There’s a type of stolid veil you’re suppose to put up as a man. Society often treats men and boys as if confidence and aggression are the only legitimate emotions they can display. Other emotions that are softer in denotation become “soft” in connotation. The downside is there is a level of suppression tied to masculinity, coupled with impulse of identity self-defense.
Sometimes I think of the way we have constructed masculinity like a sandcastle—the larger and more ornate it looks, the more it guises its fragility and the more we feel like we need to defend it.
In my life I’ve tried to construct a more restorative way of being a man, one that incorporates vulnerability as a necessary tool for growth. Different people and things have helped me get to this place—family, faith, friends, authors I’ve read, etc. One key way I explored this was through music, and I’m not sure I’ve heard a song that does this better than “Pieces of a Man” by Gil Scott-Heron.
Born in Chicago, raised in Tennessee then living in New York, Gil Scott-Heron was a revolutionary artist. In “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” (the biography of Scott-Heron), writer Marcus Baram called his onstage banter “legendary — part church sermon, part stand-up comic act, part political speech.” Due to the various hip hop artists that have sampled him, contemporary folks are generally aware of his “ The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He was a brilliant man who also struggled with a drug addiction.
I didn’t really know about Gil Scott-Heron until I got to college. I took several classes with one of the most important intellectual influences in my life, professor Claudrena Harold at the University of Virginia. One day she played a few of his spoken word and musical records in class, and though I more or less enjoyed what I heard, the song that resonated with me the most was “Pieces of a Man.”
Jagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom
But she didn’t know what she was doing
She could hardly understand
That she was really sweeping up
Pieces of a man
Scott-Heron connected the personal with the political, showing the burden of living in an anti-black society manifested itself in Black men’s personal relationships. In the discussion between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, I see “Pieces of a Man” as the melancholic metaphor of Baldwin’s position. To repurpose Scott-Heron’s own words, the song makes bare the pain of “living where people obstacle everything you do.” In a racialized society where Black (especially Black male) anger is read as menacing and dangerous, this negatively affects the Black family — the only place he can let out his rage is at home; his loves ones become the only projection target for his suffering.
Listening to that song now reminds me of some of the struggles I went through in college. Being an out-of-state student and the only black male from Chicago, I felt lonely my first few semesters at UVA. My first semester in Charlottesville, I was sick off and on from September to winter break. My grades were bad, which prevented me from trying out for the basketball team. It was a goal I worked so hard for most of my young life, and was especially crushing after I had a great workout with some assistant coaches.
Though this is an insight in hindsight, I still hadn’t gotten over the death of one of my best friends. He was run over by a drunk off-duty police officer, who tried to report his car stolen. I was depressed, but I didn’t have the language to describe it as such. I coped by going to the gym and playing basketball, sometimes five hours at a time, and listening to music all of my waking hours that I wasn’t in class or talking to someone. I was in a vicious cycle that took a year to get out of.
For me, repression caused me to curl inward, my depression a centripetal force on my heart. For others, it causes them to lash out. But seeking comfort and counsel in others is a crucial part of self-care. At our low moments, music can be the sonic manifestation of empathy. The piano and bass strings of “Pieces of A Man” validated my pain while Scott-Heron’s lyrics reminded me of the necessity to be open with your feelings as man.
I don’t think you can listen to “Pieces of A Man” and not submit to its healing power.