The conversations are endless. From beauty shops, to church basements, to blogs, to block parties, to girl’s night out, Black men and women love to talk about each other. Whether we are singing their praises or complaining about how men ain’t sh*t, as much as we’d like to stop talking about black men, inevitably, we find a way to bring them up.
A few days ago I caught up with Jeff Johnson to discuss the roundtable and whether or not the complicated relationship between Black men and women can really be healed.
Clutch: Considering that every year there is a “State of Black Love” type of conversation that gets published or talked about, what made you want to do a roundtable with Black men about relationships?
Jeff Johnson: Well, I think, one…seldom does there seem to be discussions that are public that men have with men. This was not an effort to have the most intellectual conversation, it wasn’t an effort to have the most in-depth conversation—we didn’t have space for that. The purpose was to have the most honest conversation and give both men and women an opportunity to see, in print, a conversation with men that was no-holds-barred and honest, for better or for worse.
Clutch: Initially when LaVenia emailed me about talking to you about [the Ebony piece], I wasn’t really sure because we have this whole…Steve Harveyization of relationship advice…
Jeff Johnson: [laughs]
Clutch: …the pseudo-relationship type books, and I was really not interested in reading a whole conversation about Black men complaining about Black women—not that it would be about that—but I wasn’t really interested in that.
Jeff Johnson: I think you can see from the questions and from the responses [in the article] that there was as much introspection about who we are as men, as there are about things that women do, or mistakes we make with women, or issues we take with women.
And I never felt at all that this ever was a conversation where it was like, “Look dog…this is what women need to do,” as much as it was here’s how I feel. And there was really a—even amongst generations—such a broad spectrum of opinions and beliefs and lifestyles and choices, that I thought that it well represented kind of the spectrum of Black men.
Clutch: You do. And I just felt like I had no interest whatsoever in reading it if it was going to be one-sided, but I enjoyed that it was that conversation because so often we don’t—as women—[feel like men have these conversations.] You know we hear that men talk at barbershops or when they’re together, but for whatever reason we don’t necessarily feel like you guys are having these in-depth conversations about anything.
Jeff Johnson: [laughs] That’s terribly unfair.
Clutch: It is…it’s very unfair…but…
Jeff Johnson: That’s terribly unfair. And that’s why I think that this is something—for me—was an opportunity to start within the pages of Ebony. But it’s something that we need to do more often.
I think that we as a community would be better served being able to hear the opinions of men. Whether that’s emotional issues as it relates to relationships, or whether it’s issues that relate to spirituality, or whether it’s political thought, or whatever it is. The real discourse between men is missing in our community. And I think that if we would hear it more our children would benefit from it, our communities would be stronger because of it. And it’s not an issue of what man is right or what man is wrong, it’s really about how do we come together, listen to each other, hear each other, and all of us be better as a result of it.
Clutch: One of the guys I really keyed in on, I think his name was Thomas…
Jeff Johnson: I figured you would key in on Thomas. [laughs]
Clutch: In terms of what he said about communication and how it’s really about listening. I know at Clutch we do articles about Black men and women, Black women need to stop buying into the pseudo-relationship intellectuals (ala Steve Harvey ), and those things always turn into this big long—painful even…to read the comments. A lot of people carry around a lot of pain, and rightfully so. But anytime we start to approach the conversation from a woman’s perspective—since that’s what we do—inevitably somebody always throws the “Black Men Ain’t Shit” bomb, and I feel like a lot of people aren’t really listening to one another. Even when some Black men will come on and comment and be positive, then some [readers] will say, “Well, that’s just you…but the rest of y’all really ain’t about nothing.” Why do you think that is? Why do you think we have such a hard time having conversations or being able to articulate our pain without using that as a weapon?
Jeff Johnson: Well I think you said it and part of your statement is there is a lot pain, and I think that men and women are hurting on multiple levels and we’re afraid to deal with that hurt effectively because we’re afraid to get hurt again.
And I would argue—and there might be a lot of women who disagree with me—that there are a lot of men that are hurt by relationships as there are women.
Clutch: Oh, definitely.
Jeff Johnson: The problem is men are afraid to say it, men don’t effectively know how to show it, and they, in many cases, are lashing out at women for a woman that hurt them [just] as much as sisters are lashing out at men around a [man] that hurt them. So we should never allow that to be a place for us to battle. We really should be saying to ourselves, “Wait a minute. We need a level of healing.” And there’s a way for that to happen. And the way for that to happen is not for me to diss all brothers, or for me to start doggin’ all sisters. But that’s easier said than done.
I think it starts with these kind of small conversations, where women are allowed to hear men have these kinds of discussions and say, “What a minute…even if I do the numbers, at least half of these brothers sound like decent brothers.” (laughs) And begin to think to themselves maybe I’ve looked at this all wrong, and maybe I need to start having conversations with men differently.
But I think what you’ll even see from this article is that when people take their time in relationships, normally it’s a more productive experience. And when people rush into relationships, it normally ends up in a place that you don’t want it to.
You’ll hear from men—just like you’ll hear from women—when people try to jump the broom before they’ve been on the first date, you find confusion.
So I think that was a long answer to your question, but it starts with us understanding that on most days—as you’ll see from these men—we all really want the same things, which is to be appreciated, and valued, and loved.
