Nate Parker, director and star of The Birth of a Nation, has been the focus of media reports in the past few weeks for being accused and acquitted of sexual assault allegations in 1999. Parker's case has reinvigorated discussions on rape and consent.
Around the same time, Frank Ocean released two long-awaited albums, Endless and Blonde. Ocean is an artist who is often heralded as a sexually liberated black man. In fact, he confirmed as much four years ago in a letter he wrote on Tumblr confessing the love he held for another man, a former lover. In the letter he said, "I feel like a free man."
But what does it take to be and live life as a free black man? Public conversations centered on black men in the U.S. tend to be contested. Discussions range from the ways pervasive rape culture affects black men to the ways some black men are resisting toxic masculinity as they pursue an expression of free black manhood.
But what does it take to be and live life as a free black man?
To get to a place in our male-centered society where expressions like #BlackBoyJoy and #FreeBlackMan are ways of life — and not just hashtags — black boys and men have do the hard work of unpacking our ideas about power, control, manhood and masculinity. This is harder work than some might imagine because it requires a complete unlearning of what we have been taught about ourselves.
I invited 15 black men to offer insight into what is needed to end rape culture, to reflect on Frank Ocean's influence on culture, and to discuss what we need to create the conditions necessary for black men to be free of harmful ideas of masculinity. Check out what they had to say below.
On growing up in a culture that glamorizes rape
"The conversations should focus not only on the individuals accused of rape but also on the culture [that] makes their violence possible."
— George Arnett, writer and multidisciplinary artist, New York, New York
"If we are to heal as a community, we cannot continue to elevate problematic men at the expense of the larger black communities. Ending rape culture also does not end with accountability for Nate Parker. The conversations should focus not only on the individuals accused of rape but also on the culture [that] makes their violence possible.
"Rapists exist among us — in pulpits, in our families, in our community organizations — and until we empower victims to have the courage and voice to speak out against these men in close proximity to them, our work is incomplete."
"Being a free black man means loving yourself in order to serve humankind in your gift."
— Roman Johnson, writer, Birmingham, Alabama
"Being a free black man means loving yourself in order to serve humankind in your gift. It means loving black women and never forgetting that the liberation of women is the liberation for us all, especially as queer, black men.
"Frank Ocean definitely has evolved to be more explicit in his language of love for black men, and I think his boldness is the liberating thing for me. Seeing him more free is definitely helping me to be more confident in myself."
"As a black reporter, I am taking it upon myself to learn more about sexual assault."
— Terrell Jermaine Starr, national political correspondent, Fusion, Brooklyn, New York
"I have received many emails from mothers of black men who wanted me to investigate the deaths of their sons in police custody. Often, there is no video or silver bullet evidence that places guilt on the cop. I only have the word of the mother and the victim. Do I tell her, 'There is no video, therefore there is no proof' or 'The officer was found to have not done anything wrong, according to an internal review. Can't help you'?
No, I follow up and do the fact-checking to ensure that the victim was not mistreated; as a reporter, I would do the same thing if a mother emailed to ask me to investigate the rape of her daughter. Both deserve to be believed equally.
As a black reporter, I am taking it upon myself to learn more about sexual assault and use my platform to lead conversations about rape and how to best report and discuss it in the media."
"Men, and those who identify with 'masculinity' —whatever the hell that is — must work together."
— Preston Anderson, staffing coordinator for Infinity One Healthcare and educator at Sonus Village, Columbia, South Carolina
"Regarding rape culture, we all need to heed those who come forth with their stories, and there must be quick vocal and visible support for the victims — and this needs to be divorced from the idea that supporting victims is automatically castigating the accused and perceiving them as guilty until proven innocent.
"Men, and those who identify with 'masculinity' — whatever the hell that is — must work together. This isn't an individual 'project' wherein my own non-transgressive self is enough. We need to collectively garner actual space where all peoples within the community are safe and grow that space."
"Incomplete conversations [about rape and consent] lead to distorted boundaries, which leads to trouble."
— Keith R. Green, doctoral candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
"Incomplete conversations [about rape and consent] lead to distorted boundaries, which leads to trouble. The less we avoid it and the more we talk about it, the better prepared our young — and not-so-young — people can be to make more rational decisions. The responsibility for doing this does not rest with parents and educators alone, but with society as a whole.
"If we can turn on the radio in the middle of the day and groove to tunes about sexing our mates back to sleep, then surely we can talk about making sure that they're fully awake and coherent first."
"We must cultivate and champion a space of restorative justice."
— Larry Lyons, scholar and artist, Newark, New Jersey
"Whether we are offenders, witnesses or merely stakeholders in a larger community that's coming to terms with its culture of sexual violence, we must cultivate and champion a space of restorative justice. Only here might we begin to understand rape and sexual assault as a violation not only of an individual but of entire communities. It is here that we might begin to visualize and become authentically accountable not only to survivors of violence, but also to the community members, family and friends who suffer distress, shame and guilt along with their loved one.
"Nate Parker's case teaches us that even when we've been vindicated — or found not guilty — within institutions that operate in direct abeyance with patriarchy and misogyny, there remain other contexts in which we exist. This place cannot be reached by broad public apologies, open letters or charitable contributions alone. An altogether different work is required of us here."
On being free black men
"To be a free black man is possible in a future free of racism, sexism and all other structural oppression."
—Bryan Matthew Charles Epps, executive director, Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, Newark, New Jersey
"To me, free black manhood means creating a personal existence that goes beyond the limits of previous definitions of blackness and manhood. It means living a life that adds power and dignity to those definitions. Free black manhood also means having the freedom to encourage everyone in my community to live at their greatest potential. That would mean we'd all have to be free from jail cells, police brutality, and structures that encourage all forms of violence. To be a free black man is possible in a future free of racism, sexism and all other structural oppression."
