"I have always been a daydreamer. But I will not rest until one dream is made real: that we might reimagine what it is to be a man, that we reimagine what it means to say, 'man up.'" (p. 3)
Carlos Andrés Gómez was six years old when he became entranced with the beautiful colors that his sister and aunt were painting onto their fingernails. Despite his aunt's warning that "this kind of thing was only for girls" (p. 65), Carlos insisted that his nails also be polished. Then he ran out to show the neighborhood kids his pretty manicure. Instead of the envy and admiration he expected Carlos' joy was sucked away with one ugly word: faggot.
Unfortunately, his experience is all too common. Every day, young boys learn that "girly" behavior or emotions can get them teased and even beaten. To protect himself, Carlos adopted what he perceived was an acceptable masculine identity. He played basketball and he pretended to be fearless.
If Carlos had grown up in just one place, he might never have realized the power that society has in shaping our identities. But his father worked for the United Nations and—by the time Carlos was seven—he'd already lived in international communities in Brazil, Cyprus, and Switzerland. When his family returned to the United States, Carlos was mystified by his new home in the homogenous suburb of Darien, Connecticut.
Physically, Carlos has fair-skin with green eyes, but his Latino name and Colombian father prompted one of his new classmates to ask, "'so, does your father sell crack?'" (p. 25). Carlos quickly learned that "there was white and then there was everyone else" (p. 26).
During this period, Carlos "was reminded of [his] otherness multiple times" (p. 28). He and his friend, Keston, one of his junior high school's two black students, would always be outsiders. Their very presence made strangers uncomfortable, and they were often unjustly accused of petty crimes or aggression.
After seven years in Connecticut, Carlos' parents separated and Carlos relocated with his mother to Rhode Island. He was the new kid all over again—this time, at a radically multi-cultural magnet high school.
Of course, Carlos wasn't always thinking about race. Like most heterosexual teenage boys, he was obsessed with sex and his desire to be "the ultimate man" (p. 137). But as he grew into adulthood, uncertainty crept in and he began to question the meaning behind his actions. How could he betray his best friend, Brent, for a meaningless hookup with Brent's on—again, off—again girlfriend? Is being tough an excuse to dominate those who are weaker? Doesn't aggression lead to abuse and other violent crimes—even war? Why was it so difficult to express his loneliness and craving for love?
Man Up is a blistering critique of Carlos' own past and of our society's misbegotten ideal of manhood. Carlos infuses his memoir-cum-manifesto with the poetry that ultimately saved him and challenges all men to "forgive themselves for their emotions and vulnerabilities" (p. 263). With unflinching honesty and true bravery, Man Up brings us closer to a world in which it's okay to be different, where conflict can be negotiated with honesty instead of violence—and where little boys can wear nail polish without fear.
Carlos Andrés Gómez is an award-winning poet, actor, and writer. A former social worker in Harlem and the south Bronx and a public school teacher in Philadelphia and Manhattan, he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was named Artist of the Year at the 2009 Promoting Outstanding Writers Awards. He costarred in the Spike Lee film Inside Man and appeared in the sixth season of HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. He lives in New York City. Man Up is his first book.
Q. For many men, the phrase "man up" has a negative connotation. Why did you choose to call your book "Man Up"?
I grew up being told that many parts of myself were inherently wrong or ill-fated because they defied the one-dimensional masculine ideal I was told I had to be. I titled my book "Man Up" to take some of the power away from a phrase that completely haunted my childhood and continues to plague countless men. I wanted to throw that demeaning phrase back in society's face and offer up my story as a challenge to everything that machismo culture represents. A big part of that challenge was showing the messy journey that enabled me to embrace all of who I was.
Q. Your father is Colombian and your mother is white. Yet, you seem to identify more with your Latino heritage. Is this because of your experiences growing up in Darien?
