To feel the love of a Black man is intense. He’s an uncanny creature to this end. Seldom is he synonymous with a healthy affection. His affections usually come with a twist. A silence. A madness. A danger. His story is rarely pink, happy. It’s twisted, darkly so. Blue. Black. There’s an abundant reserve of stories we know of men, Black men, who were destructive in their notion of love. A brother. A lover. A father. But, he loves. He loves profusely, sometimes with an undying juvenility that draws bellowing laughter from us. He loves in a revolution ignited by the blood and bones of his ancestors, loved ones and heritage, in the knowledge that on his back they may blossom. He says:
I know part of his story.
A young me feared masculinity. I can’t say I’m any better now. I knew it to be harsh and unreliable. It had little-to-no tolerance for my pink heart. A heart that preferred dialogue over stick fights. That treasured explicit declarations of love. That tended to cry when it was sad. I had been ostracised in the name of masculinity, forced to carry weapons my little hands had no idea how to use. I had been disrobed of my childhood at its hands, to know intricacies incomprehensible to little minds. And still I aspired to be a man – not sure of what it was, but to be it, I would.
Men were something to fear; to keep at a distance.
The first man in my life was just that. It was no fault of his own. Life had been cruel and left him brain damaged. He was forced to relearn basic things like how to talk, and so the toddler was left to interpret murmurs as “I love you.” My mother, a phenomenal human, would try to entice him to utter words of acknowledgment to me. I love her for this. But I remember the obscure and searching look in his eyes. When I was probably eight, she asked him if he knew who I was. She was convinced he said “Yes”, but all I heard was silence. I was unaware, as a young boy, how much I needed him to say “Yes.” Or to at least have heard the “Yes” my mother swears by – even if it had never been uttered.
A young me feared masculinity. I can’t say I’m any better now. I knew it to be harsh and unreliable. It had little-to-no tolerance for my pink heart. A heart that preferred dialogue over stick fights. That treasured explicit declarations of love.
We had never had a conversation, he and I. Only silence, and the knowledge that he was my father, and I his son. He had the look and mien of a stranger; I realised the cut of that look only years after. He is the stranger I needed to know loved me. He died, I mourned. I cried many times after that. I still do. My little heart cried, “Love me, Daddy.” I don’t think it’s stopped; I’m just better at not listening to it.
The Black community suffers a damning curse: Absent fathers. This notion of absence is multi-faceted. Men who left at the news of pregnancy. Men who stayed, cold characters in the performance of family. Men who left but came back to claim our adult triumphs. They all were absent. There, too, were men who died in mind and body, at the hands of policemen and anti-Black societies. Men who tried to stay. They were absent too, in fact. And we grew up fatherless, vagrants robbed of the love of patriarchs.
What is the value of a father? The greater question for me is, What is the value of more than one player in the parental unit? I sat in a taxi the other day, overloaded with 18 humans. A toddler girl was involved in a funny-face duel with her father. Her mother sat pressed against the window on the side. I observed the game and the light laughter of the mother who seemed conscious of the amusement, but her eyes faced the moving ground outside. The young one, though focused on the man, used the woman to balance herself. I observed the subtle tag-teaming between this man and woman as the scene started to morph into a screaming episode. I thought, How important it must be to have multiple examples of goodness and humanity; how releasing it must be, as a parent, to know that you can afford a few personal moments because of your partnership; how foundational it must be to be part of something better defined as a community. The idea that parental figures are substitutable, particularly fathers, is reckless. History, however, has not been kind.
Families have been pawns in the playing out of cruel historical facts. In South Africa, for example, the notion of family has suffered many mutations. Family structure went through unimaginable strain, which ultimately contributed to historical rises in women-headed households. This is part of the under-told legacy of South African fatherlessness.
The problem was seeded in 1602 when the Chamber Representatives of the Netherlands Parliament granted a founding charter to the Dutch East India Company to establish an Indian trading empire in the East. They did their pillaging in the East (Indonesia, Japan, India, etc.), and then shifted their focus to South Africa in 1652. Suffice it to say, we were never the same. Particularly once they discovered we had commercially exploitable resources – diamonds and gold.
Twenty years after the exploitation of diamonds in the Northern Cape, in 1861, commercial quantities of gold were discovered. Migrant labour practices proliferated. Miners – Black men – were kept in compounds, often segregated by ethnic group. They were contracted for 18-month spells with no certainty of re-engagement. This meant their families had to function without them for long periods of time. The men were sourced from within South Africa and its neighbouring states (the political set-up was a bit different than it is today). This seemingly abundant reserve of Black men came from rural communities. Hostile economic conditions forced them to leave their families and migrate to the mines.
New family dynamics were introduced. The Black man’s role within the family was reduced from parent, partner and patriarch to donor, which they weren’t always successful at, either. This persisted for years. The powers at the time sought to reimagine the role of Black Labour in the society. It served the then regime to keep Black Labour apart from their communities, but close. A state of separateness, an apartheid. Our mothers were thrust into this new framework. Shedding their solitary roles as caregivers and forced to co-create the financial means to support the family. And so we became our grandmothers’ children.
This evolving role of Black men in the family and society gave rise to new masculinities, from dynamic intimate male-male relationships in compounds to normalised infidelity. Stripped of the traditional African community, the Black man had to redefine himself. There’s so much to be learned and said to better understand him, but we have little to no patience for him.
Yet the historical blame game can only stretch so far. I asked a friend for a story of goodness at the hands of a Black man. She struggled. She rather chose a story that changed her life at the hands of a Black man.
Typically, her mother would fetch her on campus. On an odd day, she would go to her mother’s workplace. This was one of those odd days. She was on her way there, accompanied by a friend – a woman, too. To get to the entrance of the workplace you have to go through an alley. It was the afternoon, around golden hours. The part of the city she had to traverse – the scene for explicit misogyny, catcalling and the like – was unavoidable. She tells me that at some point women learn survival mechanisms that will hopefully keep them from experiencing physical violence. However, they rarely, if ever, save you from other kinds of violence.
Three men approach them. They rely on the safety of light and a benefit of doubt. As they approach her they started catcalling and hurling heinous slurs. Her mechanisms are activated, she tilts her head down and focuses on the path. She almost gets away. He grabs her arm, and whispers “Ngingakudla skoon” – “I would penetrate you bare-skin”.
In South Africa assault is defined, among other things, as “the unlawful and intentional inspiration of a belief in the other that force is immediately to be applied to her.”1 I would like to think that in this scenario, lawyers would say that a case of assault had been established. She says she had accepted that she might be raped, but he walked away laughing with his friends. A Black man. To simply blame this scene on history would be reckless and dispossessing of his agency. He decided, and then he acted on his decision. This is one half-told story of the many instances of violence at the hands of Black men.
With this piece I hope to spark a re-engineering of the narrative of the Black man. The unbound Black man. To humanise him. To amount him to love. To mainstream his affection.
The toxicity of Black masculinity such as this is a real threat to the Black community. The wellbeing of women, children and the queer community is left to whim. These are our stories. The Black men we love. The Black men who are us. The Black men who love us. They hurt us, too.
With this piece I hope to spark a re-engineering of the narrative of the Black man. The unbound Black man. To humanise him. To amount him to love. To mainstream his affection. To join in his revolt to love, and save him from a life of incessant revolutions. To acknowledge that he, too, is tired of revolting, and wishes to just be. A lover. A profuse lover of men, and women, and children. A lover of all.