Podcast

Patriarchy Blues: Frederick Joseph on the boxes we put around American boys and men

I’ve been thinking a lot about American masculinity recently. The little boxes we tell boys they must check in order to be “real men.”

You’ve seen it in response to the recent mass shootings. That guns are just part of our culture. Gun advertisers often tell men to “take back their man card” by buying a gun.

You hear it in the rhetoric of politicians like Josh Hawley or pundits like Tucker Carlson who are shouting about some sort of War on Men. Or in the language of the Proud Boys or the alt-right. Or ads that prey on men’s insecurities to sell them supplements that allegedly boost testosterone.

Gender reveal parties have managed to start wildfires in the American West. It’s become something of an American obsession.

We tell people to man up. Boys don’t cry. State legislators spent the past few years obsessing over trans people and trying to cement some archetypal idea of boyhood and girlhood.

But it’s always been more complicated than that. And that’s why I was so excited to read Frederick Joseph’s new bestseller “Patriarchy Blues: Reflections on Manhood.” You may know Joseph as the force behind the Black Panther project, the effort that raised over one million dollars to help young Black children see Black Panther in theaters. He led a similar effort for young girls to see Captain Marvel. He raised funds to help people pay their rent during the early days of the pandemic shutdown. He’s poured a lot into the community.

His first book The Black Friend has become one of those books about race that’s getting banned in school districts across the country. Joseph’s not afraid to confront big issues. And he’s not afraid to confront his own demons either.

“Patriarchy Blues” is filled with essays that breakdown his ideas on what it means to be a man in America. The false binaries that we’re choose to accept between masculine and feminine traits. And the ways in which we’re all liberated if embrace womanist philosophies to move past some of these tropes. We’re all human beings who should get to experience the full depths of our humanity including chances to cry, laugh, get angry, get hurt, show love, show pain, sing and dance.

He joins us on the Reckon Interview this week to discuss “Patriarchy Blues.”

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

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Reckon: We are here to talk about your new book, Patriarchy Blues, Reflection on Manhood. And in some ways I think your journey toward this book started with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in your early 20s. You write early on in the book that gave you the chance to assess who you’d been and how you might be remembered, and you didn’t necessarily like what you saw at the time. So, tell me about that diagnosis and how it changed the course of your life.

Frederick Joseph: Yeah, I think that the two inflection points in my life have been, A, finding out about my MS, and then sometime before that, starting college. Right? Because I think that starting college is when I really started to unpack and unlearn white supremacy.

But then I realized in my MS diagnosis, when I was really looking at myself and seeing how people around me were still in these metaphorical shackles for things beyond white supremacy, I’m like, the only work I’ve done is combating white supremacy, and I’ve only done that work because it benefits me. Right? And I’m like, a person who only does things because it benefits them, that’s that’s not a legacy, really. That’s self-interest. So, then I thought to myself, what more could I be doing again to not only lift, but destroy those metaphorical shackles that are on other people?

Reckon: And obviously, the name of the book is Patriarchy Blues. Patriarchy is a big word that I think a lot of people have different working definitions for in different situations. So, just for the course of this conversation, give us your working definition and how you understand patriarchy and what working against.

Joseph: It’s interesting. It is a big word. Which is why every interview I do, people always ask me that. Because I think it’s an important question. Right? I define patriarchy in the most intersectional way I can. Right? Patriarchy is many things. It’s an evil structure with tentacles that are named transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, misogynoir, rape culture, toxic masculinity. Right? There’s so much there that it’s hard to pin it down in a definition as much as it’s like the umbrella of many things that are destroying society.

Reckon: And have been a part of society for almost as long as society has been around. You unpack a lot of the history of how patriarchy has evolved. What did you learn in the course of writing this book about the historical roots of patriarchy?

