We Wear the Societal Mask: The Dichotomy of Black Masculinity

by Executive Editor Timantha Norman

As black people in this country, we experience the suffocating presence of our society’s unrealistic, racially oppressive expectations pressed upon us at one time or another. For black men in our present-day society, this figurative stifling has become a very literal one with wide-ranging implications, from having to contend with being villainized in the media, minimized in the workplace, and brutalized in the streets. In addition to dealing with the ever-present white gaze, there are the internal barriers black men must navigate through and past left behind by lifetimes of historical trauma.

I spoke with filmmaker and North Tulsa native Brian Ellison, sculptor Anthony Suber, and anthropologist Marlon Hall about their national tour, The Black Man Project, a movement based on Ellison’s documentary UnMASKulinity, their own personal struggles with coming to terms with their true selves, and the importance of black men being free to be comfortable in their vulnerability.

Norman: Were there any particular instances in your life that sparked your interest in engaging in art centered on this theme specifically?

Ellison: I would say some of the instances I can think of that really made me wrestle with the concept of the mask derived from my relationship. I felt like there was a double-edge sword, which made me uneasy because I was unable to share all the versions of my feelings without being labeled as too nice, soft, etc. On the other end, I found myself believing the mask that I had been wearing for so long that I almost convinced myself that I didn’t have feelings, which can quickly lead to an overwhelming breakdown. I wasn’t allowing myself to have an outlet. In turn, it lead to me standing face to face with traditional ideas of masculinity for black men and realizing that I didn’t align with those values. Furthermore, those values are not the values I need to align myself with because they force me to be restricted in my existence essentially. 

Suber: During the process of making UnMASKulinity, it unearthed some deep-seated issues that I hadn’t dealt with when it came to my father. My father struggled with substance abuse when I was in elementary school. While he was there, it wasn’t present enough. I realized later in life that all of the issues my father was dealing with were due to trauma he experienced from his father. Probably some of my over-structuring as a husband and a father comes from my chaotic upbringing. This project really shed a light on that for me and I realized that a void had been created because of that. The idea of motherhood or fatherhood really makes you think deeply about your own upbringing. Things that were undergirding me as a person. As a man with two children, it made me reflect on the things I didn’t receive as a child. Also, as an artist, I feel that the reason I’m here on Earth, as God has shown me, is to teach them something in this life.

Hall: When I got divorced a couple of years ago, I was reduced to the least common denomination of my manhood and recognized that I had not found any places where people like me (black males) could truly be vulnerable. That’s when I reached out to these guys to help me make a table from reclaimed wood from my grandmother’s home as an excuse to be around men that I could be transparent with. Through the art of making a table, we discovered the possibilities of being able to be vulnerable without judgment. The table we made has become an anthropological ecology for listening and a part of my practice as an ethnographer. I do a salon dinner party where over 300 people, 16 people at a time, have found a place to be transparently known. These dinner parties that I started doing at my house were the catalyst for what we plan to do with this project beginning in Tulsa. I think that black men have a unique contribution to make to this vulnerability conversation. It’s like if folks see black men crying [laugh], it allows the space for others to do so as well.

Norman: What do you feel are some of the most common stigmas and stereotypes that plague black men in our society?

Hall: Vulnerability is the doorway through which human transformation walks, but we have been taught that we shouldn’t have keys to that door. The vestiges of slavery haunt black men with the stereotypical message that we are someone else’s property and do not have the right to own our feelings. So we sometimes mask our sorrow with anger and our hurt feelings with the hard shell of hopelessness. This project is a “no” to that stereotype and a “yes” to our soul’s emancipation proclamation.  

Ellison: It’s just that people think we don’t have feelings and it’s really because society only allows us a very limited spectrum of feelings to have. It’s like there’s no room for sadness, disappointment, happiness, joy. It’s such a restrictive space to live in. We have to either be strong or angry. Especially when you see the media, that’s all people see of us. We have to battle against that everyday. I’m taking on two masks each day when I maneuver through the world: the one society forces on me and the one I have to place on myself to be able to operate in the world unscathed. 

Suber: I think that as far as black men are concerned, we carry the unfortunate burden of having to be tough, never truly emotional, and at the same time, infallible. We don’t carry a license to be free of stereotypes and tropes directly attached to who we are. We are seen as a monolith regarding our emotional value, instead of the rich strata that we are in reality.

Norman: What do you hope to accomplish through this project? What lasting effect would you all like to see come to fruition?

Ellison: We are planning on creating a curriculum from our conversations with our participants that we hope will create momentum for the next city we’ll be in. Really we want to challenge each man to have their own salon dinner, and then those men will have their own dinners, and so on. We don’t want that momentum to stop. We want it to impact multiple generations. Not only is the individual man impacted but that man is more than likely a father, a son, a brother, and so on. Once a black man is able to truly be in touch with his inner child, it gives him the permission to release, becoming a walking testimony, which gives others the freedom to do so around them as well. Healed people heal and hurt people hurt, like I say.

Suber: It’s really the planting of seeds and seeing them sprout the fruit we want and need to see. From a symbolic standpoint, it’s really the act of peeling away the layers and we hope those that participate are able to do so, even temporarily, do the important work and feel free to be truly vulnerable. I think the idea of educating folks and using our art as a real teaching tool that generationally affects people is our main goal. Creating a structure, or framework rather, for black men that didn’t exist before to ensure they’re successful in life is very important for us.

Photo credit: Brian Ellison