I think many black men suffer from the inability to properly sort through our emotions because as little black boys, we were not afforded the opportunity to do so.
If you’re a black person, regardless of gender, I am almost sure you have heard the following statements by someone you were under the care of.
“Big boys don’t cry.” Or, the most damaging of the two (to me), “Quit crying like a little girl.”
I can’t remember the first time I heard these two statements, but I can, however, recall the time both of them were said to me in a way that changed how I conducted myself emotionally.
It was the day I received my very first haircut. I can feel myself even now walking behind my dad and along the side of my brother into the barbershop being both nervous and terrified. There was never a discussion about whether or not we wanted to get our hair cut before we got there. We weren’t asked or told what to expect, I guess because to my dad there was no need. The only for sure things I knew walking in was that I did not want to have my hair cut and I had no interest in having a stranger to do it.
Picture this: me, a small-framed little boy sitting uneasily in one of the chairs placed in front of a glass wall that are the eyes of the shop next to my brother. We are both soaking up our surroundings and listening to the variety of conversations buzzing around the shop.
Now, if you know nothing else about a black barbershop on Saturday mornings, know that it can be the safest space for many black men to sit around, exert their masculinity and ego, talk all kinds of shit about women, current affairs and their life problems and feel comfortable doing so. All in a place with people that in essence, are them. This can be a beautiful or traumatic experience depending on where you are in your life. For me, it was the latter.
As I mentioned before, I was not here for the barbershop experience before I even walked in. So when my dad finished his cut and asked my brother and me who was next, my brother nudged me. I walked towards the chair, sat down and allowed the barber to wrap the cape around me. He asked my dad what I was getting, my dad told him, and the clippers turned on.
What. The. Fuck? — that was my thought.
I started flipping out. I remembered being completely terrified of the clippers as most young boys tend to be. Having some foreign and loud object forced upon you with no control as to what the outcome will be is a tough concept to find comfort in for anyone.
Here I am squirming and crying, and all I hear was “if you don’t quit crying like a little girl I’m going to beat your ass.” The real tears came then because of the fear of a whipping which added insult to injury. The thing about the ugly cry is that it is hard to stop when you’ve started — especially when a mixture of emotions causes it. So that happened, and it seemed like the everyone in the barbershop started investing themselves in exchanging dialogue either around me or directly to me. Chanting off their own versions of “(big) boys don’t cry” as a collective.
Eventually, I ended up calming down and getting the haircut, but the damage had been done. It was furthered when we got in the car, and my dad had this talk with us both about not embarrassing him in public.
The initial fear I had of going to the barbershop was amplified by my experience inside of it. I didn’t know how to address my feelings at the time, before, after or during, but I was also never given the space to do so.
Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you as this may not have been your experience. However, for me, after that, I felt like anything that prompted fear in me couldn’t be discussed. I would just move forward beating myself up about that fear. And if my fear were met with an unfortunate emotional response internally, I would suppress those emotions or misdirect them. Remember, big boys don’t cry. And if we don’t cry, what then do we do?
This has caused a many of years to pass by with new experiences that have provoked a wrestling of emotions within, as well as, need to sort through them without my being able to do so. All because my 8 or 9-year-old self showed up as the greeter to those experiences reminding me to bottle my emotions and put on a strong face as to not embarrass anyone else (but myself specifically) just as I was taught to do in the barbershop.
All of this is really fucked up too because we perpetuate the cycle without even knowing we are doing so. We force other men to hide their emotions or not talk about them. We make fun of them or label them as alien when they do so. Which in itself is something that still becomes an incredibly difficult thing to do because, on the other end of that, the world still expects us all to show up as our truest selves, articulating who that person is and bullying us into feeling uncomfortable with not expressing emotion. How Sway? See how crazy multi-layered all of this?
So here is the deal:
Telling any man that is processing and showing a natural emotion that by doing so makes him weak, or to compare his doing so to a girl as though a girl (or a woman) is weak for doing so, only gives that man an inescapable insecurity. This also adds a heavy weight to the girls and women who receive the backlash of that statement.
You can’t tell a black boy that he can’t cry in his formative years and expect him to become a man that somehow believes that he can.
Problematic language intended to teach actually places our people at the greatest disadvantage. And sadly, the caregivers (although they’ll often never admit this), are just as much to blame as the society that reinforces this way of thinking.
Image Credit: WNYC
Also published on Medium.