Fathers and Sons

In The Male Prison and Going to Meet the Man, along with other more autobiographical works from Baldwin, the role of fathers in their sons’ masculinity stood out to me. As Baldwin has clearly shown, masculinity is clearly tied to sexuality, but most of my thoughts cover more general impressions of masculinity. I have no wish of invoking Freud or any other sex-linked psychologies, nor do I have a homosexual man’s insight into father-son relationships, but I’ve been avoiding the topic for long enough. 

I don’t know what a good father is. It very well may be true that relative to other fathers, mine is incredible. I do not see it that way. As loving as things may be now, my memory of that crucial fatherly guidance at a young age is sadly lacking. I remember tests and judgements. And my father once explained it to me like this: it is his job to make sure I am ready. That I am prepared enough, strong enough, and good enough in both a moral and general capacity. The phrase that strikes me most clearly is: “You are not a man until I say so.” I think it’s important to point out the good intentions here. My father wanted to make sure I was a good person. That seems pretty noble. He wanted me to be independent, honorable, intelligent, and compassionate. I aspire to be those things. It is fascinating and somewhat sad that we became so at-odds over the same goal. But that is my experience with masculinity, the keyword being enough. There seems to be a threshold, for literally everything from wit to sexual-performance. I learned very early on that every tiny thing, whether it was done with love or not, was a test. From everyone. Which means that everything can be failed. The price of failing those tests was not getting the respect, and much more importantly, the care that I needed. I say respect because that’s what I thought I had to earn in order to get help. I don’t know how universal that sentiment is, but a lot of my experiences with guys are in line with it. If we fail, we aren’t worthy of help, and therefore the only reliable source of support is yourself. And if you don’t trust yourself, because you keep failing, then you have nothing. I believe that is why a lot of men are so obstinate. There is a certain, albeit toxic, pride in passing those tests, even if they’re ultimately meaningless. At times it feels like that pride is all we have. It is a false pride, not a pride in yourself but a pride in your existence. Because a lot of us don’t like ourselves. And we’re wired, trained even, to ask for nothing, which means that if you don’t learn to ask, you drown or you take. I was fortunate enough to start learning, but only after my fair share of the aforementioned. 

I see a lot of that pride in Baldwin’s characters, and in his essays. It manifests as a refusal to accept, as self-hatred, anger, arrogance, or confidence. And once it’s learned it’s very hard to move past, because that is the way I think. That is the way I process the world and my place in it. So when Baldwin writes, “Since he clearly could not forgive himself for his anomaly” (234) in regards to Andre Gida, I see pride, refusing to shake a societal pressure because to do so would be to fail as he was taught. Of course, Baldwin’s treatment of Gida is opinion, as is my treatment of the topic. I’ve touched on a lot of the self-hatred and particularly the hatred that emerges as a result of being at odds with one’s identity and one’s expectations. I feel no need to reiterate those points, only to add that Jesse’s need for sexual release tied to violence and racism in Going to Meet the Man is one of the most grotesque and appalling manifestations of this pride (a head’s up would’ve been nice). Regardless, Baldwin concludes in agreement, describing the “male prison” as one born of isolation, built by “a most petulant and unmasculine pride” (235). I do this. A lot of my friends do this. We are isolated, too proud, afraid, or both, to ask for some meaningful company or conversation. We find our ways around it. Some are healthier than others, but for all the healthy practices in the world, I find myself repeatedly and illogically alone. In my experience, most of us just want to be held, though that does not help the overarching societal approach to masculinity. 

As a final note, none of this is meant to justify at all, least of all the longstanding societal restrictions, double-standards, and challenges facing women, and every other group for that matter. I simply wished to provide an insight, and possibly get a bit off my chest. Genuineness was requested of me and I hope I have provided.