This is a difficult blog to write. The idea of talking about love from the perspective of being a black male, whilst considering what love is for black men, is one that both touches me and fills me with some dread. Although drawn to intuitively write about this it took a quick straw poll on Twitter to encourage me to actually make this month’s blog a reality. Asking a question of if I should write about love as a black man, of course over 80% of the replies came from women of varying cultures. This is a big topic for us all.
This blog is therefore punctuated with extracts from a conversation I had with a good friend about the topic of love, and of me being who I am as a black man who walks in love like anyone else. The other side of the conversation is not produced here out of respect for my friend, but this is not about them. This is about us, black men, talking about what love is, and about me opening another doorway to this exploration for us all.
Do I believe in love? When I look outside of myself, I see love. I believe it is therein all I see, the beauty of the world, in the eyes and gaze of my daughter, in the music I adore and the words I read, as I walk the undulations of the South Downs or on the beautiful white beaches of Zanzibar. Do I believe love will come to me? I honestly don’t know. Hence being with the pain I have now. I am very self-sufficient, I can do a lot alone. Letting myself fold into a loving space is my lesson. Just not sure that safe space exists for me.
Love is not something we often are afforded as black men. Be it the chance to receive love as children, or to give out love as adults or parents, love is often an elusive willow the wisp type character, which at best we are often only able to express secretly. This learnt experience of course has its roots in transgenerational trauma of those of us whose ancestors endured the transgenerational slave trade. For example, looking at the role of the father during slavery, as Akbar states, ‘the virtues of being able to protect, support and provide for one’s offspring, which is the cornerstone of true fatherhood, were not considered the mark of a man on the plantation. In fact, the slave who sought to assert such rights for his offspring was likely to be branded a troublemaker and either punished or killed,’ (1984, p. 20). Love was therefore denied black men, the love for their partner, the love for their children, as was the modelling of that love that a boy should see in his father, that he should be able to witness in the pairing if his parents. The often total absence of these role models thereby leading to an absence, a nothingness where the knowledge of black male love should sit.
Although rooted within the more recent past, this perspective I would argue exists even today. In Lorde’s work around heterosexism she recognised this form of oppression as the ‘belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance’ (1984, p. 45). For me, this brings up the idea heteroracism, where one aspect is that the right to love becomes a type of privilege only afforded to whiteness, and stolen by blackness only under the cover of darkness. My issue here with this is that many of us still walk with this internalised sense of secrecy around love. We stumble in such darkness not sure if it is safe or not to be loving in public lest we are frowned upon or destroyed for our audacity to be seen to love and to have failed to ask for permission to allow love in.
As Hua stated of this internalised injunction, recognising that love was ‘the privilege of voluntary intimacy (which) distinguished freed persons from their former condition as slaves,’ (Hua, 2011, p. 394), and which today recognises the freedom of the privileged to express freely the love they have for each other, whereas for those who are the racialised as the other these shadowy aspects of our unconscious against being loved and of being loving need to be understood and worked through before access to that archetype of love Eros can really begin (Stein, 2005).
And whilst I believe in love, is that love for the Ordinary part of me or the Extraordinary part? Most are drawn to the Extraordinary part of me; the writer, the activist, the prominent black psychotherapist, the lecturer and conference presenter, the podcaster. Few stay or care for the Ordinary part though. Oh, they might think they’re doing so when they crave his/my objectified strength, his potency, for his cuckold dominance. The reality, and my fear, is they won’t for just simple ordinariness that underlines me. That they won’t be there for the Ordinary within that is me, the man and the father with all his insecurities, his fears, his anxieties, his anger and his worries, and his regular needs and wants. Going forward, I guess I have to trust and believe that this will happen (trust in God, and the Ancestors etc), even though I know life is not a Disney film, and even though I’ve watched so many men go without. For all I do, for all we both do, a safe space and a happy ending is the least we deserve.
One of my favourite perspectives on love comes from a paper written by Ohito, who in her assessment of just what love is that from a ‘a Black feminist orientation to love is one that aims to initiate personal, political, and collective transformation,’ (Ohito, 2019, p. 126). Her writings here collate the ideas of a number of black feminist theorists into a moral and heartfelt collective ideal much of which sits central to that which works not just for us but for all people. Love in this context is not a narcissistic ‘love yourself more’ script often pushed by self-help gurus and psychotherapists alike. Love from this perspective is in the service of both the internal, the personal, and the collective externalised to meet the moral and intuitive needs of the many over the one.
Yet, if there is one thing 2020 has shown us it is that no matter how horrific the world gets for black men, that there will still be outpourings of love. When George Floyd was murdered last May, the number of people who took to the streets in protest both in America and in most of the rest of the world showed us that we are loved, that black men are valued, and that no matter how many knees rest upon our necks that other Others will stand beside us, so we don’t have to always be afraid. Black men. WE ARE LOVED (Various, 2020)!
