Black Men Smile® Monday: Strength in Surrender with Obi Okolo
As a black man, and even more so at times as a first-generation Nigerian-American, so much emphasis is put on the importance of being strong. Strong for ourselves, strong for our families, for the women in our lives, for a society that at times seems determined to feed on our weakness, and for "the culture". But what good is "strength" at the expense of self? And furthermore what definition of strength are we using to shape our young men in America.
All of these thoughts and ideas came to head for me this past year - the hardest year of my short life. I'd spent most of that short life being "strong". An awarded musician, Boy Scout, always smiling friend to all, and life of the party. A designer turned student leader and multi-association board member, speaker and guest lecturer. I'd worked to start a company with my then partner in life and work. I'd found myself, the youngest and blackest face, sitting at tables making decisions and having discussions that would affect tens of thousands of students and young professionals alike. The definition of strength I'd adopted was one of succeeding on paper at all cost. Ignoring the hurt, the brokenness, the crippling insecurity and imposter syndrome. Ignoring the fear of being discovered a fraud, the voices in my head that sang a constant chorus of my worthlessness. Ignoring the sexual brokenness that would ultimately lead to infidelity. Cheating on my partner, friend, and love. What followed was a complete upheaval of my entire life.
I'll never forget the looks on the faces of my friends and family, people who'd known me for years, as they desperately scanned my face searching for the person they thought they'd known. I had everyone fooled. Even myself to some extent. It's been nearly a year to the day that this whole process began and there are way too many parts and nuances to this story to tell in this short form. But I'll hone in on one crucial part. My male friendships. In the process of healing, I discovered that I'd developed this hostility and crippling mistrust of men. My contentious, thankfully since reconciled, relationship with my father had taken me to a place where I'd learned to fear, malign, distrust and even hate men - including myself. So for much of my life, my closest relationships were with women. When you pair that with my true-hearted desire to protect having being raised primarily by my mother, adolescent hormones, the abuse of sex and sexuality as a place to find value and identity, all in a world that already exoticizes the black male body, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
What makes me smile now is Jon Tolbert one of the most consistent and steadfast humans I know - my roommate and brother who some nights would literally hold me as I sobbed in his arms lamenting the life that I'd lost, but would never let me forget how much I was about to gain through this process of self-inflicted suffering. Mark Rocha who was one of the first men who modeled a surrendered life for me in a real way. Garrett Meador, Nick Doolittle, Santiago Gonzalez, Parker Tobin, Ryan Strumple and Timothy Frank, who simply do life with me. Who never ask me to be anything I'm not, but never fail to remind me the good that I'm capable of at my best. Who seemed to furiously chant collectively in response to the self-defeating voices in my head, "you did a bad thing, but you are not a bad man!" Nick Tafel and Joel Pominville, the constant reminders that no matter the stormy season I find myself in, "this too shall pass." Steffen Humbert my spiritual big brother, whose relentless love at arms reach is only matched by his fierce intercession and prayers from a distance. Wole Abjabge, who in so many ways is my polar opposite, but in so many others, my twin and biggest advocate. Dave Schmidgall, who created a safe place for me when I needed it most and deserved it the least. David Steele who unknowingly makes me feel, seen, and known, and truly valued every single time he sees me. D'Marcus Brannon, who suffered with me in many ways, but shows me as he has since we were 12 what the work of intentional practice can achieve.
And lastly, and maybe most unlikely, my father, Onyechi Okolo. Who, with new eyes, I can now see for the goofy, kind, tender, complex man he is. A man who has endured multiple lifetimes worth of pain and continues to show up for me - even, especially, when he isn't exactly sure how. The list truly could go on.
Too often when we think about the black men we look up to, those who have defined generations and shaken institutions to their core, we think of them through the lens of this hyper-masculine stoic, unshakable "strength". And any weakness, moral or otherwise, is a marring fatal threat to the legacies they left behind. I'll never forget the first time I heard stories of Dr. Martin Luther Kings struggles, with sexual brokenness, solicitation, and fidelity. It high-key blew my mind. How could a man, so great, do something like that? I laugh at that thought now, because why the hell not? It's common, accepted and even celebrated knowledge that JFK had multiple illicit affairs. But that in no way seems to threaten his legacy. In fact, it would almost appear to feed the mythification of him as an American icon. So why can't our black male leaders be humans? Not in an effort to excuse poor behavior, no. But in pursuit of a world where young black men aren't faced with an impossible all or nothing standard. A world where greatness is achievable not by building emotionally unavailable facades of "strength", but by surrendering to the notion that we have weakness, that we hurt and sometimes don't know why, that we're afraid, confused, tired, and acting out. Evil thrives in darkness. By shining a light on these hidden dark places we create an atmosphere, dead to self, where we can love ourselves exactly where we are, and know ourselves enough to believe that we are capable and worthy of more.
Almost a year on the other side of some of the most painful moments in my life, I'm not all good. Some days still hurt. But, I can smile. The men in my life - my friends and brothers - who make this black man smile, are the very men who created spaces and made it okay for this black man to cry