Letter to a Young Man
By Kevin Powell, special to Utne Reader
I have read the very open and very fearless email you sent to me several times since it first arrived a few months ago. I know we have met in person, and had a good talk about life, about manhood; but something of your words on my computer has been shadowing me, whispering to me time and again that you deserve a greater response, that I need to give you the sort of exchange I wish an older man had had with me when I was in my very early 20s, as you are now.
I am humbled by your words, by your thoughts that I have somehow figured out this thing called manhood, that I am leading a movement to redefine how we men and boys see ourselves, this world, how we relate to women and girls on this earth. No, Sam, I do not have it figured out, not even close, nor am I leading any movement. I remain a very imperfect human being, a very imperfect man.
As I creep toward my fifth decade of life I do know now,
more than ever, that how we in America, and across the globe, have come to define manhood is absolutely destructive to us, to women and girls, and to our planet. There is no other way to say it, Sam. I did not know any of this when I was growing up as a boy in New Jersey where I was born and raised. My father and mother never married, I had no father figure or role model to speak of my first eighteen years, so I sought out male images wherever I could find them: on television, in movies, in books, at church, while playing sports formally and informally, and on the streets of Jersey City, my hometown. In each and every single one of those spaces I was taught, as a child, as a teenager, as a young man where you are now, Sam, that manhood was about competition, survival of the fittest, domination, winning at all costs, and, yes, violence. Women and girls, well, they were reduced to a few basic roles: mother and caretaker, sex object and girlfriend and wife. Some men, Sam, will say I am making these things up, that I exaggerate, but I am not. Just think of what you, I, we, all of us, have been taught from the moment we had thoughts, about what a boy is, about what a man is, and how those ideas were amplified and spread, over and over, in pretty much every area I’ve named.
I wish I could say I was not affected by any of this, but I was, Sam. My father, the original male figure in my life, was mostly ghost, but I did see him a few times until I was 8 years old. He grudgingly came around on three separate occasions, because of my mother’s pleas, to buy me a watch, a bicycle, and to take me on a ride in his tractor-trailer truck. In that vehicle my jaw dropped when I saw endless pictures of nude women taped everywhere. My father laughed heartily, thought it funny that I was so red-faced, and said I would understand one day.
Yes, Sam, I was learning sexism very early on, that women are there for our pleasure, any time we want them to be, including when I became a teenager and imagined myself making it with a girl who the boys in the ‘hood called “Whorey Dorey” because she, allegedly, had had sex with most of us homies. No one ever questioned if this was true or not. The boys said it, so it must be so.
Same with how we ran through grade school and high school grabbing, uninvited, the blossoming body parts of our girl classmates. Combine this with the fact that my education about women and girls, kindergarten through high school graduation, might have totaled two or three pages. Little wonder, Sam, that I, that we, become men who disrespect women and girls, who have a reckless scorn for women and girls, who do not view women and girls as our equals, who molest, assault, hit, beat, stab, shoot, rape, and kill women and girls, just because. Most of us know so very little about the lives of women and girls, including our own family members. That gross mis-education is gross ignorance. Ignorance can easily become hatred, and fear, and we know that hatred and fear can become violence and destruction in multiple ways.
LIKE YOU, SAM, college was both a very enlightening and highly confusing period for me. It was there that I began to find my voice, as a leader, as a writer, and where I began to think earnestly about my identity. But it was also during my college years where my sexual life, first time ever, was rampant and irresponsible. I claimed to respect women leaders on campus but undermined them whenever I felt my manhood and my authority threatened; and it was there at Rutgers University where I was violent, on a couple of occasions, toward a woman student, including getting kicked out of college, short of graduation, for flashing a knife on a female campus leader.
Truth be told, Sam, every bit of my behavior was inevitable. I come from violence, experienced it as a child, so it’s not surprising that I would become violent as an adult. But deeper still is the reality that I had no clear idea what a man was, or was suppose to be. So I just imitated what was around me—in my community, on that college campus, in popular culture. My single mother did the best she could, in her own way, and whatever kind of man I am today I owe to my mom. But I was also terribly puzzled whenever she would say, in one breath, “Don’t be like your father!” and declared in another, “You are just like your father!”