Joseph: Yeah, it’s interesting. I was actually just having this conversation last night. I think a lot of our oppressive constructs, whether that’s patriarchy, white supremacy, current construct of capitalism, we see them as these things that are older than time itself, but they’re not, really. Right? We can trace back the contemporary forms of patriarchy, and I found that again throughout my research.

If you look at something even like transphobia, some of the oldest societies in history had people who were trans and respected them. Right? People were able to live their lives and be free about certain things. Even homophobia. Right? You look at some of the, some of the, quote unquote “great societies” they teach us about history classes like the Greeks and people like that. Right? People were very much into freedom of sexuality in many instances.

And it’s only been in the last few thousand years globally, and a few hundred years, obviously, here in the United States, that we started having this very staunch, oppressive sense of bodily autonomy, sexual freedom. And I think a lot of that came with the rise of global Christianity.

Reckon: Well, you mentioned the great societies like the Greeks and the Romans and things like that. And it’s also interesting just a lot of the indigenous communities in the United States had reverence for people who were intersex or who were trans or who were gender nonconforming. And a lot of that has disappeared, obviously, as the European influences took over in the Americas.

But you do write about terms like masculinity and femininity as being social constructs tied to a false binary. And I do feel like that’s another one of those big words. It’s a hard idea for people to wrap their heads around because some of these constructs are relatively recent, like blue is a boy color and pink is a girl color. But then there are some of these constructs that were even placed in some of those older societies, the hunter gatherer societies, of gender roles more than gender constructs. So, how do you parse through all that of what’s worth keeping and what should we be throwing out the window?

Joseph: I think that in our current society where we don’t really have hunters and gatherers per se. Right? These guys who are going out there and using high powered sniper rifles are just as equipped as any woman to use those to hunt a deer. Right? So, I think that many of the gender roles of past eras don’t need to exist. Right?

And then the construct of more contemporary gender roles don’t even make sense. Right? Let’s use even like who does the cooking and the cleaning. Right? Historically we have identified that as women, and it was in part because men were out doing the breadwinning. Right? But that’s only because of the power dynamics we created.

There was no reason why Don Draper and Mad Men—why Betty Draper couldn’t go run an ad agency and Don Draper couldn’t stay home and cook. Right? There’s no reason they couldn’t. They had enough money for both of them to go run separate ad agencies and get home and microwave a dinner or find someone else to cook. Our constructs, they don’t make any sense, really. And not only do they not make sense, but they’re limiting. Right?

So, you take me for example. And I use a lot of myself as the vessel for understanding certain things throughout the book. I grew up in an area where boys were taught you don’t cry, you don’t do certain things. Right. When you’re teaching young men that they can’t do certain things, when you’re teaching young women that they’re not supposed to do other things, it really does fracture the totality of your human existence. Right? It leaves you with a whole set of emotions that you’re not able to access or not supposed to access.

I look at something like the mass shooting that took place in Buffalo. And as soon as I found out, I broke down tears. And those tears were actually... they were tears of both sadness and rage. Right? But if I didn’t have those tears and all that I have is my rage, what am I going to do if that rage then? Right? If I didn’t lean both the “masculine,” quote unquote and the feminine inside of me, now I’m just angry.

And I think that we have a society that is that, a bunch of men who are just angry, and a bunch of women who were told are not allowed to be angry. Like I said, it’s extremely limiting, and it doesn’t really make sense. Because if we weren’t supposed to have a range of emotions, a range of roles, a range of interest, be dynamic people, then we would’ve never been made this way in the first place.

Reckon: Well, and it’s interesting because it does feel like for the past few decades, we have done a better job collectively as society of expanding the possibilities of what young girls and women in this country can do and can be, and paving the way for women to tap into more of those emotions like you were just talking about. But we have also, on the inverse of that, put men in smaller and smaller boxes of what it means to be a real man.

And you talked about growing up, you were somebody who liked musicals. I like musicals. And that didn’t necessarily fit the mold of a Black man growing up in Yonkers, New York, or a white man growing up in the suburbs of Alabama.

