Loving Through Trauma, Part 1
An acquaintance recently commented, “American Black men can’t love because they are psychically damaged.” I was immediately offended; what I heard was “here’s another reason Black men are pathological, deficient, etcetera, etcetera…” I flat out rejected his argument. But, being a psychologist trained to investigate extreme emotion, I soon began analyzing my reaction. Why was I so insulted? Was he right? I decided that before I ended my relationship with him altogether I should give his comment more thought. I started by assessing the veracity of his assertions that 1) American Black men can’t love and 2) Black men are psychically damaged.
First, I know that Black men can and do love. That’s not debatable. However, are the ways in which many Black men love healthy? Well, they could be healthier. bell hooks wrote in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity that Black boys are often victims of soul murder because they are taught by Black parents that only patriarchal modes of expression (e.g., stoicism, toughness) are acceptable. Black boys often learn that they must suppress their emotions, creativity, and authentic voices in order to be “real men” and in some cases “safe” from humiliation or physical harm. This restrictive rearing is partly in response to patriarchy and white supremacy that limits the ways of being for all Black people. Black men, in particular, have been denied access to traditional means of manhood (e.g., success in capitalist markets; protecting one’s family from physical and social injury) and pathologized for embracing alternative ones. Thus, many Black boys and men are encouraged and expected to demonstrated manliness via dominance, sexual aggression, and emotional suppression – with the exception of aggression. Thus, many Black men show their love from a distance by material means and sexual attention. For example, my father once shared, “My dad loved me. But he never said it. He showed he loved me by going out and working all day. But then he would come home, give my mama money for the bills, get dressed, and take the rest of the money and go down to the juke joint and sit and drink with the other men. …We didn’t talk in those days like I talk to you.”
Second question: are Black men psychically damaged? The short answer is: not more than anyone else. However, it is important to recognize the distinct fact that Black people have suffered generations of white supremacist and other forms of oppressive terror (e.g., heteropatrichiary, classism), many times alongside mistreatment or detachment from Black parents. These oppressive experiences can constitute trauma which effects the way people think and behave. Two particular mechanisms may explain the effect of trauma on the way Black men love: avoidance and negative changes in emotions and thoughts. Avoidance can cause people to shun other people or situations that make them feel vulnerable. Negative changes in emotions and thoughts impacts the way people think about their future and relationships (e.g., foreshortened) and dulls positive emotions like love and joy. This is illustrated in the way some Black same-gender-loving (SGL) men police the femininity in other Black SGL men with whom they encounter. I remember once being dismissed by a Black man because I was “too feminine” and he thought that if we went out together in public other people would assume he was SGL because I was “faggoty.” His response to a lifetime of homonegativity was to distance himself from a potentially loving relationship because it would render him vulnerable to heteropatriarchal malevolence. His mental health had been negatively affected by the trauma of oppression.
So while it is true that some Black men express their love through less-than-optimal methods and that some Black men’s mental health is tarnished by oppression, I still reject the notion that Black men can’t love. I know that because I am loved by Black male friends and give love to others everyday. However, as Black men, we often have to find ways to love outside of heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, homonegative paradigms. This requires a creative imagination and the courage to be outsiders in a system that often does not reward such boldness. What do these creative, bold manners of love look like and how do we actualize them?