Going “Toe-to-Toe”: A letter to my Brothers…!

Going Toe-to-Toe

So, what is this blog about? Well, this blog is about one of my challenges as an African-American, clinically-trained male therapist working with African-American couples. Please let me make it clear. I am not specifically talking about the females in our lives (although it takes two to tangle) as they are the ones that typically make the phone calls to me to try to help them co-exist or deal with effects of being with a man who is toxic or has become toxic.

Personally, I know this well. I would like to think I am a “recovered” toxic man. I was a man that became toxic because of the precursors of what leads most men to being “toxic.” That being the inability to talk about feelings, process emotions and regulate our behaviors. Many black men, myself included, suffer with what I wrote in my book, “Shut up stop talking to me…!”, capital “T” traumas and small “t” traumas. T traumas are things like assault, violence, murder, death and divorce. Small t traumas are things like near sexual assault but not actually being assaulted, parental opinions and criticisms, bullying, high expectations and being exposed in early childhood to movies that contain horror, violence or sexual content. Many of our black kids unfortunately experience all types of traumas. Growing up in many of our homes, there are traumas that our kids experience as it relates to the effects of our toxic masculinity. These unprocessed traumas (T/t) in black men lead to the later development of toxic behaviors in our offspring.   

Much of our early exposure that helps us to formulate our black male identity, especially in our developing young black men, are relative to the role models that we have seen. In addition, the messages, from both inside the house and outside the house, as it relates to what it means to be a man…a black man…a black man in this capitalistic “white-male” dominated society, shapes our views. I know that sounds pretty politically charged, as I felt the energy of Gill Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” song coming through my words, but I think that is the view that many of us have about “this America” that we all live in. A wonderful place that is full of great things but maybe only great for a selected few. Only a few of us have climbed through the system(s) to achieve financial independence and freedom to live what we call the “American dream.”

Nonetheless, our identities as black men have been influenced by so many factors starting from the forced diaspora from mostly west Africa to the Americans, Caribbean islands and Mexico. But for the new American slave owners, to control our identity, they needed a systemic and systematic process to demasculate our unique characteristics. This system would need to strip away the threat we posed to the early American slave owners. There are these letters called, “The Willie Lynch letters,” which, if you read it, will give you a clear depiction and understanding of the strategies used to destroy our black families. This programming was embedded into the psyche of our offspring, generation after generation. Willie Lynch wrote, “You break a nigga like you break a horse.” Well, that should make for bedtime great reading…!

With that being said, as I wrote in an earlier blog regarding toxic masculinity and the effects of “John Henryism,” is that what is created in terms of emotions and feelings, we must suppress, disconnect and channel that emotional energy into our work ethic (Mama, why is papa always gone working?) and perhaps some might say sexual promiscuity (papa was a rollin’ stone). Imagine, as a slave and you love your woman on the plantation and you all have a child. The word gets out to the master that you are “fond” and want to marry one particular woman. However, our job is to “sire” all the females to produce more offspring and to-not-get-emotionally-connected (our woman and children). Then, they bring everyone out to show all the slaves (including you) what happens when you show emotions and “fall in love”.…you get shipped off!  So, what do you say or do (as a slave) when they ship your woman and child off or you off to another unknown plantation? With our heads bowed down and eyes looking to the ground, where does our emotion go? Where does our hurt, anger and outrage go? Are we wired to not talk? Do we think we’ll be punished for showing our emotions? Were we wired to emotionally disconnect? Were we trained, inadvertently, to cheat as a means of self-preservation? To be emotionally disconnected as a self-survival strategy?

I’m amazed at how many men I know personally and professionally who have this thing called “side-chicks” or “side-piece.” With my automotive plant patients, it is the “work-wife.” It seems that in many of our black communities and family systems today, we have a huge infidelity issue. I hear all of the stories…! Not picking on the south, but it seems that many roots of this behavior traces back to southern black men, where some of these black men routinely have women on the side and/or families that they had created outside of their marriage. I will discuss this in another blog on black men, trauma and hypersexuality.

So, I would like to stay on focus regarding my discussion of going “toe to toe” with the black men that I work with related to couples counseling.

I think the previous rant that I was having regarding the trauma that we as black men face is relative to the fact that when anyone is traumatize, no matter if it’s T or small T, still activates the same brain circuits that trigger the survival response. Simply looking today at the impact of “institutionalized racism” that was built first on the backbone of slavery, then Jim Crow laws and later in history, the marijuana laws of the 1920’s and 1950’s, that were specifically used by law enforcement, both at the policing level and at the judicial level, to lock us up for being black men. The migration of black men into our criminal justice system is a series of other discussions that I will address.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because, we as black men, and I am no different as I was pulled over for a DWB (you know, driving while black) in my suit and tie driving in my Mercedes. As I was leaving the doctor’s parking lot at my hospital where I ran a clinic, the story flipped on the officer as I was licensed to carry a weapon and had the same gun he did.  Ironically, he didn’t write me a ticket after I insisted 5 times.

Did this cop target me because I was black? Of course, as he had no other reason to pull me over. Did it trigger trauma in me? Sure, as I have never been pulled over but was accused in my past and arrested on false charges later dropped. What if the gun issue didn’t go well? What if I had panic? Many black men have a past that in some way involves the criminal justice system, sometimes rightly but many other times wrongly.  Did this change my attitude toward law enforcement and the criminal justice system? Yes…! Doesn’t take much for us as black men in today’s society to be accused, arrested and incarcerated? No…! 

