Read by Micheal Franti
The notion of manhood, is an elastic one that changes and develops over time. At a very young age, black males learn from their interaction with others, that something is amiss. The brilliant writer James Baldwin, made just this point when he noted, “it comes as a great shock around the age of five, six or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, had not pledged allegiance to you.”
It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians. And although you’re rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.
For a young black male, this is potent knowledge that defines you and marks the trajectory in life. From this foul seedling of knowledge can sprout the noxious weed of alienation, or the blossom of belonging. One can emerge with the poison of aloneness, or the shared sense of commonality. As a 14 year old, I joined the Black Panther Party, and became part of a revolutionary formation dedicated to defending the black community. I felt like a man.
I joined the party about a year after another young man, Bobby Hutton, was murdered by Oakland cops. And like Bobby, I was fully prepared to give my life in defense of the party and our people’s right to struggle for freedom and self determination. “Man” then meant militant defense, service and sacrifice for one’s people, one’s community and one’s party. Leaving the BPP influenced by a deadly and fratricidal wave of party infighting that left young Panthers dead on both coasts, but occasioned by a love affair with a young Panther sister, and her resultant pregnancy meant redefining my manhood, and meant becoming a committed lover, companion, and father. And it meant the tortured mix of love and dread that marked the birth of a brown skinned boy in this land.
A feeling as perverse as it is terrible. A feeling as true as two and two.
In the ultra macho world that is prison, manhood has many meanings. Mostly the extent to which one can shield and mask feelings. No shield lasts forever. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, men who lost or never had fathers seek father figures amongst those whom they can trust. Those who can teach them or give them away to decode the maddening world that has been at war with them from birth. Earn a trust that is rarely been given in a short, brutal life lived in cruel freedom.
Man in shackles, means griot. Rememberer, teacher, decoder and resistor. Young men, who have not bonded with their natural fathers and older men stripped from bonding with their natural sons, develop new, if somewhat tenuous bonds by creating shadows of family in the nether world.
So, “man” has various meanings, depending on the stage of one’s life. It is he who defends, one who serves, one who sacrifices.