So, you write, I think “people are forced to hide their whole selves from the world for safety because they don’t fit into the boxes designated for them, boxes for their interests, boxes for their gender boxes, for who they’re allowed to be.”

And it’s interesting because that’s a form of where the patriarchy and sexism hurts everybody. It doesn’t just hurt women. It doesn’t just hurt LGBTQ people. It doesn’t just hurt trans people. It hurts hetero-cis men.

Joseph: I think oftentimes when we talk about dismantling anything, dismantling all these big, big words, white supremacy, patriarchy, we frame it in the sense of people who benefit from it are doing those who don’t a favor, when in reality oftentimes, even if you look at white supremacy, there are benefits to white people for ending white supremacy. Right? You are a fuller total human being for not spending your time hating another race. Right?

For spending your time actually learning who you are, thinking inward, figuring things out, loving life, being dynamic. In the same way that when we frame patriarchy as like, oh man, CisHet men benefit from it and no one else, and everyone else is struggling. No, CisHet men are also struggling within patriarchy, also. Right?

I had it my way, I’d be on Broadway right now. Right? I would, I would be on Broadway right now in a show enjoying my full life, maybe in a leotard in Cats. I don’t really know. But that’s the thing, I never will know because patriarchy and its lies about who I had to be to be a real man, a real Black man, stole that from me. Right? And it’s stolen it from generations after generation of men.

I look at death by suicide rates of men in certain ages, and they make perfect sense to me. When you don’t have anywhere to turn even when you look in the mirror, except for like I’m angry, and I’m sad, and I don’t have anything else, yeah, it makes perfect sense. We’ve given men no options. Right? Just to be angry, sad shells of a real human being,

Reckon: There is a growing recognition of the phenomenon that you’re talking about. You hear it raised anytime there’s a mass shooting about the crisis facing young men in America. Or when you talk about, like you’re talking about the shockingly high suicide rates, overdose rates among young men. And you have approached it from the ways that trying to fit into these boxes created by patriarchy caused those mental breaks and lack of options for men.

But then you’ve also got people, obviously, who are coming out from the other perspective that this, quote unquote, “war on men” or using terms like toxic masculinity make young people feel targeted and broken. So, what would you say to the people who are making that argument? And I’m talking about the people who are making it in good faith, not opportunistic politicians like Josh Hawley or people like that, but the people who seem to genuinely think things like that.

Joseph: Well, I mean, the people who genuinely seem to think things like that are still thinking of what a man is or what a woman is from a construct and a vantage point of patriarchy. Right? It’s like, what war is there on men to say like, “Hey, you can go to therapy.” Right? What war is there on men to be like, “Hey, you like cooking? Well, go right ahead,” as opposed to saying like, “Are you in there making a PB&J? You must be gay.” What are we actually talking about here? Right?

There’s not a war on men. I would argue that there’s a liberation that’s happening for men. It’s like, it’s not a matter of this is who you have to be. Because realistically, in the stereotypical sense of like, oh, this is a man. I work out constantly, I love sports, I love a good beer, I love barbecue, all these nonsense things that are supposed to be men.

But in trying to be more liberated, I also get to love a good spritzer drink, I also get to go to the ballet, I also get to cry when I’m watching certain movies. Right? You’re not limiting men as much as you’re actually expanding the opportunity for what men get to be.

Reckon: So, when did this journey start for you? You talked about the MS diagnosis, you talked about in college combating white supremacy. But this was not your perspective growing up. So, when did things start to click for you?

Joseph: It wasn’t my perspective in a blatant way growing up. It was instilled in me to a certain extent. Certain things about me is I’m like, oh, I’m not that person. Right? So, I grew up in a, in a household that was like, oh, we are not homophobic conceptually. But what does that actually mean? Right? It’s like, oh, don’t say the F word. But that’s not the only sense of being homophobic. And I think that we’re getting the same thing with race. It’s like, oh, don’t call somebody the N word. There’s a lot more to it than that. Right?