There are a number of reasons I identify more with my Latino heritage. The first being that much of my mother's family unfortunately passed away early on in my life, so my father's very large extended family became the staple of relatives with which I became closest. Secondly, my father's Colombian heritage is much more tangible than the more obscure white American roots of my mom, with a diluted mix of Scottish, French, and English lineage. I've been to Colombia many times to visit my father's family, however I've never gone to Scotland, England, or France and met any relatives of my mom. And, finally, recognizing both the highly charged racial climate of the United States and the misinformed, myopic stereotypes of what "a Latino looks like" (watch my piece "Juan Valdez" on YouTube for more), I feel both obligated and honored to proudly claim my Latino heritage.
Q. Before devoting yourself fulltime to poetry, you held two of the hardest, most thankless, and least paying jobs in this country: social worker and public school teacher. How did each of those jobs inform your artistic work, and could you ever imagine returning to either?
The three key lessons I took from those jobs were learning how to actively listen, the importance of authenticity, and what it truly means to empathize with another person. If I was ever distracted or fake with my former students and clients, they would call me out immediately. It forced me to be genuine and present at all times— two of the most important tools I use now as a performer and speaker. And then there is the empathy that I learned in those jobs. No matter where someone is in his or her life, whether they're serving a life sentence or hooked on heroin or selling sex for drugs, there is a human being there. They are not so different from you. If one or two things were different in your life, you could be where they are. That was never lost on me, as I talk about in the book, but it became crystal clear when I started working with pimps, prostitutes, addicts, and felons on a daily basis.
As much as I enjoyed teaching and doing social work, being a full-time artist is who I am. I can't imagine doing anything else. Art inspires, transforms, and heals in a way nothing else can. That is why, upon leaving my prior jobs, I made a commitment to dedicating my life to art and using it for a greater purpose.
Q. Do you think that male aggression is an evolutionary development whose usefulness has simply passed?
Male aggression is pretty much obsolete. That's not to say there is any less of it ; it just means that the few instances where it may have served a purpose are quickly disappearing. We live in a world where innovation is driven by cooperation, technology, adaptability, and communication. Moreover, the interactivity and ability, through social media, to give immediate feedback, increases the accountability and importance of each social exchange. You can't just punch some dude in the face outside a nightclub and assume it won't be on YouTube in ten minutes, or curse out your employee and think they weren't recording it on their cell phone. Aggression and violence are the ultimate breakdown in human interaction, so I'm glad that it's something for which we have less and less use.
Q. Do you believe that it's more difficult to be a man or a woman in America today?
That's an absurd question—of course, it's much more difficult to be a woman. Just take a look at how violence against women is normalized. It's horrifying. Not to mention the endless harassment, social and aesthetic pressures, and other forms of dehumanization with which they are continually barraged. Even in the face of huge leaps being made by women, and gender roles becoming more fluid and equitable, you still see dudes catcalling a woman on any sidewalk and women still making less than eighty cents to the dollar a man makes.
Q. Man Up is a breathtakingly honest work. As you were writing it, were there moments when you hesitated and feared that certain experiences were too embarrassing or painful to share?
I was scared to death writing this book. The journey of "Man Up" has really been about me facing my greatest fears and vulnerabilities. Half the narrative is filled with experiences I wish I could erase or pretend never happened, but I knew that in sharing those raw, vulnerable pieces of my life, I would be resonating with and illuminating the stories of countless others. In doing so, I could be a catalyst to prevent so many others from going down the same path. Bringing those buried truths out of the silence is what art is all about. It's how art challenges, disorients, transforms, and then changes the world in which we live. It's how it heals and saves lives and gives an awkward loner permission to be everything he is. Martín Espada did that for me when I was seventeen. Hopefully, right now "Man Up" is doing that for another seventeen-year-old feeling lost and without hope. For that reason, nothing was off-limits when I was writing the book. It was a fragile balance though because I was incredibly concerned that nothing shared was gratuitous. Graphic, sure—life is graphic—the deepest truths are profane and scathing. But gratuitous, it is absolutely not. It was very important to me that each anecdote and story served the greater purpose of shedding light on my journey as a man. That's what I was trying to do with each word, story, and chapter.
