The Pain of Being Poor: Masculinity and Manhood in a Recession

Yolo Akili brings us a reflective essay about unemployment and barber shop culture in black communities.

I saw the pain in their eyes when I sat in the barbershop.
The conversation was about money.
The posture was hunched over,
The pupils lowered;
the heart…heavy.
Phrases echoed across chairs:
“not enough”,
“they won’t pay me”,
“can’t find work.”
At times there were interjections of ambition initiated by Jay Z’s  voice on the radio:
“I invented swag/puttin’ super models in a cab”…
After Jay Z the tone of the space would shift,
Someone would say: “I heard they are hiring at this spot in the Bronx!”
“My boy has this plan..”
Were gonna get on this deal…”
It was as if Jay And Kanye’s economic example was a spark of light; a potential; a possibility.
But when the song ended, the spark faded. And the space was no longer filled with optimism, or pity; or sadness. Just the weight of all. The full, heavy robust weight of it all.
I know what that’s like.
The first time I was unemployed was in 2007. I had  been “released” from a job that was spiritually draining and emotionally destructive.
I stayed for the comfort.  And the regular check every month. Even after the scars had started to pile up on my soul. Even after the bags had started to encircle my eyes.
When I was released from that prison, I was still devastated. In my eyes, my economic independence  had been stripped away from me. I was forced to find other means of income, which often meant asking for help from others.
It was a very hard thing to do.
Not simply because of my ego. But because of my socialization. You see as a spirit born into a body marked as male by this culture, I had been instructed from birth that to need help, particularly help with money; meant I was wrong.
I was wrong because as a man I was supposed to fend for myself.
I was not supposed to have hard times. I was not supposed to get down on my luck.
And to support this theory; I could turn on the radio to hear all the rappers talk about people like me “Who needed to get their money up.”  Who were “Broke bitches so crusty/disgust me.”
In support of this  I could hear all the hetero black women’s narratives of
“sorry ass broke niggas.”
In support of this I could hear all the black men narratives of “broke ass queens.”
In support of this theory I could hear all the prosperity teachers saying that my lack of income flow was connected to my spiritual impoverishment.
No matter where I looked, I was always to blame.
Not systems.
Not inequity.
I was wrong.
The shame of not having money sent me down a spiral of internal emotional abuse.
I recanted how dumb I was, how wrong I was, how stupid I was that I couldn’t find work and didn’t have money.
It was so easy to fall into a pit of shame and that shame immobilized me for weeks.
It was so hard to dig myself out of it.
Sitting in that barber shop that day looking at all the brown and black faces I realized:
Some of us never do. 
Male socialization runs so deep through our veins; that for many the shame of not having money, the shame of not being able to provide; collapses upon every other facet of our lives.
Some of us rage because of the shame. Some of us try to nut out the shame. Some us write, trying to force the shame to fall on paper. Some of us rationalize the shame as wrong and tuck it under our intellects. Some of us run away from the shame leaving behind our children and our partners.
Few of us speak the shame. Few of us hold the shame, look at it; and let it be within us but not of us.
Few of us now how… Male emotional castration was the first act of male socialization.
“Stop crying!”  
“Man Up!” 
“Don’t be a punk!”: Were amongst the first words many of us recall.
But we have to get our feelings back.
We have to acknowledge all that is within us that we can use to re-imagine the hustle; re-imagine the system…without waiting on the powers that be.
We have to dig deeper into our imaginations.
We have to realize that we have a lot together and little alone.
You see, I believe the recession is a ripe opportunity for us to re-imagine how we relate to each other economically.
Will we continue  even in the face of this to be individuals; isolated and objective?
Will we continue to let our distrust of each other prevent us from economic connection?
Will we continue to cherish our shame in order to excuse our fear?
Will we continue to let the shame contour our hearts and minds?
The  foot ball games, the club, the fashion, the diva worship, the fleeting moments of sexual intimacy will not transform the shame of economic disadvantage.
It is only through speaking it, that we can find the courage to divorce our economic disadvantage from our self worth.
It is the only way we can transform that pain to power, by staring that shame straight in the eyes.
photo: ElvertBarnes / Flickr
About Yolo Akili

Yolo Akili is a Writer, Poet and Yoga Teacher. He can be reached via his website or on Twitter as @YoloAkili.


