I remember the first and, incidentally, the last time I saw my grandfather cry.
Remember it the way a teen remembers their first kiss or their first day of school. Remember it like a couple remembers their first dance or their first date. Remember it the way the country collectively remembers when Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon.
I remember it vividly because it was everything to me.
It was a Sunday morning in January 1987. I was 13 years old in church. I was sitting on the back pew, gray cotton polyblend suit jacket splayed open, high top fade that channeled Kid ‘n Play, forehead resting on the pew in front of me, while my father was speaking, preaching the gospel. Like most children of pastors, I’d heard it all before.
My father was a gifted preacher, a capable pastor, a counselor, and theologian who would help to shape the discourse on liberation within the Black church.
But I didn’t know all that back then. What I knew about my father, the only thing I knew, was that he was the pastor of my church, and there were entire feature-length movies that were shorter than his sermons. They went on forever.
In fact, my father’s sermons were so long, so laborious, I would time his sermons every week on my black plastic Casio watch. I remember being disgusted beyond words that his longest sermon was just under 23 minutes.
My father was talking about “seeds of faith,” that if we plant these seeds of faith, they will produce an abundance of fruit for future generations.
It’s amazing what one can hear and understand when one isn’t trying to.
Toward the end of his sermon, my father acknowledged my maternal grandparents who were in the second pew of the church. He told the congregation that my grandparents were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary on that day, congratulated them and blessed them.
The congregation erupted in applause.
My grandfather put his arm around my grandmother, embraced her with both arms, and kissed my grandmother on the lips.
As the congregation was in full celebration on this moment, I looked up and saw my grandfather take his pressed white handkerchief from his back pocket and wipe a salty tear from his cheek. I leaned in closer to the pew in front of me to make sure I was actually seeing my grandfather cry.
Seeing my grandfather cry that day, wasn’t just the only time I saw him cry — it was one of the only times I had ever seen any man cry.
Ours is a world in which men, generally speaking, are not supposed to cry, or express any kind of emotional depth or maturity above the occasional grunts and high fives at sporting events, or swift and violent rage when someone cuts them off in traffic. In other words, crying should be left to women and children.
There is an expectation that men remain emotionally calm, cool under pressure, and stoic in their public and private lives. They are never supposed to cry at weddings, childbirths, movies, or really anything that requires an emotional response.
And for men who do cry, our society has nothing but disdain. We will always remember the drubbing both President Obama and George W Bush took for shedding tears over school shootings.
And who can forget Rep. John Boehner? Not too long ago, he very publicly shed tears when it became apparent that he was going to be the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
In the subsequent months, Boehner cried in several other public interviews and appearances when discussing anything from PGA golf legends to the pope. Boehner was mocked and ridiculed so badly for his tears, political writers penned think pieces asking, “Why does John Boehner cry so much?” and humorously documenting the “15 times John Boehner cried.”
In fact, Boehner had cried so much, and been ridiculed so much, that several writers joked that “he was turning into a woman.”
That’s when it became clear to me that me not seeing men cry wasn’t merely coincidental, but rather it is a symptom of patriarchal constructs we defend and reinforce every day.
When I say “patriarchy,” I’m sure it sounds vast, even conspiratorial. I want to ensure that we all have the same understanding about the term.
Feminist writer and thinker bell hooks asserts that patriarchy is “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”
In other words, patriarchy is the belief that men are simply smarter, stronger, and more resourceful than women, and are therefore entitled to own, possess and use the best the world has to offer.
I’ll make it even plainer. Patriarchy is the reason women make 77 cents to every single dollar a man makes. Patriarchy is why women occupy less than five percent of the upper management positions in Fortune 500 companies. Patriarchy is the reason only 16 percent movie directors are women, and it is the reason why only about ten percent of the nation’s lead pastors are women.
But, women aren’t the only ones who suffer from patriarchal constructs—men do as well. Because patriarchy places men in a position of dominance, it calls on men to conform to a specific set of rules, all of which require men to eschew any expression of empathy, and suppress their feelings. Patriarchy, in essence, denies men access to a full spectrum of emotions. Including tears that come with joy, pride, or sadness.
And so it is both fitting and ironic that the first time I saw a grown man cry was in church, because the church is the birthplace of our society’s patriarchy.
The church teaches and reinforces patriarchy. I certainly remember my first Sunday School lessons and first teacher teaching that God was a “He,” and He created Adam to dominate everything on earth.
I remember learning that Eve was created sometime after Adam, from pieces of Adam’s body, and she was created to assist Adam as he dominates the earth.
I remember when my spouse and I attended pre-marriage counseling, our pastor spent four weeks telling us about how the man is the “head of his house” and the wife was there to support and submit to him.
I remember the counseling sessions that I lead in which a parishioner was reinforcing Patriarchy in very sad ways. The woman was recounting several instances in which her spouse hit her. As she was detailing those incidents of domestic abuse, she also told me about an instance where her spouse had sex with her without consent. When I was actively listening and repeated back to her what I thought she said: “You were raped,” She said “No, he’s my husband. My body is his body.”
I remember sitting in the pews of my church every Sunday as a young person, hearing implicitly and even explicitly, that women “should be silent in the church.”
I remember all of this taking place in church—the one place where there should be a respite from inequality.
But, just as the church is responsible for incubating patriarchy, it can also be instrumental in alleviating it as well. In fact, the church is in the best position to do this.
To do that, the church must re-envision the conventional landscape that allows men to be viewed as inherently superior and dominant.
The church must begin to support an accurate and thorough reading of the scriptures that sees God creating men and women at the same time for the purpose of sharing in the work of being good stewards of the earth.
The church must also teach men to interact without dominating. It must teach men to root out patriarchal indoctrination that calls for men to interact with women without dominating, to share responsibility, to acquiesce power, and to understand that expressing emotion, and yes, even crying, is not a woman thing, it’s a human thing.