"There's a brilliant liberation in even the mere question of 'Am I being who I truly am?"
— Jason Reynolds, author of When I Was The Greatest, Washington, D.C.
"Frank Ocean's new albums, to me, are most inspiring when I think of the effects they will have on the younger generation. He is providing for them the same thing Andre 3000 provided for me — an example of unabashed creativity, and an image untethered to social norms. But being a free black man doesn't only include the courage to blur gender lines, or the vision to heighten the creative bar. It's also about the freedom to struggle with the idea of freedom itself. There's a brilliant liberation in even the mere question of 'Am I being who I truly am?'"
"I try very hard to live my life as free as possible."
— Isaam Sharef, artist, Newark, New Jersey
"There's so much freedom in owning who you are. I try very hard to live my life as free as possible. That wasn't something I was afforded in my youth.
"Frank Ocean, or people like Frank Ocean, have inspired me to do better, to love better and to live out loud and as free as possible — because the true definition of the free black man is strength and the courage to be exactly who you are."
"My version of black masculinity is freeing to me because I do exactly what I want to do ..."
— Madison Alexander Moore, writer and cultural critic, Berlin, Germany
"I learned long ago that there was no way I would fit into the version of black masculinity that my stepfather worked so hard to force me into. He woke me up every Saturday morning for football practice and other manly activities, all because he didn't want to raise no sissy. Well, guess what? I'm a sissy. And I've always been more interested in music and sequins and fabulous hair than performing this bullshit ultra masculinity.
"My version of black masculinity is freeing to me because I do exactly what I want to do and wear what I want to wear regardless of how I am might be censored. Artists like Frank Ocean are inspiring for me because they are so visible and inspiring to a younger generation for simply being their free, fabulous black selves."
"I can remember my own feelings of helplessness when when I was a kid, and a teenage girl and caretaker of mine tried to fight off five boys who perceived her [as] sexually promiscuous."
— Cleve V. Tinsley IV, scholar and educator, Houston, Texas
"I can remember my own feelings of helplessness when I was a kid, and a teenage girl and caretaker of mine tried to fight off five boys who perceived her [as] sexually promiscuous and decided they would use the occasion of a private party to violate her sexually. I can recall, more horrifically and with tears, both the struggle I heard in her voice from the other room, as well as her eventual surrender and feelings of shame and guilt she felt afterward. She couldn't tell anyone, in her mind; for she called over these boys without the permission of my mother.
"In some ways she had internalized invalid understandings of herself; she really thought she deserved to be treated that way — to be raped — because of her reputation and because she felt that she was unworthy of men's attention. I would go on to see how this affected her the rest of her life. As I grew older, I came to see that many of the forces that gave shape to this earlier experience of mine would also fashion my own understanding of women and what manhood entailed."
"I am many things, existing at once, and it's extraordinary beautiful."
— Texas Isaiah Horatio-Valenzuela, photographer, Oakland, California
"I have lived many lives being caged and free, haven't we all? I'm learning what black masculinity can look like when it is vulnerable, loving, open, unafraid and honest within this existence of mine. When you have had the gift of navigating the world as a black woman for almost three decades, those lessons and experiences definitely provide a foundation of the possibilities of healthy and loving masculinity. However, I am just not masculine and I don't think of masculinity as a one-dimensional identity [or] existence.
"I am many things, existing at once, and it's extraordinary beautiful. Masculinity contains many things, existing at once, and it can be extraordinary beautiful. I want more of that in the world, so we, especially black women, can be safer."
"I walk the streets as a free black man today. It's the world around me that tries to remind me otherwise."
— Erik Carter, photographer, Brooklyn, New York
"Frank Ocean's Endless and Blonde once again called for a subtle demand to rethink modern masculinity. Ocean hasn't necessarily changed my perspective on black masculinity, but rather has provided relief that a black queer [gender-fluid] voice in hip-hop — that's able to reach the masses — finally exists.
"Black masculinity, and all of the insecurities that accompany it, caged me for most of my life. So-called safe spaces like church or even the typical black household, deceived me; their lessons of morality often contradicted their actions. Even today, as I witness violence in the streets near my home, the word that still holds the most power is 'faggot.' It can take the most nonviolent man and turn him into a brute just by questioning his fragile masculinity. Nevertheless, I walk the streets as a free black man today. It's the world around me that tries to remind me otherwise."
"My prepubescent life was glorious, mostly spent in the company of sage old black women who didn't expect to be something we knew I'd never be."
— L. Lamar Wilson, poet-professor, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
"Personally, for as long as I can remember, I've heard some version of 'You're too pretty to be a boy' and 'You think and act like a girl.' As a child, it confused me because I was a rough-and-tumble kid who thrived as much at wrestling, basketball, baseball and football as four square, jump rope, hopscotch and double dutch. I eschewed fighting and debating and preferred mediating arguments until all were at peace. In this way, a feigned alpha black masculinity was never accessible or desired, so my prepubescent life was glorious, mostly spent in the company of sage old black women who didn't expect me to be something we knew I'd never be."
"I can be vulnerable. I can laugh. I can cry. I can be handsome. I can be beautiful."
—Tré Addison, 28, model/actor, Atlanta, Georgia
"I can be strong. I can be sensitive. I can be bold. I can be vulnerable. I can laugh. I can cry. I can be handsome. I can be beautiful. Frank Ocean's artistry embodies all of these notions, while broadening mainstream's definition of masculinity. I am all of these things because I am a man!"