Topher SandersAbout Topher Sanders
Topher Sanders is a former officer in the United States Air Force. In that profession, he was following in the footsteps of his mother, Jackie, a twenty-year Air Force veteran. A military brat, Topher was born in Italy and lived in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Alabama throughout his mother’s military career.

Despite the challenges of being a single mother, Jackie gave Topher a strong sense of personal responsibility by making him turn tough moments into learning lessons. The death of a friend’s mother, described in the essay that follows, led to one such important lesson. Topher wrote an account of the incident that was published in Newsweek magazine.

When Topher left the military, he started freelance writing for magazines and newspapers before eventually landing a full-time job as a journalist with a paper in Montgomery, Alabama.

Topher now lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife. He is an education reporter for the Florida Times- Union and is working with a co-author on his first book.


Topher Sanders Speaks
As I watched my grandfather’s casket being lowered into the ground, I looked at the faces of the men around me. Just as I expected, none of them were crying. I found myself mimicking what I saw around me. Not a single tear ran down my cheek.

But these other men hadn’t lost their grandfather. I had. My grandfather deserved my tears, but my misunderstanding of what it meant to be a man prevented them from flowing.

I was 13. I stood by his grave with a dry, hard face, like the kind I had seen on hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and actors like Denzel Washington.

My grandfather was the only man in my family that I had spent significant time with. He taught me how to clean and prepare fresh fish for cooking and how to play checkers and card games. During the summers when I would visit my grandparents in Columbus, Georgia, he and I would sit on their porch and eat sausage sandwiches and talk about life and sports. He was an avid San Francisco 49ers fan and gave me my love for the game by rooting for Jerry Rice and Joe Montana.

Yet, with all that he had taught me and done for me, I didn’t shed one tear when my grandfather died. I thought I wasn’t supposed to.

My mother cried, of course, but she was supposed to cry. She was a woman. But I was becoming a man, and men don’t cry. I was supposed to be strong, and tears are not a show of strength.

We Black men learn quickly as we’re growing up that to get the respect of our peers, we have to be hard. Being hard means you don’t flinch at life. You sure don’t cry. The streets we walk on, the movies we watch, and the music we listen to all teach us that men who cry are weak. And the weak get tried.

So we build a wall that keeps us from feeling all the things that would otherwise hit our hearts and make us feel pain.

But what does it really mean to be a man? How does a man really deal with emotions?

For a long time I thought manhood meant holding in my emotions and never showing my vulnerability. When you don’t have examples of manhood in your own home, you pull those examples from the neighborhood or from television and music. Popular culture constantly exaggerates the masculinity of Black men. According to that culture, Black men are the hardest creatures on Earth. We are constantly portrayed as remorseless killers and uncaring fathers. Whether it’s Tupac, Ice Cube, Larenz Tate, or even younger artists like Plies and Uncle Murda, the image of Black men is consistent.

In the 1991 movie Boyz n the Hood, when the character Ricky dies, Ice Cube’s character, Doughboy, doesn’t shed a tear for his own brother. Instead he seeks revenge with Ricky’s blood still on his clothes.

Along with my friends, I consumed those images and many more. We all swallowed the same message— Black men are hard. Only the weak show their emotions. Off the movie screen, in our own Montgomery, Alabama, neighborhood, the message was repeated again and again. If a kid was ever on the losing end of a fight in my neighborhood, he’d better hold onto those tears until he got home or he would forever be marked as a buster or a coward. Responding to all these messages, we developed an outer shell, like turtles. That shell stayed hard on the outside so nobody could ever penetrate it and hurt us.

I spent my teenage years trying to prove to other Black men in my school and neighborhood that I was to be respected and not to be tested. I was sure I would lose all respect with my peers if I cried openly about anything.

And then there was my grandfather. I remember so distinctly the day when the family dog, Brisco, was killed. I was 6 at the time. My grandfather was crossing the street, and Brisco ran into the road to follow him. A car hit him. My grandfather carried his beloved dog home and placed his body on the porch.

Brisco had been a member of the family since my mother was in high school. He was getting old, but he still had enough energy to play with me and follow my grandfather around for errands. My grandmother was beside herself with weeping, but my grandfather didn’t cry. “He died in my arms,” he kept saying. It was obvious that he was deeply grieved by the dog’s loss. But he didn’t shed a tear. Watching my grandfather deal with Brisco’s death gave me an early example of how men deal—or don’t deal—with grief.

It took the loss of my good friend’s mother to show me that emotion and tears can be one of the healthiest things for a man to experience.

His name was Ronald, and he was my boy. He lived right next door, and we hung out all the time. He was a little bit younger than me, so while we were friends, I was also his mentor in some ways. We got in trouble together, pursued girls together, and had a few altercations in the streets together. We were tight.

We would become even tighter.

When I got home from school one day, my mother

told me that Ronald’s mother had suddenly died. I was 15 and Ronald was 13.

The news hit me like a NFL linebacker. I was shaking, and I didn’t know what to do.

“He wants you to go see him,” my mother said.

He wants to see me? I thought. Why? What can I do?

I went to my room and paced around in circles, thinking about what I would say or do. I started making phone calls to our friends. It was hard being the first of our circle of friends to know the news. I dreaded saying the words.

“Ronald’s mom died,” I said to Trevor, the first friend I reached.

“Are you serious, man?” Trevor said. He wasn’t really asking a question. He was trying to convince himself of the reality.

I got in touch with all of our friends. They all said they would come right over.

I knew that alerting our friends was the right thing to do, but there was another reason I called them. I didn’t want to face Ronald alone. I had no idea how to comfort my friend, and I was scared.

