My Father, Manhood & Masculinity

I woke up this morning on my last full day in Capetown thinking predominantly of the impact that my father has had on my life. The older I get the more I realize how much my father has affected every aspect of my life, my thoughts, my feelings, my actions and even my expectations of myself and others. I make subconscious and conscious reference to my father (and mother) every day of my life in one way or another. For the passed three weeks I’ve been staying with my friend Simphiwe Mabuya his wife Zuki and their two daughters in Nyanga, (one of the townships here on the outskirts of Capetown, South Africa). Staying with Simphiwe and his family I have also consistently been reminded of the impact of a father on his children.

I have a picture of my father helping me to tie my shoes when I was around seven or eight years old, I posted it on my tumblr a few months ago, I made reference to this picture in the song ‘yesterdays’ on One Day Soon in relation to my mother, their relationship and eventual separation. To me the picture expresses a reality of my father in my life, a care, sensitivity and humility that is not often associated with the stereotype of ‘manhood’ in many of our cultures but is essential to being a whole human being. Maybe this sensitivity and humility isn’t the best thing to express during wartime, and although I think many of the stereotypes around manhood are related to conflict, power, ego and domination, I don’t think most humans aspire to be in a state of perpetual warfare and I don’t think most people who identify as men want to live this way either, I certainly never had any desire to.

My father is both caring and strong, sensitive and powerful, intelligent and emotional, determined and vulnerable so I never saw a contradiction in a man being both sensitive and powerful at the same time, both nurturing and strong; it’s the same way I view my mother and myself for that matter. I view my father as a whole human being, or at least as someone who aspired to be as whole as possible. I’m not at all saying that my father was or is perfect I’m just saying that he tried and was brave enough to manifest a positive relationship with his son regardless of a strained relationship with his own father.

The skewed idea of masculinity as created and perpetuated by an often violent and patriarchal society, is held up by both men who probably birthed it out of ego and an attempt to hold power but is also held up by many women who have been subjected to it. What women find attractive, what they will accept, what they expect, what they teach and what they care about also leads to men into being the way they are in society even if women’s attitudes towards men stem from the same patriarchy that leaves them at a disadvantage in societies around the globe. At the Open Forum conference that I just attended here in Capetown I met a Black woman feminist lesbian who said something to the effect that sometimes without knowing women participate in mens facilitated helplessness when it comes to things that are traditionally viewed as ‘women’s duties’ like cooking, cleaning and taking care of children. But boys are given trucks and airplanes when they are children in our society while girls are given dolls and strollers and kitchen sets.

I say all this to talk about my father again. I learned from my father, he like many other fathers around the world are our first and most consistent example of manhood, as our mothers are often our first and most consistent example of womanhood. We model our relationships after the relationships we see. So it’s not surprising that many people who have witnessed strong and healthy relationships have an easier time creating strong healthy relationships in their own lives and making the choices that will lead to better relationships. When I say strong relationships I’m not making any correlation between strength and time mind you, I believe my parents had a strong relationship, but they split after eighteen years. Those of us that have insecurities and fears in our relationships make choices that can mirror those insecurities and choices that lead us to mirror the relationships that we have seen. And of course there are many people who never had a positive relationship to reflect because a parent was completely absent.

Yesterday afternoon I did a performance in Guguletu and had a long conversation after the show with a guy who lived in the area, he said to me “the family is the basis of the community and the community is the basis of the nation,” and although some of our definitions were different, I share his view. I believe that the love relationship and partnership is the basis of society because out of that relationship come children that create a family, the family creates the community and the community creates the society. If a the foundation of a house is not strong, the house is not strong so as someone who is interested in community I’ve always wanted a strong relationship. Just like Muslim people believe that the marriage is half of their Islam, i believe that my relationships should attempt to mirror my view of society. I however have never lived that reality.

I had a conversation with my friend Che Kothari at the wedding of our friends Ryan and Nana, I was experiencing what would prove to be the last legs of a undefined relationship and was generally not in a celebratory mood. Che and his (now) wife Mriga spoke about two wholes coming together, not two people coming together to complete each other as is the typical (western) view of marriage. I am of the belief that many of us who have a history of slavery are still living with the legacy of Willie Lynch, not whole in ourselves and thus finding it difficult to find wholeness in our relationships, in many cases because of a separation from black fatherhood. We are divided, distrustful and distant from each other and because many of our families were fragmented, many of our families continue to be fragmented, and our distrust and insecurity keeps us separated, leading to more uncertainty, distance and distrust being passed down through the generations. I also think that this has lead to a incredibly one diminutional view of masculinity that is still being perpetuated by many of us, even the most progressive of us.

When I was seventeen my first girlfriend told me that she thought that I was gay, a part from the assumed negative connotations of this statement, this has always been strange to me, similar to the statements I always heard about being a mama’s boy or more recently being told that I am ‘over sensitive.’ It is not the first time that I have heard such statements. I think that my first girlfriend thought I was gay because I was getting to know her before I ever made any romantic (aka sexual) advances toward her. She later made some choices that got her involved in an extremely abusive relationship that I’ll spare you the details of. In my opinion she held a very unhealthy view of what manhood is that in many communities leads to both the cultivation of negative traits in ones self as well as perceiving negative traits such as aggression, jealously and possessiveness as masculine and therefore desirable. I had a close friend who was in a brief abusive relationship and her perception of his intense and physically violent jealously as a clear sign of his love for her frightened me in the same way my ex’s comments about me simply confused me. What is this skewed masculinity and it’s association with control and violence. Because people perceive manhood in this way when someone does not attempt to take control or is more sensitive or emotional than unemotional or unmovable they are viewed as ‘effeminate’ (which is also an active stereotype of the emotional, irrational female) and the perception is that this is not masculine and therefore not attractive to a heterosexual woman. After all, men are supposed to take initiative, make the first move, take control, be emotional strong, be outgoing and all the other things that are associated with the phrase ‘be a man!’ I don’t think this is far of from women saying things like ‘I want a man that i can feel safe with’ or ‘who can protect me’ but I digress.

I guess what I’m saying here is that our view of manhood, similar to our view of womanhood is profoundly skewed so skewed that we can view balance as effeminate and violence as masculinity. The well-known philosopher and spiritual leader Krishnamurti said “it is not measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” That we are very well adjusted to these troubling views of masculinity might be counter to our best interest as a society. It seams to me that we suffer from a normalization of profound imbalance.

I’ll end this by telling another brief story. Once when I was about sixteen years old I was on the train with my father coming from somewhere, there were a group of guys about my age sitting together talking loudly and doing what most teenaged boys do when they are together; posturing and attempting to assert their manhood. My father and I were heading separate ways so he embraced me and kissed me on my forehead. I remember at sixteen feeling so embarrassed that my father showed his affection for me in this way in front of a group of my perceived peers. I look back on that moment now and I’m thankful that I had a gentle and loving father that taught me that a man does not need to live up to the stereotype of masculinity despite what society asks us to portray. My father never really taught me this in words, he taught me this in actions. I’m happy that I could be an artist who didn’t care about sports or cars and that be okay. I’m happy that my father was able to show me the complexity of what it is to be a man, so despite the difficulty of being a complex man in a fairly one dimensional society, I could still allow myself to be me. I’m grateful that my father said of my mother more than ten years after they split up that he loved and respected her and that she was still his best friend. And more than anything I’m happy that my father is just my father and we can still talk and laugh and argue and be father and son now that I too am a man.

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