In the wake of the Purple One’s (Prince) death, I am left wondering about how courageous it is to be the man you want to be. We are pervaded by singular caricatures of Black masculinity, stoic, violent, womanizing. And yes, many of us prescribe to one or all of these characteristics at some point in our lives. Yet, the notion that Black men lack diversity in their masculinities is somewhat archaic, but Prince’s death reiterates the idea, or well, the antithetical argument that to be Black and masculine means that you had to run fervently from the feminine. For some reason, as I think back to my whimsical adolescence, I never questioned why this diminutive figure wore bikinis, go-go boots, scarves, and pastels. I admired his ability to draw out my own adolescent sexuality.
Like many teens growing up in the eighties, where sex and sexual exploration had been overtaken by conservative ideologies, the religious right, and Reagan’s diplomacy, Prince’s music excited me. When my parents weren’t around, I would sing loudly the words to “Darling Nikki,” “Erotic City,” and “Little Red Corvette.” My mother was a bible-thumper, and those words and gyrations were forbidden in my household. Yet, at not point did Prince’s mysterious and anti-prescribed masculinity turn me off; it only served as to propagate my propensity for adolescent promiscuity. In essence, it turned me on! I “Adore”d him. His music, along with MJ’s, was – as my fraternity brother and great friend, Todd Taylor, notes – the soundtrack of my adolescence.
I remember whaling the lyrics of “When Doves Cry” as a stringy ninth grader while I prepared for my track meets. I remember playing the air guitar rifts to “Purple Rain” in front of the mirror outside my room as an impressionable young Black boy. However, at no point during those perennial years of searching for my secure Black masculinity did I come to loath the salaciousness nature of Prince’s masculinity. It was as if he was a god, and those that dared to oppose his reign were merely cast aside, proverbially shown the door.
It is also interesting that Prince rose alongside the rise of hip-hop’s superstars LL Cool J, Run DMC, Kool G Rap, and Cool Herc and their heightened levels of hypermasculinity and misogyny. However, his ascension, unlike the greats of the latter genre, transcended race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Although LL was known to flaunt his statuesque physique, at no point would he have dared to don a pastel G-string and boots and perform love ballads that motivated the fairer sex to litter stages with their own undergarments. Prince was the alternative we needed.
Throughout history, Black masculinity has been challenged, under-minded, and emasculated, thus resigning us to look for masculinities that feel secure and protective. Too often the end of this search mirrors the stereotypes that grip us like primates as we deal with the ramifications/consequences of internalized racism, discrimination, and oppression. What we saw in Prince for the last 40 years was a man who had the courage to define his own masculinity and sexuality in the midst of a population of men who have mostly fell in locked step to the cultural and societal prescriptions of masculinity. He was a “Revolution” as well as “Revolutionary,” as he used his self-described masculinity to overthrow powerful corporations, and to stand up for albums, and books, and Black lives, because they “matter.”
The take away from the Prince’s death is that more of us need the courage to be the Black men we want and need to be. We need to stop worrying about how our actions may be perceived in opposition to the Black masculinity box that holds us so tightly. We need to stop shaming our brothers who chose to express themselves contrary to our rigid mindsets and celebrate the diversity that exists in regard to Black Masculinity. If we learn anything from the “Purple One,” it is that being revolutionary means you can change the world and bring it together all at one time if you can find the courage to be who you want to be each second, each minute, each hour of each day.
I decided when I turned 40 that I would begin to compete in triathlons. Why? Well, after graduate school, I felt I needed something to challenge me. In school, there was always some hurdle I needed to cross to get to the finish line. There were no more academic hurdles. It took me three years to start, partially out of fear, and possibly ignorance, but finally I began at 43. I ran my first triathlon in March of 2014. I finished; however, I was disappointed. I ran my second triathlon in September of 2014. I didn’t have as much time to train as the first, but somehow I did much better. I was hooked. I bought a triathlon bike and bought all the necessary equipment. I was ready for the next race.
I ran my third triathlon on March 29, 2015 on the same course as my first race the year before. I prepared for the race, but not to the extent that I had for the first race. I trained in the pool a couple of times, swam the required triathlon distance and further. I rode the bike more and ran several times a week. In my mind, I was convinced, I can do this. On race day, I felt like a pro; giving advice to the newbie triathletes, telling them about how to navigate the course. I was ready to race. I jumped into the water. As I rounded the first turn, I was moving great. I rounded the second turn, feeling great, but things quickly fell apart. The wind changed, thus blowing heaps of water in my face and subsequently into my lungs. After a minute or two, I could not breath. I dog paddled. I gasped for air. I knew in my mind that if I gave in, the race was over. All of the work, albeit not enough, would have gone to waste. I would be defeated, but I couldn’t breathe. I signaled for the kayak to come get me; I was dejected. He said, “Look at where you are and look at the shore.” He repeated this several times, and then he said the most important words of the day, “Grab a hold of the kayak, catch your breath, and swim to the shore.” That was my life line. The man who just saved me didn’t tell me to give up, he said hold on, catch your breath, and move on. This young man, who didn’t know me at the time, was motivating me to reach my goal even in the face of adversity. I held on for two minutes. I let go, swam to the shore. I rejoined the race, completing it with dignity and satisfaction. I eventually took three and half minutes of my bike time from the previous year. If it were not for the kayak, I may have drowned. What I have realized in the aftermath and euphoria of my accomplishment is that at many times during our lives we will get punched in the gut, gasp for air, flail, and need a kayak.
My experiences that day on the course are symbolic of the daily experiences of many Black men and boys in American,“We Can’t Breathe!” We have been proverbially punched in the gut throughout our lives, even when we ascend to so-called status positions, such as doctor, lawyer, professor. The statistics concerning the lived experiences of African American men and boys are astounding, being last in markers of success and first in categories of demise. Yet, these statistics should be a beacon to the world and not a noose around our necks. This beacon should be answered by everyone, not just by those whose skin color favor the oppressed. In essence, we are drowning, and there needs to be cadre of kayaks with people saying “hold on, catch your breath, and swim to the shore.” Too often, the kayaks are nowhere to be found, thus we see the deleterious outcomes associated with some Black men and boys. What if Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown were offered kayaks instead of lethality? What if the young men, who feel dehumanized and dehumanize others, were offered kayaks at critical junctures of their lives? Who might they have become? Essentially, Black men and boys need something or someone continually saying, “Look at where you are and look at the shore, push on. There is greatness on the other side.”
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn June 30, 2015.