Philadelphia Fountains of Youth…

August 6, 2015

August 6, 2015.

It was a scorching hot day in Philadelphia. Handfuls of children sought refuge from the heat in the public fountains scattered throughout the historic city. As they jumped and dove and splashed and swam and danced and squealed and laughed and played in the cool water, they were the embodiment of freedom, they were free, they were free—something many, if not most, of us only know as a lofty ideal. There was a sense of beautiful irreverence, a proclamation of the now, an unintentional announcement of their presence in their carefree acts of swimming and playing in the fountains, most of which are remnants of an antiquated past. Their young, uninhibited bodies inhabiting, and juxtaposed to, the monuments of a time forgone was altogether alluring and haunting, both sacred and sacrilege, all at once and in the most wonderful way.

Those kids were free.

Philly_LoganFountainKids_920_613_80

photo credit: https://nextcity.org

On Eakins Oval, two—more adventurous—teenage boys climbed up into the large bowl that served as the second tier of an enormous fountain. Their wet, bare, dark brown bodies glistened in the sun like jewels. There, on the upper level of the fountain, possibly perceived as “off limits,” there was an extra degree of liberty and protest in their play. They had conquered the fountain. For that moment, they ruled the world, if only the world as they knew it in that moment. They were free. Their expression of freedom was unapologetic. And their freedom was either infuriating or contagious to those who observed it.

I watched in awe.

One of the boys, possibly bored of that exploit or ready for the next, decided to return back down to the lower level of the fountain. His friend helped him down, tightly gripping his arms as his body hung and swung over the pool below. Every taut muscle in his friend’s back and arms were revealed as the other boy’s body swayed like a pendulum, his dangling toes still a good several feet from the lower pool. And suddenly, with some sort of inaudible command, his friend released his arms, and the boy’s body dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.

Still on top of the world, his friend stood up in the upper pool and slapped the water around, splashing it from right-to-left, left-to-right. He looked up at the towering statue in the distance, a statue of General George Washington—America’s first president, a slave owner, a soldier kitted-out in a Revolutionary War uniform, riding a massive, brawny horse. The boy cocked his head to the side as he walked backwards, backing up to the center of the fountain, approaching the spout that was powerfully spewing a strong, straight stream of water ten-to-twenty feet in the air. Eyes still locked on the statue, with a sense of defiance and genuine intent in his movement, the young man leaned back against the stream of water, sending it spraying in every direction except its intended course.

The powerful stream of water was no match for the boy’s strength. The spray fanned out like a giant peacock train, each bead of flying water using the light of the sun to capture a different color of the rainbow. For several seconds, or maybe even minutes that felt caught-up in some sort of timelessness, the young man used his force to manipulate the mighty jet, sending the spray all around and beneath, to the concrete that lined the circumference of the fountain, and the grass that met the concrete and extended out into the vast park. Not once did the boy take his eyes off of General George Washington, looking at him in a way that dared the colossal, bronze man to ride his horse over and attempt to stop him.

Frozen, stuck in time, General George Washington had no response for the boy. After a few seconds of what seemed like the boy making sure his adversary had no final objection, he stood up straight, releasing the water back to its regular flow. Still with an uninterrupted gaze at Washington, the boy stood tall and strong and proud, the water shot up straight behind him, seemingly stronger than before. He was power. He was free. I wondered what he was saying to Washington in his head. And then, without taking his eyes off of Washington, the young man tromped through the water over to the periphery of the upper fountain bowl, hung his upper body over the side, gripped the edge tightly, flipped his body over, swung beneath, let go, dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.


Fire…

March 25, 2015

That fire

in the belly of an angsty youth,

surrounded by all the evils

that he should have never known,

that she didn’t deserve,

for way to long,

evils

trying to

oppress,

contain,

torment,

tame,

and beat them into subordination,

into submission,

that fire

will be spoken,

will consume,

will set ablaze

all of those evils that surround,

the well established

institutions and systems of oppression,

and everything

will be burnt to the ground.


From Dehumanization to Humanization…

March 15, 2015

With all that’s going on in the world, and in our country right now, my mind can rarely get away from the idea and reality of dehumanization―its ugliness, what it allows us to do, what it allows us to accept, what it allows us to become.

Dehumanization is a nasty cycle.

