There seems to exist a beautiful struggle that runs through all of us: embracing the unknowns of adulthood while trying to shed the remnants of adolescence.
This is especially relevant for us college students, where we exist in that weird transition bubble of not quite at the precipice of a Serious Life, but careening toward it, all the same.
I, too, struggle with this dichotomy. I do not know what manhood looks like, what defines its contours and what it means to be a man.
I lift that image of a beautiful struggle from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood.
Coates is the type of writer I aspire to be: beautifully blunt. He writes about issues, like poverty, institutional racism and as in his memoir, manhood, that don’t often get the type of play his voice lends it in the mainstream.
I’m not even 100 pages into his memoir and already it’s galvanized my mind, which inevitability leads to the need to lay down ink. Coates has that way about his writing.
He grew up in West Baltimore in the 1980s when crack came in like a thunderclap, under his Black Panther, NPR-loving father, and his older brother, Big Bill. By his own admission, he was a rather mediocre student; his head was too often in the world of comics, professional wrestling and his own imagination.
Merely walking home from school was a case study in the different lived experiences of inner-city school children, particular black and brown ones. Other kids would start fights just to test you, to see if you were “hard.” To be soft was to paint yourself a target and eventually, to get your ass kicked.
“The Conscious among us knew the whole race was going down, that we’d freed ourselves from slavery and Jim Crow but not the great shackling of our minds,” Coates said.
Certainly, my experience at a predominately white, middle-class suburban high school is hardly comparable to inner-city dwellings. However, school was always a scary place to me. A place where I felt utterly vulnerable to the whims of barbarian adolescents.
Even if half of that was in my head, it still manifested into a tangible, potent fear. Luckily, I was only tested for “softness” with verbal barbs. Four-eyes, pizza-face, nerd, those kinds of things. Isolated they are brushed off; accumulated school year after school year, it becomes self-actualizing.
I like to think book lovers, in part, are created in the crucible of social outcasting. Books allow the lepers of society, like how I often would picture myself, to live vicariously through the protagonists as they encountered wild adventures and thrills.
But books, despite being great portals into other worlds, still didn’t have a whole lot to say about manhood. Unfortunately, “Goosebumps” seemed more preoccupied with the supernatural and the icky.
My dad was there, of course. Yet, at 6’3 with broad shoulders and a voice with a tendency to boom, he was more of a to-be-feared, stoic type; the kind of machismo flavor of manhood I could not identify with.
He was not cold, entirely. There’s a distinct memory I have of when I was younger, playing on the backyard deck. A bee stung my foot, which set off a flurry of tears. Within moments, I was wrapped up in his barrel chest and all seemed okay.
Whereas I wear my emotions on my sleeve, although mostly it leaks on to the page rather than verbally, my dad mostly confined his emotions to the closed-off chatter with my mom.
Manhood, in that sense, remained elusive, then, as I free-falled into it, whatever it was. My older brother took after my father with his broad shoulders and the penchant for machismo.
I’ve never felt comfortable in my adult skin. It feels like it was sent to the wrong person. Return to sender, please. That’s not to say I lay this all at the doorstep of the primary male figures in my life, my father and brother, but their presentation of manhood never quite fit me, either.
To quote Margaret Atwood, there is a belief of mine that everyone else is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
Or to put it another way. I was listening to Krista Tippett’s brilliant podcast, On Being, with researcher, Brené Brown, who specializes in vulnerability and shame. Perhaps most known for her Ted Talk on the subject.
She was at a book signing and at the end, a man came up to her and pointed out to her that she didn’t mention men in her writing. True enough, she said, she only researched women.
“That’s convenient. Because we have shame. We have deep shame. When we reach out, we get the emotion beat out of us. My wife and three daughters, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off,” the man said.
Just as it floored Brown, it floored me. While I can talk about the machismo of my father and my brother, there is a real sense that while woman can talk about desiring a sensitive, vulnerable man, it doesn’t seem to fully hold.
According to Brown, men told stories of opening up and being vulnerable with the woman in their relationship, but that the woman just could not stomach it; it’s dynamic changing.
“For men, there’s really a kind of singular suffocating expectation and that is, do not be perceived as weak,” Brown said.
It’s hard to walk around with your chest puffed out and putting on the airs of strength all the time. I exist in the duality of wanting to conform to those airs, fearful of my weaknesses, while also not being able to help showcasing them.
I want to be beautifully bold, too, like Coates for lending a voice to the ambiguity of manhood or like Brown for giving that Ted Talk.
Maybe this is a start.