Powerful is a word that everyone understands, but is still a relative term. It’s a word that even if evoked about something you don’t feel particularly passionate about, you can still relate when that object is proclaimed as powerful to someone else. This picture, Black and White, Michael B. Jordan’s hand cupped around the back of Ryan Coogler’s head, is the most powerful picture I’ve seen this calendar year thus far. Even saying that is a privilege. The provocation of this photo does not stand up to violent images of a war torn Uganda where lifeless Black bodies decorate a land bereft of Western empathy. It pales to the importance of blood vials and clean rooms where they check toxin levels of Flint, Michigan’s citizens. But what it is, for me, is joy. And I allow myself such privilege where I can get it. My skin has long paid the cost for such.
When this photo surfaced from Vanity Fair last week it was as part of a more non-descript portfolio. Style and trendsetters of course, as this is Vanity Fair. In the commentary, they make mention of Jordan and Coogler’s Blackness, but more in the footnote variety. Here is a rising actor, who happens to be Black; here art thou, the God of direction and tracking shots, may he be the right Black director for the right Black superhero. I don’t expect Vanity Fair to carry the weight of what they actually pulled from the river with this photo. I don’t expect a fashion magazine to do my coursework for me.
If this photo served as a conversation starter for you that centered around the possibilities of Jordan or Coogler’s sexuality because of the intimate pose they shared, then you were having the wrong conversation. Or, rather, you had the conversation that assigns a binary code to a person when you had the opportunity to use every color in the spectrum. On Twitter, the speculation began: what does this photo mean? Don’t they know how this is going to look? Oh no, them too? Quite simply, this is love. Plain and simple. Love that few actually understand.
When you see the statements that sexism and patriarchy affect men too, this is the most privileged sort that proves the statement. As a cis-gender, heterosexual man, there are things expected of me. More acutely, there are things forbidden to me. This is a story about masculinity, but this is specifically a story about Black men and the way we love each other, whether that be romantic or not. This is a story of how we keep an ocean in our throats, but pretend to drown for the sake of a comfortable public. This is about less than and compensation. What we lose when we pretend to forget what we can give each other.
[quote_left]This is a story about masculinity, but specifically a story about Black men and the way we love each other, whether that be romantic or not[/quote_left]Have you ever walked alongside someone who had a hard time staying on a line? If you had to deal with that every day and every walk of your life, you’d have some sampling of what it’s like to be a Black man in a society that worships the path beaten into Earth over millennia. You are constantly adjusting, calculating the lane you are told to belong, until you too no longer know what the original line is, just the one everyone is comfortable with. We are resourceful and adapt (or conform) like the most durable body; but we are human, despite what law enforcement turns us into within their statements, hovering like street lights over our colding bodies. And because we, too, are human, we need support, love, and validation like anyone else. Which isn’t to say, we don’t get it. But because we are large in our presence, conviction, and expectation (even when we are not in stature), when we lean on someone, we lean hard. We lean on partners, spouses, and kin, often because we have exhausted our own strength. We lean the hardest on the Black women in our lives. Because they know. They know the weight better than us. They carry more than us. And they also know who society tells us who not to lean on.
[quote_right]We lean the hardest on the Black women in our lives. Because they know. They know the weight better than us.[/quote_right]I know the love that Jordan’s left palm speaks to the cusp of Coogler’s head because it’s the love I learned to not be ashamed of. It’s the physical manifestation of saying, “I, as a Black man, love you, another Black man, short of excuse, short of perception, short of the “wrong idea” and the insult that carries, short of the hammer or the blade, short of your passing off the Earth before you were supposed to and never knowing that you were loved.” It is the way Ishmieal gripped my shoulder on the day I married my wife, the same day he was both my best friend and my best man. It is the way Omar, my partner on our website, hugged me back the first time I saw him after his mother passed. We stood there, shoulder to shoulder on an empty Jersey street knowing the empty sky could not swallow us. Not on this night. Not in the way we leaned against each other’s shoulders, wondering what befell us in our departure. Him to an empty house. Me to an empty highway. Neither way would leave us as full as the moment held.
That is what I see in the photo. I see a defiance of ceilings and castles walls we were never meant to see the inside of. I see an actor that has felt the scorch of public eye and America holding on to the man who cultivated the road he walks on. I see love, unapologetically. Unyielding to easy topics and stereotypes. That’s why this photo is powerful. That’s why the suits on men in a style magazine is the last thing I notice. Do not let the curse of masculinity be the anchor around your neck. Do not let the gaze and gawk of those who do not understand you, bind you to the ocean floor. It is not enough to say, “that’s my dude right there because he would have my back if shit got crazy.” The disclaimer of future imaginary war is not enough. The need and the righteous want of love should come well before the levees collapse upon themselves. This picture, this love song, this mural; it gets that. It’s powerful — of course it is — but that’s relative. It’s far more beautiful.