The homeless youth I worked with for ten-years in Cape Town are some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my entire life. They lived at the intersection of several forms of systemic oppression―race and class (through government-created poverty) being the two most prevalent ones. This, however, did not stop them from shining. Most unfortunately, not everyone had the privilege to know them in the way I did. For the most part, the homeless youth of Cape Town were demonized, stigmatized, and dehumanized by society at large.

The Cape Town police were some of the worst perpetrators of this dehumanization against the kids. On a daily basis, the children were brutalized by the cops, and in some of the most inhumane ways possible. This led to me having daily run-ins with the police, which very often would lead to physical confrontations―through the years I butted heads with them, I took their batons and their guns from them, I pushed and punched them, I even punched a police horse once, which is another story for another day.

Dehumanization was the driving force of most, if not all, of those interactions.

One day, I was in the back of a dark tunnel where a group of the kids lived. I was talking to the older leader of the group. Out of the blue, two police officers entered the front of the tunnel, but didn’t know I was in the back. On entry, completely unprovoked, they immediately began swearing at the kids and brutalizing them. One officer approached a small-framed child―around 11-years-old―and kicked the legs out from under him, impelling his tiny body to the ground with great force. The child’s head cracked loudly on the concrete ground, sending a chilling echo throughout the tunnel.

I was enraged―fight or flight mode kicked in.

I emerged from the darkness of the back of the tunnel and barked at them to stop. They were startled, to say the least, and were quickly on the defensive, “Who are you to tell us what to do?!” I told them I was a normal member of the public, and I had every right to speak out against injustice. They told me to freeze, which I refused to do, and continued to approach them. I told them I would not allow them to brutalize children in that way. They told me to “shut up” and “mind my own business” and “stay back.” Still approaching them, I firmly refused. Right as I came upon them, one officer started to reach for his gun. Without thinking, I moved in and quickly grabbed his gun before he could.

What had I done?!

The officers were stunned. I stood there, holding his gun, in shock myself but knowing I couldn’t show it. I was standing their pointing the officer’s gun at him. I had to go with it, I decided to rise in pomposity. I arrogantly and firmly told the officer, “You will lose your job if your boss knows a civilian got your gun so easily. So, I will give you two options: One, I will give you your gun and you will leave immediately, and leave these kids alone. Or two, I will take your gun to your boss, tell him how easily I got it from you and why I took it, and you will lose your job.”

For some mysterious reason, he took the first option, surprisingly didn’t shoot or arrest me, and they went on their way without anymore trouble. I’m sure some of the “mystery” was in the fact that I was a white, heterosexual, American, young man. It was in these types of moments that I was able to use my intersectional privilege as an advantage to fight the injustices I saw around me and was confronted with on a daily basis.

Fast-forward to a couple of months later…

A kid I was very close to died in a freak accident. It was tragic and we were all traumatized. He was only 14-years-old and had lived on the streets since he was six. His family had not seen him in many years. For this reason, they asked me to speak about him at his funeral, to tell about how wonderful he was, who he was in all those years they had missed. I gladly agreed.

It was an incredibly moving ceremony.

After the funeral, in Xhosa tradition, the women stood back and watched from afar as the men shoveled dirt into the grave. When we shoveled the last bit of dirt on the fresh mound, most of the men dispersed, and only one other man and I remained at the grave, paying our last respects to the earthly body of the child. With tears in his eyes, the man said, “You don’t recognize me do you?” I told him he looked familiar but I couldn’t place where I knew him from. He said, “I’m a police officer in town. You took my partner’s gun one day.”

I was dumfounded, to say the very least.

Before I could say anything, he said, “I’m sorry. We were wrong.”

That sent me further into my shock. He continued, “You know, we didn’t know you, we didn’t understand what you were about. We just thought you were full of shit. But now I get it.” He pointed down at the fresh mound of dirt, “That is my little brother. My family and I hadn’t seen him in many years. We didn’t know him like you did.” I stood there in utter disbelief as he continued,

“Thank you for loving him. Thank you for fighting for them. Thank you for speaking today. I get it now.”

