I remember the first and, incidentally, the last time I saw my grandfather cry.
I remember it the way a teen remembers their first kiss or their first day of school. I remember it like a couple remembers their first dance or their first date. I remember it the way the country remembers when Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon.
I remember it vividly because it was everything to me.
It was a Sunday morning in church in January 1987, and I was thirteen years old. I was sitting on the back pew, wearing my gray cotton-polyblend suit jacket splayed open. I had a high-top fade that channeled one of my favorite hip-hop duos, Kid ‘n Play, and I was resting my forehead on the pew in front of me while my father was preaching the gospel. Like most children of pastors, I’d heard it all before.
My father was a gifted preacher, a capable pastor, a counselor, and a theologian who would help to shape the discourse on liberation within the Black church. But I didn’t know all that back then. What I knew about my father, the only thing I knew, was that he was the pastor of my church, and there were entire feature-length movies that were shorter than his sermons. They went on forever. In fact, my father’s sermons were so long, so laborious, I would time his sermons every week on my black plastic Casio watch. I remember being disgusted beyond words that his longest sermon was just under twenty-three minutes.
My father’s sermon that day was about “seeds of faith.” If we will plant these seeds of faith, they will produce an abundance of fruit for future generations. It’s amazing what one can hear and understand when one isn’t trying to.
Toward the end of his sermon, my father acknowledged my maternal grandparents who were in the second pew of the church. He told the congregation that my grandparents were celebrating their forty-fifth wedding anniversary on that day, congratulated them, and blessed them. The congregation erupted in applause. My grandfather put his arm around my grandmother, embraced her with both arms, and kissed my grandmother on the lips.
As the congregation was in full celebration on this moment, I looked up and saw my grandfather take his pressed white handkerchief from his back pocket and wipe a salty tear from his cheek. I leaned in closer to the pew in front of me to make sure I was actually seeing my grandfather cry.
Seeing my grandfather cry that day, wasn’t just the only time I saw him cry, it was one of the only times I had ever seen any man cry.
Ours is a world in which men, generally speaking, are not supposed to cry or express any kind of emotional depth or maturity besides the occasional grunt and high five at sporting events, or swift and violent rage when someone cuts them off in traffic. In other words, crying should be left to women and children. There is an expectation that men remain emotionally calm, cool under pressure, and stoic in their public and private lives. They are never supposed to cry at weddings, child births, movies, or really anything that requires an emotional response.
For men who do cry, our society has nothing but disdain. I can’t forget the drubbing both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush took for shedding tears over school shootings. And who can forget Representative John Boehner? He very publicly shed tears when it became apparent that he was going to be the next Speaker of the US House of Representatives in 2010. After election night, Boehner cried in several other public interviews and appearances when discussing anything from PGA golf legends to the pope. Boehner was mocked and ridiculed so badly for his tears. Political writers penned think pieces asking, “Why does John Boehner cry so much?” and humorously documenting the “15 Times John Boehner Cried.”
In fact, Boehner cried so much, and was ridiculed so much, that several writers joked that he was “turning into a woman.” That’s when it became clear to me that not seeing men cry wasn’t merely coincidental but rather a symptom of the patriarchal constructs we defend and reinforce every day.
When I say “patriarchy,” I’m sure it sounds vast and even conspiratorial. I want to ensure that we all have the same understanding about the term. Feminist writer and thinker bell hooks asserts that patriarchy is “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”1
In other words, patriarchy is the belief that men are simply smarter, stronger, and more resourceful than women, and are therefore entitled to own, possess, and use the best the world has to offer.
I’ll make it even plainer. Patriarchy is the reason white women make 77 cents to every single dollar a man makes (even less for women of color). Patriarchy is why women occupy less than 5 percent of the upper management positions in Fortune 500 companies. Patriarchy is the reason only 15 percent of movie directors are women, and it is the reason why only about 11 percent of the nation’s lead pastors are women.
But women aren’t the only ones who suffer from patriarchal constructs—men do too. Because patriarchy places men in a position of dominance, it calls on men to conform to a specific set of rules, all of which require men to eschew any expression of empathy and suppress their feelings. Patriarchy, in essence, denies men access to a full spectrum of emotions, including tears that come with joy, pride, or sadness.
So it is both fitting and ironic that the first time I saw a grown man cry was in church, because the church is where our society’s patriarchy is nurtured. The church teaches and reinforces patriarchy. I clearly remember my first Sunday school lessons where my teacher taught that God was a “he,” and he created Adam to dominate everything on earth. I remember learning that Eve was created sometime after Adam, from pieces of Adam’s body, and she was created to assist Adam as he dominates the earth.
I remember when my spouse and I attended premarital counseling, our pastor spent four weeks telling us about how the man is the “head of his house,” and the wife is there to support and submit to him.
I remember the counseling sessions that I led where I encountered a parishioner who was reinforcing patriarchy in very sad ways. The woman was recounting several instances in which her spouse hit her. As she was detailing those incidents of domestic abuse, she also told me about an instance when her spouse had sex with her without her consent. I was actively listening and when I repeated back to her what I heard, “you were raped,” she said “no, he’s my husband. My body is his body.”
I remember sitting in the pews of my church every Sunday as a young person, hearing implicitly and even explicitly, that women “should be silent in the church.”
I remember all of this taking place in church—the one place in the world where there should be a respite from inequality.
As men, when we break the shackles of patriarchy and display a mature and full range of human emotions, we are in good company. We know that Jesus Christ, the author of our faith and the archetype for our masculinity, was not bound by the emotional constraints of patriarchy. He showed compassion, humor, poise, and moral outrage when a situation called for it. In John 11, we see Jesus weeping. The text suggests that he was not only weeping for his dear friend Lazarus and in solidarity with the people who had suffered the loss of Lazarus, but he was weeping for all of humanity.
Just as the church is responsible for incubating patriarchy, it can also be instrumental in alleviating it. In fact, the church is in the best position to do this by following the example of Jesus, a man who wept in response to pain and suffering and the injustice of death. The church must re-envision the conventional landscape that allows men to be viewed as inherently superior and dominant.
The church must begin to support an accurate and thorough reading of the Scriptures that sees God creating men and women at the same time for the purpose of sharing in the work of being good stewards of the earth.
The church must also teach men to interact without dominating. It must teach men to root out patriarchal indoctrination and call for men to interact with women as equals, to share responsibility, to acquiesce power, and to understand that expressing emotion, and yes, even crying, is not a “woman thing,” but a human thing.
1. bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men Masculinity, and Love (New York: Atria Books, 2004), 18.
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