This is where I come from, Sam: the bottom of society, where male role models are woefully missing in action. It puts you in a sort of male prison, forever knocking your head against invisible bars as you stumble through life hoping the answers you are seeking will manifest.
You, Sam, come from privilege, from a wealthy
family, you have a father, and many other male relatives in your life. But something in you has rung a mighty loud alarm, just like an alarm was rung for me, a few years after college, when an argument with a live-in girlfriend led me to push her, in a state of rage, into our bathroom door. My alarm went off instantly, the moment that girlfriend darted from our apartment in fear for her safety. For I had become what my mother had warned me not to be: a no-good man, just like my father…
Your life of privilege, allegedly, means your life should be different, Sam, that you would be exposed to new and expansive ideas, that you would not be typical, that men like you would not be the same as me. But, alas, I have learned, since that fateful day with the bathroom door, that destructive manhood in America, or globally, does not care about your race or color or culture; nor does it care about your money or class or status. I have learned that manhood, the twisted and debilitating definitions of manhood most of us have been given, links us as closely as the wild branches of a poplar tree.
This is because much of the history we’ve been taught is about violent men that we label “explorers” and “settlers” and “pioneers” and “warriors.” This is because we learned more about war than we ever learned about peace. This is because women have been conveniently left out of our educations, with a few exceptions like Betsy Ross or Emily Dickinson or Marie Curie or Helen Keller or Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks. This is because we see violent and abusive men in so many forms, be it the bluster and bravado of a Donald Trump, or the shock and awe of ISIS or Boko Haram, or homegrown terrorists we call mass shooters in America. This is because sexism, patriarchy, misogyny are as natural to us as breathing; why we see, every time the Super Bowl rolls around, men engaging in sex trafficking of young girls in that game’s host city, or men here there everywhere trafficking in domestic violence under the guise of enjoying the big game.
And this is why women and girls I meet and speak with and listen to in all 50 states I have visited in America, and in my trips to five of the seven continents—women and girls of every race and color and culture and class—speak louder and louder about the violence and abuse they suffer or have suffered at the hands of us men and boys. It is rampant, Sam, that violence against women and girls, that definition of manhood that says to be a man, a boy, is to be a brutal and dangerous terror to ourselves, to those women and girls.
In spite of these indisputable facts, I have heard some men take offense with the things I say, or suggest I am pandering to women and girls, or that I exaggerate greatly. Just the other day I posted something on Facebook about my lack of respect for able-bodied men who take advantage of single women, including single mothers, by preying on their money, their homes, their cars and other material items, their kindness, their loneliness, and their love. One man in particular felt the need to go on and on about how women do these things to men, too. That was not my point, and I am the first to say that no one, regardless of gender or gender identity, should ever want to be in any kind of relationship that is not healthy and loving.
BUT WHAT I HAVE NOTICED, Sam, is that whenever I post things about the behavior of us men and boys, it never fails that a male will jump on my Facebook page or Twitter timeline and blast women, as a knee-jerk reaction. This, Sam, is the height of sexism, of oppression. It takes great courage and great vision for us who are self-defined as men to begin to hear the voices of women and girls. The easy thing to do is say to women and girls it is their fault. If they had watched their mouths, or their attitudes, if they had not dressed a certain way, or been in a certain place at a certain time, or had not drank that alcohol or taken that drug, then maybe what happened to them would not have happened.
What we men are essentially saying, Sam, is that it is OK to damage the lives of women and girls, because this is just how boys and men are, and because, well, girls and women helped these things to happen. That it is mad cool, OK, the norm, to blame women and girls for the things men and boys do to them. This is the logic I have heard at lectures and workshops I have given on college campuses, at faith-based institutions, at community centers, in corporate America, from elected officials and other leaders, with professional and amateur male athletes, with musical artists and other entertainers, from certain public intellectuals, and in prisons.
This is the logic I even hear with far too many manhood or male development campaigns, where grown men talk with the younger men and boys about everything—except sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, and definitions of manhood that destroy the bodies and self-esteems of women and girls. This is why, Sam, 25 years or so after pushing my then-girlfriend into that bathroom door—and thanks to years of therapy and spiritual healing circles—my life is not only dedicated to redefining manhood, my own, yours, all of ours, away from this mindset, but also why I cannot support any rite-of-passage or mentorship program, or any other kind of male group that does not take a very serious stand consistently against sexism and the violation and abuse of women and girls.
Again, I do not pretend to be a perfect man,
not even remotely. But, Sam, when you have spent time, as I have through these many years, visiting battered women’s shelters, or fielding one email or phone call after another from a woman or young girl seeking help because she is either trapped in an abusive situation or has just escaped one, you begin to develop a massive empathy and compassion for what it is to be a woman or girl. We will never know what women and girls experience, Sam, nor should we ever say we do. But we can listen. And we can truly hear their voices. And we can truly begin to care. And we can truly become allies to women and girls, if we have the courage to do so.
I thought of this when my assistant, a young woman about your age, Sam, said to me upon beginning her employment a year ago, that she really had no reason to trust men based on her experiences, that she had never worked with a man in this way before. It was jarring to hear, quite difficult to hear, but who am I to deny her life and her life experiences? I could either be a different kind of man, or I could be the stereotype of a sexist male employer who bullies, who insults, who sexually harasses.
This also means that I have a responsibility to be aware always; that I have duly noted how many women and young girls, for example, I have met in my life who are the survivors of some form of sexual violence or assault. One in four in America, Sam, and one in three on the planet earth, or over one billion. Can you imagine if that many men and boys were able to say the same thing? Because of how we favor and side with men and boys in every single way, those kinds of statistics would be cause for an international effort instantly. But because it is women and girls, we drag our feet, we resist and ignore those stats, we make excuses why we cannot get involved around gender issues, and we blame the women and girls whenever we deem it appropriate.
Meanwhile, the hatred and venom so many of us feel for women and girls is everywhere: on social media, in our music, in pop culture, in our religious institutions, in politics. Whether people support Hillary Clinton or not is beside the point. Fact is, Mrs. Clinton has been subjected to a level of hatred, in spite of her background and qualifications to be president, completely unseen when it comes to men. As much as I may agree more with the politics of Bernie Sanders, there’s no denying that some of the so-called progressive men who support Bernie can barely contain their sexism when attacking Hillary. We focus on her trustworthiness, her demeanor, her tone, her attitude, her language, her hair, her clothes, yet we rarely if ever say those things about male politicians. But when you are living in a male-dominated world, and dealing with male-dominated spaces, this is the result: pure animosity toward a woman for who we think she is, as opposed to regarding her as a whole human being.
A LOT OF MEN say things to me like they would never hit or beat or rape or assault or stab or shoot or set on fire or outright kill a woman. (Yes, Sam, I have heard every variation of these kinds of tales, tragically.) My response is always the same: Violence and control and domination are not just physical, they can also be verbal or mental or spiritual or financial, too. And, even if you are not the kind of man who would ever touch women without permission, or would ever say inappropriate things to women or girls in public, on the streets, or behind closed doors; even if you are not the kind of man who would ever engage in any form of violence and control and domination against a woman or girl, but there are men who do—in your family, in your network, in your fraternity, on your sports team, at your religious institution, at your company or place of work—and you say nothing about it, then you, we, are just as guilty of sexist behavior toward women and girls as those perpetrators. The silence of men in the face of sexism is an agreement that it is OK to oppress and abuse and attack women and girls whenever we feel like it.
On an intimate level, Sam, I think about my mother, what she has survived in her own life. We, as men, if we truly want to understand what we must do, can start by absorbing the stories of the women nearest to us. My mother is now in her early 70s, a senior citizen, a woman who has endured the harshness of the American South and the harshness of the American North. She is a woman who once tried to give her love to a man but was used and betrayed, tossed aside like unwanted trash, and told, by my father, when he felt he could, that she had lied to him, that I was not, in fact, his son. I listened for years, Sam, while my mother and my Aunt Cathy, at their kitchen-table summits, would talk about men, how most of us, they agreed, were no good. I was a boy absorbing those words even as I went into my young manhood seeking guidance and help. Those words came back to me as I battled with my demons, my dysfunctions, trying to figure out how to free myself of the male prison I had been stuck in, quite literally, since birth.
