What I thought when I met my dad was, “Oh, I’m free to love now.” But it’s like, how are you gonna do it? ... You’ve never done this before; no one informed you how to do this. You don’t even have the tools to do it …
“Will 4:44 be for black men the healing tonic that Lemonade offered so many women?” This was the question I asked after hearing Jay-Z’s own confessional addressing the pain and shame of trying to repair a broken relationship.
With the subsequent release of “Footnotes for 4:44,” the short film accompaniment to his title track, Jay-Z joins a slew of famous contemporaries to ruminate on what it means to be a man in relationships with women—specifically, black relationships. The revelations are raw and revealing, exposing struggles with giving and receiving honest communication, grappling equally with demons and vulnerability and with fears of ending up alone. And unlike Beyoncé in Lemonade, Jay-Z unequivocally addresses the reality within the rumor mill:
This my real life. … We built this big, beautiful mansion of a relationship that wasn’t totally built on the 100 percent truth, and it started cracking. And then things start happening that the public can see. ... And then we had to go to a point and be like, “OK, tear this down and let’s start from the beginning ... ”
Yes, let’s start from the beginning and keep it 100 percent. Admittedly, after watching “Footnotes for 4:44,” I was so relieved to see and hear such an outpouring of masculine honesty and humility that my first instinct was a slow-clap standing ovation—until I remembered that I’m not personally involved with any of these men. When my editor asked if I’d be willing to address it as a follow-up to my earlier piece, I couldn’t possibly imagine what I’d say that hadn’t already been said better by the likes of Anthony Anderson, Kendrick Lamar, et al.—not to mention what was said in dozens of other think pieces since.
But yet again, I wondered about the impact that these epiphanies might have on those without the platforms, the resources and the impetus to become self-aware. How can we help our men—our people—find or create the space to be free to love, too? What tools can we provide those who frequently lack the very foundation upon which to build functional relationships? Whose ability to focus on the emotional is all too often sublimated by the work of survival?
I would break that down by telling them to think of the most excruciating thing you could feel, as far as a loss. How would that make you feel? Recognize that emotion … prior to it even happening.
In his appearance in “Footnotes,” Lamar calls this—not just the loss, but the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes—a matter of “perspective” and “compassion.” Similarly, Meek Mill admits that he had to learn to care for somebody as much as he cared for himself. They’re both referring to as an age-old, but apparently still novel concept known as empathy—also known as “the Golden Rule.” And if there is a tool that might be of greatest use in our collective arsenal, empathy might be it.
In 4:44, Jay-Z reveals that it took fathering a daughter to consider how she might experience the world as a woman—which is somewhat ironic, considering his wife’s chart-topping single “If I Were a Boy.” But what if we were able to teach our sons and daughters to approach relationships with that awareness from the onset? Or, more powerfully, to approach each other with an empathy that is typically absent elsewhere? What if we treated each other with the care and compassion that America refuses to, if only out of sheer defiance of that denial?
As Audre Lorde famously admonished us: “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Our lack of empathy for each other—as contemporaries, comrades, partners—has come to mimic the world’s, becoming as much a threat to our collective survival as any external factors. And yet it is perhaps the only factor we have complete control over, at present, and arguably far easier to acquire than the collective wealth Jay is also urging us to build.
Last year, Kid Cudi’s admissions about his own struggles with anxiety and depression prompted leagues of black men to create the safe space to ask, #YouGoodMan? Similarly, the collective works of 4:44 present an opportunity for those same men to discuss emotional health and relationship readiness. Are we good to each other, in both intention and actions? Can we at least aspire to be?
For those of us black women who love men—black men especially—we can’t tell you not to be hardened by the experience of being an endangered species in America (or beyond) or to magically transcend being the products of your environment by simple virtue of our love. At least, not on our time. Truth is, we’re hardened, too; but please know that our pain runs not in opposition or competition but, rather, in tandem with yours.
If we show you ours, will you show us yours?
In “Footnotes,” Will Smith half jokingly proclaims, “There’s some shit you don’t want to know about your partner.” But for the survival of our relationships and of blackness as a whole, can we afford to continue willing ourselves not to know? In hopes of building stronger unions, perhaps all we can do is sit and listen, the way we hope to be heard. And when it comes to the work of getting each other free enough to love in a world that often has no love for us, perhaps the best relationship advice ultimately comes from Jay-Z’s wife:
“Show me your scars, and I won’t walk away.”