And I think that I started to realize that there’s a lot more to it when certain things are happening to me. I think specifically around my MS. I went to a doctor, a younger white woman, who instead of trying to diagnose what was wrong with me at first, she was flirting with me and fetishizing me as a Black man, a young Black man who’s working out, blah blah blah blah, blah.

And when I was saying it to people after the fact, people were like, “What’s the problem?” Right? And I’m just looking around like, wait, what? What is this? Right? So, then I’m searching for answers. And along the way, people are like, hey, this sounds like something that Bell Hooks wrote about, or this sounds like something that Alice Walker has talked about it, and this sounds like all these different things.

So, I started doing that work of trying to unpack for myself what is this that I’m seeing. Because no one’s talking about it. Right? We’ve not had a reckoning, really, with patriarchy in an intersectional sense, if that makes sense.

Reckon: Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that. What would a reckoning like that look like, I guess?

Joseph: I think a reckoning would look like an intersectional look at all the ways patriarchy is existing. Again, I don’t think we’ve had a reckoning with anything, really, if I’m being quite frank with you. But you take a look at, let’s say, the leaked Roe V. Wade decision. Right? The potential overturning of Roe V. Wade. And the general narrative and protests from white feminism that owns the space as opposed to like an intersectional feminism or a womanism.

And you see the issues in that and the necessity for a reckoning. Because a lot of people who are like, oh, we’re fighting against the patriarchy because we’re fighting for bodily autonomy. Well then, what happens when you’re telling people not to use terms like birthing people even though a trans man can give birth. Right? So, now you’re saying like, oh, we’re raging against the patriarchy, dismantle the patriarchy, but you’re actually upholding the patriarchy as well in that you’re being transphobic. Right?

And that’s why I mean we need a reckoning of looking at all of it. Not looking at it from this like very stringent white feminist lens, but looking at it again from an intersectional lens of how does this impact everybody? How do we all need to be working to dismantle this in ourselves? How are we all implicated in how it’s upheld?

Reckon: Well, and it’s interesting. You talked about your upbringing. And a lot of these lessons of patriarchy and him misogyny and masculine gender stereotypes and gender norms you were actually learning from, from the women in your life. That while you were also learning the ways to cook and clean and take on some of the more traditionally stereotypically feminine roles, but you were also being told things like, “Well, you need to find yourself a woman who can do all these things for you.” And so, tell me about your family growing up and what that looked like for you.

Joseph: I was raised by my grandmother and my mom. My mom had me at 18. My grandmother, by the time I was born, she was in her late 60s. You’re talking about generations that are coming out of the South in the United States, remnants of Jim Crow, remnants of war on drugs, that are remnants of segregation. So, there wasn’t a lot of time, I think, to navigate like, oh, how have white patriarchal structures infiltrated our homes? Right?

So, this is what we have been told as a good man. Right? This is what we have been told as a good woman. We want to just be good people and survive. And I think that a lot of people in the United States and globally have been in that situation forever ever, really. Right? Everyone’s just trying to survive. So, if you’re trying to survive, there’s not a lot of time to recognize how you’re causing harm.

So, in that way, a lot of things I was taught as a young Black man was just like, we’re going to teach you how to not be killed and how to survive, really. I don’t even think it’s like, oh, we’re going to teach you how to thrive. Right? Thriving is something that we don’t think you’ll ever get to. We’ve never seen it before. But we can teach you how to navigate these systems. And a lot of times navigating these systems looks like leaning into patriarchy, leaning into white supremacy, leaning into capitalism. Right? It’s really hard to tell a person who’s hungry that they’re also stopping someone else from eating, because that’s inherently what we’re at being asked to do.

So, when it comes to the things that I learned in toxic masculinity and even misogyny and sexism from the women in my life, it’s completely understandable. And I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault but the system’s that they were forced to exist within.