The unfortunate loss of a child’s life led to that man’s humanization of a group of people he easily brutalized and discriminated against on a daily basis, based on his dehumanization of them. They were no longer “street kids” ―that child was his brother. I was no longer the “annoying, white American asshole” ―I was his brother’s friend, his brother’s family. He was no longer a brutal police officer―he became a friend, a comrade who warmly greeted me every time we saw each other in town from that day forward for the rest of my years in Cape Town.

That remains one of the most powerful “coming full circle” experiences of my life.

Dehumanization is a powerfully toxic thing that allows the maintaining and upholding of institutionalized systems of domination and related oppression that plague our society. We see it in our systems. We see it in situations like the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and the list unfortunately goes on and on. We see it all around us. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that in order to fight these oppressive institutions, in order to fight dehumanization, we need to use meaningful relationships―the humanization of others―as a form of activism.

 

This was my five-minute, Lessons Learned story shared at the launch for Abernathy Magazine on Saturday, March 14, 2015.

abernathy


Privilege: A Life Unquestioned…

February 20, 2015

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston

I haven’t been able to get that Zora Neale Hurston quote off of my mind in this New Year―2014 asked some major questions that I’m hoping 2015 will answer. Mike Brown’s killing hurled us into a social dialogue on race and racism unlike one I’ve seen in my lifetime. Sure, we’d seen these questions being asked on a national level around other similar tragedies―Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, tragically too many other names to mention―but as the news headlines moved on to other things, the voicing of those questions, on a broad, national level, went from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush; complete silence, until the next race-based tragedy occurred.

photo credit: www.philly.com

photo credit: http://www.philly.com

But, that’s not so this time around. Mike Brown’s killing set a Movement into motion that has been dedicated to amplifying those questions, specifically and most especially in spaces where those questions cause the most discomfort, where those questions were birthed, where those questions thrive, but are greatly neglected―white spaces. The Movement is active, alive, kicking, and fighting, loudly, proudly, and unapologetically demanding answers to those terrible questions―it seems it will not rest, we will not rest, until those questions are answered. Those questions revolve around the killings of Darrien Hunt, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Michelle Cusseaux, Yvette Smith, Antonio Martin. Those questions are based in white supremacy, the brutality and militarization of American police, systemic racism in America, and related violence, injustices and inequalities.

Those questions are tragic. Those questions are real. Those questions are unfairly felt by, and asked of, millions of black and brown Americans who did not ask to be in this sick, unjust “interrogation.” Nonetheless, there are those individuals who ignorantly, if not cruelly, question the actuality of those questions.

As the questions were magnified in 2014, I noticed the (white) denial that these questions hold validity, that these questions are real, that these questions even exist at all. This, of course, is nothing new―we’ve seen this same response from White America time and time again. Yet, in the past, as the questions being asked on a national level moved from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush, White America was again allowed to sit in their comfortable, complicit silence. That national silence obviously did not nullify the questions being asked, it merely attempted to muffle and ignore them. That silence―not afforded to everyone―is enabled by privilege, as others outside of that privilege can’t so easily ignore or escape the haunting, echoing reality of those questions. This time, however, much to the frustration of many (mostly white) individuals, the Movement is ensuring that the echoes of injustice are heard by all.

This has led to much controversy and outrage.

You can observe White America’s attempts to cover their ears to these questions in the constant attempted derailment of conversations of systemic racism and white privilege, in the attempted justification of the killing of black bodies through demonization and dehumanization, in the arrogance of the belief that injustices unknown to, and not experienced by, them are nonexistent. You can observe White America’s attempts to step around these questions with, “What about black on black crime,” or, “We have a black president,” or, “I have a black (friend, spouse, adopted child, employee, etc),” or, “You’re racist for talking about racism.” And still, anytime I write about systemic racism in America, white supremacy, and or white privilege, it never fails that a white person―usually a man―will emerge from a dark corner of the Internet with retorts attempting to debunk what I am saying, only to satirically prove the point I was making.

White supremacy, white privilege, white denial, white rage, white tears, all white everything.

