A building in Washington, D.C., is decorated with a giant print of the 1968 iconic photo of a sanitation strike in Memphis, Tenn., by Ernest Withers.

Whether it’s W.E.B. Du Bois unpacking the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”—as the unspoken query that society has historically put to black America—or the Notorious B.I.G. unapologetically claiming Casanova status, despite being a “heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever,” the issue of black self-image never leaves us.

And it’s come up again in a widely read essay by Canadian poet Orville Lloyd Douglas, outlining his reasons, for the U.K.’s The Guardian, why he “can honestly say I hate being a black male.”

Which—no matter how jarring it sounds—takes guts to acknowledge, and calls out for discussion.

Because we live in an era when women swoon for Idris Elba and Malcolm Gladwell lives atop the best-seller list, but black men from all walks of life are still often seen, just like Douglas describes, as men to be feared, avoided and—worst-case scenario—“despised by the rest of the world.”

We can’t ignore, as Douglas notes, that we’re often associated with “negativity and criminal suspicion.” And that in order to avoid unwanted confrontation, many black men grudgingly accept a paradox—so artfully explained by rocker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson after the Trayvon Martin verdict—of “a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own.”


There are, indeed, situations—like the conspicuous empty seat next to Douglas on a Toronto subway—that could make a black man (or anyone) feel “awkward, uncomfortable and annoyed.”

But while I understand Douglas’ personal struggle to reconcile the “black is beautiful” ideal against being held in what he describes as the “personal prison” of his own blackness, I’d like to offer a another conclusion that comes from the very same quandary: I love being a black man.

Let me tell you why. 

I love how James Baldwin said that being black is sometimes “so outrageous” that the best way to be a black man is just “to find a way” to make it work.

I love that there’s not just one way to be a black man. And while Douglas laments what he perceives as a lack of commonality with black men who enjoy sports and rap music—and his (perhaps) atypical affinity for PJ Harvey—he should know that I’m listening to Harvey’s Dry album right now, while I’m writing this, and that it’s completely OK. Because whoever told him that there’s something per se un-black about liking ’90s-era British folk-punk must not have learned that if you’re feeling it, that’s all that really counts, and that from PJ to Jay Z, it’s all R&B, anyway.


I love the fact that whatever else I do or don’t have in common with other African Americans (or African Canadians), we’re all part of a diaspora that’s endured all the way from slavery days to an era when Michaëlle Jean was Canada’s governor general at the same time Barack Obama was president.

I love the fact that in spite of the stereotypes, if you’re fortunate, you learn in life that there’s nothing mutually exclusive about being black, being American, being—in my case—Jewish and, ultimately, being a person. And that whoever thinks black isn’t beautiful, that’s on them, not you.

And I love the fact that (true story for another time) one of the most discouraging experiences I’ve ever had was the hostility I once encountered in a predominantly black country—illustrating that black people are fallible, just like everyone else.


So do I hate anything about being black? Yes. 

I hate that even in 2013, there are apparently still quite a few commuters who ride the Toronto subway, every day, but won’t sit down next to Orville Lloyd Douglas.

I hate that anybody would have absorbed so much negative reinforcement in their life about who they are and how they look that they’ve come to the conclusion that their blackness consigns them to “a life of misery and shame.”


And I hate that what Douglas wants—“to be treated as an individual”—hinges partly on the pervasiveness of that negative reinforcement, and the narrow-mindedness of anyone who finds it easier to look at black men as somehow fundamentally different.

But I Iove the fact that most black men will tell you: It also depends on how we see ourselves.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.