A ‘safe space’ were Black men can discuss their emotions

“Most men live and die in the silence of their emotions and feelings,” Jay Barnett writes in his 2021 self-help journal, “Just Heal, Bro.”

Barnett, a former football player who became a family and mental health therapist, has talked openly about the emotional stresses he has experienced in life — a painful divorce, custody negotiations, the “shame” of past mistakes and sometimes feeling like an “alien” in his own body.

With help from his manager, Barnett has turned his 100-page journal for men into a national tour, which he promotes as a “safe” and “male-only space” where men — especially Black men — are encouraged to put down their emotional baggage and allow themselves to become vulnerable with one another.

On Friday, the Just Heal, Bro tour arrives in Charlotte after a stop at Norfolk State University in Virginia.

In an interview with QCity Metro, Barnett spoke about the intersection of Black masculinity and emotional health. He was joined by actor/activist Lamman Rucker, who co-started in the Tyler Perry movie “Why Did I get Married?”

Their answers were edited for length and clarity.

You both have advocated for mental health in the past. What about this conference drew you in?

Barnett: What we’re doing is working to normalize bringing men of color, specifically, to a safe space to be able to process and begin working through some things that they may have been holding back.

Rucker: We really have to have a good support system and not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. That’s what I believe we’re doing.

Tell me about an event or time in your lives that first made you take note of the importance of mental health?

Barnett: After my parents divorced, I realized that there wasn’t a space for me as a young Black male to really be open, because most black males are kind of called upon to be the man of the house and step into the role of a father. That’s what happened to me. It wasn’t until I was an adult man that I realized I wasn’t really considered. My sisters’ feelings about how the divorce impacted them were considered, but I wasn’t. That gave me a deeper insight into how boys are overlooked emotionally and how I was overlooked emotionally.

Rucker: “I’ve seen people respond [to trauma] through chemical dependency, severe forms of depression and doing very destructive things. I never understood it. It was the way people were processing what was happening to them. I’ve lost aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters from their inability to cope with what was going on with them. When you see more of the negative and don’t have enough of the positive, unfortunately, you realize how much you have the capacity to follow the same path.

Photo via Living Hope Co.

You’ve both mentioned family. How do you see discussions of mental health happening across generations?

Barnett: I think this generation is a bit more expressive. They have taken the horns of the bull and chosen to be heard rather than just seen. Most of us who grew up either in the ’70s or ’80s or even ’90a were raised by parents or guardians who taught children to be seen and not heard. This generation’s focal point is more about their mental wellbeing. I think they’re not as driven by money; they’re more driven by experience. When it comes to mental health, they’re choosing to have a voice when it comes to the workspace. This wasn’t the dynamic when it comes to the previous generation. I think that previous generations can learn from what this generation is choosing to do by understanding that their mental health would determine their overall life experience.

Rucker: Do I think it gets better every generation? I hope so. At the same time, I’ve definitely seen a different level of volatility and hypersensitivity in a lot of people these days, especially young boys because of social media. People just immediately just sound off whatever it is that’s happening to them. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Great, they have the opportunity to express and release.” At the same time, you wonder if there’s still a certain balance that still needs to be taught where they’re still taught some restraint.

How do you both see the concept of toxic masculinity affecting Black men?

Rucker: What I’ve learned is the more you let that stuff go, the bigger and better man you become. I really leaned into completely throwing away those definitions of what men are supposed to be. I’ve never agreed to the fact that a man isn’t loving, nurturing or affectionate, but those were some of the things that I know other men subscribed to. I think what’s important is not just saying get rid of it; It’s also understanding why it’s there in the first place. Where did it come from? Why is it something that you’ve agreed to? How has that worked for you?” 

Barnett: I think sometimes the expectations are a bit unrealistic. It’s hard to have an expectation for someone to succeed when they have not been provided the proper tools or the proper system, because everything really is systematically controlled by the powers that be. When you look at the mental health space, especially now, the demand is greater than what they have commissions for. I truly believe that the solution has to be greater than the demand as well. It’s just a lot that we [Black men] have gone through systematically. That has contributed to where we are today.

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