  1. Ogwriter …. I hope they use this as a comment of the week! I meant what YOU said, not what I said!

  2. Ogwriter …. I hope they use this as a comment of the week! I agree with everything you said especially the deconstructing. We do some of this with the guys in treatment in that they take events in their life, deconstruct the event and look at attitude, behaviors, thoughts and feelings. We reconstruct the event with positive replacements. Many of the kids are able to see the very moment where their thinking went wrong. Then we delve a little further so as to identify how and where that thinking went wrong.

    These guys “survive” the moment but have no idea what it is to “live” that moment in that many see life as no more then surviving it. Part of the “deconstruction” process is to allow these kids to “reconstruct” as “kids.” So many of them lost their childhood or should I say, had a misrepresentation or idea as to what a “childhood” was to be. Obviously, these “kids” grow up to be men and without changing their views, what can we honestly expect from them.

    I agree, this all cuts across all racial lines. There are dynamics in the white communities that many people don’t even think about. Without exaggeration, 95% of the white kids we get on the unit are poly substance abusers, which means their drug use is far beyond marijuana and alcohol. Given that I have experienced the loss of 16 kids and counting, all inner city kids (10) were murdered where as all of the white kids from the “burbs” died of over doses (6).

    Any way …. Sorry to have gone off on a tangent. Ogwriter, glad to see you again.

    • Tom B., I agree this is an important topic. I’ve asked ogwriter offlist if he’ll write on the subject of the White House supporting “gangsta” culture through their support of Beyonce. ogwriter, I hope you’ll take it up.

  3. ogwriter says:

    Anthony and Yolo…The truth is that this is a community wide and country wide problem in America that cuts across most racial lines–except perhaps for some Asian cultures in America: Therefore, this is not just a black male problem and it will take more than an awakening by black men to solve the problem.

    It seems that the more a culture believes in the American Dream and the values that define the dream, the more likely it is that the men will have major psychological issues when dealing with chronic joblessness.

    A man without a job in America is nothing, a black man without a job in America is less than nothing.

    The socialization you speak of that tells young black boy’s that manning up is the answer for everything, is a script that both men and women follow to the letter in the black community, yet often only black men get blamed, usually in the guise of a rapper or other iconic hyper masculine figure.

    I mean when Beyonce, who is being marketed as a positive role model for girls and young women, is married to a “gangster” and pines in song about wanting a soldier- code language for “gangster’ and this is not discussed and exposed as hypocritical, it hurts everyone. And black men get left holding the bag and most of the the pain.

    Personally, I think the President and the First Lady should be ashamed of themselves for sending mixed signals about these issues to black youth through their relationship with Jay Z and Beyonce. The President, for the most part, seems unable or unwilling to even identify with the struggles of the unemployed male in America as evidenced by his nonsensical advise to black youth in Chicago and his policies. In America,the psychological realities of what all men face have been so thoroughly divorced from the analysis of what ails them- because they are only defined as privileged-that he is rendered is invisible.

    For this to be solved black men and women together must deconstruct their flawed concepts of identity,then go through the process of depression that accompanies deconstruction of identity and build a new identity.

  4. I didn’t work or 2.5 years and it was beyond brutal. I wrote a book about it and now teach others how ot find work/recreate resumes and themselves. We must redefine manhood in this country. Read We Real Cool by bell hooks and let’s use this as a blueprint for our possibilities.

  5. Man, did this hit home. A reflection of the ups and downs I’ve had for the past 6 years since getting out of college and never finding steady footing in a long-term job. Bravo.

  6. “The shame of not having money sent me down into a spiral of internal emotional abuse….’

    Thank you for writing this…I think this helps me understand my karate sensei a lot better…..I believe the enormous stress he feels right now is related to impossible sales quotas his work demands and the upcoming twins his wife is expecting…and on top of that, his health worries….

    In truth, he comes from a very privileged background, but I think, as your article alluded to, men must feel that they are running in the top three of life’s foot race or else they are lumped in with all the poor losers in the end….He doesn’t always talk about everything that bothers him but I can feel that he is getting hit from all directions….

