These last few months, I've been on a bit of a voyage of discovery trying to understand my masculinity by attending a series of talks and events such as Black Masculinity: a panel discussion chaired by Ekow Eshun, and the Being a Man Festival, where one of the highlights was the enlightening Grayson Perry's frank and insightful talk about being a modern man. As a broadcaster six or seven years ago, I was trying to pitch some ideas surrounding male identity as I felt the tides were beginning to change. Back then there was little appetite for it. Now though, this look into manhood has become even more prevalent. I cannot even begin to deconstruct this nuanced debate in full, but my understanding of being a man has come from my understanding of my dad.
Last week, my Nigerian father who lives in America came to stay with me for a bit. I was apprehensive, and it was something I'd spoken to my close male friends about. I was worried that in my 33 years of existence my dad and I had never actually spent an entire week together on our own. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I've had to share him with four other siblings. This was something new for me and, I had to admit, I wasn't sure I was ready for it.
My dad is not a bad man - far from it. He's an academic, a traveller, a lover of current affairs and a very stylish and intelligent individual. He was a heavy disciplinarian when we were growing up. We were also raised on timetables (by this I mean we'd have to create a spreadsheet for the week ahead) so that no time during the day was wasted being idle. An hour a day was set aside for TV, a couple for recreational activities and a lot for study and chores. I understand this wasn't an archetypal household.
This timetable though, slowly disappeared as we all became older and started to form our own identities. As I grow older, I'm slowly realising that this military style regime has stood me in good stead, but at the same time that mentality has often left me holding back and unable to fully explore some of my deepest passions. I saw it as a bit of a waste of time as I desired something more intellectually stimulating. Perhaps my father wanted to keep his children in check and away from any distractions that might cause them to rebel, but I seriously hated those timetables and yearned for more freedom.
My parents' relationship was relatively traditional in the sense that my mom primarily raised us, but was adamant that my father took part in some way. He tried but it always seemed a bit of a struggle. The wonderful thing about my mother is that she's not submissive and never has been, which in turn has allowed my father to ask questions of himself through the years. Trust me, my mother has her flaws like we all do but she's the ultimate matriarch. The mortgage of the family home is in her name, and she moved our family to America to seek a better life. She was at my football games, spoke to me about sex education, and I think she taught me to treat women well, though you'll have to ask my exes about that one.
On the other hand, much of me also believes that my mother projected perceptions of my father's flaws unto us as children because of her pre-occupation with what she thought a man should be - sometimes there are things you just don't want to know about your parents. In turn, over the years I kept having conflicted feelings about my father. Sometimes I'd be angry at him for not being like other dads who seemed to be close to their sons, and other times I wasn't actually sure if I liked him or not, as we used to get smacked a fair bit when we were naughty. For many years though I've made it a mission of mine to confront my father on his past mistakes. Even though he's never really apologised, he's acknowledged them and that's good enough for me.
Many people speak about the moment when they start to become their parents, and for me that time is now. I'm 33, hopefully looking to have a family someday, and actually understanding my father as a person and as a man has never been more important. Being in his company over the last week has been a test of how much I really want that relationship to blossom, because to build a true connection with someone who you've only started to truly know over the last few years takes time and effort. Grayson Perry, in his talk, spoke about the trappings of the stereotypical man being detrimental to how men see themselves today. My push was to challenge those trappings and start to discuss with my father some of the things that have begun to frustrate me in life, and also listen to his advice. This is something I never did as a young man, because, I was a little scared of him.
Another thing that really came out of the series of talks, especially among black men, is the lack of intergenerational discourse. As a Nigerian-born man, many of my flaws come from being reliant on pride as my armour to life's unpredictability - and so do my father's. It's hard to break down that pride and it's also hard to be vulnerable around another man, especially an elder. I've simply had very few examples of seeing my father in a vulnerable state.
One thing my dad and I have become much better at is communicating, but I feel it's still very much one-sided. He still treats me as his son, and rarely does he show me much vulnerability. I still don't know what stresses him out, what his dreams are, or how he's actually feeling as I think he's still trapped in the paradigms of what he perceives a dad should be. Yet, he's the kind of guy that loves a good discussion and perhaps I still haven't probed him enough out of fear of what he might say.
One thing I did notice though is that, now as an older man, he's almost come full circle from the man he used to be. Much of that might have to do with his internal journey, and much of that also might have to do with my mother's persistence in urging him not to be emotionally complacent. I'm sure he'll beg to differ. As much as he is my father, and as much as he is much older than me, this time around I truly felt like his carer. He came to see me in my own home, in my adopted city and he was living within my space. For the first time, I noticed his vulnerability: we would walk down the street and he'd budge up really close to me like a child afraid of his surroundings. We'd go to the pub and I'd order for him because he wasn't quite sure how to navigate his way around a hipster East London brewery. It felt great. The balance of power had shifted slightly and I wasn't so afraid of him anymore.
For the first time, I realised that I'd become a man myself. I saw myself in my father, in his mannerisms and in his movements. I permeated his force field of masculinity and I saw him as a person away from my mother's gaze. He's a changed man. He's a quiet man. He's an innocent man. He's also a very forward-thinking man, but most of all he's a human.
Much of the discourse with these festivals and talks I've been to has been based on men having the space to discuss being men, and not feeling bad about it. I think this is very important and I think it's up to us individually to challenge what it is to be a male and to understand some of the privileges that come with that. The importance of having that space has recently been brought to light in the national news through the revelations of male footballers bravely coming forward with their stories of abuse in the youth system. What strikes me most about these revelations is the loneliness so many of these men must have felt. It's affected their relationships and cut to the core of their perceived masculinity simply because they felt they couldn't speak out about their pain due to the shame attached to such abuses.
Like many, my journey through manhood is an unscripted tale, but there's an old Yoruba saying my mother always uses which translates to: 'Anyone with ears can listen'. What last week taught me about my dad is that some people can learn from their mistakes, and that in turn they should be forgiven for them too. Many of these talks I've gone to have positively come to cement much of my feelings about masculinity and its trappings. Through various relationships I had I also realise how important that father figure is to women in determining how they view men in their lives. For a while now I've been asking myself: are men useless? Are men in crisis? In all honesty I don't know the answer to either but what I do feel is that we all need to keep updating ourselves to adapt to the ever-changing world around us. I cannot expect to be the same man my father was when he was raising me, but I can acknowledge that his influence has made me the man I am today.
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