Reckon: As we’re talking about what dismantling patriarchy can look like, there’s that tension there. Right? You want your child to thrive, but you want them to survive. And in order to survive, they might have to be equipped with some of those violent tendencies and things like that. If you were raising you, if you were raising a child right now, how would you approach that?

Joseph: I struggle with that. Right? Because I think that, being frank, we live in a very violent society. Right? And particularly in the United States. When we’re asking kids to do mass shooting drills, our society has completely gone off the rails in terms of violence. Right?

And so, I’m forced... Especially if you have young Black children, I’m forced to have to think about who do I want them to be to help create a better society, and who do I want them to be so I’m not getting a call that my child is dead in this society? Right? So, I think it’s a mixture of both. I think that you have to have a conversation about the necessity for violence in certain times for your own sake. But then you also have to have a conversation equally about the necessity of learning when to not use violence.

And I think that’s where my mother didn’t have the tools. She didn’t have the tools because the tools were never given to her. Right? But the tools were given to me based on my privileges, like my ability to read more, my ability to take a step back. Right?

We lived in poverty. There’s only so much bandwidth. So, on one hand it’s like, okay, the police are everywhere. Here’s how you show up to not be shot by them. On the other hand, I’m supposed to also be thinking about like, oh, don’t use violence. It is just really hard. Right? It’s a lot of bandwidth thoughts that are required to get somebody to that place. And I think, again, I have the privilege of more bandwidth to do so.

Reckon: I guess another thing that I’m thinking about is grace and forgiveness, I guess, and things like that. Because as you write in the book, you’d been in 40-something fights throughout most of your life> A lot of this stuff that you were addressing and unlearning was happening in your 20s and your 30s. And so, how do you make space for kids to learn these things in their teenage years and in their early twenties while also speaking out against them and living up to the values that you hold now? And how do you approach that with your friends, for example?

Joseph: I think honesty and vulnerability. Right? Just being transparent about who you’ve been. But not only who, but why. Right? Because just being really frank, there are definitely fights that I would fight again to this day. Right? I hope that somebody would be willing to lift a fist to defend a Black woman from someone causing a Black woman harm in the street, so on and so forth. Right? I hope that someone would lift a fist to defend a child and things like that. Right?

So, there are battles, fights worth fighting. The important thing is knowing what the fight has to look like, what the fight should look like, what it shouldn’t look like, when it should happen and all these things. The nuance. Right? And nuance is a privilege. And I think it’s a privilege that I’m using and having conversations with my friends and in the future conversations I’ll have with my hopefully potential children. Right? Like the conversations I’m having with my followers and my readers. Right?

I stress nuance probably more than anything in this world. I’m like, hey, looking at even the situation that took place during the Oscars. Right? A moment of violence between Will Smith and Chris Rock. That’s such a nuanced moment where it’s like on the one hand, yes, wrong time, wrong place, not good. Use your words, sure, whatever XYZ. And also, in a world that doesn’t just not protect Black women, but does everything in its power to destroy, admonish Black women, I also was like, hey, I’m happy in some capacity, someone said, “Hey, I’m going to protect the Black women.”

But then you also have to have the conversation of is it machismo? Are you actually not protecting the Black women? Are you protecting yourself and your own ego? So, that’s why I’m like, hey, we need to unpack these things and understand what’s happening in front of us at all times. And if I had a kid, to be real with you, that would’ve been a conversation, like hey, do you see it from these 10 different angles? Right?

Reckon: Yeah.

Joseph: Let’s talk about the 10 different angles so that we can get right in the future.

Reckon: Yeah, you’re right. It’s nuanced. And you talk a lot in this book about the nuances of media and social media and the way that they perpetuate a lot of these constructs and your love/hate relationship with it, that media and social media can show us limitless possibilities of who we can be while also rigidly forcing us into these ideas of who we should be. And so, talk about that a little bit.

