What does it mean to be a man? Better yet, what does it mean to be a black man in contemporary society?

I believe we are at a point of time that we no longer need to explain the negative stereotypes that are attributed to black men. I am sure you have watched one too many videos or read millions of articles perpetuating the one-dimensional characteristics of black men. However, when you strip away the negative stereotypes that can formulate one’s views, have you ever thought – what does it truly mean to be a black man? If you were on the hunt for a straightforward and eloquent answer; I am sorry, I don’t have one. I don’t believe there is one definition. There isn’t a manual on how to be the ‘perfect’ black man. Black men are not monolithic; the same rules do not bind all black men.

Surprisingly, black men (much like other human beings) have the autonomy to act and respond in a way they choose fit.

Every soul on this earth is different; we should no longer prescribe to generalised answers that are created from the framework of the fallacies of society. However, I’ve met an open and honest young man who has made it his purpose of exploring what it means to be a black man in the diaspora.

The sun is at full stretch, and as we walk around a street food market in South London, I feel at ease as I realise I am about to engage in a conversation with Malik Sankara who is ‘openly black’ and feels no way about it. (Keeping it truly British, we opted to enjoy green matcha tea from Japan.)

Malik is the founder of Men of the Diaspora, a project that is a safe meeting space for black men to share their experiences, express how they feel, and network.  

As a teenager, Malik lived a nomadic way of life; moving between eight different areas (Brixton to Thornton Heath to name a few) and several schools across South and North West London. Malik could have been easily led into gang life. However, during the age (12/14) when a young boy can be inducted into the road life; the constant change of locations helped him to avoid building those early relationships. “I moved to Thornton Heath when I was 17, and by that time I had experienced the grittier side of London. That made me realise that a lot of young black men/boys have more in like then we think and we were are all going through the same things; the postcodes were the only difference.”

Even Malik’s unique experiences did not completely stop him from affiliating with the ‘road’ lifestyle, “I was not part of a gang, but I was very aware of the way of life, and the hostile conditions black boys faced.” A young Malik had started to gain a better understanding of the external factors that are conditioning young black boys. A significant moment of his life is when he stumbled across another boy who resembled his 17-year-old self, speaking in public in Thornton Heath. “Initially, I thought this boy must be rapping, but something told me to go and listen to him. He was talking about black history and society, and I was intrigued. From then, I made a conscious decision to learn more about black culture, spirituality, and history.”

Malik’s mentality towards his life slowly began to change through his maturation into his early twenties. As he reflected about his outlook on life, as a child, he would jokingly say “I would be either dead or in prison”. His earlier words became a prophecy, which is a small part of why he stands as the man he is today.

“I became a father to my beautiful son, I went to prison for 7 months, then I was homeless, and all this happened in the space of 3 years. This situation forced me to look into myself.”

“Even though I gained pride through studying black history, I had no sense of what it was to be truly a man; specifically, a black man.”

Malik went through a sizeable amount of self-reflection, especially during his time in prison. He believes that the lack of a presence of a father figure led him into a path of many avoidable situations. Where a mature and responsible male’s influence could have intervened, he was left to learn the lessons the hard way. “Prison is a major part of my story as it is the obstacle turned stepping stone that has brought me to where I’m at. It was the place where I first rapped openly and honed my skill as a Hip Hop artists.”

Examining Manhood

Malik felt that being homeless was avoidable, but he fell victim to his ego and insecurities. “I had a period where I did not get along with my mum. I had a false sense of manhood. Subconsciously, I didn’t feel like a man, but I felt like I should have been treated like one.” With his ego under threat, Malik left his mother’s home and refused to seek help from his family and friends. He roamed the streets of London for a few months in search for his ‘manhood’.

“I would around walk all day, and at night I would get on a night bus to sleep. I had the mentality that ‘if I sat or fell asleep on the street floor, that is me admitting to defeat and I don’t think I would have been able to recover mentally.”