Please, do not for one second think that I am excluding myself from these thoughts. As a heterosexual, white, American, man, I realize that I live in some of the most prime property of intersectional privilege in this imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal America. I say that not to boast, but to point out my awareness of my own privilege, and my fight to work out my own way of existence in this world in relation to that privilege. Some pockets of the Christian church speak about “working out your salvation,” that salvation is not something that just happens to someone at one single point in time. But salvation is, rather, a lifetime commitment of labor; I see acknowledging privilege in the same way. Acknowledging privilege isn’t a once-off event—it’s daily work, intentional effort to be self-aware, mindful attempts to not take part in the perpetuation of dominator values. It’s work. But without this initial and continual work, it’s impossible to fully understand these important questions being asked, much less to fathom and imagine the much needed answers to those questions.

When it comes to racial progress in America, it seems we are at a strange type of stalemate. I would say this is mostly hinged on that fact that many white people do not, or cannot, see or understand their role in this struggle. Those white people who do not understand the questions being asked don’t understand them because they have never had to. In his book Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism, Derrick Bell breaks down this entire American situation in a short excerpt, even before the preface or table of contents,

“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or us.”

This is not to be confused with ideas of white saviors—alternatively, the reality that there can be no true social progress without white consciousness. Too many white people see racism as a “black problem,” if they even admit it’s a problem at all. This is simultaneously tragic and ironic considering white supremacist ideology and practice was, very obviously, founded by white people. However, most unfortunately, white supremacist indoctrination knows no bounds, and is not limited to the minds of only white people. Once set into motion, white supremacy—as an institutionalized system of domination—can be maintained and perpetuated by people of all races, both on institutionalized and individually internalized levels. With that said, systemic racism and white supremacy in America is a white problem—one that unfortunately and adversely impacts the lives of black Americans.

Anti-white supremacy is not anti-white people. The fight is against the systems we are all caught up in, a fight against dehumanization.

But many white people cannot see themselves in the “answers” because the don’t see themselves in the questions.

Chinua Achebe said, “Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.” The unfortunate truth is, many white Americans cannot—or are not willing to—put in the work of “answering” the questions because they don’t understand the questions. Privilege has protected them, and their loved ones, from being inconvenienced by those questions. They live lives unquestioned, untouched by the injustices that lurk outside their bubble of privilege. Protected by privilege, the privileged hear others speaking of injustices unknown to them and conclude that those injustices must not exist. Those who cannot find themselves in the questions will struggle—or refuse—to put themselves in the work of finding answers, in being answers.

Naturally, the perspective of people benefiting from institutionalized systems of domination in America is myopic—obstructed by privilege. Instead of ventures to hear the questions clearly, they will fling irrelevant “answers” at the questions that they do not understand, that cause them discomfort, that question their very place of privilege. It is most often easier to believe lies that whisper sweet nothings into our ears than it is to listen to a truth that disrupts our peace. Those benefiting from privilege—and various intersections of it—have never tasted the bitter injustices wrought by the dominant cultures. As James Baldwin pointed out in his letter to his nephew, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

Privilege protects. Privilege blinds. Privilege allows people to not have to question realities outside of their own. Alas, you don’t know until you know, and most privileged people don’t know because they have never been forced to know. And ignorance is bliss, as they say. But this cannot be an excuse. At this point, if people don’t know, it’s because they don’t want to know. And privilege is what grants them the option of not knowing. That stubborn refusal to acknowledge privilege, and or the realities of others outside of one’s privilege, is violence. Those who choose to remain ignorant to the vile injustices and inequalities of institutionalized systems of domination in America are complicit in that violence. Those who choose to continue to remain silent are complicit in their silence―complicit in the killings of…

Amadou Diallo and

Trayvon Martin and

Jordan Davis and

Yvette Smith and

Michelle Cusseaux and

Mike Brown and

Eric Garner and

Akai Gurley and

Kajieme Powell and

John Crawford and

Tanesha Anderson and

Tamir Rice and

Ezell Ford and

Darrien Hunt and

Antonio Martin and

every other name of black and brown bodies slain in America’s past and

every other name-turned-hashtag that we will be forced to know.

Let this national conversation cut away the thick layer of adipose tissue that Chinua Achebe speaks about. Let us continue to amplify the questions, and if we don’t understand them, put in the important work that brings understanding. Let those tragic questions of 2014 educate, enlighten, engage, and guide us to appropriate action in 2015. Let us continue to seek and fight for the answers. Let us have the courage to be the answers.

 

“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” – Paulo Freire


We…

January 15, 2015

We are responsible for everything we see…

We are our biggest problem.

We are our only solution.

