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Black Men On The Record About Vulnerability, Race, And Sexual Assault

January 6, 2021

Ajeé Buggam
dangerous stereotypes
// Philip Boakye

or Black men, the most perilous emotion to publicly display is vulnerability. Hailing from the days of slavery, the Black man is asked to be hypermasculine, sexual, and aggressive; deviations from these stereotypes can prove dangerous.

As Aliyah I. Abdur-Rahman argues, “The vulnerability of all enslaved Black persons to nearly every conceivable violation produced a collective ‘raped’ subjectivity."

Black men were deeply emasculated by their white slave masters and the demeaning pressure to feel secure in their manhood still endures. Black bodies are commodified as entertainment sources; the NFL and NBA buy and sell Black bodies like they are products. And if they’re not being framed as criminals and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement (Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S. population but are shot and killed by police more than twice as often as white Americans), they're serving as a vehicle for personal satisfaction and distorted sexual fantasies.

The intergenerational trauma and complicated socio-cultural pressure that demands this ongoing stoicism from Black bodies have bled into everything from pop culture to sports and media; it’s a double-bind that asks Black men to be impervious to pain and, if subjected to pain, prohibits the display of it.

This paradigm prohibits Black men to be victims, often stripping them of the ability to contend with their lived experiences and heal.

I asked a couple of Black men in my community about their relationship with vulnerability—did they feel they were allowed to show pain?

“No. I think society has placed this heavy burden on men, that they should always be strong and never show emotion. In fact, you shouldn’t show emotion or vulnerability because you shouldn't have any of those qualities," said Johnny Welch, a program coordinator in Philadelphia, PA. "If you do, you’re considered less of a man, or your sexuality becomes a question. This is especially true for black men who are more likely to grow up in single, mother households where the father figure is absent, where the child inherently takes on the role to provide and support the family while putting emotions and feelings to the side.”

Thinking of several Black men in my life, they have been taught — just like Black women — to repress their emotions less they are judged as impotent, aggressive, or crazy. This pain can become so deeply buried it ceases to be conscious; many Black men are not even aware they’re suffering. This forced, collective amnesia is further compounded by the limited resources available to Black men to validate their experiences or safely explore their pain; The Affordable Care Act states that 20% of Black people have no insurance, dramatically decreasing the likelihood of Black individuals not being able to seek treatment.

Another Black man echoed these concerns around limited space to speak their truth and struggle openly.

“I believe that Black men are often resigned to wearing a mask of protection against the pejorative definition of Black masculinity,” said Marlon Duncan, a digital investment professional in Queens, New York City.

“In self-defense, we mask our emotions, fearing judgment by those within our communities, and persecution from those outside. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, as a Black Man, hinges mostly on your openness to being misinterpreted by others.”

Not knowing how to navigate emotional distress places Black men in a constant rotation of relationships ruin — with others and themselves — further isolating them from themselves and their potential community and connection. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

There is a vast amount of discrepancy in mental health treatment in low-income Black neighborhoods and very few mental health professionals trained to understand the struggles that are unique to a Black person to be able to provide proper treatment.

As trauma therapist Atherley-Bourne explains, Black male survivors are "visibly not seen."  There are often few to no conversations at home about mental health until individuals see symptoms, question if they are “crazy,” and then avoid addressing their psychological duress for all the accompanying stigma.

Solse, a black male survivor, says, "we are coming from a culture where you shut up and put up. You don't talk about your situation," he says, especially not to someone outside the family, such as a therapist."

In Michaela Cole's HBO show, I May Destroy You, the screenwriter takes us through a fictionalized version of her own rape experience and the rape of one of her best friends — Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu) — and his subsequent healing process. Kwame was using a dating app seeking casual sex; he has an encounter that starts off consensually and escalates into rape.

As Essiedu mentions about his character Kwame, "It's trivialized, invalidated, and made to seem like something that Black men should just be able to get over," he explained about his character's reluctance to process the true nature of what he experienced.

"It's wrapped around this idea of Black masculinity, stoicism, and strength. It's interesting. It's like we're emotionally stunting ourselves, you know what I mean? We're not allowed to adopt that position of victimhood in a society that racializes us like that."

I May Destroy You does real work around highlighting how painful — and fraught — it was for Kwame to process his experience of being robbed of his integrity and self-worth in one night. Weeks after he sees Arabella report her own sexual assault case, he decides to report his case as well, but finds he gets even less support than she did. He reports the case to a Black male officer who seems uncomfortable hearing about casual gay sex, and mid-conversation, Kwame decides to give up explaining himself and just deal with it on his own. We bear witness to a spiral of emotions and subsequent trauma with Kwame hitting pause on his sex and dating life altogether.  

Not believing Black men are as vulnerable to sexual violence as anyone else is interconnected with the stereotypethat that Black male sexuality is only to be celebrated, as is black men's reputation for hypersexuality.

Meanwhile over In Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country on HBO, the blended sci-fi series reimagines the horrific realities of Black folks during the Jim Crow era; I could barely pay attention to the monsters because of the race-based violence permeating nearly scene, many of which still endure today.

Lovecraft Country deftly explores the trauma and humanity of other marginalized groups, including gay and transgender Americans. Unfortunately, queerness frequently still comes with a stigma in the Black community, another harsh reality wherein there is very little room for sexual exploration for Black men.

“By the time we meet Montrose, he is so traumatized. He survived a massacre that took place in Tulsa," says Michael K. Williams of his character.

"Montrose moves to the South Side of Chicago, which is like moving into a war zone within itself. And he’s doing this during the Jim Crow era. That’s how we meet him. He’s been so beaten into a box and told how to feel and what the definition of Black masculinity or Black sexuality feels like. He was made to feel so much that being soft or being soft-spoken or being mild… that his demeanor was a sign of weakness by his father that I don’t think he really had a chance to define himself any which way. Thank God he had a friend in his wife who accepted him in his bewilderment or in his quest to explore himself.”

Society plays a significant role in how individuals are framed and treated in America; combatting stereotypes starts with listening and honoring Black men’s stories.

Frantz Saint-Jean, an event organizer at a highschool in Brooklyn, NY, advised, “creating some programs like big brothers by older men. Beyond the youth, I believe we need programs for middle age Black men where they could share and process their emotions.” Representation is essential, and many men listen to the advice given by other men dealing with similar circumstances.

Kenneth Stewart, creative director in New Jersey, states,” We need to cut it out with the 'standards' on what a 'Black man' is supposed to be like. And be more open to the different forms of the 'Black man.'”

Black men are not a monolith, they have their own experiences, and each of their stories is worth exploring and evaluating separately.

Vulnerability is a necessity for all human beings need to develop thriving relationships with themselves and others and the sooner we can untangle these stereotypes and unpack these stigmas around race, gender, and sexuality the sooner this 'weakness' can be revealed as a well of strength and healing.

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