Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

UnThere Men: Indoda Mayibe critically discussed

UnThere Men. (Photo: Micha Serraf © 2020)

Public dialogues concerning men have consistently failed, either because they suggest that men are incapable of humanity, or because they sympathise with men and their lot. In this piece, we complicate these positions and UnThere Men.

I did not come here to sing Blues. Lately, I open my mouth & out comes marigolds, yellow plums. I came to make the sky a garden. Give me rain or give me honey, dear lord. The sky has given us no water this year. I ride my bike to a boy, when I get there what we make will not be beautiful or love at all, but it will be deserved. I’ve started seeking men to wet the harvest. Come, tonight I declare we must move instead of pray. Tonight, east of here, two boys, one dressed in what could be blood & one dressed in what could be blood before the wound, meet & mean mug & God, tonight, let them dance! Tonight, the bullet does not exist. Tonight, the police have turned to their God for forgiveness. Tonight, we bury nothing, we serve a God. with no need for shovels, we serve a God with a bad hip & a brother in prison. Tonight, let every man be his own lord. Let wherever two people stand be a reunion of ancient lights. Let’s waste the moon’s marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars. Oh, precious God! Oh, sweet black town! I am drunk & I thirst. When I get to the boy who lets me practice hunger with him I will not give him the name of your newest ghost I will give him my body & what he does with it is none of my business, but I will say look, I made it a whole day, still, no rain still, I am without exit wound & he will say Tonight, I want to take you how the police do, unarmed & sudden & tonight, when we dream, we dream of dancing in a city slowly becoming ash. 

–   Danez Smith, Tonight in Oakland

There does not seem to be a linear way to discuss men simply for the reason that their lives and loves are so heavily imbued with the cadences of the destruction of life and love. Perhaps then it is appropriate to speak of men, their lives and loves, in the same messy matrix of contradictions. The danger, politically and otherwise, in speaking or writing critically about men has always been the impression that we detract attention from the experiences and oppression of women and console ourselves with sympathising with men. However, if we are serious about the destruction of patriarchy, it is necessary to spare time and attention on the embodied agency of patriarchy – men and masculinity. 

“As interest in feminist thinking and practice has waned, there has been even less focus on the plight of men than in the heyday of feminist movement. This lack of interest does not change the fact that only a feminist vision that embraces feminist masculinity, that loves boys and men and demands on their behalf every right that we desire for girls and women, can renew men in our society. Feminist thinking teaches us all, males especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life. Clearly we need new strategies, new theories, guides that will show us how to create a world where feminist masculinity thrives.” 

–   bell hooks, The Will to Change  

As Marilyn Frye has written in The Politics of Reality, Men love men – their idols, heroes, their bros, their sports stars, their dogs, their fictional superheroes, their pastors, their Jesus, their Muhammad, their Gabriel, their God, their boys, their Biko-Sobukwe-Tambo-Luthuli-Tutu-Mandela, their chairmen, their presidents, their devils, their dads, their giants of history. And patriarchy nourishes, nurtures, protects and tortures them for this love. Men’s love for men tortures men. Men, whether they are terrified of homosexuality – even when they are themselves homosexual – trans men, cis men and more. Cannot bear to say “I love you” without saying “no homo”, staying a watchful one urinal apart. For men, love is secretly and vigorously reserved for men. They will tolerate women, mourn marriage, fail to be genuine friends with women, string women up by trees because they are not men. Men want to love men and patriarchy tells them to love women – not love but domesticate women into tools to further men’s bloodlines, immortalise the name, the legacy of men – and they are trapped in messy, complicated, monogamous and loveless unity with something other than a man. And they hate women for not being men. 

We socialise men to embody the behavioural traits of psychopathy in that they fail to be able to appreciate the humanity in women and observe them as objects and challenges to conquer. And we all facilitate this idea that women are rewards for good behaviour by men. I’ve been in conversations where men describe how they love lucid dreaming because they can go on raping every woman they dream of. As Kopano Ratele has written, men are the single most dangerous threat to women, children and politics. Their egos, their genocidal fantasies, men are violence on legs. To walk or speak “like a man” is to walk and speak in such a way as to demonstrate the capacity for violence. 

None of us who may not be men is able to distance ourselves from this construction insofar as white people the world over are unable to distance themselves from the suffering of black people. The perceived South African superiority in Africa cannot be separated from wars in which we sent men to fight. From whatever political standpoint, the upper classes in South Africa enjoy the spoils of the South African War, the 100 years of it in the former Ciskei and Transkei, the revolt of chief Langalibalele, the Bambatha revolt, the frontier wars, uMkhonto we Sizwe, the glory of Shaka Zulu, those sent to break locked doors during Fees Must Fall. Whether necessary or not, we have purposefully and culturally constructed men as vehicles of intimidation, violence and fear on our behalf to fight the ghouls and demons we would not. Of course, this is hardly the whole story. 

We live with people whose validity is measured in stoic silences, thunder and lightning. We measure men by how devoid of affection, playfulness, intimacy and vulnerability they can muster to be – iSoka lam’. We teach children to become men through humiliation, disaffection as well as physical, emotional and psychological abuse. In some of our cultures, we send children up mountains to be genitally mutilated in defence of our apparently unchangeable cultures and traditions to further the mythos of pristine African manhood. 

One of the most frustrating characteristics of white feminism is the notion that patriarchy can be overcome exclusively through women empowerment and is not available to redeem men. Yet it is patriarchy that says that men experience pain differently to the rest of us. It is patriarchy that tells men to be emotionally unavailable, to mummify their experiences of victimhood, to be callous, inclined to unnecessary risk, brutish and possess delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. It is patriarchy that tells us not to be concerned by the extraordinary rates at which men kill and assault other men. Feminism says all people (including men) are capable of love, courage, intelligence, beauty, freedom and mindfulness. 

“Just as it was misguided for reformist feminist thinkers to see freedom as simply women having the right to be like powerful patriarchal men (feminist women with class privilege never suggested that they wanted their lot to be like that of poor and working-class men), so was it simplistic to imagine that the liberated man would simply become a woman in drag. Yet this was the model of freedom offered men by mainstream feminist thought. Men were expected to hold on to the ideas about strength and providing for others that were a part of patriarchal thought, while dropping their investment in domination and adding an investment in emotional growth. This vision of feminist masculinity was so fraught with contradictions, it was impossible to realise. No wonder then that men who cared, who were open to change, often just gave up, falling back on the patriarchal masculinity they found so problematic. The individual men who did take on the mantle of a feminist notion of male liberation did so only to find that few women respected this shift.” 

–   bell hooks, The Will to Change

It seems impossible to metabolise a discourse that is abundantly concerned with the wellbeing of women, children, queers, labour, healthcare, the environment and men simply for the reason that men, by and large, are the greatest threat to all other things on this agenda. Furthermore, men themselves do not seem interested in such a discourse, content with being violated, if not dying, in prisons, killing each other and themselves, being depressed and living without love. We have all consistently been shown that many, many, many men are simply unwilling to become human. 

Yet, as far as contradictions go, it is easy to marvel at men. To run your hand across the chest of a man is to caress a stoved pot. There is a warmth that is cultivated there, an easily romanticised substance there. It is easy to sit at the table and smell the musk of curry, the string beans, buttered and baked potatoes, the olive oil, rosemary and oxtail stew. But one cannot marvel too long. This is not a pot made to nourish humans but made to serve a dark, immortal, catastrophic, dynastic, sycophantic and jealous god. And when that god comes to eat of this man, pray he does not find you stealing his supper. DM/MC

Kneo Mokgopa is the communications manager at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They write in their personal capacity.

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