Speaking with you the one time we sat down, Sam, reminded me that none of us are immune from destructive definitions of manhood. You have a father and I do not. I do not know your father, but for whatever reason you sought me out to discuss this, and, again, I am honored you did. It is also not lost on me that your aunt sent a previous blog post I wrote about sexism in America to the men in your family. I now understand what she herself has been through with betrayal, in spite of her own privilege. It does not truly matter—that privilege, your lot in life—if another human being or people do not recognize you for the full person you are. My mother once was the help to a rich family. When alone with her, the husband chose to sit on a chair across from my mother, in a robe, with his penis and testicles revealed. It is a miracle my mother escaped that situation without being assaulted, or raped. I am sure your aunt and the many women in your family, Sam, can attest to what it feels like to be so blatantly disrespected by men, simply because they are women.
I will not waste a lot of time on Donald Trump here. He is too easy to criticize because he has a portfolio full of patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic actions and words. Donald Trump is merely a symptom of the big problem of sexism in this world. He is merely the latest poster boy for its ugliness, its vileness, joining the likes of sexist men like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and any random professional male athlete or male celebrity or male politician any given week. As for Trump, it does not matter if some women say The Donald has empowered them. What matters is the consistency of what we say and do, in public, in private, when many are looking and listening, and when none are looking and listening at all. I think of this much, Sam, as I travel the country, as I think about my own male privilege, as a writer, as a speaker, as an activist in service to our communities. How easy it would be to bed one woman after another, to exploit my station in life. Again, I am a very imperfect man, Sam. It does not mean I do not think certain things, or feel certain things. Most important I think about my soul, my spirit, what kind of man I want to be for the rest of my life. And I think about what kind of commitment I have made to myself, to the people who say they trust me, who say they believe in me—
And, Sam, this is what you must think about as well. You have your entire life ahead of you, my friend. Strip away whatever wealth and privilege you might have and you are still a man who must find himself, on his own terms. No one can do this for you. You must struggle with every fiber of your being to be your own man, Sam, to be a very different man. The fact that you sent me that email saying you want to go a new path, that you have been questioning the definitions of manhood you have been given, is refreshing and it is revolutionary. If we can get more younger and older men like you, Sam, then there is the movement you want to see. And if more men of all backgrounds make a pledge to unlearn what we have been taught, and read and study the women I was told, by women, to read, like bell hooks, like Eve Ensler, like Ntozake Shange, like Gloria Steinem, like Pearl Cleage, like Audre Lorde, and countless others, we may one day get a body of writings and ideas, from men like you, Sam, that will transform this entire world.
I say this to say, Sam, please do not make the mistakes I made, if you have not yet. Do not hurt or sabotage or imprison yourself, Sam, and please do not hurt women and girls, or men and boys, either. Violence in any form should be absolutely unacceptable to you as a man.
What I am requesting, Sam, is please be different, please be free, please continue to be unafraid to explore manhood from all angles. Learn from men and boys of every race and culture, and have the courage, as a straight man, to even learn from men who may be gay or bisexual or transgender. There are lessons everywhere, if we are willing to look, if we are willing to listen. As a straight man myself, I know what gay men like James Baldwin have given to my life, just by how they lived their lives, with no apologies. And I also know what I have gotten from straight heroes of mine, like Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy, men who were also very imperfect, but who were also fearless and bold in the way they constantly remixed and evolved and questioned themselves, right to the very ends of their very short lives.
This is the kind of commitment we men need to make to ourselves: to live a life of peace, of love, of respect for women and girls as our equals as our equals as our equals, because they are, Sam—they really are. And if we can move in that direction, if we men and boys can, with humility, become allies to women and girls, then maybe we can rid the world of sexism once and for all. Because that sexism, that rape culture, that hatred and violence toward women and girls, Sam, will not end until we men and boys make it end—
Your brother & friend,
Kevin Powell is a writer, public speaker, and activist. He is the author of 12 books, including his critically acclaimed new autobiography The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood(Atria Books/Simon & Schuster).Read other pieces by Kevin Powell exclusive to Utne Reader,Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a Nigger? and Hamilton, O.J. Simpson, Orlando… Email him, email@example.com, and follow him on twitter: @kevin_powell.