No More Mr. Tough Guy

Black men need their swagger and their game, but on Father's Day it is worth remembering a little vulnerability is not the worse thing in the world.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

Black men need their swagger and their game, but on Fathers’ Day it is worth remembering a little vulnerability is not the worst thing in the world. 

In spite of the compelling TCBY promotion that offers a free yogurt for dad on Father’s Day, many of us are in search of a more  substantive and memorable family experience this third Sunday in June. In fact, when I became a dad in the early 1990s, I so wanted to help folks have meaningful Father’s Days that I edited a collection of essays called Faith of our Fathers: African American Men Reflect on Fatherhood (Dutton/Penguin). Essentially, I asked brothers I knew (Cornel West, Robin D.G. Kelley, Charles Ogletree, and others) to write about their experiences as fathers or with their fathers. I wanted the collection to be an intimate conversation between black men that would help fathers deepen their own self-awareness and more closely connect with their children, and with their dads. 

I was pleasantly surprised that the most common reaction to the book was that it presented the vulnerability of African American men in a way that was not often captured in mainstream media. The images of black masculinity that are most often generated by mainstream media are patriarchal ones, meaning they feature the tough, emotionally invulnerable guy who is hardened by society and unable to make real emotional connections.  While black men are still the most feared group in our society and there are reasons for them to hide their vulnerability, the media images are vastly one-sided. Thus, I realized that the presentation of black male vulnerability in my book was a way to challenge common perceptions of black masculinity. This, I knew, served the interests of both men and women. 

Father’s Day 2009 presents  another chance for more of these rich father-bonding experiences in the form of a movieStand: The Movie by Tavis Smiley.  I saw this film two weeks ago with my youngest son, and even though I had seen it before, I did not anticipate the new understanding it would open up between my fifteen year old and me.   

The film is billed as a set of conversations between Tavis Smiley and his “soul patrol”, some of his closest male friends, during the summer of 2008—a crucial moment in the debate over black manhood, mostly because of Obama’s presidential campaign and what his potential success represented.  

Smiley seized this moment to investigate, with his close circle of male pals, what it all meant.  

The major interlocutors in the movie include academics Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Eddie Glaude; actor Wren T. Brown; Clifton West (Cornel’s Brother), and Raymond Ross (Smiley’s long time assistant). The storyline is quite simple: Smiley has booked a hotel in Memphis for an extended weekend and he has arranged for his friends to meet him there. Unbeknownst to them, Smiley has planned day trips to local sites of historic or personal significance. These trips fuel the conversation by extending the range of topics and expanding the number of conversationalists in the film (BeBe Winans, Dick Gregory, Isaac Hayes and others join the dialogue at different moments in the movie). 

Cameras follow the men reality-show-style as they talk casually over meals, while watching television, on the bus, at a picnic or at church. These conversations are thoughtful, hilarious and insightful. They contain both facts and analysis. But it is the emotional component of that resonated most powerfully between my son and me as we watched these brothers laugh, cry, and pray together. The mere presence of a group of articulate, stylish and courageous brothers on film who showed both vulnerability and swagger, commitment to others as  well as commitment to the self, who valued history and appreciated the contemporary moment, was a radical act. 

My son and I were profoundly moved by seeing our story—the “way we get down”—on the screen.  We cried and laughed together. The experience gave  my son some insight into my generation, and interestingly, I think I understood him better too because I was more aware of our generational differences as well as the things that connected us.