We have stolen from us.

We give back.

We are capable of unthinkable evil.

We are capable of beauty beyond measure.

We dehumanize us.

We humanize us.

We are our worst enemy.

We are our best friend.

We hurt.

We heal.

We hate.

We love.

We neglect.

We provide.

We oppress.

We liberate.

We have designed our cages of captivity.

We hold the key to our freedom.

We are complicit to injustice with our silence.

We are incredibly powerful when we speak out.

We may not recognize us all,

But we are all here.

We may not acknowledge our connection,

But we are all connected.

We may not like us all,

But we are all we have.

We are all we have.

We are all we have.

We are all we have.

We are.


The Day After Black Friday…

November 28, 2014

“Man shoots another man at Walmart over a toaster,” reads a headline.

He leaves his apartment, head lowered, not wanting to look “us” in the face, shoulders drooped from the burden of “our” behavior. We’ve made clear our priorities, money over people, material things over humanity. And he feels it, the weight of it all, maybe more than most. His feet drag the dirty floor from the heaviness.

The hallway of his project building only adds insult to injury, smelling of piss and yesterday’s drink. He steps over old, discarded appliances, cruelly replaced with brand new members of the household bought at a fraction of their value, or at least their price. The smell of urine becomes suffocating.

He exits his building and the cold, autumn air hits his face, steals his breath. And at that moment he hears the most beautiful sound, a song undoubtedly sent by the heavens, the uninhibited, magical laughter of a child. He looks up and sees a toddler, unattended by his older sister who’s sitting and texting on a bench several feet away. She’s completely unaware of the child’s careless brilliance, as he runs in circles, being chased by nothing but something at the same time, cackling from the bottom of his little being.

Tears well up in the man’s eyes as he watches the child; surely it was the cold air that transformed his eyes into tiny ponds. The child’s laughter fills the man’s heart, not missing the cracks and crevices that had not seen light in months, years even. He feels a warmth grow in his chest. And at that moment, he knows that “we” are still there somewhere, even if “we” are hidden deep in the joy of a child’s laugh that we have suppressed; it is there we still live, there we still love.

And so, like a crazy person, the man begins to cry and laugh. He runs after the child, whose sister continues to text, unaware. The tiny little boy pauses for a moment, looks up at the approaching giant, lifts his tiny finger and points at the man’s face. The man stops, afraid he has done something wrong. Then, like a call to dance, the tiny little fellow lets out an elated squeal, and runs and laughs, harder and faster than before. The man’s face breaks in half with a smile, and he runs after the child. They run in circles and laugh, for what feels like an eternity, beautifully weaving “us” back together, one revolution at a time.

I wrote this piece back in 2012 but never posted it here. I felt like sharing it this year. I boycott Black Friday every year because I hate what it turns us into―I hate when we put money over lives, property over people. That seems to be a running theme this year here in America, unfortunately. So, this year, I encourage us all to boycott Black Friday.

B3d7ysMCMAA2Bzf


What is a “Real Man?”

November 2, 2014

Due to shifts in public funding in South Africa, with many other funding avenues exhausted, for the first time in a long time, Beth Uriel is truly facing closure before even the year end. Beth Uriel has supported countless young men in their journey from boys to men, and it would be a travesty to see them close their doors. I wrote this piece to support their REAL MAN campaign, created to help drum-up financial support and general awareness around the issues they work with on a daily basis.

Hypocritical Halloween

One night in 2008, like many of my fondest nights spent in Cape Town, I was sitting around with a group of friends, enjoying food, laughter, and communion. Halloween was quickly approaching and, though I don’t know how we arrived at that very moment, my friend Lindsay―manager and head social worker at Beth Uriel―dared me to go as a fairy for Halloween. Without thought, I agreed.

Though I rarely turn down a fun dare, both Lindsay and I knew it wouldn’t even take something as formal as a dare to get me to dress as a fairy, on any night, much less Halloween. Dressing as a fairy was really inconsequential to me, especially considering my past. I grew up constantly playing dress-up―also involving every friend and family member I could coerce into dressing-up in some random costume I had made―and my childhood pictures are hard evidence of that fact. I would say I am dressed in some costume that I had made or acquired in approximately three out of five of my childhood photographs―cheetahs, robots, ballerinas, chickens, clowns, cowboys, flappers, monsters, Paula Abdul’s backup dancers, punks, miscellaneous unidentifiable people and creatures, and beyond.

