Men (Non)Toxic Masculinity Identity Columns

Sitting with Black Masculinity

Robert Monson

“There was so much diverse black masculinity in the world of our childhood that it would have been impossible for any of us to have a one-dimensional understanding of black life. We knew from experience that some black males were kind and gentle, others cruel and indifferent, that some fathers were present, and some fathers were absent.”

bell hooks in Salvation: Black People and Love

Reflecting on Black Masculinity 

Masculinity. What comes to mind when you read that word? What do you experience? For many, the word masculinity has become synonymous with chaos, strife, and dominance. Still, for others, the word evokes pride. Masculinity is a hard topic to conquer, and one that I will approach gently, knowing the variety of ways this term has been weaponized against people. I want to be clear that I am not talking in general terms. I am talking about Black masculinity. That must be understood lest things degenerate. 

The brilliant words and work of bell hooks mark the starting place for my examination of Black masculinity. In her book Salvation: Black People and Love, hooks dedicates a chapter to Black masculinity (Loving Black Masculinity-Fathers, Lovers, Friends). In life, hooks gave us such brilliant commentary on the nature of relationships inside Black communities across this nation. She analyzed in depth the issue of love and the dynamics between Black men and Black women. I have appreciated her ability to be clear, concise, and truthful (at least as truthful as she could be from her vantage point). She had the uncanny ability to see both “sides.” She had the ability to critique Black men and women with razor-sharp clarity that was without disdain. 

hooks’ words, current events, my research interests, and my own experiences as a Black man have uncovered a hunger to dig deeper into what we call “masculinity.” Often, people will throw around the terms “masculine” and “toxic masculinity” when they discuss current events or cultural happenings. When I hear these terms, I tend to ask people to be specific: Who are you referring to? Are Black men toxic in the same ways that other groups are? Are the motivations for that toxicity the same? 

We can’t talk about Black masculinity without mentioning what has helped shape it, at least in part, in American culture: white supremacy. I must name white supremacy. The culture surrounding us as Black men–what we deem as important, who we consider strong, what we consider to be weak, what is attractive–all of these things at least are influenced by the dominant white culture. From slavery onwards, Black men learned how to be a man on American soil from those with all of the power. Black masculinity had to be constructed in a way that allowed for survival. To this extent, some aspects of Black masculinity could be seen as a defense mechanism crafted in response to a hostile environment. 

Shall we stay in survival mode? 

Although certain forms of masculinity have allowed us to endure some of the worst atrocities in American history, we must ask ourselves whether the types of masculinity that helped us survive back then continue to serve us now. As we work towards liberation, we need the ability as Black men to be able to expand our minds and hearts. 

We need to become aware of the vast ways that Black men experience life. We need soft Black men. We need thinkers. We need athletes. We need to strip the oppressors’ power off of the term “masculine” by seeing masculinity as a spectrum. Those of us who identify as Black men must begin to mine out what makes us men in ways that are divorced from oppression and white supremacy. We must reach for an expansive definition of masculinity that is fluid enough to allow all of us to take refuge. What if we brought love into our talks of Black masculinity rather than engaging in the gender wars that constantly rage within our communities? 

Imagining Forward  

“In recent years, black male thinkers and leaders have joined with conservative white voices to attack female-headed households and to proclaim the need for a male presence. Yet rarely do these men talk about the substantive qualities black men should bring to their role as parents. None of these men talk about the art of loving.”

bell hooks

I wrote this article with the hope that it would serve as a conversation starter. I want for us to sit with and re-shape our understanding of Black masculinity. I want for us to imagine a world that doesn’t cringe at that phrase. I want for us to see what it means for Black men to love themselves and to love one another.