I did not grow up in a household that promoted intimacy or emotions. I recall sitting in a doctor’s office with my father and asking him what he wanted me to be when I grew up. He looked at me in the eyes and said, “a man.” Thirty years later, I can recall that interaction verbatim.
His apathy towards emotions and intimacy has changed over the years. This may owe to age, the transience of time, tough love becoming outdated, a cultural shift in how we view parenting, or his heart softening. Whatever the case, now when I see or talk to my father, we say I love you and hug a lot. It seems small but feels much larger, especially around Father’s Day, when the calendar gives me an obvious opportunity to replay that scene from the doctor’s office.
Expressing intimacy may lessen the issues that Black men face, given the stark difference in the health and wellbeing of Black men when accounting for race and gender. Black men deal with an alarming range of health disparities and emotional stressors, including increased depression and suicide compared to other racial groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 6% of Black men report daily feelings of anxiety or depression, and 26% of Black men with anxiety or depression use mental health services compared to 45% of White men. Black men need a new game plan to combat this hardship.
When toxic, stoic behaviors are discouraged, Black men can prioritize healthcare and their mental health.
In March, a New York Times piece promoted the sports film Creed III, featuring an image of two Black men, Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Major, in close embrace. The image of the Black men made sense in the context of an article highlighting Jordan’s experience in creating the film. But the closeness displayed in the photo and the audience’s heightened response to intimacy stirred negative feelings about Black men. Readers offered homophobic responses and showed discomfort with the expression of non-sexual intimacy. The negative responses to Black men expressing tenderness toward each other does not address the real issues we must navigate. Could the discontent with Black men hugging be misplaced?
Similarly, when Oscar-winning actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscar ceremony, the media covered Smith’s bad behavior extensively. A year later, Chris Rock reportedly received $20 million from Netflix to air his grievances about the incident, thus reintroducing into the public domain a Black man’s sometimes traumatic way of processing his feelings. We need to talk about intimacy, but the media’s hype around, and ability to profit from, our behavior hardly helps.
Instead, we should reimagine how Black men can support one another and their emotional and mental health.
Humor me. What if intimacy – rather than aggression or name-calling – between Black men was encouraged instead? How about we create a supportive atmosphere for Black men? The New York Times article was not the only time audiences saw and responded to Black male intimacy. A photo of Jordan and film director Ryan Coogler appeared in Vanity Fair, featuring Jordan’s hand resting atop Coogler’s head. The appearance of two Black men expressing intimacy caused a frenzy. Audiences were divided, some rebuked two successful Black men displaying closeness, and in response, it provoked conversations about the emasculation of Black men. But what if Jordan’s comfort with intimacy and his ability to build healthy relationships are related to his success, not his race?
Let me be clear: It should not be controversial when Black men touch or hug. It should not be provocative or contentious when Black men express support, cheer for one another, or love one another. What should be controversial is the overrepresentation of Black men in jails and prisons. What should be alarming is that Black men are the largest group of jobless citizens. Black men are the least likely to attend college, and compared to White and Asian men, they are the most likely to drop out of high school. We are in crisis, and affection should not cause an uproar – it may be our saving grace.
There are numerous benefits and rewards to Black men feeling supported by their fathers, their mentors, and other Black men. When toxic, stoic behaviors are discouraged, Black men can prioritize healthcare and their mental health. Black men are also more likely to seek mentorship and use mental health services. Black men need to see intimacy normalized. We need to encourage closeness.
When Black men place a hand on their brothers’ shoulders, wrap their arms around each other, or ugly cry in each other’s presence, it becomes real that we are not alone – that we are worthy of empathy and compassion.
Unlike my father’s early years of distancing himself from intimacy, I am attempting to be vulnerable and emotional in front of my sons. My boys witness my anger, sadness, and joy. They watched me cry when my aunt was murdered. They celebrated my hard-earned accomplishments with multiple hugs and kisses, despite living in a society that said a Black boy from St. Louis was not enough. Maybe I can model healthy behaviors for them, and when they grow up, they will think of me fondly on Father’s Day and every day after that. I believe in us and see a path toward health and wellness for all Black men.
David Stamps is an assistant professor at Bentley University. He explores what it means to exist unapologetically as a Black human in society.