Joseph: Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly it. Right? On the one hand, social media is the greatest opportunity for communication, for growth, for change, for understanding. Right? You’re talking to people sometimes in far off countries that you’ve never been to, sometimes I haven’t even heard of. I have people who have read some of my work and I’m like, where is that? What are you talking about? Where is that? Right? And that’s great. But then on the other hand, you have the ability for that same reach to be... to have the wrong things reaching those places. Right?

Someone said to me recently... Because on my book, my photo is me in a Malcolm X hat with a gold chain on, my author photo. And someone said, “You don’t really look like an author in that photo.” Someone messaged me this on Instagram. She’s like, “I really like it, but you don’t look like an author.”

So, I challenged the person as to like what does an author look like? Right? And in that moment, she’s like, “You know what, that’s a really valid point. That’s excellent,” and so on and so forth. But that’s far better interaction than the conversation I saw on Facebook amongst a hundred people about why they weren’t buying it because the person didn’t look like an author and looked like a thug. Right?

And that’s the danger of it where you have these people in an echo chamber feeding each other the same thoughts and validating these thoughts. Right? Like, oh yeah, he looks like a thug. Yep, he looks like a thug. Well, 10 of us said it, so it must be true. Right? So, those are the types of dangers that I’m talking about.

And then even more so when you get into the visual nature, not just the communication nature, but the visual nature of social media where I think that we used to have celebrity culture. Right? People saw people in magazines, in TV and film and things like that, that they couldn’t be. You just had this thing where you couldn’t be these people. Right?

And now what happens when the person that you looked at before who you thought you couldn’t be is your next door neighbor. Right? You’re like, oh, this person works out 15 times a day. At least that’s what they post. Right? So, you’re like, oh my God, I’m not doing enough. But you don’t realize that that person also is bulimic, or that person is also Photoshopping their image, so on and so forth. Right? So, it’s just like it’s this perpetual nonsense. I don’t even know. It’s hard to explain. Right? Social media, it’s a gift and a curse, truly.

Reckon: In terms of media like TV and films and things like that, one of the things that you’re best known for is the Black Panther Project where you raised over a million dollars to help young Black boys and girls see Black Panther all across the country. And that is a movie... I love Black Panther, I love all the Marvel movies, but these are movies where men are settling disagreements through violence. And so, I’m curious about where that fits in and how you navigate that tension now that you’ve been trying to push back those enforced gender norms.

Joseph: It’s interesting, not as a cop out, but I think that it goes back to nuance. Right? It’s like, you can have a conversation with a young person, especially because that film’s primarily geared towards young people, about what are you seeing here. Right? Where was there an opportunity to use words?

I even think that one of the things I loved about the film is you realize at the end after the violence has taken place, when the two cousins are speaking to one another, it’s like this sad moment because you’re like, it didn’t have to be this. Right? And that’s such an important thing, and it’s such an important message outside of everything else about the violence of it all. It’s like, this didn’t have to occur. What would’ve happened if we would’ve had a good conversation. Now look where we are. And I think that that’s a lot of it. In all these films, in all these movies.

In another book I have coming out, I talk about the military industrial complex in a book for young people coming out this fall. And I talk about the impact of films, violent films, such as Top Gun. Right? The impact of characters such as GI Joe. Right? I do think that there’s a place for these things to exist, but they should exist in this space of conversation and understanding.

Reckon: The conversation and the debate between T’Challa and Killmonger in that movie is interesting because they are both wanting to dismantle a system of global white supremacy, which is something that you’ve talked a lot about doing. But Killmonger’s approach to it is, of course, by supplanting it violently. But there are a lot of people that came out of that movie saying, “Well, Killmonger’s right, or Killmonger has a point,” rooting for Killmonger.

And so, when you are thinking big... And I know we’re pivoting from comic books to reality, but when you’re thinking big picture about what the end of patriarchy looks like, what the end of white supremacy looks like, play that out for us. Imagine what a society could look like without those things.

