On the Shoulders of Broken Men

Michael Onsando
8 March ,2016
  1. Bothered by my constant crying my aunt shows me a book “real men don’t cry,” I want to be a real man.

I stop crying.

I don’t understand why real men didn’t cry. I’m just told they don’t. The only thing worse than not being able to be a real man is being a girl.


One of the most telling characteristics of masculinity is its aversion to emotion, or forms of emotion. In many ways the idea of being a source of strength, or at least perceiving oneself as one, makes sense. If people feel that no one can hurt them while you’re around, then they will hang around you more. The man who cannot be cracked is valuable because he cannot be cracked.

But what happens when you have a large chunk of people working hard to show that they cannot be cracked? Eventually they begin hitting each other. Trying to show that the other is lying. Trying to prove that they are the only ones in impregnable armor. They are the hardest to crack.

It’s then not only vulnerability itself that becomes preyed upon but any sign that shows that vulnerability is possible. Suddenly, it is important to not just look like the most guarded, but the most dangerous.

Eventually even just looking like refuses to cut it.

Brene Brown, in a podcast about shame and vulnerability (listen here), talks about how she learned about shame in men. After years of research focusing mainly on women one man came to have a conversation with her after a talk. This is what he told her

“We (men) have shame, we have a lot of shame. But every time we reach out we get the shit beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those boyfriends; my wife and three daughters, who you just signed those books for? They would rather see me die before I fall off my high horse.”

A friend once admitted that she wouldn’t know what to do if her dad cried. That this would change her world view. He is, she said, a source of security, of safety and him lacking security would mean something to her.

She didn’t define what the something was. I don’t think it was a thing she had thought of defining.


In front of the bathroom mirror, my father cries. The mirror gradually disappears.

Or, in front of the bathroom mirror, my father cries. His reflection disappears.

Kweli, Views of My Father Crying, Again.


I’m struck by the unbecoming that happens in these two lines to the father that cries. It is as if, by crying, something must be broken; be destroyed. This essay is not about tears. They just insist on being a strong metaphor for something else.

Brene Brown continues:

“If you show me a woman who can sit by a man a real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show a woman who: a) has done her work and b) does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it but just hear her and hold space for it; I’ll show you a guy who has done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.”


It is impossible to read this paragraph without taking note of how strong the gender binary is in the language. Still, there’s something to be taken from it about masculinity. To be always above and away from things is to be unfazed. To be unfazed by things is often read as the ability to handle/alter the course of whatever things are happening. It is to be okay. To have handled and lived through something before. The only reason I wouldn’t run around in panic if a monster started tearing up town is if I had dealt with monsters before.

To be in control of oneself is often seen as being in control of their environment.


  1. My grandfather dies. He was a real man. Standing by his grave I try to be a real man, I try not to cry. The tears tickle at the edges of my eyes.

In shame I run away.

In the farm I steel myself. I do not cry.

Sokoro would be proud.


  • Unlearning the man


But what happens when things that happen that we have no control over? It’s easy to brush things off and imagine them as inconsequential. However, as things often do, they find a way to make themselves back to you. Having not admitted to having control the first time it becomes increasingly difficult to admit to this lack of control. The longer we are afraid and unspeaking, the less likely we are to speak. The less we speak the more we begin to look upon those who do with disdain. As if somehow, by expressing themselves they are performing a disservice to us (who don’t) and they must be silenced.

Basically, the more we silence ourselves, the more we learn how to silence others. Because the voices of others will only awaken the voices inside ourselves that we have long since learned to ignore. After a long time of pretending we can’t break even hinting to the idea that we can is jarring.


Cause we represent a truth son,

that changes by the hour.

And when you open to it

vulnerability is power.


Eventually even breaking is seen as lashing out. To break when you are not supposed to break is to awaken the breaking in others. Or, to rephrase, to feel is to remind others of their own capacity to feel. If your armor is cracked then the myth of unbreakable armor breaks.

Deconstruction of the entire construct of masculinity begins with deconstructing ourselves. It is not about breaking down some imaginary notion that exists far out somewhere in the confines of critical theory and essays with footnotes. Instead it turns out that the real work is, mainly, on the inside. Which is a lot harder and, dare I say it, a lot more scary as well.

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