Q. You write explicitly about your sexual history, including your rocky relationship with your then girlfriend and current fiancée, Whitney. How does she feel about you sharing such intimate details?
I can't imagine what it was like for her to read the book for the first time. She has this breathtaking courage, trust in me, and sophisticated outlook on life that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. She was the first person to read "Man Up" outside of my editors—she locked herself in the bedroom for an entire day and read the whole book in one sitting (only leaving to get a glass of wine before the Sex chapter). When she finished the book she came out with a big smile, tears in her eyes, and said, "It's amazing. I love it." And that said it all. She completely understands the necessity of the explicit content contained in the book —how am I going to paint a raw and honest portrait of masculinity without a candid chapter on sex?
Q. You share so much about your past, revealing details about yourself at both your best and worst. Were you afraid that sharing such mistakes or missteps might compromise your ability to be seen as a positive male role model or leader in the future?
This book is all about growth and transformation. I could easily have made it some sterilized, politically correct manifesto on everything I've gotten right in my life. The only problem with that is no one would have been able to relate to it and, therefore, it would be completely useless.
Real leaders are real people. They are not perfect people. Above all, they have the courage to both say and do what no one else will—which includes holding themselves accountable, sharing who they are, and speaking on things that are overlooked, taboo, or shrouded in silence. I was scared to death to put these parts of my story out to the world, but I knew that anything less would dishonor and undermine the struggle of boys and men who desperately needed to read it.
Q. Who amongst your friends and family did you allow to read earlier drafts of the book? Has your father read it yet?
It was important to me that no one read "Man Up" until it was in its finished draft, so no. The only people who read earlier drafts were my editors, Melody Guy and Travers Johnson, and a few others at Gotham Books.
I had a lot of fears about particularly Whitney, Brent, and my father reading the book. There are so many intimate and exposed parts of their lives that I share in the telling of my own story. I am so blessed to say that all of them loved the book. My papi wrote me a letter after he finished reading it about how much he was moved by "Man Up." I remember just sobbing, tears of relief, as I read his note.
Q. Writing is an incredibly solitary occupation. Yet, you are accustomed to performing your work before an audience rather than having your words read silently. Does it feel somehow anticlimactic to lose that face-to-face interaction?
It's a completely different experience to not get the immediate feedback of a live audience. To be honest, it's a bit jarring. I wouldn't say it's anticlimactic as much as it is disorienting and scary. The good side of it is I've gotten a ton of these beautiful, thoughtful, very humbling and personal messages from people who were inspired by the book. I'd take that over a standing ovation any day.
Q. It's easy to imagine a broad audience of readers for Man Up, but did you have a mental picture of your "ideal reader" as you were writing the book?
The reader I had in mind was someone who's a misfit like me. Whether male or female, gay or straight, liberal or conservative, just someone who doesn't feel like they are what they've been told they should be. In many ways, that's any of us —we can all relate to feeling left out or pressured to be something we're not. Ultimately, the book is all about embracing your best, most authentic self. Not what your parents or teachers or society have told you to be but that person you have inside, at the core of you, who needs to be set free. I hope "Man Up" can give anyone who feels left out permission to celebrate who they truly are and share it with the world.
Q. There are a lot of parallels between your mission and Dan Savage's It Gets Better project. How would you compare the two?
I love the It Gets Better project. There are definitely parallels between Dan Savage's campaign and my Man Up Moment campaign, which grew out of the book, because both are platforms where people can gain strength from riveting personal testimonies and share their own story. Both, also, remind people who've been shamed or belittled for who they are, that they are not alone and that they are powerful, irreplaceable, and full of purpose.
Q. Do you consider yourself primarily a writer or a performer? What new works are currently on your horizon?
I was a writer well before I was anything else, but I consider myself both. Above all, I'm an instigator of passion and purpose. Whether it's speaking on a stage or writing an essay or doing a solo play, I want to convey something that moves the audience in a profound way.
