Every man in America—particularly every black man in America—should read New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s recent essay, “Up From Pain,” adapted from his forthcoming memoir about identity, sexual abuse and coming to terms with his own identity as a man.
Reading it is akin to listening to Nas or Kendrick Lamar at their provocatively insightful best. Without heavy-handedness or self-righteousness, Blow writes with moral urgency about poverty, economic inequality, homophobia, mass incarceration—some of the most pressing issues of our time.
And while his writing usually offers unique insights—making reading one of his essays more about the journey than the destination—nothing in his oeuvre prepared me for the revelations powerfully laid out in “Up From Pain,” a powerful confessional that details snapshots of childhood sexual abuse, the murderous impulse for revenge that temporarily gripped him as a college student and, for most of the piece, Blow’s struggle to come to terms with being bisexual.
A divorced father of three, Blow writes, “In addition to being attracted to women, I could also be attracted to men.” And that recognition became the core of his journey into manhood in a society that has traditionally scorned those who refuse to “choose” a definite monosexual identity.
“I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was,” he writes, “not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me—made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature and forged in the fire of life.”
It’s a powerful sentiment matched by even more powerful words, ones that too often go unsaid—or, worse, unheeded—by black men in American society. Crucially, Blow’s willingness to reveal his vulnerability, in all of its manifestations, offers a real gift of insight into individual resilience, perseverance and hope for black men struggling to define manhood in contemporary American society.
Because as black men, we experience and endure a tremendous amount of pain as we come of age in America. Many of us try to ignore, medicate or bury the pain from childhood sexual or physical abuse, anxiety over sexual identity, and anguish over the realization that stereotypical masculine behavior often hides unspoken worlds of inner pain and turmoil.
But Blow reaffirms why I love being a black man. For me, a heterosexual black man growing up in New York City during the ’80s, sexuality was rigidly defined. Homophobia, along with the anti-gay slurs that still permeate rap lyrics and much of our popular culture, stood alongside rites of passage into black manhood in my Queens, N.Y., neighborhood. You could be either gay or a man, but you could never be both.
Over time, through higher education and personal maturity, I came to understand that this was false. But this lie still has a hold on succeeding generations of black men, including those of ambiguous or conflicted sexual identity.
In our current climate, where black male celebrities have almost become synonymous with domestic violence and child abuse, Blow’s words arrive as a gift to contemporary and future generations, because black manhood is something that each generation needs to redefine. This reimagining necessitates something that, although vital, is difficult for this society—irrespective of race and ethnicity—to do.
And that is to come around to seeing black men as three-dimensional human beings, with the strengths, flaws, shortcomings and pain that come with the joy of being fully human. For providing an intimate glimpse into one black man’s story and the universal humanity behind these experiences, every man in America should read “Up From Pain,” and offer thanks to Charles Blow.
Also on The Root: “Charles Blow on the Complexity of the Black Male Experience”
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.