this excerpt from What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the
Future, Rebecca Walker recalls her sons worries about
fitting in in the sixth grade, which led her to question
how American society wages war on boys who arent butch
Advocate.com exclusive posted June 17, 2004
Walkerwhose essay on Warrior Poet: A Biography of
Audre Lorde appears in the June 22 issue of The Advocatebelieves
in shedding old skins and crossing old borders. As an editor,
she took on questions of political and personal identity
in 1995s To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing
the Face of Feminism. As a writer, she impressed critics,
readers, and thinkers with her 2002 memoir, Black, White,
and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, an elegantly
written account of growing up to be a woman who inhabits
all three categories but is defined by none.
year Walker the editor is back with What Makes a Man: 22
Writers Imagine the Future (Riverhead, $24.95), a collection
of essays that test the old definitions of manhood and masculinity
from the perspectives of writers of numerous gender, sexual,
and racial identities. Included are pieces from Michael
Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, etc.); Anthony
Swofford (Jarhead); Howard Zinn (A Peoples History
of the United States); Choyin Rangdrol, an African-American
Lama in the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism; and
former MTV executive producer Tajamika Paxton.
this excerpt from her introduction, Walker explains how
the book began:
idea for this book was born one night after a grueling conversation
with my then 11-year-old son. He had come home from his
progressive middle school unnaturally quiet and withdrawn,
shrugging off my questions of concern with uncharacteristic
irritability. Where was the sunny, chatty boy I dropped
off that morning? What had befallen him in the perilous
halls of middle school? I backed off but kept a close eye
on him, watching for clues.
a big bowl of his favorite pasta, he sat on a sofa in my
study and read his science textbook as I wrote at my desk.
We both enjoyed this simple yet profound togetherness, the
two of us focused on our own projects yet palpably connected.
As we worked under the soft glow of paper lanterns, with
the heat on high and our little dog snoring at his feet,
my son began to relax. I could feel a shift as he began
to remember, deep in his body, that he was home, that he
was safe, that he didnt have to brace to protect himself
from the expectations of the outside world.
hour or so passed like this before he announced that he
had a question. He had morphed back into the child I knew,
and was lying down with a colorful blanket over his legs,
using one hand to scratch behind the dogs ears. Ive
been thinking that maybe I should play sports at school.
I replied with surprise, swiveling around and leaning back
in my chair. Any sport in mind, or just sports in
nonchalant shrug. Maybe softball, I like softball.
cocked my head to one side. What brought this on?
dont know, he said. Maybe girls will like
me if I play sports.
boy is intuitive, smart, and creative beyond belief. At
the time he loved animals, Japanese anime, the rap group
Dead Prez, and everything having to do with snowboarding.
He liked to help both his grandmothers in the garden. He
liked to read science fiction. He liked to climb into bed
with me and lay his head on my chest. He liked to build
vast and intricate cities with his Legos and was beginning
what I thought would be a lifelong love affair with chess.
girls would like him if he played sports?
me extreme, but I felt like my brilliant 11-year-old daughter
had come home and said, Maybe boys will like me if
I stop talking in class. Or my gregarious African-American
son had told me, Maybe the kids will like me if I
tried to stay calm as he illuminated the harsh realities
of his sixth-grade social scene. In a nutshell, the girls
liked the jocks the best and sometimes deigned to give the
time of day to the other team, the computer nerds. Since
he wasnt allowed to play violent computer gameswe
forbade them in our househe was having trouble securing
his place with the latter, hence his desire to assume the
identity of the former. When I asked about making friends
based on common interests rather than superficial categories,
he got flustered. You dont understand,
he said huffily. Boys talk about sports, like their
matches and who scored what and stuff, or they talk about
new versions of computer games or tricks they learned to
get to higher levels. Tears welled up in his eyes.
I dont have anything to talk about.
was right; until that moment I had had no idea, but suddenly
the truth of being a sixth-grade boy in America crystallized
before me. My beautiful boy and every other mothers
beautiful boy had what essentially boiled down to two options:
fight actually in sport, or fight virtually on the computer.
Athlete, gladiator, secret agent. The truth of his existence,
his many likes and dislikes, none of them having to do with
winning or killing of any kind, had no social currency.
My son could compete and score, perform and win, or be an
outcast or worse, invisible, his unique gifts unnoticed
and unharvested, the world around him that much more impoverished.
night I went to sleep with several things on my mind: the
conversation I planned to have with the head of my sons
school about the need for a comprehensive, curricular interrogation
of the contours of masculinity; the way girls find themselves
drawn to more traditional displays of masculinity
because they are more unsure than ever about how to experience
their own femininity; and the many hours and endless creativity
I would have to devoted to ensuring that my sons true
self would not be entirely snuffed out by the cultural imperative.
then there was the final and most chilling thought of all:
bat, a joystick. Whats next, a gun?
occurred to me that my son was being primed for war, was
being prepared to pick up a gun. The first steps were clear:
Tell him that who he is authentically is not enough; tell
him that he will not be loved unless he abandons his own
desires and picks up a tool of competition; tell him that
to really be of value he must stand ready to compete, dominate,
and, if necessary, kill, if not actually, then virtually,
ones life purpose is obscured by the pressure to conform
to a generic type and other traces of self are ostracized
into shadow, then just how difficult is it to pick up a
gun, metaphoric or literal, as a means of self-definition,
as a way of securing what feels like personal power?
wuss, freak, fag, bitch, punk, pussy, homo, queer.
I didnt get it that night, I got it after talking
with all of the men who were willing to write or share their
stories for this book: There is a war being waged on boys,
and it starts before they are even born. It is a war against
vulnerability, creativity, individuality, and the mysterious
unknown. It is a war against tenderness, empathy, grief,
fear, longing, and feeling itself. In its determination
to annihilate the authentic self, it is a war against peace.
the last two years every man I know shared his own version
of the same basic story: a few years filled with wonder
and freedom cut short by the subtle and not-so-subtle demands
of being a man; a sudden and often violent reduction of
individuality into a single version of boyhood.
what seemed like a moment but what was actually a slow buildup
over time, an insidious and deceptively gradual occupation
of psychic territory, young men were expected to change,
to follow spoken and unspoken cues: dont feel, take
control, be physically strong, find your identity in money
and work, do not be afraid to kill, distrust everything
that you cannot see. Dont cry.
war against what is considered feminine that is wounding
our sons and brothers, fathers and uncles, is familiar to
women, but now we see that it is killing the other half
of the planet too. But instead of dying of heartache and
botched abortions and breast cancer and sexual trauma and
low self-esteem, this half is dying of radiation from modern
weaponry, suicidal depression, and a soul-killing obsession
with the material. This half is dying of prostate cancer
and heart attacks and workaholism and an overwhelming sense
of failure, of missing something exceedingly important that
they cannot name, of disconnection from the source of life
by permission from What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine
the Future, © 2004 by Rebecca Walker, published by
Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA).