“I saw the flesh and blood answer of how to be a real man—in the strength of a woman.”

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My mother taught me everything I know about how to be “a MAN.”  Early on in my training as a violence prevention educator, I went through a group training exercise called, “The Strongest Man You Know.”  The room was full of social worker professionals—about 60 men and 10 women.  I racked my brain over the question.  I could not come up with one man in my head I could call “strong,” so I said, “my mom.”  The exercise, which I later did with literally thousands of young men of color in Los Angeles, is intended to uncover one’s perceptions of positive masculine role models.  Though I thought long and hard over the question, I came up with only that one answer— “my mother.”

Many people in that room were angry with that answer. Ironically, most of the anger came from the women in the room.  This group was comprised of social activists, social workers, and administrators. An overall “liberal” and gender challenging bunch. But, they were not having it. I explained that although I had older brothers, and some fathers of friends I respected, I was taught how to be a “MAN” by a woman.  Heresy.

My father was out of the running as an answer that question, due to his weakness.  He was addicted to a legal poison called alcohol. So a hardworking, “Blue-Collar,” factory working woman raised my two older brothers and I single handedly, without one dime of child support. Not one year was our family above the government “poverty-line.”  Due to an economy trashed by “White Collar” Crimes, even my “Blue Collar” mother was forced to take Welfare for a few years.  She hated the humiliation dealt to her by the system and its representatives. Yet, she set the example of what “holding it down” meant. You get past your own weakness (and pride) and show up when you need to. You show up at the factory clock, the welfare office, get the food stamps, or whatever— for the kids.  No excuses. No backup.

So when I became a father at far too early of an age, I had to conceptualize what my own “fatherly behavior” would be.  By necessity, my imagery came from within a vacuum.  Like the thousands of young men I worked with over the years in low-income neighborhoods, there was a psychic hole where a “father-figure” was supposed to be. Drug addictions, incarceration, death, or just mere physical absence, the father—“the MAN,” was gone. A tough woman was the closest model I had to my new role as an unprepared father.  So upon this foundation, I built my values, my moral codes, my rules, my new responsible life.

When I offered my answer to those 70 “liberal” good-hearted people in that room, I heard things like—“It takes a man to raise a man.” “A woman cannot teach a boy to be a man.” I got angry, like I do every time I hear that, because it is bullshit. Most of the messages me and the young men I worked with over the years heard from these older male role models (uncles, brothers, cousins, the “O.G.’s,” and sometimes fathers) most often lead to a damaged and unhealthy conception of manhood.  Such a thing can lead to death in certain communities.  I have attended far too many funerals of young men who lived by these screwed up codes of “manly” behavior.

“You can’t let a woman . . . (fill in the blank).” “A real man does . . . (fill in the blank).” All the advice I and these young men heard was a reinforcement of unhealthy paradigms of masculinity and the misogynistic degradation of women.  All deadly lies.  All bullshit. If that is what I need to know to be a “real man,” then sign me up to be a fake one.  Because I saw the flesh and blood answer of how to be a real man—in the strength of a woman.

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When my mother passed away last year at 92 years of age, I lost not only a mother, friend, and confidant. I lost a role model of manhood.  Or more accurately, of “Human-hood.” From her, I learned that women (like men) can be paradoxical mixes of the most tender compassion and iron-willed strength.  I learned that a woman can fight stronger than any male warrior to protect her children.  I learned that these “genderized” characteristics are simply human characteristics.  They exist in varying degrees regardless of what is, or is not between a person’s legs.

I am a strong man. A strong father.  A tender man. A compassionate man. A warrior. A healer. A hard worker. A disciplined man. I am a 2nd Degree Blackbelt in Jujitsu and have actively trained in martial arts for 30 plus years.  But the greatest warrior I know was a woman who had a “Blackbelt in Crazy” (as James Brown sang) —my warrior mother. She tore an eyeball out of a Marine who tried to rape her when she was serving in the Navy during WWII. She kicked the crap out of another man who tried to rape her in her early 20’s. The “strongest man” I know is my mom.

For years I taught women’s self-defense in conjunction with a program assisting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. We trained them to brutally maim an attacker. Many had been victims in the past. By the end of the intensive training, the smallest of them could take down a 6 foot, 3-inch large male like me, who acted as the padded attacker. Every time they took me down and kicked my ass, I thought of my mother—of her fierce strength. Though it really hurt, I smiled.

I have never had to have been taught that “women are strong.” No shit. It was modeled for me day in and day out. I never had to take a “women’s studies” course in school to learn the power of women. I am an “organic” feminist. Homegrown.

I urge all those single mothers who feel they are inadequate to raise a boy into a man to stop believing that lie. Just be yourself. Be fully human—that beautiful paradox of weak and strong that resides within all of us.

Give your children, regardless of their gender, the permission to simply be fully human.  Let them bloom, without forcing these tired, worn-out gender labels that hang over our necks like chains.  Ideally, all children should have positive role models of both genders.  But, never sell yourself short on being able to raise a boy into a man, simply because of anatomical differences.  Please, do not give that worn out lie any more space in your head, or your heart. Your sons will treasure you for that.