I apologize for waiting so late to post today; however, it appears that someone has officially declared today “Let’s Pile on Max Day.” Some are trying hard to shake me from my usual aplomb, but all they have succeeded in doing is wasting my time and theirs. Days like this only make me stronger. Sometimes people are so miserable themselves that for someone to be so audacious as to be happy and content in their presence makes them even more miserable.
But I didn’t get to compose anything new, so I will just leave this piece that appeared as a guest post on the site Womanist Musings. And please, love yourself today and be a blessing to somebody.
I have been composing this narrative in my head for several weeks now. However, I always push it to the rear, lowering it in priority, until I look into the face of my fourteen year old son or until the phone rings and I see my oldest son’s number on the caller ID.
But I am lost for a way in; I simply do not know where to begin. But so that I might see this project through to completion, I’ll just jump in by positing this question: “What does it mean to be a man?”
Most of what I learned about being a man, I learned from the women in my life, ironically often in those spaces often relegated to women.
As I sat next to my grandmother watching her sew, she would lovingly question me and advise me. She would tell me what was expected of me. She would tell me how I should conduct myself.
As I helped my aunts clean by moving this piece or that piece of furniture so they could sweep or vacuum behind it, they would compliment me on my spirit. They told me I had a good spirit, a gentle spirit, a giving spirit. They warned me that people would want me to change. But they admonished me not to change. My aunts ensured me that the world needed more men with just those attributes.
And it was my mother who gave me the gift of reading and writing. I am not sure when I began to read, but from my earliest cognizance, books were there, and later she encouraged me to write despite my father insisting that I play outside with the other boys, despite my father insisting that all this “work and no play” would cause me to grow up weak and effeminate.
But she would gently rebuke him, and explain to him that what the world needed was more men who could think, who could reason; the world was populated with too many men who valued brawn over brains. And often he would respond with the question of what kind of man would I end up being if I stayed in the house under women all the time. But he would acquiesce nevertheless.
And watching him, listening to him, all the while the question hung in the back of my mind, “Just what does it mean to be a man?”
I am not saying that the men in my life did not have a huge influence over the person I have become, but while the lessons taught by the women in my life were more explicit, were more like a dialogue, the lessons taught by the men were more one-sided and sometimes contradictory. Often what they said was accompanied by a nod and a wink. Often I was confused when what they said conflicted with their actions. Perhaps, I was confused because their method of instruction left more questions than answers.
No experience is more demonstrative of this than that when I left home at the age of seventeen to enter the military.
I had finished high school, but because of my age, my parents had to sign for me which much to my surprise, they did. I am not certain why I made this decision; I had numerous other opportunities, to include a full ride college scholarship, I could have pursued. But I felt I had to do this. I felt I had to leave home to find myself as a man.
And on the eve of my departure, the male elders of my family—my surviving grandfather, my father, and a host of uncles—assembled to advise me and send me off. As they stood in a semi-circle with me sitting in a chair at the center, one by one they gave me advice, sought to inspire me, and bade me goodbye.
Before that moment when the first speaker spoke, I was unaware of the gravity of my decision. And by the time my favorite uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, rose to give the closing speech, tears of apprehension were streaming down my face. He closed his speech with the charge—I still remember it know as if it were yesterday—“In every and all things, be a man. Always be a man.”
Through tears I asked him, “What does it mean to be a man?” He looked to the faces in the crowd for an answer who all looked at my grandfather, the elder male present. My grandfather stood thoughtfully, pulled on his hat and told me that this was my journey; it was up to me to determine what it meant to be a man.
And with that piece of sage like wisdom the men filed pass me, each pausing to look me in my eyes, give me a firm handshake, a pat on the back. I returned the gesture, but what I really wanted, what I really needed was for one of them, any one of them, to put his arms around me and tell me it would be alright. And with that I set off to answer the question for myself.
Along the way I have made a good many mistakes. Along the way, I have hurt some people, and I have been hurt in return. Along the way, there have been many days when I have cheered in triumph and on others I have lowered my head in defeat. Many days I have sung out loud and with glee, “I shot the sheriff, and on a few others I have found myself singing “Sweet Jesus, please be my friend.”
And I have learned that I cannot define my manhood by my sexual prowess or the number of sexual partners I have. I cannot define my manhood by the power I am able to exert over people. I cannot define my manhood by the amount of money I make, the car I drive, the size of my house, or by what I possess.
But I can define my manhood by the number of lives I have touched, the number of lives I have made better. I can define my manhood by the look of love and respect I see in the eyes of my wife and children. But most of all I can define my manhood for myself and without any outside cultural and societal paradigms.
I am still learning. I am still evolving. However, I think I have the most basic understanding of this thing now. I think that I can finally offer my sons the definition, the vision of manhood that was denied me. But most of all I know that before they leave my house, I will put my arms around them, I will pull them tight to me, and I will let them know that it will all work out in the end; it will be alright. And then hope against all hope that someday they grow to be better men than I.