Yet, there is one note of warning here. Whilst the sadness of Floyd’s death must always be noted, so must the extraordinariness of the situation and its worldwide impact. That this outpouring of love for the black man comes from something outside of what is deemed normal, is something a lot of black men have to endure. Much like the need to be seen to work that much harder, the need to be much more in order to win or be loved takes away here form the ordinariness of love and the ordinariness of the black men who need it, nay deserve it. We have already had the normal structures of fatherhood stolen away from us, for example, structures where love is already firmly embedded, meaning it can feel hard to be just an ordinary black man, with no need for a performance, with little need to play the game, and be loved and accept love just for who we are.
Although I have the most beautiful daughter, my past was one where I regularly had to provide love as opposed to be in a position to receive it. From my end, I freely acknowledge that even unconsciously I chose those environments. I recognise that I am not the best at receiving love, hence an aspect of the loneliness which sits at my core. And yet I am very much loved by many, from my daughter downwards. I just have to look at my social media to witness how much love so many have for me. Yet, after a day fighting the good fight, after a day providing political love to many, I always come home to my own space, cook my own food, pour my own glass of wine, watch Netflix alone. That is hard. Have I given up on love? I truly have no idea.
When it comes though to understanding some of these barriers to believing in love as a black man, we must also return to childhood, and to the adultification of black men from such an early age. A concept discussed by many authors, the idea here is that black men are made to grow up far more quickly than their majority counterparts. They are treated as adults at a much earlier age, be it by the authorities as much as by society, and even within their own families (Panuccio & Christian, 2019). This means the sacrificing the idolatry of childhood, or really the repression of those traits common within boyhood, in order to survive in a world where they are seen as men. This separation though is not just literal but it is also psychological, and leads I will argue here to an inner child who is not only isolated, but is angry, anxious and fearful, and also believes itself to be unlovable. Unlike then the child who gets to play out in the fields of East Sussex, or play football on a beach with his father on a spring afternoon, for the adultified child these ideals are only a fantasy. They are games to be played in one’s head, if at all, as it isn’t safe to be these characters from childhood whilst out in reality.
So, for the boy who becomes a man, one sign of this loss of love is a disconnection with the creative. Yet, this is not always so for those of majority culture. For example, for the likes of Storr (1988) isolation and a forgoing of relationship is also seen as a doorway towards the creative brilliance within most, what his work fails to explore is the similar trait within those of colour. That so many of our best authors and musicians produced brilliance from their periods of sadness and isolation is a testimony of love’s resilience to be seen and acknowledged (Azhar, 2015).
For others though, in order to escape the feelings of isolation and lack of love, the vulnerability of the child is replaced by a grandiose false sense of self as fragile as a balloon pumped up to its fullest by air and about to burst (Krizan & Johar, 2012). Whilst this true sense of emotional vulnerability, of love, and that which is necessary for the child, the man, to enter into relationship, is then lost within a shadow from whence it silently knocks upon the door of the ego, lost, lonely, and isolated, yet always desiring to be known. Love is lost to the child. Whilst the black man often dares not risk it.
I think I’ve had those vulnerabilities rejected too many times. Society already teaches men not to be vulnerable. But it teaches black boys to eschew the vulnerability of boyhood way to early, and be young men, to be men, and be invulnerable almost from the day they are born. Toxic Blacsculinity I will call it. The white privilege of youth is denied to black boys. I agree though that to allows others in is the key. But those others need to understand the different wounds black men hold passed down the generations and see their, our, my, pain as an enormous aspect of who I am and why I do what I do, collectively, politically, and especially personally.
I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show the world.Muhammad Ali
Akbar, N. (1984). Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery. New Mind.
Azhar, M. (2015). Hunting for Prince’s vault. BBC News. http://m.bbc.com/news/magazine-31962180
Hua, L. U. (2011). Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. African American Review, 44(3), 391–407. https://doi.org/10.1353/afa.2010.0000
Krizan, Z., & Johar, O. (2012). Envy Divides the Two Faces of Narcissism. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1415–1451. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00767.x
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. Crossing Press Limited.
Ohito, E. O. (2019). “I Just Love Black People!”: Love, Pleasure, and Critical Pedagogy in Urban Teacher Education. Urban Review, 51(1), 123–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-018-0492-7
Panuccio, E., & Christian, J. (2019). Work, Family, and Masculine Identity: An Intersectional Approach to Understanding Young, Black Men’s Experiences of Reentry. Race and Justice, 9(4), 407–433. https://doi.org/10.1177/2153368717705419
Stein, M. (2005). Individuation: Inner Work. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 7(2), 1–13.
Storr, A. (1988). Solitude. Flamingo.
Various. (2020). George Floyd Death. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cv7wlylxzg1t/george-floyd-death
This Blog is copyrighted by Dwight Turner Counselling Ltd (c) and is influenced by my ongoing exploration into The Other.