There was a sweet spot in time where I had several great friendships with Black men. I don’t mean my mid 90s high school years friendships with Black boys that were characterized by conversations about annoying IB or AP English assignments and Tupac vs. Biggie debates in the library before the water gun/water balloon fights after the school day ended. I don’t mean later on in adulthood when there was a specific relationship type (i.e. a past dance instructor, co-worker, client) that made the relationship too formal, or in some cases, a guy tried to alter the professional relationship into something romantic, which I did not want. I mean right in between there. Undergrad.
Since no one I hung out with in college was specifically there to meet a spouse, and we were somewhat more evolved than our water gun fight days, I really enjoyed the company of Black male friends in college. I attended a PWI, but all of my friends were Black women and Black men with the exception of a few Latinos and other people of colour. Just as Beverly Daniels Tatum wrote about why all of the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria, that same cultural, psychological and emotional protection from stereotype threat, microaggressions and overt racism is desperately needed by Black students at PWIs.
I attended a different college from many of my high school friends for my freshman year but ended up transferring to their college for the latter three years and graduated from there. During that first year, I visited them on some weekends and hung out. (I met a Pakistani male buddy with whom I used to ride with since I didn’t have a car freshman year; his girlfriend attended my friends’ college.) We would crack jokes, roam the Student Union, attend step shows and comedy shows, watch movies, fall asleep in each others’ beds or stay up for days at a time without sleep but with plenty of laughs. Some were single and some dated. There were waves of sexual tension (my group was primarily heterosexual with a few bisexual people floating in and out of who we hung out with) but other than only two major arguments, one freshman year, one sophomore year (caused by two people; a group intruder who was a relative of one of my friends and by one of the group members that ended up being a very toxic friend; I wrote about her before), everything seemed fairly peachy despite this. What I learned then is that friendship with a man is not solely the absence of sexual tension or attraction. That reduces friendship to deciding that having sex is what makes it not a friendship or having sex automatically makes it romantic love. It’s definitely more nuanced than this.
One of my past high school classmates, a Latino man, had a group of Black male friends that we began to hang out with too. When we (my current best friend and I) reflect on this, it was a bit wild because after only a month of knowing them, we spent weekends at their house, slept over and watched movies. We never had any sexual contact with them whatsoever. (I did have one date with the Latino guy, but it went nowhere.) They technically could have harmed us, but never did. At 33, I don’t sleep over men’s houses that I barely know. At 19, they were brown Care Bears to me. One was a cop. He was bisexual. One was a heroin dealer. He was heterosexual. One was a wannabe rapper. He was heterosexual. One was I genuinely believe an escort for older wealthy Black women (as was the whisper among the friends), but till this day, I am not 100% sure. He later came out as gay but identified as heterosexual at the time. They were all 3-10 years older than us while our Black male (and a few other men of colour) friends from high school were the same age as us. We had a real variety there. We (a few of my Black female friends and them) had these long conversations for hours at a time about sexual politics, dating, marriage, family, our majors, money, entertainment and more. Good times. (I also had a Black boyfriend my freshman year of college at my school before I transferred, and I was good friends with his three close Black male friends.)
Until my recent years on Twitter where I tweet with feminist Black men, I had a LONG gap of time (between undergrad which ended in 2001 and 2009 when I joined Twitter) when I had no consistently regular conversations with Black men. I don’t mean street harassment, which I despise. I don’t mean with coworkers (which have been rare for me; I’ve rarely had jobs where Black men were employed on a similar level; they were always janitorial staff or executives and neither seem to mingle with middle management). I don’t mean past photography clients. I don’t mean past boyfriends (though my last long-term relationship ended 2003 and the last time I went on an actual date was 2008). Not casual conversation at Black business mixers (which I don’t like) or in other social situations (which I tend to duck from as an introvert). I mean that everyday, day to day laugh and smile, consistently talked to in a positive and/or deep way that I had in undergrad. While I’ve had some amazing times in my 20s (such as traveling, which undergrad cant compete with) and a few now in my early 30s, in a way, I understand why people refer to undergrad as “the best years of your life.” In a way, the experiences that I allude to here were unique to that time of my life.
The question then becomes…why?
Naturally after college, people move away, contact drops off, relationships fade. It’s common. Thus, I knew that some relationships would be on an hourglass. Conversely, two of my closest friends are from college, one I knew since high school and a third one didn’t attend college with me, but I’ve know since middle school. They’re all Black women though. Relationships with them were preserved; relationships with the Black men I knew during undergrad are transient (hello on holidays) or non-existent now.
To be clear, none of these men were the disgustingly irritating Nice Guy™ types who feign friendship hoping to get laid because they are entitled assholes; these men were real friends. What changed this is the pressure of societal expectations.
After college, people are expected to find a career, marry, buy a home and procreate (and this all reveals heteronormativity, capitalism and heterosexual privilege, no less). Platonic friendships are assigned immediate devaluation after high school, let alone college, for those who are privileged enough attend. (In a way, people seem to treat true friendship as something for kids or teens.) Then there’s the time factor. College is busy yet there is always time to “hang out.” Because adulthood is so restricted because of capitalism and sexism, the mixed gender socialization of college becomes incredibly unique, outside of couples hanging out together or dating/sexual scenes. Further, as these men began to marry and procreate, my close women friends remained single (though a few married). Because of patriarchal constructions of sexuality, “outside” women are viewed as “threats” to heterosexual relationships so many heterosexual men begin to distance themselves from friendships with women as they get older and past college years.
As Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins writes:
For many heterosexual Black men and Black women, dominant constructions of Black male and Black female sexuality often limit the ability to form nonsexualized, loving friendships.
This is true. What’s worse is many Black men who’ve never experienced quality friendships with Black women and ascribe to patriarchal notions of masculinity influence men who do not. Thus, they’ll question those men if they aren’t trying to sleep with, control or dominate Black women. There’s rarely room for nuanced relationships for heterosexual Black men and heterosexual Black women (not specifically speaking of the relationships that gay Black men and heterosexual Black women have) because of how our manhood and womanhood, respectively, are constructed in a racist and patriarchal society.
While I admit it is challenging, I still think it is possible to have friendships in adulthood between heterosexual Black women and heterosexual Black men. What stands in the way is often as small as our social/labor circles not mixing (a factor that I know of for sure because of my long gap in adulthood without close Black male friends) or as large as rejecting patriarchal notions of gender that dictate that only for sex, dating, marriage, and/or procreation, or worse, misogynoir (i.e. street harassment, physical violence, rape) can we ever cross paths.
Even when dating or marriage occurs, much of why it fails (beyond the pressures of external sociocultural factors) is because it’s not rooted in friendship. Separated couples often state this upon reflection and therapists often report this. This reveals how truly important friendship is.
Related Post: Black Women and Friendships