Clutch: One of the guys—Art—mentioned that relationships are hard and communication is difficult because you have to be vulnerable. And [he mentioned] the fact that vulnerability is equated with femininity. Just to echo what you were talking about a minute ago and men not feeling comfortable enough to express or articulate their pains, their hurts, their emotions…how do women make the situation more comfortable or more conducive to that conversation?
Jeff Johnson: I don’t know. I can’t speak for every brother’s situation. So I think that people’s level of hurt and comfort before they go into the relationship affects their ability to be vulnerable. I think we can just be honest, ourselves, and organic. And I say those three things because that creates an environment where if somebody if going to want to be vulnerable, they can be.
But as a woman, you can’t create an environment for me to want to be vulnerable; you have to be yourself. Because if I feel like it’s contrived, then I’m [going] to feel like I’m on Oprah and you just trying to get me to talk. And then it becomes forced versus you being yourself—let me see who you are, let me see that you’re the kind of person where this is a safe space. And once I feel like that space is safe, then I can be in a place to be vulnerable.
Clutch: One thing that I picked up on, or keyed in on, was the language that many of the guys [in the article] were using—“brothers” and “sisters.” I don’t know if that’s common across all people. And I think that that’s sort of the issue—the lack of commonality, even the lack of community.
When I’ve had conversations about this with other people—other Black women—a lot of the times it’s like, well…Black men are not ‘ours.’ They can go and date whomever they want, so they’re not ours. [They say] we need to get over this idea that they’re ‘our’ men, you know what I mean? And I just feel that that sort of echoes a loss of community, of commonality, and that’s one of the things that I really picked up on in your piece that a lot of guys were using that type of language that speaks to kinship, that speaks to a shared experience…and I’m not sure that it’s the case across a large portion of the black community.
Jeff Johnson: I think you’re right. I think we had a group of men who overwhelmingly felt like they were apart of a larger Black community. And whether they dated white women or Asian women Latina women, they still [felt a connection]. I think you heard it in some of the early responses to what do you like about Black women. One brother said they understand what I’m going through, and my experiences, they know who I am. Another brother said they’re my mother, my grandmother, my sister.
I think the challenge is so often there is this environment of competition…that often times chips away at the communal commonality. So if I’m rolling up into this situation like this is a man-woman battle thing, then it becomes less my sister, and just becomes that woman. If I’m in an antagonistic environment then that chips away at that commonality.
And when that happens it’s not no “brother” and “sister”…it’s that “bitch” and that “nigga,” right? And how often do we hear that more than we hear brother and sister?
Clutch: Too often…everyday.
Jeff Johnson: And I believe—and this is just Jeff Johnson logic—I believe that’s because we’ve created such an environment of perpetuated competition that now that kinship I would normally feel with this woman who is connected to me culturally is no longer there because we beefin’ all the time. And the media tells me we beefin’, and my boys tell me we beefin’, and my girls tell me we beefin’, and then let’s not talk about my mama and ‘nem telling me we beefin’. So with all of this spirit of beef, it’s then said, “Nah, this ain’t my sister. This [is] not my brother.”
So increasing dialogue and communication breaks down some of that competition, and helps increase that sense of commonality.
Clutch: Do you think that the fact that a lot of Black people have grown up without seeing their parents together in committed relationships, loving one another, going through what that looks like. Do you think that has had an affect on how we treat each other?
Jeff Johnson: Without question. I mean, if I look at my own life I’m a divorcee and I was a horrible husband. And I know I was…I can admit that I was. And I had a father in my life who was ever-present in my life. I mean to this day my father is present in my life. He was the disciplinarian, he was also very affectionate with me, and I never lacked affection or love from my father. But I never saw my father be a husband.
So even early in my life as a husband [and] father, I was a much better father than I was husband. I can blame my father for that, but that’s what we gotta get out of. Yes, I think the way that I was conditioned put me in a place where it was easier for me to be a good father, than it was a good husband. But I think there were times I used that as an excuse.
At some point if I want to learn how to be a husband or if I want to learn how to be a wife, there’s a husband or a wife that I can call on. Our community isn’t so fragmented and disconnected that there are no husbands and wives. So at some point—even if we haven’t had one in our own family—as adults we have to get to the point when we say what a minute, I recognize what I didn’t have in my house so let me go find an example that I can model. And while it may not be a perfect model, it at least exposes me to what it really means to be a wife or a husband in a way that I didn’t get in my own home.
So yes, I do think it matters, but we gotta go beyond that in 2011. We find models to show us how to make money, we find models to show us how to get famous, we find models to show us how to have the best brands, we find models to show us how to become the best professionals. So if it’s important for us to be able to build Black families—to build family for that matter—we have to have the same form of diligence to find a model to show us how to be a better wife and husband.
Clutch: So what’s next? Would this [conversation] be something you’d be interested in doing more of?
Oh without question. It’s something that people like myself, Kevin Powell, and others have been focused on for some time. And I am very interested in seeing more public conversations of men, and Black men in particular.
So whether it’s in the pages of magazines, or whether it’s on air, or whether it’s in communities, I’m definitely dedicated to having these kinds of discussions.
What do you think Clutchettes and Gents? Do you think having these open and honest discussions will help rebuild our community or has the relationship between Black men and women deteriorated beyond repair?
Let’s talk about it!