History, both globally and locally, is often cyclical. Society experiences tragedies and then formulates solutions to rebuild and improve, but because the power structures in American culture have virtually stayed the same, so has our cycle of history. Within the last two years of the Movement for Black Lives there has been a significant effort by those involved to break American cycles of tragedy and oppression. Black people are society to unlearn the ideologies that got us here in the first place.
Today we are lifting up Jamel Smith, whose current efforts are to push the unlearning of toxic masculinity. Jamel attends Morehouse College, a historically Black male college that has varying forms of Black masculinities. Shaped by his environment, Jamel created BOYS [DO]N’T CRY, bringing personal narratives of Black men’s emotions into the public eye. His project aims to tear down traditional stereotypes and assumptions around how Black men are supposed to “behave.” In an email interview with ABC, Smith shared the inspirations and aspirations for the project.
Afrikan Black Coalition: This has been described as a passion project. Why are you so passionate about bringing this to life?
Jamel Smith: Individually, I am passionate about the scarring of black boys in their formative years at the hands of toxic masculinity. I’m passionate about the arts – of all kind. I’m also passionate about black liberation, whether that be physically, mentally, or emotionally. All of those passions came together at one time to create this idea of getting black boys and men, including myself, to write our way to emotional liberation. I felt like this was an opportune time to give back to my people the best way I knew how and that was through art. Through art, I aim to liberate [my] legacy.
ABC: Passion projects like this stem from something personal, what personal experiences led you to creating something you wanted to share and create so publicly?
JS: As a kid in the 3rd grade, I was bullied for how I spoke, where I lived, what music I liked, how I dressed, how well I did in school, etc. I sucked at sports, I loved to sing, I aced every assignment, I enunciated my words, and I wore my 8-year-old emotions on my sleeve. Coming from an home environment that celebrated who I was, I didn’t think it wasn’t normal.
The first time I was exposed to the word “gay” was when it was used towards me as an insult. I was called a “f*ggot” and “sissy” and to an impressionable kid, it hurt to be bullied and excluded from other black boys. Ultimately, I allowed their narrow-minded frame of manhood to mold me, a suburban pastor’s kid, into a kid bully. I sagged, I cussed, I disrespected the teacher, all as an 8-year-old, and surprisingly, that’s when I was accepted. I had to change who I was in order to get a stamp of approval from my black brothers. It took me moving to a predominantly white elementary school for me to realize nothing was wrong with me. Yes, white boys told me I was “normal” and embraced me for who I was. As a 9 year old, it was important for me to be validated by my peers. As I grew older, I realized that there was a real problem with how black men viewed masculinity and it shaped how I operated around black guys my age. I was still resentful and ultimately, hesitant to become friends with them all because of those experiences.
That is until I went to Morehouse College, a school primarily for black males. Freshman year was a year of internal healing I didn’t even know I needed. As I listened to conversations from other black men who encountered the same things as I did, I thought “how great would it be to not have to wait until college to feel like this—to feel included.” That was the start.
“I’m also passionate about black liberation, whether that be physically, mentally, or emotionally.”
ABC: Was there an “aha” moment or instance of inspiration where this showed itself as an idea you had to commit to?
JS: This topic of hypermasculinity within the black community was something I have always wanted to explore because of how close it was to me. I decided to take it to twitter and tell about my personal encounter with it. I’ve had years of internal healing from and I was ready to offer my insight to other black boys and men. I titled it “I Just Wanna Be Liberated, Iiiiiiiiiii: How I Almost Lost Myself to Hypermasculinity”. After I shared it on Facebook, it caught like wildfire. I received messages from parents telling me how their son(s) were experiencing the same bullying I experienced and how they wanted me to give them advice on how to help their kid. By the end of the day, I was advised to write a book on this crippling yet unspoken issue within the black community. I was more than happy to commit to the challenge of correcting decades of oppressive behavior towards black boys and perpetrated by black men.
ABC: How have you facilitated conversations around masculinity before BOYS DON’T CRY?
