What will save us?
In her poem from, Nayyirah Waheed asks: what/ massacre/ happens to my son/ between/ him/ living within my skin/…/ and/ his soft psyche turning cruel/ does he not remember/ he/ is half woman?
A rhetorical question, to be sure, but a pertinent one nonetheless, the answer to which is found in the many unwritten laws of maleness.
Tradition, Professor Kopano Ratele tells us, is “a project of naturalising strangers, turning them into ‘believers’ ”. The legend of Somagwaza — indoda yokuqala (the first man) — a tale that beggars all belief — is one such tradition.
It’s an audacious creation myth describing the ingenious and miraculous creation of manhood.
A miracle relived by thousands of young Xhosa men, year in and year out, lamentable and avoidable deaths notwithstanding. A continuous, unbroken chain of man-making, making believers of even the most assimilated of young Xhosa boys, bending only to accommodate those masculinities that are unreflective and self-reinforcing within the confines of umthetho (the law of manhood).
In popular culture, new codes and rules have developed through the consumption of mancentric mainstream media. Ubiquitous technology has accelerated the evolution of our socialisation in favour of the more dominant, more “traditional” masculinity — imploring us to uncritically suffix “no homo” to expressions of empathy, appreciation and affection between men — real men.
A real man doesn’t do this.
A real man doesn’t do that.
Stick to the bro code dude.
Bros before hoes.
Homies over hoes.
That’s a ho move.
Ain’t no bitch in my DNA.
Atonement by deflection.
Rehabilitation by othering.
This is an unwritten but universal canon of expected and approved male behaviour, almost indistinguishable from one geographic location to the next, from one culture to another. But see how we scramble feverishly for reaction and response when confronted with the fatal flaws inherent in traditional masculinities?
See us perform for the cameras and likes on our social media pages.
See us disappear from some when we are exposed as trash men, waste men by those with the most intimate knowledge of our iniquities.
What is the bro code for learning, unlearning and relearning humanity? Must we be called ugly and trash before we begin to see the light?
The Information Age is facilitating the intensification of the internecine war between cisgender men and everyone else. Gruesome skirmishes once hidden behind private doors now play themselves out in the public domain. Our complacency as men fuels an ever-raging inferno of anger and despair that appears to grow each day with each new report of the vile deeds of real, everyday men.
We need immediate remedies beyond the misguided and hurriedly compiled responses that sometimes include parodying femininity or parroting the “real men” trope. In our private spaces, we must decide for ourselves which behaviour we will no longer tolerate in ourselves and in others.
We must shun those men whose recalcitrance renders them incapable of unlearning this behaviour. We must be honest to ourselves about the ways in which we encourage perpetrators and commit to improving ourselves first.
There is work to be done. Work that is necessarily difficult, exhausting and painful. Work that needs to be done urgently, but carefully, by men in alliance with women. By men who identify as pro-feminist and by men who do not subscribe to any label.
We need each other to develop the new codes, rules and laws for a new tradition to initiate new men — cisgender, transgender and nonbinary alike — and make them into believers. We need each other to see beyond the barriers of our immediate privilege.
As admirable as some of the responses by groups of men to recent events have been, many have been somewhat misguided and ill-conceived. It is no surprise to some who observe this behaviour with a keen, though amateur, academic interest.
We have proven ourselves incapable of effecting the required change in our socialisation in groups. We therefore need to embark on a slow, intimate process, adopting the spirit of “each one teach one” — a cumulative and iterative process of inspiration and correction, from man to man.
When in our groups, we must be vigilant of behaviour that might undo this important work. We must not be afraid to speak out against those whose actions perpetuate undesirable behaviour. We must rewrite the bro code and imbue it with the empathy it sorely lacks.
From her 2003 anthology of poetry aptly titled Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, Alice Walker asks: What Will Save Us? In the final two stanzas of the homonymous poem, she answers as follows: The restoration to the woman of her will./ The restoration to the man of his tenderness.
Fumbatha May is a writer and data nerd living in Johannesburg