Joseph: The end is an interpersonal end first. Right? I think when people are like, dismantle this, destroy the structures. Yeah, that means nothing if it still lives within you as a person. Right? Patriarchy, especially over the last four years for, so much of it has died. Right? And I feel so free for it. Right?

And so much of it has died in my immediate circles where my friends who are trans, my friends who are gay, my friends who are women, when we are all together, everyone in our space feels safe. My friends who are white, I have curated white people around me who I can feel safe with as a Black person. Right? And I think that’s the beginning of the end right there. Those interpersonal engagements which then lead to actual equity. Right? It’s like, okay, great, I feel safe. Now can we exist the same way in terms of our ability for joy, freedom, endeavor? Right?

So, I think that that’s what the end looks like to me, safety followed by a massive push for equity. Because I think when we talk about dismantling, you’re never going to get rid of hatred and bigotry. That’s not ever going to happen. It’s just the nature, I think, of humankind that people are going to have disdain for other people for one reason or another, whether it’s race, whether it’s, “Oh, you have on a blue shirt today. I hate the blue shirt gang.” Right? It’s going to be something. But can it be something that exists in a way where it doesn’t systemically oppress another group? It’s like, yeah, I don’t like the blue shirt gang. And also, they exist safely and freely. And I think that’s what I’m pushing for.

Reckon: I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Just as I’m hearing what you’re saying and trying to restate it. It can be very easy to get caught up in how corrosive these systems are on a national and a global level to the point where you feel paralyzed where you can’t do anything. We’re not on the Supreme Court. We can’t stop the Roe v. Wade decision from coming down whenever it comes down in the next few weeks. But you’re saying one way to put that into practice right now is to focus on doing it in your interpersonal lives, to do it with your own sphere of influence, and hopefully that builds into something over time.

Joseph: Oh, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Right? I hate the cliche, but it starts at home. Right? It starts at home. Whether that home is your group chat with your friends, and one of them sends something over that is deeply misogynistic, and you’re like, “No, this doesn’t work. You can’t do this,” so on and so forth. And then you guys have the conversation and grow together.

Whether it’s like, “Hey, I’m a white person, and my grandpa’s really racist. And I am making the decision to let my grandpa know he needs to change. And if he doesn’t change, I’m making the decision to step away from my grandpa, because it is more important to me to be anti-racist than it is to be codling a racist.” Right?

So, that’s the work. Right? I can’t destroy every Ku Klux Klan headquarters in this country. I can’t, I mean, I guess I theoretically could do it, but I’m not going to do it. Right? That’s not something I’m going to do. But I can, for the white people in my life, hold them accountable. Right? I can hold them accountable and help set us all on a path that makes us feel freer in our immediate circles. And then those circles get larger, and those circles become communities, and those communities become movements, and movements become change.

Reckon: Another thing that you talk about in this book, and it’s a very personal and revealing essay, was being molested and assaulted by your babysitter growing up. It’s a less addressed epidemic, which is the sexual abuse that a lot of young men and boys face. But it does seem like sometimes when we do talk about it, it happens in weaponized ways like we’ve seen with the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial where he was in a more powerful position where he was using that he was using, in my opinion, false allegations of being harassed in order to harass his now ex-wife. So, how do we make space to talk about these real issues and these vulnerabilities without letting them get weaponized?

Joseph: Yeah. I mean, I would say that’s a really difficult question. Because I’ve been thinking about that trial a lot. Right? Especially with it happening in conjunction with the book coming out. It’s been in my mind a great deal. And I think that we have to approach things situationally, oftentimes. Right? And I think that’s the danger of that moment is that we didn’t. Right?

I have my take, too, and my take is seemingly aligned with yours. But we let this person and power dynamics control the narrative. Right? Literally, we let capitalism control the narrative. In many ways, we let the institutions that lift up the greatest white supremacy in a nation control a lot of narratives, too, with that taking place.