As a kid, I never felt any more or less “masculine” dressed as a clown or cowboy or princess. I just liked dressing-up. My mom still tells stories of how one of my favorite parts of playing baseball was getting dressed-up in the uniform, making sure every piece of apparel was perfectly in place, including ensuring that my batting gloves hung out of my back pants’ pocket in the most perfect and stylish way, a type of behavior our sexist socialization might consider “sissy” or “effeminate” or “wrong.” At the time, I―maybe innocently―didn’t see it that way. I just wanted to look good.

I was never a “normal” boy. I am not a “normal” man. I was, and am, just me.

So, on Halloween of 2008, I joined my Beth Uriel family members―some who went as a Flower, an Angel, Cotton Candy, a Tahitian Purple People Eating Bird, Dwight K. Schrute, and a Piece of Bubblegum Stuck to the Bottom of a Shoe―dressed as a fairy and we went out trick-or-treating around Cape Town. Like most Beth Uriel outings, we had a blast that night. Though many people were completely unfazed by my costume, it was interesting to see different people’s reactions to me dressed as a fairy, many who projected their own fears onto me. Whether well-intentioned or not, many of the comments I received reminded me of Toni Morrison saying, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

“Oh no! Why?!”

“Wow. That’s brave,” with a hint of disapproval.

“That’s gay!”

“Are you doing this for LGBTQ rights?”

“Men aren’t supposed to dress like fairies!”

“That’s awesome,” with a condescending shake of the head.

“But really, why are you dressed like a fairy?”

fairy

Whether they realized it or not, most people’s comments said more about them than they did about me. I was just dressed as a fairy, and though I was not ignorant enough to think that there would be no reaction, I didn’t really care what people thought about it. I just wanted to be a fairy for the night, no strings attached. As I said, definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.

Halloween has historically been a hypocritical time, where we seem to have no problem with little girls dressing as boy characters, but completely lose our minds when little boys want to go as girl characters. Just this weekend, my social media newsfeeds were flooded with images of little trick-or-treaters, many of whom were little girls dressed as this season’s most popular guy characters. I even saw a picture of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy dressed―looking flawless, I might add―as the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t see one single comment in protest to them dressing her as a male icon. However, I could only imagine the uproar that would have occurred if Blue was a boy, and they would have dressed him up as Janet Jackson. And some people reading this would quickly retort, “That’s different!”

But really, apart from our skewed sexist socialization, apart from the fact that at some point people randomly decided certain fabrics and colors should be worn by certain types of people, what is the difference?

Well, the difference is we live in a society where sexism and misogyny warp the way we see things. We wrongly equate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. We use phrases like, “You throw like a girl,” as an insult, rather than taking it as a complementary comparison to someone like Mo’Ne Davis. We don’t recognize patriarchy and sexism as institutionalized systems of domination, and we don’t understand how the very society in which we live is still controlled by those dominator values. We often blame female rape victims for how they dressed or presented themselves, rather than blaming the rapist. We are convinced that street harassment many women endure is “no big deal,” and they should “take it as a compliment.” Our misogyny runs deep. And for these reasons, and more, we often have difficulty defining what a “real man” is.

What is a “Real Man?”

When Beth Uriel family members reached out to me to write a piece for their REAL MAN campaign, with the prompt, “A REAL man is…” I must admit my mind was flooded with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. For many individuals, it is difficult to separate the idea of a “real man” from our hypermasculine, misogynistic, sexist, patriarchal socialization of “what it means to be a man.” In popular culture, “a real man” has usually resembled a muscular, tough, dumb, burping, farting, chauvinistic, beer-drinking, sports-playing, womanizing, nincompoop. We have seen this image of a “real man” repeated over and over again. I, for one, do not buy-into, or fit into, that stereotype of the “real man.” Still, though I have a deep awareness of what it means to be a “real man” to me, I struggled to find the words to describe it.