I'm currently working on the manuscript for my first full-length collection of poetry as well as my second book, which continues to explore how to transcend rigid gender constructs but is geared towards women. I'm also about to kick off a national college tour, so I'm gearing up for another hectic run on the road.
Q. You often talk about rewriting the script of what it means to be a man. Are you ever afraid that you might be replacing one suffocating script with another?
This is a great question, which I've gotten a lot from people who've yet to read the book. It's so important that we offer boys and younger men counter-narratives to the one-sided caricature of masculinity they've been pressured to emulate. "Man Up" is an example of one such counter-narrative, and my whole complicated, flawed journey to rewriting that script, which I hope will inspire other men to write their own. This memoir is not about telling guys, "Hey, I'm really great. You should be me." On the contrary, it's me saying, "I know what it's like, brother. I struggled with endless pressure and expectations to not be who I was for years. Here's how I tried to make sense of it. Here's how I found authenticity, meaning, self-worth, joy, and love in the midst of it. Take what's useful, leave what isn't. Now go write your own story."
It's easy to say, "Throw away the script altogether. Forget about gender, let's just be human." But if you're a fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican kid in Brooklyn, who's primary models of masculinity are his abusive uncle and Chris Brown, that's not concrete enough for him. To tell him, "Forget about the box, just be you," is the same as not giving him a choice. That's why counter-narratives are so important. Before we erase gender binaries and role-playing altogether, we first need to give people concrete ways to break out of them.
Q. What is your vision for what masculinity might mean to the next generation?
I want the next generation of men to know that it is okay to break all of those gendered rules they've been given. I want them to be able to be peacemakers, have emotional literacy, be great communicators, and feel free to share their full, best self. All of the aforementioned, by the way, are great general rules for being a human being. When I was younger though, I didn't know that I could ever become a man and also embrace those things.
- Before reading Man Up, how would you have defined what it means to "be a man"? Did reading about Gómez's experiences change your beliefs?
- How early do you remember internalizing society's messages about appropriate male and female behavior?
- Have you ever been in a fight? How did engaging in an act of physical violence make you feel?
- During his time in Zambia, Gómez noticed how men there hold hands and express friendship by touching one another in a non-sexual way. He believes that their casual physicality "prevents violence from erupting so easily" (p. 76). Do you agree with his premise?
- If you had been a bystander in the nightclub when Gómez burst into tears after the other man became enraged by their accidental contact, what do you imagine you would have thought?
- If you are a man, how comfortable do you feel with physical contact or emotional intimacy with another man? Do you ever share an affectionate kiss or say, "I love you," to any of your closest male friends?
- Despite having engaged in actual intercourse with just six women, Gómez "hooked up" with innumerable others. Do you agree that these "hook-ups" didn't count as sex? Why or why not?
- Gómez recounts an incident from his youth when a basketball referee began treating him differently once he heard that his name was "Carlos." "He would make tighter calls on me and come over to me first and tell me to "calm down" if I and another player got tangled up trying to grab a rebound." (p. 27) Have you ever been treated differently because of your race? Have you ever treated someone else differently because of his or her race? Has hearing someone's name ever altered your perception of him or her?
- In the same chapter as his incident with the referee, Gómez talks about unconsciously flinching at the sight of his black landlord's thirteen-year-old son sprinting into their building. He criticizes himself as "a middle-class, racist, light-skinned Latino" (p. 35). Can you think of a similar experience from your own life? Has your body ever reacted to a person or event in a way that contradicted your social outlook or politics?
- Gómez prefaces each chapter with either a poem or an excerpt from one of his monologues. Have you ever heard or seen Gómez perform? If so, compare the experience of hearing versus reading his words. If not, try reading one aloud and see if that affects your interpretation. (here are links to some of Gómez's performances: "Everything", "Handstitch", and "Gifted".
- Who is the one person that you would say has most shaped your own identity? Do you think he or she did a good job? If you could say one thing to that person, what would it be?
- What drew you to read Man Up? Which of your friends and family would you recommend this to and why?
- What are some ways in which Gómez could deliver his message to those who need it most? What can you do to help him?