“The hardest thing is seeing pain on a person’s face that you caused and then dealing with yourself” said Jay Z. He sat opposite New York Times Executive Editor Dean Ducquet discussing his 13th studio album, 4:44.
On this album’s title track, 4:44, and Adnis, Jay reveals himself as a complicated Black man grappling with the harm he has caused, how he caused it, why he did it, that he regrets it and how he must now make amends in order to love anew within his marriage and family.
It matters that this harm is acknowledged, articulated, actively regretted and specific amends made.
Jay Z’s public apology was unambiguous. It was the beginning of healing. It is his past catching up with the present, interrupting whatever carefully curated self he has manufactured and with which he has navigated the world.
This album ignited a wealth of discussion about Black masculinity and .Beyoncé’s choice to marry - what was defined as and reduced to - Black male brokenness.
For me, 4:44’s focus was a mirror into a Black man’s emotionality and an invitation for Black men to engage in an intimate reckoning.
I am not a hip hop head nor a music critic, so I don’t write this from that lens.
My focus is our politics of emotionality, what I call ‘emotional justice’. I explore our legacy of untreated trauma due to personal, familial, societal and global history filled with injustice and brutality. I created Emotional Justice in recognition of emotionality’s power to inform how injustice, brutality and harm can manifest. I created it to engage Black folk in intimate public conversations about how such legacy shows up in our relationships, movements, community and society.
There is a politics of emotionality with Black masculinity and with Black men in relationship to Black women. It sits within a global history of dehumanization, brutality and injustice. Emotionality is consistently – mistakenly – underestimated, misunderstood power.
Jay is a storyteller, a lyricist who lingers in metaphor but whose wealth, brilliance and swagger became crippled under the weight of unaddressed emotionality issues.
In the 4:44 visual footnotes, Jay sits with high profile Black men from the worlds of comedy, music, TV and hip hop. He concedes dealing with his own stunted emotionality, his lack of a blueprint to navigate that, and reckoning with the pain he caused was “the hardest thing he has ever done”.
Jay Z articulates a Black masculinity that carries swagger and scared cheek by jowl in one soul. His musical power and mogul success began to be compromised by his emotional brokenness. There is powerful, particular instruction here about Black masculinity.
For me, it is an invitation to Black men to explore what I call in Emotional Justice, intimate revolution.
I share a birthday month with Jay Z. I am a daughter of a beautiful, brilliant complicated Black man. From him, I learned to love and be loved by beautiful, brilliant, complicated Black men. That love leaned hard on me. I could not always – in truth I have rarely been able to - lean on it. I am nurtured to privilege Black men’s brokenness over my own. And I have. And I did.
I am expected to understand, contextualize and forgive wrongdoing by Black men towards me, my heart, my body and my soul. There is rarely a reckoning - certainly not an intimate reckoning – nor willingness to reckon - just an expectation that I concede my hurt and my heart for his pain.
The space between how Black men and women love each other is complicated, beautiful, haunted, contested territory fraught with multiple interconnected histories. These waters are rocky. And they also rock. Such is our complicated beauty.
I sit with that as I watch Jay’s interview with Ducquet. Then, I listen again to Adnis and 4:44.
That apology to Beyoncé.
Black men rarely publicly apologize to Black women. Some speechify about it. They do not actually do it. There are negotiations, explanations, caveatizations. There are the ‘I know I did wrong, but she/you did x,y,z…”. There are those ‘sorry if I hurt you’ missives that miss the mark and don’t convey any real regret for or about anything. Such so called apologies never identify the thing about which a Black man is essentially not delivering an apology. Dr. Dre’s statement after Straight Outta Compton published in the New York Times is one such example. That apology seemed to be more about brand protection than acknowledgement of real harm.
There are Black men who give birth to creative genius, but are emotionally stillborn. There are Black men who speak the language of the most progressive politics, who can identify and articulate the ism out of anything, but are emotionally illiterate. That emotional illiteracy derails such progressive politics and creates turmoil and emotional car wrecks that communities – too often of Black women - are left to clean up.
Black men have been revolutionaries lauding Black women who protest on streets and then decimating the Black women who are mothers of their own children. Jay Z is a Black man who bailed out protestors and funded the children of slain Black men – like those of Sean Bell - and then bailed out of emotionally funding his own family. These are the dots that need to be connected and considered; not as judgment, but as instruction and lessons.
Masculinity is not all mayhem; and Emotional Justice is not about a politics of disposable masculinity – but one of engagement, unlearning, reckoning, wrestling and reimagining. It is process and practice, not polemic. Toxic masculinity resists reckoning; 4:44 reveals the reckoning is an inevitable step in healing; and loving more fully, more honestly.
In this current iteration of a Black liberation project, emotionality requires our urgent attention.
I think one of the hardest things for Black men to do is sit with the pain they have caused Black women and stay, hear it, look into our faces and deal with themselves - not run, deny, deflect, detract. We – Black men, women and society - treat Black women’s pain as repulsive and terrifying. It is a mirror of intimate reflection; it holds history, hundreds of years of history. It is trauma tears frozen by a world’s expectation we simply carry on; it is our mothers and their mothers and their mothers and their mothers. It is emotional impotence, lynched breath, charred tongues and the raped stench of stagnant waters filled with untold or stolen stories.
To listen to a Black man publicly apologize to a Black woman as he speaks specifically about the harm he has caused her, matters. It did to me. It was triggering, and deeply moving. It is a burden that Black women’s emotionality is expected to lovingly balance the broken brilliance of Black men in bones already groaning under the weight of our own too often unspoken, multiple traumas. Black women are not supposed to speak of feeling reduced, heartbroken, devastated or horrified by the devastating casualness with which some Black men cause Black women pain. It is the past. And it is. It is also our present. It is our politics. It is our movements and our families. And it requires engagement.
The inevitable ‘but what about the pain Black women cause Black men?’ will always follow the above statement. That is part of toxic masculinity’s refusal to reckon with itself, and sit with what it does and has done. Intimate revolution does not require you to negate what has been done to you, but invites you as Black men to sit, weigh and walk with what you have done to us.
In Emotional Justice, I call it ‘unharm’. Unharm is action; it means to name the hurt we have caused, to identify it, to specifically own our part in what was done, to actively express regret for our part and then to devise process to make amends. That is different than ‘do no harm’. So much harm has already been done to us and by us to one another.
There is no innocence in the love between Black men and Black women. There can be justice – emotional justice. That does not mean there is no beauty. There is no language of compassionate reckoning between Black men and Black women. That does not mean we do not reckon. Untreated trauma’s reckoning can become poison that slides in between our bones, creates emotional keloids and heaps, dumps and drowns our communities, families, movements in that ish.
Legacy. At this point freedom won’t come faster because we are smarter with money, not if we fail to face and address our legacy of untreated trauma. We are rich and broken. We are broke and broken. We are creative and broken. We are brilliant and broken. Whose aspiration is poverty? Neither is a Black woman’s aspiration to be a Black man’s love lesson. Struggle has been Black women’s lover for too long.
Emotional Justice is Intimate revolution. This Intimate Revolution Must Not be Minimalized. It has already been traumatized.
No. 45 has unleashed a hurricane of harm that is creating flying political debris in every direction. Into this hurricane, Jay Z is now touring with an album he dropped whose title, title track and visual footnotes speak of Black men looking into the faces of Black women towards whom they have caused pain, and calling on those men to deal with themselves.
In Emotional Justice language, 4:44 is an invitation for Black men to engage in an intimate reckoning.
Who’s willing to heed that call?