Game Face: The trap of black male masculinity

ESSAY - We all wear a game face that we put on when we have to take care of business. The problem is that many of us don’t know how to take it off, until it becomes a way of life that traps you...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Smart, successful and handsome. Chris Lighty seemed to have it all and yet… he took his life. What went wrong? There have been speculations of alleged financial and marital woes, but so far that has not been confirmed. I never had the opportunity to meet Chris, so I’m unable to speak with any degree of certainty as to why this beloved brother chose to end his life at such a young age. What I do know is that this tragic loss is another wake up call.

RELATED: Chris Lighty, legendary hip-hop manager, found dead from apparent suicide at 44

Suicide, among men in general, is on the rise — and particularly, among black men. The similarly tragic death of Don Cornelius immediately comes to mind as evidence of this. When men of like Cornelius and Lighty commit suicide it sparks a national conversation. Yet, the truth of the matter is that black men commit suicide everyday — and it’s always tragic.  I’m hoping that we begin to pay closer attention to all of those men in our lives who may be suffering and to recognize the signs of depression.

When I wrote Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, I interviewed hundreds of men who told their stories. What I learned is that all too often black men are emotionally doomed from early childhood.  From the moment they can understand it, they are told not to cry, and that only sissies shed tears.

Renowned educator and author Geoffrey Canada put it this way:

There was a time when we were little that we could tell our mother about the pain, but then our mother, like lots of women raising boys, began to worry that we would be soft, that we wouldn’t grow up to be men, that we had to toughen up.  It was rough out there and she couldn’t protect us. She knew one of the first things used to taunt boys is to say, “oh, you’re a mama’s boy.” “Go tell your mother.”  So after a while we begin to say, “oh, I can’t tell, Mommy anything,” and we stopped telling. Once we stopped telling her, it was easier not to tell anybody anything.

Our brothers are so beautiful; I’m constantly struck by the magnificence of black male style: the swagger, the flair, the sheer originality.  Yet I’m also struck by just how much sadness lies underneath the shiny exterior that is layered over the vulnerability, shame, frustration and pain.

We all wear a game face — that mask (and we have one for every occasion) that we put on when we have to take care of business and feel we can’t afford to let ourselves be seen as “weak.” Sometimes it’s very practical, as when we are actually competing in a game or negotiating a complicated deal. The problem is that many of us don’t know how to take it off. What begins as a simple way to protect yourself becomes a way of life that traps you. We’ve got to learn to recognize that game face, and to see how hiding our pain disconnects us from ourselves and from each other.

I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of seeking professional help. There is no shame in reaching out. In fact, doing so is a necessary lifeline. We cannot simply be or breathe properly if we don’t release the unresolved pain, wounds, scars and trauma of our childhoods. We cannot be all that God has called us to be. Talking to friends and loved ones can only take us so far.

I know… I’ve been there — not wanting to commit suicide, but not wanting to be on the planet.  But, there comes a point when you have to accept the pressures of living. Therapy is key.

RELATED: Does acting like ‘a man’ depress black men?

We will never know what drove Chris (and so many others) to take such drastic action — he took his story with him to the grave. But, healing starts when we share our stories with one another. We are all going through the fire — taking one day at a time. So we need to help each other out.

If you see something, say something. If you listen and watch closely, you’ll hear what is said and what is not said. The silence, the stigma around depression is taking us too soon. We are dying as a result… the most revolutionary thing we can do is to love another.

I am a woman on fire for this revolution.

Stay strong — and let’s redefine what that means: to let the tears flow and to be able to ask for help.

Terrie M. Williams is an author, public relations and branding expert, mental health advocate and woman on fire about spreading the message. Email her at and follow her on twitter @TerrieWilliams.