I remember the feeling I had when I saw the text come in from a friend back home. The text read, “Y’all hear about North Park Elementary?” All I could do was think about the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I got the same text about the terrorist attack that took place in my hometown of San Bernardino, Calif., back in 2015.

My friend followed up the first text with more information about how gunman Cedric Anderson went into his estranged wife’s elementary school classroom and took not only her life but also those of others in the crossfire and, later, his own. Almost one week later to the day, Steve Stephens from Cleveland was on the run after taking the life of Robert Godwin Sr. Stephens had gone live on Facebook and expressed that he was upset with his ex-girlfriend Joy Lane, his life, and the frustrations that came with being a black man in America

Many reports about what transpired leading up to both incidents pointed to issues that the men had with their significant others, and also illuminated larger issues regarding black men, as well as masculinity and the way that black men are taught to handle and process emotions

While both incidents highlight a much-needed conversation on intimate-partner violence in the black community, the common thread between these stories is how fragile and dangerous masculinity is. In both cases we see the issue of sexism and entitlement among black men, along with the use of fear and control, rear its ugly head. It makes a larger statement about how, even at a time when black men are being killed by the same forces (power, fear and control), male privilege will keep—as it always has kept—black men in an emotional prison

I have spent several years working to undo all of the emotional damage done to me by both society and family. I know that it is important to examine how and where the cycle begins

In my youth, I was often teased for being “too soft.” My uncles would comment that I was overly emotional for a young man and that I needed to do things that would heighten my masculinity. One of my uncles even went so far as to force me to play tackle football one summer because he believed that it was the one thing I needed to do to “toughen me up.” When I would cry or make comments about how I did not want to play football, because I did not understand how pain would make me more manly, his response was that I needed to “man up” because men, specifically black men, must be strong

Considering the amount of emotional distress that both Anderson and Stephens seemed to be under before they took their respective courses of action, I would posit that subscribing to the ideals of masculinity has left many black men mentally and emotionally weak

So what do the actions of Anderson and Stephens tell us about what it means to be a black man in America? In the film The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom examines both the psychological and sociological effects produced by expectations placed on males performing masculinity. In the documentary, the concept of the “mask” that men wear is connected to both the emotional and mental angst that men carry. The film also examines why men are more likely to carry out actions like the ones that Anderson and Stephens committed, with greater social commentary on ways that masculinity rejects anything and everything deemed feminine

An example is how young boys can express their emotions by using terms like “love” and “caring” throughout adolescence, but by the time they are adult men, they shift away from being able to maintain high levels of intimacy. Doing so often makes it difficult for them to show love to the people who need it most: family, friends and, most of all, their partners

Both tragic incidents in San Bernadino and Cleveland earlier this year put the focus on how men, specifically black men, need to be taught how to love better, not just the people who love them, but for themselves. We must teach them that love is not a right but, rather, a gift

As a community, we have to begin teaching black men at a young age that being in touch with their emotions will only make them better people overall. We must do a better job of encouraging black men to seek out healthy and fundamental ways of getting the help they need in order to navigate the struggles they face both inside their home and out in the world

Let’s encourage our black men to better understand their feelings instead of forcing them to live in them.


Jonathan P. Higgins, Ph.D., is an educator who focuses on public speaking and working with the media on issues impacting people of color, LGBTQ storytelling, and marginalized communities. He is assistant director of multicultural services and an adjunct professor at California State University, Long Beach. A version of this piece first appeared in the theroot.com.