Alas, I consider myself a feminist and many of my best examples of what it means to be a “real man” came from women―two things that a hypermasculine “alpha male” would use as reason for the immediate revoking of my “man card,” though I don’t remember ever signing up for one, or even desiring owning such a thing. Some of the strongest, bravest, toughest people I know are women. Likewise, some of the “realest” of men I have known do not fit into the hypermasculine stereotype of what our society has determined it means to “be a man.” That is not to say that I haven’t known “real men” who do, in fact, fit into that stereotype of the hypermasculine man―I simply will not let patriarchal values limit my definition of what it means to be a “real man” by that shallow, constrictive archetype of a “man.”

Patriarchy is no different than any other institutionalized system of domination―it was actively and intentionally created, and it must be actively and intentionally deconstructed. It is oppressive, causing both the oppressors and the oppressed to live in different forms of bondage. Unfortunately, just like with other institutionalized systems of domination (imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, etc.), there is an ignorance and denial that comes with those who benefit from the system. As James Baldwin put it, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” And until we are completely released from it, we will continue to perpetuate sexist ideas of “what it means to be a man.”

In her book Feminism is for Everybody, feminist, academic, and author bell hooks defines feminism as simply, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” In the same work she laments, “Often the only alternative to patriarchal masculinity presented by feminist movement or the men’s movement was a vision of becoming more ‘feminine.’ The ides of the feminine that was evoked emerged from sexist thinking and did not represent an alternative to it. What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity.” This vision of masculinity that bell hooks speaks of is possibly the beginning of what it means to be a “real man”―for an individual to have the courage, strength, self-esteem, and self-love to base his identity on his unique being, who he really is, rather than trying to create an identity rooted in, and fitting into, the societal pressures and stereotypes of “what it means to be a man.”

Nonetheless, I think that definition of being a “real man” has less to do with being a “real man” and more to do with being a real human.

 A REAL man is…

With all of that said, asking what it means to be a “real man” can be as daunting of a query as asking what  means to be “human.” Assuredly, each individual person finds different purpose and meaning in life, in being human. Being a “real man” can look as vast and different and unique as each and every individual man inhabiting the earth. In my experience, from people I have known and loved, here are some examples―including but not limited to―of what it means to be a “real man.”

A real man has a deep understanding that we do not live in isolation from one another, that we are not here by chance or coincidence, and has a deep awareness of how we perpetually co-create each other―living with the knowledge of Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.

A real man makes himself aware of injustices taking place around him, and activates himself in a fight against them.

A real man stands up for what is right, even if he is the only one standing.

A real man knows when to speak and knows when to listen.

A real man knows how to love.

A real man is compassionate and empathetic.

A real man lives with a sense of purpose.

A real man is responsible and takes responsibility for his actions.

A real man wholeheartedly laughs and unashamedly cries whenever he feels like it.

A real man has the courage, self-esteem, and self-love to be the unique individual he really is.

A real man lives in the realty that he can shape and mold society, rather than trying to fit into the confining mold society might try to put him in.

A real man plays ball with his daughter or his son, braids his daughter’s hair, dances with his son―sees his children as unique individuals and helps and encourages them grow more and more into who they really are, to pursue their individual talents and gifts.

A real man is a doctor, nurse, teacher, lawyer, lumberjack, ballerina, drag queen, seamstress, chef―a real man is proudly whoever he really is.

Beth Uriel

Since its inception, Beth Uriel has been a part of molding, shaping, and mentoring uncountable numbers real men. One of the things I appreciate most about Lindsay and Beth Uriel’s leadership is that they really get to the heart of who the Beth Uriel family members are, encouraging them to boldly and unapologetically be the very best versions of themselves, and no one else. I have seen all types of young men enter and exit the doors of Beth Uriel―and there are so many more I have not witnessed―and one common thing remains, those young men were given the opportunity to grow in, and even discover for the first time, who they really are. They were supported and encouraged to be brave enough to discover what it meant to be a “real man” in their unique, individual narrative.  The young men of Beth Uriel have become social workers, models, butchers, soldiers, actors, chefs, singers, nurses, and more. They have been challenged not to live up to or fit into stereotypes of what it means to be a “real man,” but to be radical enough to create a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of their unique being forms the basis of their identity. They are and were encouraged to be “real men,” whatever that means to them.

To learn more about the REAL MAN campaign that supports the amazing work of Beth Uriel, visit their website:

http://www.realman.org.za/

Share, nominate a REAL MAN, and donate!


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