Now, factor in the historical facts of our journey as black men in the American system, coupled with the day-to-day pressures to provide for our families and children with our remnants of emotional underdevelopment and disconnect leading to the development of our toxicity. A demeanor and posture that resembles what I am seeing today in many of us as black men coming into therapy; being angry, aggressive and verbally assaultive. Many of us as black men live in a world in which our safety and survival is negotiated on a daily basis. So how does living in this society effect our manhood, ego and emotional development? In my opinion it distorts, delays or destroys it.

So, what is the toe-to-toe about? Well, as a black PhD trained clinician, many black couples come into my office primarily due to the effects of toxic masculinity. I began to realize working with these couples, as my first point of contact is usually with the wives, girlfriends or sometimes mothers as it relates to their husband’s, boyfriend’s or son’s toxic behavior. I am just one therapist, so my experiences do not represent research but still “data-worthy.” From my perspective, working with many couples, now into the hundreds, I see the mutilation of the toxicity and how it has literally destroyed the foundation of most relationships. These toxic elements create so much damage, both internally and collaterally, that many of us, once we realize the damage we have done, we typically disengage and often emotionally disconnected, disappearing into our work, man caves or the arms of another woman. We cannot and don’t know how to fix the emotional damage that we have created. Then, our woman, typically but not always, calls for therapeutic resuscitation of the relationship that is now on life support. This means confusion for the us as we’ll say, “why we not having sex…Hun…? “…we gotta to go to see a therapist….?”

So, now, this kind of couple comes into my office, which I really reluctantly take these cases because I know that I’ve got a go “toe-to-toe” with you, my new male patient.  So, here’s what I say after all my experience, either is going to work or is absolutely not going to work and we will know within the first five minutes of our conversation. Due to the fact that I am a ‘recovering” former toxic male, now turned mental health professional and traumatologist, it seems that your women pull me into the boxing ring. They help put on my boxing gloves by giving me a pre-fight prep (all the shit you did/will do/and will not do) and pep talk (encouraging me to punch their messages into your minds of their husbands and companions) because now I am, “DDDDDoctor black Mannnnn…! (Arena echoing sounds as the crowd applauds…well at least the women as I enter the ring.)


Ding…round one… The first round is to flush out your “true” feelings and emotions as your attitude of defensiveness usually fires off first. Wearing “fire-proof kit gloves” as I do, knowing the potential eruption of lava flow, spewing finally like a needle pricking a pimple full of pus, I throw the first punch. Picking away at your gas-lighting tactics by countering like a chess master but three moves ahead. Afterall, this isn’t my first rodeo cuz…! Throwing an under-cut to your aggressive, loud and intimidating communication styles and a right hook to your need to blame others and not yourself.  

Depending on how round one goes, with a round-ending flurry of clinical jabs and punches, will determine if there is a round two. As I punch away your old masculine skin to allow for the sheading of your new skin like a reptile. This is so you can grow, change and evolve. We must shed our old skins and stretch…! In my opinion, what needs to happen to us, as black men, is we must fall on our swords, allow ourselves to listen to someone like me. You need to stop trying to outmaneuver me with your embedded logic but let me teach you that vulnerability is your greatest strength and how our women measure our strength as a black man by our ability to the talk about our feelings and emotions. If you will spar with me and let me throw my combinations I.E., my clinical strategies and offer my insights, then there will be a round two…session three…session 20…leading to positive change!

If not and your defenses rise too quickly, the process is over typically before it really gets started. After all, I am coming in, echoing all of the same things your women have said for years but now it is a black male doctor who is saying it to you now.  

At first, I wasn’t experienced with this battle nor did I realize I was pulled into a fight.  With my somewhat aggressive nature of being a man’s man and experience as a therapist’s therapist, I hold my own and I certainly control my sessions. Which, if you read between the lines, if I’m not careful, can lead us into a confrontation, which has happened in the past.

Often times, calling you out on “your shit” as another black man who happens to be clinically trained with a PhD and a former toxic male can create a very explosive situation. After all, I know your toxic elements inside and out as I see it in myself first.

Even with all of my training, experience and insight, it still can make for a disastrous situation when trying to present an argument to you, a toxic black male. “I say to you, “…Lay down your sword…re-holster your gun and embrace this notion that “vulnerability is your greatest strength.” Yeah, right I’m trying to run that across you but realize that this may not go very far.

So, as I continue to jab my strategies, bobbin’ and weaving’ in session with you, watching you twist, turn and tilting your head away from my questions, I look at the body language of your females, ring-side, as they are hopeful that I am able to chisel through your Teflon coated exterior. An exterior that many of you really hide behind because the truth…drum roll…we have just as many emotions and feelings as women but due to society, culture and our “paternal lineage” we are unable to, unwilling to or uncapable of express any feelings as this would be a sign of femininity and “we be slippin’ and trippin’” and of course you and I don’t do that.

As I end, I have learned that I still must chisel through your tough exteriors that we as black men “project” and as I use the word “projection” because the reality is we’re hiding behind these tuff and rough exteriors, concealing our broken hearts and traumatized souls that we as black men have. We remain silent to ourselves sometimes taking our stories to our graves. Unfortunately, without help, before we die, we become toxic and kill everything around us; our relationships, our marriages and ties with the children.

Understanding that vulnerability, which is showing our emotions and feelings is the key to repairing relationships especially with those that we claim we love. Love is not empty words but action and we, as black men, need to understand that talk is cheap. I’ll leave you with this thought. I was working with a man with his wife recently. I then started talk to him individually in a session. He asked me flat out, “Doc, how can I get closer to my woman? How can I repair this rip? I said to him,” well, it’s easy all you have to do is talk about your emotions and feelings.” He said to me as he looked puzzled,” is there any other way?”

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