When I was in high school, my aspirations were to be a writer and a college professor. I loved reading and writing, so I figured that these two passions would converge one day. But I also told myself that if I ever taught on the high school level, I would want to teach in Englewood, one of South Side Chicago’s most vibrant but disenfranchised neighborhoods. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I felt a sense of obligation to our city. Call it fate or circumstance, but last year I worked as a Freshman English teacher at an all-boys school in Englewood.

Teaching is a difficult task, but it was one I committed my mind, body and soul to. Luckily, even in the hard times, I had a tremendous amount of support from other staff and our leadership. Our principal gave the teachers great confidence and flexibility toward the material we used, so as I tried to improve my young men’s proficiency in reading and critical thinking skills, I covertly taught them key life lessons that dwelled in the subtexts of the things we read.

It was challenging trying to balance improving these skills with the canonical texts our American school system says they “should” read, but also using material that could relate to their diverse experiences. The stress and juggling (with a hundred other things you really wouldn’t understand unless you were a teacher) was so heavy, especially as a black male from the same neighborhoods as them. I wanted success so badly for them. Some nights I had nightmares about school from being so stressed out about how I could make the material relevant for the students.

I tried everything — articles from different publications, books, magazines, movies, raps and poetry. At the school, we even paid close attention to creating an engaging, healthy learning environment. I put up posters of Malcolm X, Junot Diaz, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and a big one of Chance the Rapper. As a teacher, you learn quickly that no lesson can be an 100% failure or success, but there was one day when I got as close to that universal light-bulb moment that teachers crave.

One day I taught a poem by José Olivarez called “but run.” The piece follows two friends thinking about and dealing with the violent death of another friend. That week, we were working on strengthening our skills of picking on implicit or explicit details and identifying generalizations made within a passage. That was the lesson on the white board, but the implicit lesson I wanted to teach the boys was about masculinity and repression. The lines we talked over during our critical discussion were as followed:

Kamari and i go down

to the courts, we run cause that’s what we know, we talk

ball, jump shots and rebounds. we do not know

how to talk about grief. i do not pull Kamari close

and tell him that i love him. i do not know how

to do that yet

After reading and discussing the poem, we concluded that “Running” was a dual metaphor; running from the dangers within and imposed on their neighborhoods, but also running from emotions.

To spark their thinking about what generalizations the poem was making, I asked each of my five English Survey periods to make a list about what a man is “suppose to be,” and what emotions society says a man “can” show. The general consensus amongst my students was that the only emotions men are “allowed” to show are anger and sadness (though sadness was qualified to “when someone in your family or one of your close friends dies”).

What was bittersweet for me as a teacher was that talking about masculine repression was by far the most engaged they had been all year. Students who were usually playful were engaged; students who often didn’t contribute raised their hand. The discussions we had about the poem were very engaging, open and honest. It was cathartic for both them and me to talk about these things, but it was also sad to see that 115 young black males basically were unanimous in agreement that the only emotion society (whether mainstream or local) legitimizes for them is anger. It made me think about the repressive power of conventional masculinity, especially within the context of the inner city. It made me question how the systemic issues that many of my students face are robbing them of #BlackBoyJoy.

When and where are black boys allowed to express joy?

Most men deal with issues that stem from masculinity’s repressive power no matter what racial or economic background they come from. As a construct, it causes even positive emotions like joy to be equated with weakness. These problems are augmented by the social issues plaguing inner-city settings, where the “tough guise” is a mix of survival instinct, social capital, and a product of a variety of historical and systemic issues.

As humans, we all crave both physical and emotional bonds. For example, touch is a very basic social and biological human need. But think about how hyper-masculinity and homophobia isolates many inner-city black boys from these basics. But in spaces where masculinity is policed, where are black boys allowed to express emotion or embrace each other without the urge to say “no homo?” The majority of them fill this void with sports, sometimes video games, but unfortunately, some seek out this fraternal bond through gangs.

In many inner-city settings, the only time a group of black boys can show genuine joy for seeing each other is gang membership. But because drillas don’t make it to academia, we don’t get opportunities to think critically about how gangs and cliques act as proxy for fraternal love between black men. In his poetry book entitled Wild Hundreds, South Side Chicago poet Nate Marshall wrote a poem called “learning gang handshakes.” In the poem, he says:

when the big boys taught me how to hug with palms

i learned the secret. Shaking up looks like violence

&love. & it is.

It’s hard to wrap your head around if you aren’t from a setting like this, but “shaking up” (when two people do a handshake that identifies them with a certain gang or clique) is an expression of love. It provides a form of social interaction between males that is otherwise taboo. It’s male intimacy (even though words “male intimacy” are seen as contradictory or viewed with homophobic connotations).

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I never joined a gang, but I had close friends who were in one or another. Despite all the repressive forces on masculinity, no boy can completely repress that fraternal instinct. I was blessed to have other productive outlets which kept me away from joining a gang, but that fraternal instinct followed me to college.

Only two days before my high school graduation did I find out that I was going to the University of Virginia. I was excited to go, but felt incredibly isolated when I got there. The setting, the culture, the people, everything was different. It even shattered my notions of “universal blackness,” as I was hanging out with black kids from the rural areas and suburbs of Virginia, many of whom could not relate to my inner-city experiences. It took me a while to adjust, but again, that fraternal impulse still persisted, and it was ultimately what compelled made me join a historically black fraternity.

Joining “The Frat” was an amazing experience in many ways, but it was also an outlet where I could finally express the #BlackBoyJoy I needed when I was a young kid back in Chicago. Even though my fraternity prides itself on intensity and precision, I remember strolling at parties and messing up sometimes because I was so happy I couldn’t think, which is rare for me. Even after my college life, I can’t describe the unfiltered joy I feel whenever I see my lines brothers and all my big bros.

We know about all the issues making Chicago a lightning rod for debates surrounding race and justice within America.

Though I am no longer teaching, I’d give anything to bottle that #BlackBoyJoy for my students and other black boys growing up in cities like Chicago. I still want it for them more than anything else.


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