Chris Rock once said, “Only women, children, and dogs are loved unconditionally. A man is only loved under the condition that he provides something.” While I believe men should be able to provide, the comedic legend’s statement is an unfortunate reminder of a deep-seated belief many men have: There is no safe space to express the complexity of ourselves beyond the confines of what we can do for others.
Where can men go to talk about their feelings? Can they share with friends and family? Can they speak to their significant other –without being judged after doing so? How many men seek out therapy? Is going to therapy even helpful; or just a waste of time, money, and energy? Even if they never openly express them, questions like these cross the minds of men every day. Yet a lot of men don’t believe being open with their feelings is something we should do, and, honestly, I often find myself acting in ways that underscore that belief. Instead of taking the risk of being vulnerable and being portrayed as weak, a lot of men often turn to destructive or superficial coping mechanisms that society has normalized in attempts to live as though their pain doesn’t exist.
The most prevalent way for a man to deal with painful circumstances that’s been normalized as healthy is for him to pour that pain into his purpose, seek financial prosperity, and improve or maintain his physicality. But where does that leave his mental health? And even when a man does adhere to that ideal, is that ever enough for him to warrant a safe place to display his genuine emotions or show pain? Let’s look at Will Smith.
During the latest episode of Red Table Talk in which Jada Pinkett Smith addressed her relationship with August Alsina during her marriage, Will seemed to be open with his emotions while sitting across from and supporting his wife. What happened in the aftermath? Will has become the butt of several jokes and memes. Comedian Michael Blackson and 50 Cent publicly posted screenshots of themselves reaching out to Will in what at first seemed like support, before using the messages as an opportunity for self-publicity and added embarrassment. Throughout all this, Will, a Black man worth an estimated $350 million, has now gone from a role model to a joke in the eyes of many. Between social media posts, videos, and personal conversations, I’ve seen and heard many men make comments like, “It couldn’t be me, Will.” “Jada belongs to the streets.” “Will needs to take the red pill,” and “Jada has no respect for Will.” This public shaming is the consequence of Will doing nothing more than openly supporting his wife and their commitment to each other as life partners.
Next, let’s look at August Alsina. When I first listened to his interview with Angela Yee, I had few doubts the singer was telling the truth. Early in the discussion, August opened up about some of the trauma he’s faced in his life, including his relationship with his mother and being molested growing up. After openly discussing those painful memories, Angela asked August specifically about his relationship with Jada, asking him to put the rumors to rest. August spoke of the relationship with a deep sense of passion and emotion that seemed genuine. Shortly after talking about his relationship with the actress, the interview transitioned to August’s sister’s death — another topic that further stirred up painful emotions.
Despite the deeply personal and hurtful experiences August revealed, attention fell solely on the five minutes of the interview involving his relationship with Jada, leading to reactions like “August broke the code,” or “He had no right to bring up Jada,” or “He overstepped his role as the side dude.” However, when I listened to the conversation, I took away far more than that salacious bit of news. I heard a man trying to cope with the immense amount of pain he’s experienced throughout his life.
Despite the pedestals afforded by their celebrity status, Will and August are real men; they’re human, and both displayed vulnerability in regard to their relationship with Jada. Unfortunately, I fear the reaction to that vulnerability is another reminder to many men that maybe it’s best to keep our feelings to ourselves rather than take the risk of facing humiliation, indifference, or being labeled. Some men who have lost parents, children, close friends, been incarcerated, experienced racism, a divorce, molestation, infidelity, job losses, and other traumatic life events who are still holding on to the pain of those experiences will see how the world reacts to Black men in peril and continue to suffer in silence. If we’re going to constantly remind men they need to learn how to deal with their emotions, we have to normalize the expression of those feelings publicly and privately.
Even men who consider themselves to be “strong” and pour themselves into their passions and purpose have to face the reality that they still have feelings inside that they are uncomfortable with at times and that could affect their overall mental health. Many men try to work through their problems alone, but it’s essential that we understand the importance of supporting each other and not being afraid to seek therapy and other forms of positive healing when necessary. And, as Jada showed August, it’s also important to be careful what type of “healing” you seek.