What Makes a Black Man?
By Garlin Gilchrist II
Part I: Two Principles of Manhood
Where are all the Black men? Where are all the good Black men? These questions are asked so often today that we don’t even think about what they really mean or why they’re being asked. Everybody’s wondering though: Black women seeking companions, Black children seeking fathers, Black men seeking friendships. In fact, the only people not asking where the Black men are the people who don’t care if they ever find another one.
Whenever a question like this is asked, it really is a search for a definition: in order to find something, you have to know what it is you’re searching for. A proverb from Zimbabwe says “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Similarly, if you don’t know what you’re asking for, you won’t know if you’ve found it.
We must first understand what manhood is before we can define Black manhood. As a Black man who has been blessed by many men as fathers, mentors, and friends, I present to you the two-principle definition of what it means to be a man, summed up in two words: accountability & responsibility.
What does it mean to be accountable? Accountability is usually called for when someone messes up and must be reprimanded or dealt with negatively. The process works like this: you screw up, you get held accountable, which usually means punished. As a result, accountability is often only brought to our attention in the wake of bad situations. However, there exists a duality that must be examined in order to rightfully frame both accountability and manhood.
Accountability, or being [held] accountable, can be simply thought of as meeting expectations. There are things that men must do in order to act in an accountable manner, in order to meet expectations. Unfortunately, meeting expectations is a pretty low bar.
Healthy men in most of the Western world are expected to do a few things: produce, “provide,” and procreate. Manhood is questioned typically when a man doesn’t work (produce), doesn’t earn any sort of income (“provide” in the economic sense), doesn’t demonstrate any kind of emotional fortitude (“provide” in the sense of giving emotional stability to those around him), or doesn’t have children or engage in [hetero]sexual intercourse. When a man does all three of these things, his peers and fellow members of society at large label him a man. He proudly proclaims “I am a man,” and to most he is right. He is meeting expectations.
Sadly, calling an accountable man a man is about as accurate as a half-sandwich a sandwich. There is so much missing in this definition that people do not even realize they should be in shooting for the penthouse and not the basement. Men need to also be held accountable to the following expectations:
Manhood, and person-hood, frankly, begins with understanding. Understanding is what separates man from animal, and it should be our goal to gain not only understanding of the world around us, but also of ourselves. This involves that dirty phrase: critical thinking. We must think critically about our relationships, our environments, and our situations. We must be fearless in our attempts at self-analysis, willing to question why we do the things we do, and think the way we think. Healthy introspection through active solitude can be a great way to gain introspection.
Manhood should be rooted honesty and integrity. Not only can there be no functioning family or community without honest dealings between individuals, but there can be no functional manhood without honesty with one’s self. This is the foundation of integrity.
Manhood should finally be rooted in celebration for the mind and all of the ways that it can be exercised. Whether academic, artistic, or athletic, scholastic, sports-related, or spiritual, an applied mind is an intelligent one. It is paramount that a man’s mind is constructively engaged before he can label himself a man.
Being held accountable to, and meeting the expectations of Introspection, Integrity, and Intelligence get us closer to a functioning picture of what a man should be, but they still fall short. We need to now understand how to add more girth to our evolving, working image of manhood.
What does it mean to be responsible? Responsibility here is the act of exceeding expectations. It’s being accountable as defined above, applied more broadly. Responsibility is about seeing beyond the immediate. It’s about understanding that your presence, thoughts, and actions have implications beyond yourself, your family, and your immediate sphere of influence. Responsibility is about being accountable to people at large.
Let’s illustrate this flavor of responsibility with an example. In the workplace, people are accountable to their managers, meaning that there are things that their managers not only want them to do, but expect them to do. People are not, however, accountable to their peers on their jobs, meaning that they do not have to do what these other employees (who are not in their management chain) ask or expect. The employee who is merely demonstrating accountability will only take his/her manager’s expectations into consideration when doing their work. The employee who demonstrates both accountability and responsibility will take the needs of his/her management, peers, customers, and the company at large, and community into consideration when doing their work. When completing tasks on their to-do list, they will do things in a way that they gain personal fulfillment from, their peers can benefit from, that is consistent with the company image, and that the community will be proud of.
The responsible man is always accountable in everything he engages in. The responsible man has a sense of accountability that actively denies hypocrisy wherever it tries to creep in. The responsible man is healthily consistent in his worldview, while be sensitive and introspective enough to realize that he may need to update his view from time to time.
Accountable + Responsible = Man
The formula for manhood is breathtakingly simple, but do not be alarmed: the truth is always simple. What makes this almost prohibitively complex today is the series of obstacles and enticements that are anti-introspective, anti-integrious, anti-intellectual, and completely irresponsible. This assault on manhood frustrates those in search of Black men, and uniquely challenges those who wish to be Black men. It is this struggle which provides the next topic for us to explore: the barriers to Black manhood