And it should have been situational. It should have been something that we looked at in a vacuum of what is happening here, who are these people, what are they doing here, as opposed to looking at it from this broad swath which is what was done.

Did you know that men are molested as well? Did you know that men can be abused? Great, yes, absolutely. That is not this conversation. That is a conversation. It is not the conversation. Again, it’s something that we should be talking about, but you’re weaponizing it because you know that we don’t talk about it. Right? So, what I want to see is us talking about things far more often so that we know how to recognize the situations.

Reckon: Yeah. Another thing that I think has been weaponized and pathologized, back to the Moynihan Report even further back, is the Black family and the relationship between Black men and their fathers, or sometimes the lack of relationship between Black men and their fathers. And very often it is used to justify horrible, racist, white supremacist policies.

You spent a lot of time in this book interrogating your lack of relationship with the men in your family. So, help us understand what that was like for you with nuance and what it’s like to hear when things like that do get weaponized.

Joseph: It’s interesting, because I think that the best job I do of tackling it in a nuanced and almost forgiving way is in this letter to my uncle who was in and out of my life for a long time, and then we just stopped speaking together. I don’t have a short memory for certain things, especially how constructs have impacted communities. Right? Like how decisions and policies have impacted communities.

And a lot of the relationship between Black men in paternal roles, the lack of them was a policy decision. Right? It was a strategic policy decision by various presidential administrations, by various police chiefs, by various senators and things like that, and is not lost on me. So, I interrogated in that way. I try to hold space for both the truth of that. Like hey, I understand what the crack epidemic and the pumping of drugs into the Black community did to the community strategically.

I also hold space for how hurt I am at what was left over. I am in many ways what Ronald Reagan left for the community. Right? I was a lost young man clamoring for something, and that was by design. I just happened to, frankly, get lucky in that I... some better breaks that I didn’t end up like certain other people. But those moments destroyed and set back. It was intentional.

So again, I’m going on and on, I suppose. But you have to hold space for all of the things to be true. And I think that’s something distinctly American, that we believe oftentimes only one thing can be true at a time. Right? We all live in the gray.

Reckon: As we wrap up here, through the process of writing this book and looking at this part of our collective history, how have you changed? And what are some changes you would like to see happen on an interpersonal level and on a systemic level?

Joseph: How have I changed? I think I’m more hopeful because of this book about white supremacy. Which is interesting because the book is very much engaging patriarchy. You can’t really separate the two from each other in this nation globally, really. But I think in seeing my own evolution, I’m like, maybe there’s some hope for white people. Right? In seeing my own ability to say, I need to grow. I need to actively participate in not just being like, hey, I’m not homophobic, I’m not transphobic, #pridemonth. Right? That’s not it.

For me to actually be in community with and fighting for Black trans women, indigenous trans women, so on and so forth. Right? I’m like, that is not about my own benefit, necessarily. It is if I want to be a total human being, but I don’t have to. I can come through this life, be horribly transphobic, and probably die still a decently happy person, theoretically. This is because I want to change.

So, if I can see that in myself, then I would be almost remiss not to see it or the ability for it in white people. Right? So, I think this book has given me hope in that one thing has changed. There’s a point where I was like, hey, yeah, white people are not redeemable. Just like, yep, there’s no coming back. But I do think that this book, and some other things that have taken place over the last few years, have helped with that.

My hope for this book is that people will use it as a mirror. Right? I want people to truly use this book as a mirror. I want people to see how they’re implicated in some capacity, because there’s so much in there. Even if you’re like, hey, his essay on sex work, yeah, I be getting it wrong on sex work. Right? You’re implicated then, and that’s fine. How are you going to grow? How are you going to pivot? Right? So, I’m hoping that this book causes a lot of people to pivot and grow.

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonsouth.com

I write Opinion & Commentary. Memphis-born, Birmingham-raised, world traveler who is finally home again.

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