You Can't Box Us In

Last week, I found myself on the 49th floor of 4 World Trade Center inside a meeting space anxiously awaiting the Brothers of Tomorrow, a student leadership council comprised of NYC high school aged boys of color.  I meet with these boys here once a month to take them through my youth leadership development course.  By now we had already met three times previously, but this particular evening, I felt a slight uneasiness come upon me while sitting there listening to the sweet piano keys of the great Dr. Don Shirley.  And for the record, although I know the film Green Book is problematic on many levels, I will admit I wasn’t aware of Dr. Shirley’s artistry until the film came out.  That’s the power of cinema and also why representation matters.  If you want to learn more about the actual Negro Motorist Green Book, I suggest checking out the documentary “The Green Book:  Guide to Freedom” for free on the Smithsonian Channel.  But this post isn’t about the film Green Book or any of the winners at the 91st Academy Awards.  See the reason I was slightly nervous is because in a few minutes, I planned to engage the boys in a warm up conversation about masculinity.  The warm up essentially asked the boys to look at the photos below and using only the photos as evidence, determine who is the most masculine/manliest. 

I spent the days prior to our session contemplating how I could constructively respond to the boys’ observations presuming some, if not many, would react negatively to the image of Billy Porter in his elegant tuxedo-gown.  My history in engaging young men in conversations around masculinity typically left me frustrated and exhausted at my repeated attempts to remind them that clothes, just like who we decide to love/date, don’t make us men or manlier than the next man.  I oftentimes found myself drowned out by loud bursts of the “that’s gay”, “no homo” or “I’m not with that gay s***” variety; nevertheless, by the time we wrapped up our warm up, these young men put my presumptuous mind in check completely.  I feel slightly ashamed as I type this because I should have known better than to attempt to box in the brilliant minds of our boys just like society attempts to box in masculinity for men en masse.  This very idea of having to conform to a limited interpretation of what it means to be a man, in particular a man of color, speaks to the importance of protecting Black Boy Joy.  The sense of feeling boxed in resonated deeply with these boys who all shared a personal experience of feeling confined by adults, peers, or society at-large.  Black Boy Joy is about boldly breaking out of this proverbial box, in grand defiance of societal norms and the status quo.  The boys used the word brave to describe Billy Porter’s outfit because “it takes a real man to do what he did”.  One mentioned if a male classmate came to school dressed similarly to Mr. Porter, they would be compelled to celebrate him for being “daring, dope and living outside the box.”  I honestly couldn’t be happier to have been so wrong about my presumptions. 

So I left our session feeling much better about our future and the men (or women) these boys would become; however, I was more concerned than ever for our present because of the alarming, yet expected, toxically negative responses to Porter’s tux-gown by GROWN men on my various social media timelines.  I’m not going to resurrect what was tweeted/posted because this blog will always be about celebrating Joy, not highlighting hate.  But I would now like to have you participate in the same activity by observing the photos of these two young boys below and answer the question:  Which one is manlier?

It’s really a silly question when you think about it because there is no right answer.  These boys who couldn’t be no more than maybe 5 or 6 epitomize Black Boy Joy through their dress game in the same vein as Billy Porter, Mahershala Ali or the youthful exuberance portrayed by the image of Spike Lee leaping in the arms of longtime friend Samuel L. Jackson.  All these images can and will continue to exist as powerful and positive representations of who we are and who we can dare to be as Black men and boys.  What I have come to learn as a man is that there never has been a prototype for manhood or masculinity, contrary to popular belief, a belief rooted in heteronormativity.  As a straight Black man in today’s world, I have even more of a responsibility to disrupt the dangerous limitations of toxic masculinity because of the privileges bestowed upon me.  If we truly care about Black Boy Joy, straight Black men must do the necessary work to ensure future generations of our boys don’t get stuffed into that same box we were told as children was the only way we could exist.  Sadly, too many of us eventually became men failing to live in our full authenticity.  This helps to explain in part the fragility of the male ego because when you are denied the opportunity to be your full self, you become jealous and feel threatened when witnessing someone like a Billy Porter who lives boldly in his whole truth.       

Such a bold display by a Black man is still not popular today which makes cultivating Black Boy Joy even more imperative and necessary.  For me, it means celebrating images and profiles of Black men and boys with diverse identities and experiences.  It also means pushing back with love against the toxic masculinity exhibited by our brothers in the church, in the barber shops, in the locker rooms, in the streets and in our homes.  Black Boy Joy, no different than Black masculinity, is boundless and could never be boxed in according to the beliefs of heteronormativity.  Black Boy Joy belongs to all of us, not a homogenous group.  Plus, where’s the joy in being like everyone else?  If we want to see the next generation reach new heights tomorrow, we must teach and show them the critical importance of living in their truth today. As Mr. Porter stated himself while speaking with the Associated Press, "We have to teach people how to treat us, we have to teach people how to love us, we have to teach people how to respect us, and the only way we do that is to respect ourselves."