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On mourning and manhood: the burdens we Black men must carry

Darnell L Moore
·7-min read

A few hours ago, I turned off the camera on an early-morning work video chat during which we were asked to share what was in our hearts. I told my colleagues the truth. I’m broken by death. My insides are shaken by an overwhelming sense of dread magnified by the reality of being a Black man living in a country where Black people are exposed to old and new violences daily. The rise of fascism, should we be courageous enough to name it, is but one.

.

I cancelled the rest of my meetings after that, and made myself a cocktail. I needed to disconnect from work and remain present with the other parts of my self that I wasn’t attending to. Maybe what it means to be human is to accept that we might touch something akin to healing only after we accept that brokenness is the entry point into transformation. Black people know that we are not the problem in need of fixing. America is.

It feels irresponsible, though, to write about self-creation in a country that clings to lies – a country where the most vulnerable struggle to stay alive amid fears of Covid-19, of a police officer’s gun or a racist militiaman’s pickup truck.

A friend wandered about the house while I reflected. He wanted to know why I returned to my bed after my call and remained there most of the day. The weight of denial made my tongue heavy. I refused to let him know that I felt trapped, and in a haze, and not because of the fiery smoke from historic wildfires choking the sky that have been politicized as an event of historic proportions, but sadness.

I can’t free myself from the sadness that results from systemic inequity or, rather, the systemic callousness that we cause. But because I am supposed to be productive even when I cannot, and because I am supposed to pretend I am well even when I am not, I end up saying nothing. I pulled myself out of the bed and walked downstairs where he was lounging and faked a smile, like real men do.

•••

Today is my stepfather’s birthday. He lived long after my biological father died. Two Black men – one of whom was taken too early by heart disease and another who is still alive, after having beaten prostate cancer. And now I write these words at the age of 44 – contemplative, sometimes worried about the length of my own life, heartened by my stepfather’s resolve to keep living, but aware that Black men’s fights to survive may not be enough to stave off the death-dealing grips of heritable diseases or police officers’ hands. How quickly will some of us Black men succumb? And how determined are some of us to survive?

I am no less aware of the many ways that Black men are prone to survive even as pathogens attempt to eat away at our hearts. And we sometimes eat away at our own hearts and the hearts of those we love. And we sometimes remember that we deserve to live a life with hearts wide open ready to give and receive love. Like most truths, that one is hard to sit with.

As I write these words under the cover of a fire, as my neighbors and I breathe small amounts of smoke and ash, I am thinking about vulnerability and fear and longing and isolation and pain and life and death and joy and peace and fragility and masks and manhood and my pops.

My heart is burning, too. Because I can’t unsee white police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pinned to George Floyd’s neck as he panted, “I can’t breathe.” Because, closer to home, Dijon Kizzee was killed by the police. Because Breonna Taylor’s face is stuck in my mind and the reality that the police officers who killed her walked free. Because white racists deputized themselves before they killed Ahmaud Arbery while he jogged.

The sky is dreary and so is my mind.

•••

More than a few of the elders who have nurtured me have passed on. I am hurting because these times won’t allow for the offering of a proper goodbye despite the fact that goodbyes are never easy to give or receive.

It is especially hard to mourn as men. We are taught to believe that breaking ourselves open reveals our weaknesses. Goodbyes, like mourning, require us to sit in the break, in the liminal spaces that exist between our frail and shattered parts, such that we might piece back together a different self crafted out of ruins.

It’s personal. At this very moment, I am suffering the loss of a dear friend, a comrade, a Black woman who had fought cancer. She died at the age of 39 in the midst of the pandemic. We are living in a time when Black people are being snatched during a pandemic that has revealed the ways that nature and nurture conspire.

A pandemic, for example, has been made worse because of the current US administration’s woeful and willful incompetence; global climate change that has been quickened by the actions of humans has given way to exaggerated results like ceaseless wildfires; and here I am writing about a type of grief that men find ourselves grappling with from inside the bowels of isolation, whether that isolation surfaces as a result of a pandemic or a set of ideas shaped by our faith in male dominance.

•••

Men – like the United States – are thought to be exceptional. We tend to lie because we’ve been taught not to be honest about our vulnerabilities and failures. Men, like this country, often assert sole control in crises and everyday life even if the circumstances that we face require our reliance on others beside ourselves. In the US, that might look like a white-male-dominated presidential administration puffing out their chests on national television, without masks, while downplaying the severity of a pandemic during its height. It might also look like my refusal to feel.

Knowing that, I try to force my way into feeling and out of hiding. So I turn on music. In the background I can hear Gregory Porter’s voice riffing on a track titled Revival Song, and I think that it’s fitting. From what state do we need to be rescued and revived? In the foreground, I struggle to tell my partner that I am gutted and to articulate the depths of the volcanic hurt bubbling inside.

I grieve without tears. No desperate cries for release. Like most, I’ve gotten used to surviving a catastrophe. But when I leave the house I realize that throughout my life I’ve chosen to wear masks because it was easier than showing my frown, my grin, my truest self. It was easier than addressing what I had ignored or denied, what this country has ignored or denied.

But what about hope? Hope is a luxury afforded to those who are given the space to dream far beyond the limitations of their conditions. And yet, Black people hold on to hope despite the absence of hope’s fulfillment.

Hope allows us to look forward. It allows us to vision ourselves on the other side of a pandemic. Hope allows us to break free from the cage that is patriarchy, but for many of us it is a cage that we experience as home. And if it is home, then we may choose the comfort of familiarity over the fear that surfaces because we don’t yet know what may await us on the other side of freedom.

The beginning of freedom, however, is the ending of our denial. So I want to accept that I am not strong enough to lie about the grief that I feel. I am heavy because the world is – because inequity and white supremacy and the pandemic make it so. Yes, I believe that I will live through this pandemic. There is no hope to be found, though, in fires of our design, like the conceptions of manhood that have us believing that vulnerability and honesty are wrong. We find there only mourning, only senses of captivity and isolation that too many men feel but are afraid to admit.

Darnell L Moore is the author of the award-winning memoir, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America. He is currently at work on a book that delves into notions of manhood and masculinity