“I Feel With My Hands”
By Nicholas Maurice Young, Ph. D.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time around my Grandfather, Edward Ivey. He was a good man. He was also the only man that I knew that could drink a 12-pack of Old English beer and not be sloppy drunk. However, despite his many gifts, he would always do something that I found very strange. Whenever I asked him how he felt, he would always say the same thing: “I feel with my hands.”
Privately, I said to myself, “What the heck does that mean? I didn’t ask about how and what he felt with is hands! Doesn’t he get that? What does he mean? Doesn’t he get that I am asking him about how he feels emotionally and physically?
I was 7 or 8 when I first heard my Grandfather respond to my question that way. Amazingly, I allowed him to respond to me that way several times before I asked my mother to explain to me what he meant.
When I asked my mother to explain to me his response, my mother told me that men my Grandfather’s age often responded that way to show that they were tough, and were devoid of human emotion. I never asked her to explain further why men that age always felt the need to show strength in responding to a basic, human question.
My confusion about this issue became even more confusing to me when I heard Fred Sanford (That’s S-A-N-F-O-R-D Period) respond to his son, Lamont, who asked him the same question. On the show, Sanford and Son, Fred (Redd Foxx) plays a bigoted, racist, sexist old man that despises almost everyone and everything. Like my grandfather, Fred Sanford almost always resisted any attempt to show emotion.
However, like my Grandfather, who showed toughness until the day I found him in the kitchen wailing over the death of his wife, Rosa (my Grandmother), Fred Sanford cried in one episode in remembrance of his beloved, deceased wife, Elizabeth (Elizabeth! I comin’ to join you honey!).
Why did Black Men during my Grandfather’s and Fred Sanford’s generation believe that they could not show emotion in an emotional situation? I believe that there may be at least two reasons for this.
First. I sense that Black Men that grew up during my Grandfather’s and Fred Sanford’s era likely developed their emotional position as a result of the treatment that many of them faced under the harsh hand of racism during the first half of the 20th century.
During that time, whites treated Black men as if they were still subhuman. To be sure, Black men were viewed as ignorant, unintelligent humans, that were rarely, if ever, given the chance to become legitimate citizens of society. Perhaps this is why my Grandfather, Fred Sanford, and other men of that area responded to questions like the one that I posed to my Grandfather when I was younger.
Second, I believe that Black men during that era developed that thinking as a form of avoidance, or coping mechanism to avoid dealing with their emotions about being viewed as a second class citizen in this country.
I believe that one of the primary consequences of this type of thinking is the Gansta Rap philosophy that began in the late 1980’s, that unfortunately still continues.
Young Brothers during the heyday of the gangsta rap tradition found it pleasurable and acceptable to call women—mainly our Sistas—Bitches and Ho’s (Whores). They also found it acceptable to not show emotion—at all, and definitely not to a woman. Many of them showed emotion only to their fallen homies, and maybe, just maybe, to a beloved family member.
But, why are many of them continuing to believe that they can only show emotion to a small set of people? Why do so many young men believe that showing emotion is a sign of weakness? In doing so, why are so many young, Black men continuing to believe that the saying, “I feel with my hands” has social currency? This phenomenon continues to confound me. What can we do to change this thinking?
About The Author
Nicholas Maurice Young is a sociologist, writer, and independent researcher. He is a former Fellow with the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. He holds a Ph. D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Nick is currently writing a book about the network connections of the Underground Railroad.