The Virtuous Male

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More than a decade has passed since I learned manhood is something that has to be achieved. This discovery came to me during a 1981 interview with poet and raconteur Robert Bly, who was about to become famous for his opinions about what a mere male must do to become a bona fide man. I was 26 at the time; Bly was in his mid-50s.

I can still remember how Bly, using a fairy tale called 'Iron John' as a model for men's lives, insisted on the importance of men's rites of passage: 'The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through ritual and effort -- that he must be initiated into the world of men.'

I was captivated by this idea, inspired by its challenge, its sense of mystery, and its connotation of primordial truths. Still, I didn't agree with all of Bly's thinking, especially his traditionalist assumptions about the 'true essence' of manhood and what seemed to me a propensity to pick and choose motifs from world mythology, buttressing a romanticized view of primal cultures and their rituals. (Also, Bly's emphasis on the ritualized hard work of 'making' masculinity made me wonder whether I had even the energy for manhood.)

Fourteen years later, a magazine assignment took me among 50,000 Christian men chanting, singing, and shouting the praises of Jesus at the Oakland Coliseum. Two weeks after that, I sat glued to C-SPAN's coverage of the black-men-only Million Man March in Washington, D.C. In both cases, I ended with feelings every bit as mixed as my response to Bly's 'mythopoetic' men's movement.

Journalist Jeff Wagenheim, reporting on the predominantly white male Promise Keepers, and author Glenn C. Loury, on hand for the overwhelmingly black Million Man March, saw what I saw: two mass gatherings where men began breaking down the isolation that keeps them fearful of their own masculinity and looking for ways to prove they're 'real' men. On the other hand, leaders of both gatherings -- Bill McCartney and Louis Farrakhan -- are on record in favor of discrimination against gays. As for the womenfolk, well, clearly men must reclaim the upper hand.

Says who? Why is it so difficult for so many of us to imagine a path other than domination, at one extreme, and submission at the other? What's wrong with partnership? Why should attorney Debra Dickerson, whose poignant essay appears in the following pages, have to express astonishment that for one 'entire, righteous day,' the day of the Million Man March, she found herself addressed by black males respectfully: as 'auntie,' 'sister,' and 'daughter,' not once as 'bitch,' 'ho,' or 'sweet thang'?

Clearly, we're living in anxious times. Once upon a time, masculinity was tacitly defined in terms of the extent to which men had control over their labor and could be self-reliant in the workplace. If a man failed, he could always head 'West' -- geographically, metaphorically -- in search of a new frontier. A self-made man could always start over.

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