Our reactions to Black men embracing in public highlight Black masculinity’s dehumanizing expectations
Imagine a masculinity that celebrates touching and hugging and kissing other men.
by Daniel Johnson
The topic of masculinity, what it is and how it is expressed in both immediate and popular culture, is one that always seems to be spurred on or perhaps made more visible by conversations which happen on social media, usually centering around how men showing each other affection seems to be taboo.
In our construction of what is “manly” and what behavior is apropos for men, softness is a thing that gets deemed womanly or feminine. It is foreign to our popular conceptions of masculinity here on Western, or more specifically, American shores.
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I remember all too well the discussions, deflection, and the questioning of sexuality that cropped up all across social media when an image of director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan embracing was released. Jordan, the actor with whom Coogler has formed a brotherly bond with, placed his head on Coogler’s chest in a pose which denotes a comfortable intimacy.
Intimacy is a thing which we are taught to crave, to chase, to lust after when it comes from women, but intimacy is also a thing which we are taught to shun, to abhor, and to treat with disdain when it comes from men.
What little intimacy we do allow is then filtered through a homoantagonistic lens, replete with phrases like “no homo” and other declarations of our straightness. There is a problem with the ways in which masculinity is practiced by and around cis-het men, and we need to expand the ways in which we conceptualize and practice this masculinity.
It is not the work of women and femmes, especially not Black women and femmes, to ensure our emotional intelligence. Even so, I find a comfort in Beyoncé ruminating on the way she wishes to raise her son, Sir Carter, saying that she wants him to be free to be an emotional being. For so long, the conceptualization of men, of masculinity, has been divorced from any kind of emotion, of any kind of real vulnerability that would show hurt and pain. Instead, men have been permitted and even encouraged to lash out, to become aggressive, to turn any hurt and pain we encounter outward towards others.
Recently, Ozzie Albies comforted his friend and Atlanta Braves teammate Ronald Acuna Jr. in the dugout during a game and their embrace was caught on camera. This hug was not because Acuna Jr.’s mother had died, or because his father had died, as rumors created to explain their intimacy initially claimed.
It has been confirmed that Acuna’s Jr.’s mother and father are in fact still alive, but perhaps, being from Venezuela, Acuna Jr. may have been missing his family terribly that day. Or maybe he was having a rough week. Or maybe he was afraid that with all of the political posturing of Donald Trump and his racist immigration policies that his own status might not be as secure as he thought. Regardless, the video and accompanying photos of Albies comforting and holding Acuna Jr.’s head made their rounds on social media and speculation about their sexuality ran wild.
It is our own inability to conceive of a version of masculinity that allows men to be open and vulnerable with each other that is reflected in the dominant narrative that men who show affection to each other must be gay or feminine. But we, too, are emotional creatures and we deserve to be comforted by other men when we show ourselves in need.
To the credit of Albies, he did not seem to be repulsed by his teammate burying his head in his lap, he did not stand up, or otherwise attempt to rid himself of his teammate’s pain and hurt. He stayed there and allowed his body to be used to comfort his teammate.
He rubbed his head affectionately, he looked off in the distance, but his eyes betrayed a kind of knowing, as though he somehow knew his teammate needed some kind of touch, some kind of loving and emotional and grounding touch.
Touch. That thing which men have robbed ourselves of for so long, chasing some kind of macho credit, but seeking it any way we can get it from the arms of cis-het or cis-het presenting women, making our emotions their responsibility.
The irony is strong enough to bring Atlas to his knees, that we crave touch, we seek out touch from women, but any kind of touch from each other has to be explained away or justified so we can feel comfortable with just being human.
We should not be so fragile that the very idea of being lovingly touched by a man automatically triggers homoantagonistic responses or has to be filtered in a way that it can be justified in the eyes of a society of men who have alienated ourselves from touch.
Men touching each other should not be taboo, men touching other men in a soft and gentle way should not be reserved for moments tucked away behind closed doors. These men openly touching each other is a pure, unrestrained expression of love, of a kind of love that is tragically in too short of supply in these times.
It should not be so radical for men to hold each other in public. We need to seriously question and deeply examine our politics of manhood and masculinity. A masculinity that traps men inside cold, hard, unfeeling, and violent cocoons is the kind of masculinity that kills non-men and demands that the discussion makes room for “not all men.”
This is the kind of masculinity which tragically is the baseline experience for the majority of men in America. If then, this is our baseline, if this is our standard, we should seek to liberate ourselves from this kind of self-imposed oppression. We should seek to explore what it means to feel the soft touch of men without having to create an excuse for ourselves to feel that love.
If emotions are part and parcel of the human experience, and sadness and pain and love and joy are all on the spectrum of a very human experience, why then is masculinity as it has been constructed deemed the exception? Why then is our masculinity measured by the things we can get or have taken from non-men, instead of what we can give or have given to other men?
Imagine a masculinity that celebrates touching and hugging and kissing other men, that does not demonize or defame or otherwise question a man’s sexuality when he is soft and loving instead of hardened and mean. Imagine the worlds we could inhabit if men freed ourselves from these unrealistic expectations of masculinity, if we saw men touching each other and did not immediately seek to explain away the whys of touch from two men who love each other deeply and fully and completely.
Though not all masculinity is toxic, the overwhelming response to displays of healthy masculinity is to find an excuse for it. This may seem benign on its face, but looking for a “valid reason” for men to embrace each other and show each other tenderness is still an expression of toxic masculinity.
The truth is that men do not and should never need a reason to be tender and loving to other men in public, and creating alternative scenarios where that basic need is hidden away behind a manufactured death in the family amplifies what is wrong with masculinity as it currently exists.
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Wanting to be comforted is a human emotion. It is one that does not need explanation or excuse, especially when the people needing comfort are Black men. Black men especially and specifically need the freedom to be comforted by other men, because when our brothers and sons and children and sisters and daughters are executed by the state, we shouldn’t have to ask for permission.
We shouldn’t have to contextualize our pain and our hurt and our need for comfort, we shouldn’t have to seek out the arms of Black women to make our pain palpable for other men or other people or society. If we are in pain, in distress, in misery, the arms of men should be the arms in which we can also find comfort and healing and peace.
By not seeking out this comfort and healing with each other, we are enabling the destruction of ourselves by piecemeal. We should look to Ozzie Albies for our own salvation, we should look to Ronald Acuna Jr. and find ourselves in the embrace of another man, sometimes just because life hurts.
Daniel Johnson studies English and creative writing at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to trap music. His work can be found at The Root, Black Youth Project, Racebaitr, Those People, and Afropunk.