 

Reading people’s justifications for Jordan’s murder has been very disheartening and, yes, even traumatizing. People have used his arrest record as justification for his killing. I have always found it disturbing that Black men must prove our purity before we are considered victims. 

Are we worthy of life? Just as we are?

In contrast to the people justifying why Jordan Neeley deserved to die, I noticed that many people went out of their way to justify why Ralph Yarl deserved to live. People pointed out that Ralph was a nice kid and listed his many good deeds and accomplishments. What hurts is the fact that it is even necessary to garner sympathy and support for an injured Black body by talking about how “good” someone is. What if Ralph wasn’t on the honor roll? What if he had been in trouble with the law? 

Black men deserve to live. We deserve to exist in spaces that are free from the vestiges of racism, bigotry, and oppression. 

For all the Black men needing a reprieve from the violence that is inundating us through the media, I leave you with some words from Toni Morrison, found  in her book Beloved:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh.”