Britain—“Black British Masculinity means excessive performance.”
British Ghanaian writer/actor/director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu is setting up a series of workshops for black UK-based men to talk and explore what it means to be a black, British man in our day and age and what is it to learn about it.
The series of workshops are organized in response to Fynn-Aiduenu’s play Sweet Like Chocolate, Boy which follows two black men, Bounty and Mars, who survive politically charged black Britain through different time frames only to uncover the secret that unites them. In doing this, both question and ultimately challenge ideas of masculinity both society and within black communities.
In the first pilot workshop lead by Fynn-Aiduenu and British Asian scholar Shanti Sarkar that I attended, a group of black men based in London were invited to explore what the current ideas of masculinity are through drama exercises. The men in the panel came from different walks of life, and diverse backgrounds but had one thing in common: they wanted to break free of the many stereotypes on black British masculinity such as hyper-sexualism, hyper-masculinity and the pressure to act “strong”.
When it comes to defining masculinity in the black communities they are a part of, competition takes it to another level. When asked to demonstrate what masculinity was in various situations, body language and spacial awareness in the room immediately changed. There was a need to puff up chests, take up more space in the room with bigger strides, have speech that was effortlessly seductive and also be aware of the others in the room.
Competitiveness heightened the sense of having to perform masculinity and to overplay their aggressiveness as a way to show to other men that they are, indeed, masculine and better at it than anyone else—It was to the extent that you have to perform a hyper-masculinity in both body language & voice in certain situations to be simply seen as ‘masculine’ at a baseline level.
The men in the panel identified that they got their first taste of what the concept of masculinity through their family members. One of them recalls that he has never shared anything emotional with his dad or he would call him “gay” or a “sissy”.
Our generation is trying to find a way to make gender concept less rigid: especially emotions. But is vulnerability masculine?
Especially when expressions like the very demeaning “No homo” is still very much part of the culture? As the panel admitted, many men adapt their language to the (perceived) gender of the person they’re communicating with. They may be more romantic with a potential romantic partner while keeping it more flat when they communicate with a man. The language used in this context would be less obvious, more around the way.
Masculinity is all about performance: there was a very clear consensus on what is strongly seen as not “masculine”, yet, at the same time, having to hide all the things that young men feel like is not masculine enough, such as insecurities, mental health issues, sexuality issues. It means also always second guessing yourself as to make sure that the other men won’t see what is underneath the surface, the performance and the questioning of who one is and where one belongs. Adding to that that the messages one receives from school, the streets are so different from the ones at home.
Another common point the men on the panel mentioned was how much American culture has an influence on British blackness and how it collides with masculinity. Most of the cultural figures they know are American and their fights inspired theirs. That means that there is a disconnect between the way they’ve seen masculinity being performed in a different context often the one at home. Black families are diverse and complex, but certain stereotypes about masculinity remains the same. However, these preconceived Gender concepts differs from one culture to another. Meaning that trying to apply the concept of masculinity from home to a British concept creates a cultural clash.
To look deeper about eradicating this idea of performance, Fynn-Aiduenu & Sarkar invited the men to stand opposite each other and take the characters from the play. In standing opposite each other, the two men were asked to perform a simple drama exercise inspired by practitioner Heinford Meisner called The “Repetition exercise”. They were to look their partner in the eyes, become the two characters and just describe how their partner makes them feel. All the while, if there partner makes any body reaction (even a blink) they were to note it and repeat it back to them i.e. If partner A blinks, partner B must say “you blinked” and partner A must repeat “I blinked”.
The effect was that then men at first became hyper aware of their movements and would tense up. Any show of emotion—or even reaction—could be seen as an attack on their masculinity. However slowly allowing their partner to notice their natural reactions, alongside with playing the parts of two people that actually loved each other , allowed the men to break down their barriers and show a vulnerability that was both beautiful, natural & empowering.
On the other hand, it should be noted that men after the session questioned the power one has with the Black man’s vulnerability and the dangers of this. To lose someone who you can be completely yourself with – super hyper-masculine and not – is the deepest cut and risk the Black men in the play could take. If Black men show us all the hues of them, the hues that are not so hunter-like and incredibly soft, will we as partners/family/friends stay for the long haul?
And eventually, the conclusion from the participants is that black people—especially black British men—often short change themselves and their imagination about what they can do. There’s a stagnant feel that no matter what you do, you have to carry your whole race with you. And people who are black, male and British would definitely feel more free in their identity if they could be themselves, and not the stereotypes that come with performing something that do not feel genuine. Nevertheless, a pathway to that breakdown of hyper-masculinity could be in utilizing both trust and acceptance. Accepting that part of being masculine is the vulnerability and ‘realness’ that hyper-masculinity shelters. From then on in it is trusting that whoever these Black men show those softer, sweeter, non-performative and vulnerable moments to will not abuse them and strip them of their instilled pride for it.
It raises one final question: who wants to see the real you?