During his period of homelessness, Malik fell ill, the hunger and sleepless nights took its toll on his weakening frame. He decided to visit a friend and sofa surfed till he gained his strength back. Asking for help was a major step of freeing his mind from his ego. Malik began to think better, and through his homeless travels, he stumbled across the Roundhouse (a performance arts venue) in Camden, and things began to look up.

As you can imagine, I had a lot of spare time {laughs}. They were running a theatre programme, so I decided to get involved, and I loved it.”

A butterfly effect ensued, and after the programme ended, Malik then went onto to complete a nine months intensive drama course at the Generation Arts, which enabled him entry to study a drama degree at a top UK university – Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Malik fell in love with performing arts and if his life didn’t pan out the way it did maybe he would have never found his calling. Or perhaps, he could have found his way a lot sooner if his circumstances were different had he had the guidance he desired.

“I didn’t know it at that time, but I missed not having someone I looked up to tell me it’s okay to cry and that feeling vulnerable is healthily normal. You don’t need to repress and hold your feelings back; you’re not operating as a one-dimensional human being.”

Thoroughly embracing being a student, a family man, a creative and the founder of Men of the Diaspora, Malik understands the importance of being in touch with his feelings. 2017 was a groundbreaking year for Malik, as he admitted that in early January 2017 he broke down and uncontrollably cried for the first time.

“You deny a part of yourself when you repress and hold your feelings in. This is why hyper-masculinity is prevalent in a lot of black men and boys. No person on this planet can always be strong.” Malik felt a sense of relief; crying was a release; an emotional cleanse of letting go of all the pain and insecurities that manifested from within since childhood. To be a better man for his child and partner, he had to become a better man for himself and crying helped eased his worries.

“We are living an unbalanced lifestyle, and this illusion of holding back feelings is a sign of strength is wrong. Real strength is allowing yourself to feel free and being in touch with your feelings; this helps you to be in control of your emotions.”

Tired of the false illusions of being ‘strong’ and ‘unemotional’, Malik created a platform where men could gain strength from speaking about what is going on inside their minds. “I read a book – We Real Cool: Black men and masculinity by Bell Hooks and it said ‘even men are falling victim to the patriarchal society that we live in’, that touched me. I think it’s imperative for the mental health of black boys and men to talk and express their thoughts and feelings.”

Call to Black men

Men of the Diaspora meetings were created to allow men who need a safe space to release. “Sometimes you don’t get the chance to unload at your workplace or even at home but you can at our free-flowing sessions. I am not trying to sell that I am going to solve your issues, this is just a space of introspection. A place that allows you to think freely – YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF YOUR CHANGE.”

Malik was honest enough to say he is in the same boat as all the attendees. He’s still learning and also uses the meetings to help him understand himself. “Soon we will be collaborating with services that offer solutions to the needs we discuss, whether it’s about business, physical and mental health, career, family, relationships, care and much more.”

Men of the Diaspora is not about creating a single definition of what it means to be a man; it is a vessel to explore what being a man wholeheartedly means to each person. Releasing the shackles of a patriarchal society and reconnecting to your inner being.

“I feel that our creator has blessed us. Look at what we as a people have created thus far, we are leaders in pop culture, and we are not even operating to the best of our abilities. We make stress look good. Our natural born spirit, culture, and history has bestowed a unique essence within us. We are creating magic from a dysfunctional environment.

“That’s why I created Men of Diaspora, so we can highlight and heal and progress from the things we go through on a daily basis. Through this, we will change our narrative, normalise having conversations about the issues we face; relate and connect with each other to build bridges between us as a people.”

Follow Malik’s  journey on Instagram via @Uncleblak and @Men of the Diaspora 

If you would like to get involved with Men of the Diaspora email, Menofthediaspora@gmail.com

Subject – Malik Sankara aka Uncle Blak

Writer and Photographer – Kofi Deaah