Fatherhood Series: Meditations On Black Masculinity From Fruitvale Station to My Hood

I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.
— bell hooks

Fruitvale Station is a movie that chronicles the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant's life. Oscar comes from a matriarchal family. His biological father is not present. The women who ground him are his mother, his babymama/girlfriend, and his daughter. Oscar is in a transitional time. He is 22, has served time in prison for prior drug convictions, and is looking for a way to restructure his life so that he can make money legally and be fully present for his family. 

Before Friday, I saw the film once before. It isn't the kind of film that I keep going back to. Through closeups and long takes, I experienced Oscar as a friend, a brother, a loved-one. Ryan Coogler shoots a visual narrative that allows us to experience Oscar as multidimensional and complex. So, when he gets murdered, you feel it as if a piece of you has died. It feels close & personal and it silences you... This isn't a feeling that you want to keep coming back to, and yet, the film humanizes a black man in a way we typically don't see in popular media or even in popular thought.

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After leaving the screening, I came home to a sleeping child. The house was so cold. I walked around our room, looking for our space heater, and on Zi's desk I found this:

The American Series book combines pictures and words filled with babies, baseball jerseys, children hanging from their father's grasp. And quotes encompassing the gratitude from children, thanking their fathers for the wisdoms passed down through tenderness, encouragement, strength, and fun. Coming home from seeing Fruitvale Station and combing through recollections of "DAD: MY Hero" re-sparked a conversation in me that I do not like to have with self.

Ideally, I would love for my daughter to call a great man, Dad. I want her to see what a positive, consistent man is. A man that falls outside of a thugged out, violent persona. A man who isn’t homophobic, who is allowed to have deep, loving relationships with other men, without his worth and masculinity questioned. And one who truly embodies a working relationship that shows genuine love and respect to the FULLNESS of women.

But she does not have that and being reminded of the lack of fatherhood (or positive male role models) in my daughter’s life, isn't what I mean when I begin to deconstruct what babymamahood is. Yes, I am an unwed mother for census/household reasons, but I do not undermine the roles or values of positive masculinity in the development of self, family, community, and the larger, global society.

Folks like to say, That's why you should not have children unless you are married to positive man. But, I would like to stress that this problem is much larger than having a man that is physically there. 

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I am faced with a dilemma. To be a father, you must know what it means to be a man. And yet, I am living under the current narrative where masculinity and manhood has been misidentified because of the social order. A social order that is FOUNDED in patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. The effects of those systems creates generations of men (and women) who are not given a fair chance at being HUMAN.

Men have been told that they must be smarter than women, stronger than women, make more money than women, and that crying or knowing how to communicate your sad and 'soft' feelings is what women do. They are encouraged to assert their manhood through fights, drugs, promiscuity, and being a cool asshole. They are also encouraged to NOT ask for help because masculinity means that you always have it all figured out.  

Any boy, irregardless of race, who internalizes those misconceptions will grow up to be a misogynist jerk. He will be repressed and have a hard time relating to women AND men positively because his manhood will be in question if he shows compassion and vulnerability. This repression creates complexities in ways where he will be harmful to himself and to others. He might find ways to ease this pain through alcohol, drugs, or various forms of abuse. 

If this is what the dominant culture teaches us about masculinity, there is no wonder as to why there is gender inequality or sexism. Masculinity is seen as an opposing force to the feminine. Feminine is seen as something to not aspire to unless for conquest. Coupled that with how America has been successfully systematic in creating a national consciousness where black men are desensitized, so that their captivity could never be in question.

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Ryan Coogle shot Frutivale Station with the close ups and long takes to sensitize America to a black man.  This choice is a silent critique on the perceptions of black masculinity, which is often embedded with negative images. We typically don't see black men in the media as loving, sensitive, or as positive role models. However, Coogler did not make Oscar into the token black men either. Oscar is still a black man in America. He is flawed, complicated, and beautiful and is still affected by poverty, drugs, prison, and violence. 

In the movie, when Grant dies, his mother blames herself — I hated that part because that is what women do, we blame ourselves. It is easier to blame what you can see rather than to look at the past and critically analyze how institutional violence has been propagated throughout the media, law, public programs, and how it is carried out by the folks in the streets.  

Media is powerful. It shapes our social consciousness. If one image speaks 1000 words, imagine how many words a movie speaks. Visual narratives get embedded in our mind to the point where one cannot distinguish reality from perception. Walt Disney will have your daughters believe that they are fairy princesses, despite the fact that they live in the hood. So, the affects of seeing black men repeatedly stereotypical will have folks initially believe and expect for black men to be ignorant, violent, and incapable of love (outside of sex).

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The lack of manhood translates into the lack of fatherhood. It's a simple theory. You cannot be a masculine leader, if you cannot identify and become what a positive man is. And that's unfortunate because there IS a lack of fatherhood in impoverished communities because of systematic oppression, capitalism, and historical trauma.

I think using the census is misleading because single or married motherhood doesn't ALWAYS translate into a father being present or absent. However, there is a lack of PRESENCE, meaning black men are not visibly leading, mentoring, or nurturing their daughters and sons in a way that shows that manhood is vulnerable, open, deep, loving, and secure. Being a man doesn't mean you know how to fix the broken sink or can pay your bills. It doesn't mean that you can whip somebody's ass. That's superficial. Being a man is about being human and upholding values of humanity.

We have to stop looking at men and making up excuses for their misbehaviors as signs of their masculinity. Before men are genderized, they are human.  We have to stop telling boys to stop crying. That boys don't cry, to man up, and take it like a man, which often means take it like a punching bag and bottle up your feelings. In order to create deep, loving, and meaningful relationships for and with men, we have to allow men to feel deeply. We have to uphold safe spaces for men to been seen as vulnerable and not equate that with weakness. 

We cannot begin to address oppression, poverty, capitalism, nor white supremacy before we identify all the ways that we have internalized and perpetuated those ideals within our own self, our own families, and within our own community.

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The next day, I asked Zi where she got the daddy book from. 

"I got it from Ms. W. for Father's Day [last year]."

I wanted to gage her mind, "So, who is your father?"

"Andre is my father [grandad], but I want a dad."

... Me too, Zi, me too.