JS: I was blessed to have a father who encountered the same invisible bully of hypermasculinity when he was younger. He never said “be a man, boy” when I was hurt and wanted to show emotion. Most of my childhood was spent talking to him about what being a man was really about. He, along with my mom, taught me that tears, emotions, thoughts, brilliance beyond athleticism and macho-ism is what matters. Those early conversations informed how I viewed masculinity, personally. I also have the great privilege of attending Morehouse College where black male identity is a topic of discussion and debate regularly. Since freshman year, I have had the opportunity to talk to other cishet* and gay/queer black men on topics including but not limited to: toxic hyper-masculinity, gender roles, America’s stereotype of the black male, Black America’s monolithic outlook on the black male, and all of its weighing effects on black boys and men today.ABC: Do you have an end goal? What do you hope comes of this?
JS: My ultimate goal for BOYS DON’T CRY is two-fold: I want to create a revolutionary body of work that will aesthetically attract, teach, and encourage young boys of color to stay the course of liberation and individuality. I also want to provide a place of healing to contributors, if necessary. Writing is therapeutic. Art is therapeutic. While we educate the younger generation, we heal ourselves.
ABC: In your own words, describe toxic masculinity as it relates to larger American culture and more specifically to the Black community.
JS: Toxic masculinity is when men exaggerate stereotypical behavior to exert toxic power over other men and women. This is shown via physical strength and sexuality. Over the years, we have seen the repercussions of our narrow-mindedness when it comes to the aforementioned ideas via gang violence, abuse towards black women/LGBTQIA people, and the disconnect and disband of black families due to ignorance and stubbornness.
“He, along with my mom, taught me that tears, emotions, thoughts, brilliance beyond athleticism and macho-ism is what matters.”
ABC: Things like toxic masculinity are so ingrained in our American/human fibers, it’s so layered and complex. How do we get in front of topics like this to eventually get rid of them?
JS: I think this is the question that I struggle to find. However, where I find difficulty to answer this question, I also find opportunity. I think open-minded and thoughtful dialogue between fathers and sons, brothers, uncles and nephews, and all men in general, is key. In many black families, the freedom to express an array of emotions and talk about it afterwards is taboo because of close-minded men who didn’t have the chance to do so themselves. It’s a never ending cycle that perpetuates this monolithic outlook on what how a man should act. Everything is either an agenda or against bro code. I think real conversations are important. Getting to the root of a behavior and more importantly, seeing how a specific behavior impact people, whether it’s positive or negative. That’s why I am opening this project to many different perspectives. Content will include perspectives from bullies and conduits of hyper masculinity, as well as, those bullied by hyper-masculinity and the lessons learned. My hope is that this project will act as a conversation starter for families and friends. When we know better, we (oughta) do better. This is my attempt to be boldly vocal about what has been silenced forever.
ABC: The Movement for Black Lives is largely related to Black identity in America. Do you feel your project is contributing to a larger social justice movement?
JS: Absolutely. Because being black in America requires black men to be strong, we’re often left thinking that being anything less leaves us vulnerable to oppression and bullets. As I do believe that there is a time and a place for everything, I don’t believe that our core is that of a heartless person. We find our strength in how passionate we are about things and people. That’s what manhood is about. It’s okay to respect (black) women as your equal, it’s okay to cry on your brother’s shoulder—no matter his sexual orientation, it’s okay to give and receive love, it’s okay to feel, it’s okay to be.
ABC: How long do you plan on taking submissions?
JS: I will be taking submissions for as long as they keep coming. Every piece of content will be featured on the Boys Don’t Cry blog. (Send content to firstname.lastname@example.org) I have plans to curate an anthology book from the submissions I receive but the blog is here now and here to stay.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: “cishet” is an abbreviation for an individual who is cisgender and heterosexual. You can read more here.
Alyx Goodwin is a staff writer for the Afrikan Black Coalition and a contributing writer for the Black Youth Project. You can find more information on that plus her daily musing about race, culture, politics and whatever else floats through her timeline on Twitter @AGtheGiant