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retarded (adj): relatively slow in mental or emotional or physical development.
When I lecture and/or do seminars and talk about how American men in general and Black men in particular are emotionally retarded, the reaction is not always good.
Some men are offended over the usage of the word “retarded,” but in it’s literal meaning, the word is very appropriate.
In America, many boys are taught from an early age to disconnect from most of our emotions. We can still feel pain and our feelings can still get hurt. We feel joy and we still love, but the feelings are distant at best and foreign at worst. We don’t feel the need to talk about them or face them enough to process them.
We need to discuss this issue because it’s ripping our community apart. Without a connection to emotions, the response to them is sometimes backward and inappropriate.
For example, while women will typically cry when hurt or angry, emotionally retarded men will typically lash out, having been taught that violence or aggressive behavior are appropriate responses to pain or anger.
What some perceive as a choice to act stoically is actually a pathological attempt at erasure of emotions. Too many Black men hold our feelings inside until they fester and tear us apart, causing more of us to die early from stroke, heart attack, and other stress-related maladies.
Some of us are raised as emotional retards, but some of us fall into it later in life.
I became emotionally retarded after being raised in good emotional health. I was fifteen when I finally gave up my tears.
I blame part of my emotional retardation on the “big boys don’t cry” syndrome, but part of it came from having so much to cry about in such a short time, that my emotional system shut down as a failsafe against insanity.
At the age of fifteen, my stepfather—the man who raised me as his own—lost his battle with cancer. Within one year, I also lost my oldest brother and my grandmother.
Prior to that time period, I used to cry when I was happy and cry when I was sad. I would cry when I was afraid and cry when I was lonely. But once I became emotionally retarded, I no longer cried. In fact, I didn’t cry from sixteen until twenty-one, when my mother died.
I remember curling up in a little tiny ball and crying my eyes out, wanting to die and join her or explode and cease to exist, but right after the funeral, I “manned up” and turned off the tears again, because after all, big boys don’t cry. My girlfriend at the time told me so. She had decided that I had been crying too long and was starting to “bitch up.”
I turned off my tears again, and in doing so, I turned off a connection with humanity. I intellectualized pain, and tried to analyze love, life and even laughter from a purely cerebral perspective. “I think, therefore, I am, but I don’t cry” was my motto.
I would look at emotionally healthy people in confusion, not quite understanding the emotions they would demonstrate so openly. I remember laughing once because a girlfriend’s crying seemed so puzzling. Not that it was truly funny, but I just didn’t understand, and in my confusion, discomfort gave way to laughter, a primary nervous reaction.
It’s not just Black men who are emotionally retarded. We are following the emotional retardation of the dominant culture, which is where we get the whole “big boys don’t cry” syndrome. But the reality is that we have embraced it and it belongs to us now, too.
That retardation must be appealing to our sisters, because many of them are becoming detached from their emotions as well.
Some of the disconnected still have vestigial emotions-remnants of what once existed, firing off neural connections in a similar fashion to severed arms and legs which still “feel” as though they are still there.
We can reconnect to our emotions, but we have to acknowledge that there is a disconnect. I acknowledged my own, and over the past few years, I have been slowly reconnecting.
By the end of my twenties, I began to analyze the appropriate emotional response to the feelings I had intellectualized. I began to understand and reconnect. It was a beginning.
When my last relationship ended, I was also going through some professional difficulties. It seemed as though my entire world was falling apart and I knew that I was a mess. I not only embraced celibacy, but I embraced my spirituality like never before and that’s when it happened.
I cried as though the skies were opening up, but in fact, it was my heart opening up.
I felt things, not just intellectually, but really felt them and I cried about feeling them.
My reconnection to my emotions was an important event, which ostensibly heralded a crucial stage of my journey towards enlightenment.
I am healing still, but I thank God that I have some of my emotions back. I am happy about it, even though I can not yet cry about that happiness.
The most intellectual of us can recognize each other easily as I did with my friend and fellow emotional retard, Trey, when he explained that the only two emotions he had as a youth were rage and indifference. His words were my reality. He intellectualized his emotions and chose an emotionally healthy woman to provide his children (two boys) with normal emotions.
There are many of us who are emotionally healthy.
Some of my best friends are emotionally healthy and I’ve seen several of them cry openly. I’ve even seen them shed tears of joy, which gave me hope that one day I, too, will have tears for the joy that warms my heart. I harbor hope that one day, I, too, will be emotionally healthy.
I am admitting that I am emotionally retarded, even though I now have tears for most of my emotions. And I want more brothers to find their tears and to find their emotions, so that we can heal and our community can heal.
Mock me if you want, but I’m a man and I am no longer afraid to cry.
I am also unafraid of the term “retarded” to refer to a state of emotional being that actually exists.
Darryl James n is an award-winning author who is now a filmmaker. His first mini-movie, “Crack,” was released in March of 2006. He is currently filming a full length documentary. James’ latest book, “Bridging The Black Gender Gap,” is the basis of his lectures and seminars. Previous installments of this column can now be viewed at www.bridgecolumn.com. James can be reached at