I eventually mustered up the courage to head over to Ronald’s house. He lived right next door, but the walk across our yards was the longest in my life.

When I got to the front door of Ronald’s home, I stared at the doorbell for several seconds. I was terrified of the emotions that were going to be inside that house.

I rang the doorbell. Ronald’s older brother, Adrian, opened the door. His eyes were red and swollen, and he wouldn’t look directly at me. Adrian was one of the hardest kids in the neighborhood, but today he looked vulnerable and scared.

“Ronald’s in the living room,” he said.

I could hear sniffles and sobs coming from around the corner. When I walked into the living room, Ronald was on the couch. He was gripping a pillow to his chest and moaning in pain. Tears streamed down his face as he rocked back and forth.

I sat beside him and awkwardly patted his shoulder. Through his tears, he asked me, “Why, Topher? Why my mom?”

I could only shake my head and say, “I don’t know, Ron, I don’t know.”

As I witnessed the pain on his face, I began to feel the tears sting my own eyes. I tightened my face, but the tears flowed anyway. I reached for Ronald and put my arms around him. He hugged me back. When our friends arrived, they found us holding each other, rocking back and forth and crying together. One by one our friends joined us in our huddle of tears. We all cried together for our friend and his mother.

What happened that day at Ronald’s house was a significant event in my life. When I looked at my friend and the tears pouring from his eyes, I couldn’t hold onto the hardness that I was developing in every other aspect of my life. As a hard, cold man, I couldn’t offer anything to Ronald. As a caring friend, I could share his grief and maybe lessen it a little.

When we all left Ronald’s house, we gave each other some dap and returned to our homes. Once I was alone in my room, I sat on my bed and let out a big breath. Crying with Ronald and for Ronald’s loss seemed like one of the realest things I had done in my young life. I felt strangely free. Before going to Ronald’s house, I felt a terrible tightness in my chest. But expressing my pain with Ronald was like someone had turned a knob inside me and released tons of pressure.

After that day, my friends and I developed a different level of friendship. There was a closeness between us that had not existed before. We had seen each other at our most vulnerable, yet we weren’t judging each other for it. In fact, we all gained a bit more respect for each other than we had before we walked into Ronald’s house. We asked about each other’s families more and were more conscious of Ronald’s emotions in the years after his mom passed. Her death forced us to be more considerate and thoughtful. I no longer felt the need to put on airs in front of this group of young men. The change wasn’t instant, but eventually, it bled into my dealings with other people.

That day at Ronald’s house, I let go of my false ideas about manhood and embraced another side of manhood, one that is necessary for healthy men. I realized that tears aren’t an enemy of masculinity. I learned that a real man is understanding and caring toward the people he loves. Being hard all the time doesn’t allow a man to show that he cares for someone. And sometimes caring for someone means you cry with them or for them.

Acting hard all the time will cripple you emotionally. It will prevent you from building and maintaining positive relationships with women. It will keep you from developing true friendships. It will force you to place impossible standards on your children when you have them.

All of the most important relationships in your life will revolve around emotions and honesty. When you prevent people from seeing your emotional side, you prevent them from truly getting to know you. That will eventually kill any relationship—whether it’s with friends or girlfriends. When you are constantly acting harder than the next guy, you push away your own emotions, and you dismiss the emotions of others. When I was in high school, there were girls who were interested in me and reached out to me, but nothing genuine ever developed because I never responded to their emotions. Instead I acted like their feelings didn’t matter and that I was too cool and hard to care.

Holding back your emotions seems like a great way to be to protect yourself from being hurt, but over time, it is guaranteed to kill your friendships and romantic connections. You can’t form genuine bonds with people when you’re constantly masking or suppressing your emotions. All of that emotion you bottle up inside you begins to eat away at the very qualities that can make you a good friend, husband, and father. Qualities like sensitivity, caring and love are sacrificed to maintain that rough exterior. Over time you become mean and unhappy, and all for the sake of being one of the baddest dudes in the neighborhood.

What you lose just isn’t worth it.

The respect the neighborhood shows you for being

the hardest cat on the block fades with time. The older you get, the less people respect the hard tough guy. Eventually there will be a younger and tougher guy coming to replace you. But if you develop warm and genuine relationships with friends and family, you’ve got something that will only grow stronger and richer with time. I won’t lie—positive relationships built on honesty and freely flowing emotions are sometimes hard. They take time to maintain. But the payoff is well worth the effort.

I lost the chance to be real about how painful it was to lose my grandfather. Instead, I let my image of what I thought a man was keep me from being honest at my grandfather’s funeral.

I reclaimed that honesty when Ronald’s mother died. It was hard to deal with, and it was painful, but it was worth it to be there for my friend and to support him in his time of sorrow. I began to learn that day that tears are not a sign of weakness. They can be a sign of strength—true strength, not some act that we put on for others’ benefit.

Today I am a writer, and I spend much of my time exploring my emotions and the emotions of others. Honestly, I am only able to be the kind of writer I am because of my willingness to express my emotions: happiness, sadness and everything in between. As I’ve grown older, I’ve developer stronger bonds with my friends and family. I am married to a wonderful woman who loves me and who I love. Our relationship is filled with strong and positive emotions that I have to confront and deal with every day. It isn’t always easy, but by working together, we help each other become better people. I wouldn’t have been able to develop this kind of relationship had I not learned the lesson taught to me when Ronald lost his mother. My wife and I don’t have any kids yet, but when we do, I hope I’m able to raise a strong, intelligent son who isn’t afraid to cry.