There has been a lot of musing lately around the concept of “toxic masculinity.” For those unfamiliar with the term, “toxic masculinity” refers to the frame of mind many men exist within that sees any expression of affection towards another man, anything less than hyper-masculinity or machismo, as effeminate or “gay” and therefore inferior. Consequently, when an absolutely beautiful picture depicting three generations of black men kissing one another on the forehead recently made it around the internet that it was interpreted by some as “gay.” What dissenters were saying in deploying the word “gay” was that this way of behaving was a radical departure from black male norms and mores, which narrowly constricts the resources and language with which black men can relate to one another. “Toxic masculinity” in black men can be linked to the brutality of chattel slavery, where black men had to find ways of asserting their strength even while being beaten, or having to watch helplessly as slave masters and overseers raped their wives, or witnessing their children sold away.
As a result of the limited emotional resources often available to black men, I can count on one hand the number of times my father has ever said “I love you” to me. It just is not something he says regularly, and when he does, maybe because I’m unaccustomed to hearing it in his deep baritone, it often feels “off” somehow. I can remember a few awkward exchanges at the airport where he is unsure of whether to hug me, or give me a handshake, or just utilize the infamous “nod.” So much of our relationship is unspoken. With my mother the story is quite different. “I love you” is in regular rotation in our communication and often serves as the punctuation with which we end our weekly phone calls.
I first became aware of this relational difference when I was interviewing for my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). The interviewer asked me to dig deep into my family history, something up until that point I was happy not to think much about. What came out of that conversation was my difficulty of relating to older black men – my father in particular. Words matter to me and in a world where I often feel verbally assaulted by people who view my blackness as inherently criminal, my queerness as definitely sinful, and these combined with my faith as antithetical, hearing words of affirmation matters deeply to me. My former rector-turned-bishop, Robert Wright, another black man I deeply admire, once said to me: “you need to develop a deep well of confidence within you, because so much of this world will try to destroy you.” My father seldom uses the words “I love you,” and in the past I often felt diminished because of it.
What he did say was “how’s your car?” He would ask it when we spoke on the phone, when I came home from college, and when I would leave to go back again. He still does, even though I drive a 2016 Mini Cooper. In all honesty, I never understood it until a few years ago. My younger, know-it-all self assumed that he did not care as much as my mother did. But, as I began to mature, I came to see that this might be how he, a middle-aged black man in America, knew how to say “I love you” to me, his black son, who was going out into the world often unaware of the unimaginable dangers that often surrounded me.
One of the fondest memories I have of my father is when he and I changed the brakes and spark plugs on my 1994 Nissan Maxima just a few years ago. Anyone who knows anything about me knows I am not exactly one for getting dirty. I prefer to leave car work to the professionals while I sip complementary coffee in the waiting room. And yet this experience of radical black love sticks with me. It was a clear, hot North Carolina summer day and he and I were in the driveway of my childhood home passing tools, passing wisdom, and passing love.
In the wake of the extrajudicial killing of Terence Crutcher by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, my father saying “how’s your car?” has a renewed significance. It seems that being stranded on the side of road while black can be added to the long list of capital offenses in the United States of America in 2016. Crutcher’s car had broken down coming back from evening classes as Tulsa Community College. He was studying music appreciation. His pastor, the Rev’d. Terry Shannon, said “he sang in the choir” and “he had a beautiful voice.” He was the father of four black children. But none of that mattered to the officer who shot him, or to the officer in the police helicopter who described him as “one bad dude,” as assessment he made from hundreds of feet away.
To be perfectly honest, I deeply fear an encounter with an unhinged, racist police officer far more than I fear an encounter with a terrorist from ISIS. If we want to fight a “War on Terror,” what about the terror black people feel when we encounter law enforcement, the very people who sworn to “protect and serve” us, but too often project their racist views onto our black bodies and kill us as a result of their inability to see humanity.
Maybe, my father’s question to me and my brothers was his way of trying to protect us, of ensuring that we would have less encounters with police officers that could result in our cold-blooded deaths. I do not have any children, but the deep fear of sending your black children into a cruel world is something I know my parents felt. My mom always ensured that I carried my ID when I went running in the evenings in the off chance that I encountered a police officer in the dark and needed to prove that I lived in the neighborhood. My father simply said, “how’s your car?” This is the type of conversations black parents have with black children, because there is so much of the world from which they cannot protect their babies. We don’t have full access to our childhoods, because from an early age we are made aware of the danger that misplaced white gaze can pose to our black bodies. Just ask Mamie and Louis Till, or Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, or Lesley McFadden and Michael Brown, Sr.
I see now that my father loves me. Deeply. We may not have always understood one another, but he always loved me even if he struggled to find the words to express it. The frame of black masculinity that he lives within restricts his language, but I hear him wanting to yell out “Son! I love you!” My father is not a perfect man and I am sure that I not a perfect son, but with each passing day, I can truly say, from the bottom of my heart…
…Daddy, how’s your car?