    He recently made an impossible text message request of me, of which I had no choice but to respond in silence….it seems that he wants to escape from all his worries in whatever way possible even if it is temporary….Excellent writing!

  7. @ Peter …. been there, done that …..

    There was a time not to long ago I struggled with my identity. I grew up in a time where my identity was definitely defined as to the position I held and the “things” I had attained through my career. I ended up having that which I “thought” was success as a man and I have to tell ya, I was wrong. The corner office, the expense account, company car and all the perks ended up meaning nothing in the big picture. I had definitely attained a life far above that of my dads. He was a blue-collar worker and worked his fingers to the bone. Only to enjoy maybe one year of retirement before he passed away. His image of being a man was to provide for his family and give them things he didn’t have. He maybe had two suits where as I had 4 tuxedos and a closet full of suits. My mom washed his work clothes and the dry cleaners did mine.

    I got to the point in life I really didn’t know who the hell I was. I call it the Memorex syndrome in that I didn’t know if I was real or simply playing a role that everyone expected of me. Although it was a modest house, we lived in an upper middle class area and all the “triggers” were in front of me saying I have to do more and have more. That was my role as a husband and dad … be everything to and for everyone. In the meantime, I honestly lost sight of who I was as a man, Tom B.

    I read all these things about the new gender roles and how it’s being scripted for men to take on these new roles but the truth is no one can say anyone fits one mold. Shortly after my heart attack and quintuple bypass, I did some real hard looking at myself and my life. I’m a workaholic and my working is not for the “things” anymore, it’s for me. I feel good when I work and I feel like crap when I don’t. My company has to force me to take time off. I make a lot less then I used to and I buy clothes that are on sale and have no qualms with going to a thrift store. Because of my medical issues, I can’t do many of the things I used to so I simply adjusted.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s as much the career or status a man has but more so that some of us and maybe many of us feel fulfilled by working. The new male is GREAT … It’s GREAT that men are taking on new roles in the home but still, there are many of us that want and need to work.

    I can tell ya, the stress I feel working with 38 adolescent males in a residential treatment center is FAR LESS then the stress I felt in the corporate world. A lot of people don’t understand it and sometimes I’m not sure if I do but I do know that the position, the money and the perks don’t add up if ya can’t enjoy life. I’m now known as “Tom B” and not the VP, the guy in the corner office, the boss … I’m just Tom B and it feels great.

    One of the kids at the center asked me if I was going to retire and my response was Hell no! So I’m gonna continue to work my 60 hour weeks and when I’m not working, enjoy my family and friends because that’s who I am…. I’m Tom B

    BTW Peter, if you ever want to email me and talk, let me know.

    • “The new male is GREAT … It’s GREAT that men are taking on new roles in the home but still, there are many of us that want and need to work”

      And I think this is true for most humans. Many people (of all genders) want fulfillment in how they are seen in the world, how they produce something of value. I don’t see how this is automatically gendered. Not saying you are saying that. When anyone is kept from producing and participating, they feel stifled.

      And you are right, it’s not always about the perks but the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something important for yourself or the community. And being able to enjoy life.

      • @Julie “When anyone is kept from producing and participating, they feel stifled.” The proverbial nail on the head. I meet so many kids that have so many skills but are lost in that they have little to know direction. Yet there is endless potential within them. Three recent kids on my unit actually enrolled in Jr. College. I took them to visit various Jr. Colleges and you sholuld have seen their eyes light up. For what ever reason, something clicked …. they actually saw themselves being college students and now have a goal. How sad it is that they had to go through a residential treatment center for drugs, court ordered into treatment for them to realize what’s out there for them? These kids should have had this excitement before they reached the court system. BTW, a small plug for these schools who in a short visit motivated are College of DuPage, Joliet Jr. College and MalcomX. A shout out to them!

  8. We’ve got to be honest here, this is not a result of the recession, It’s been happening for many years. Helplessness and hopelessness is common with males these days. In minority communities it’s become nothing less then a disease that has to change. Yeah, we really need an open discussion on how we can start to change things.

    If you put a cricket in a jar without a lid, it will jump out. If you put a cricket in a jar with a lid, it’ll jump and hit the lid. After a while, you can take the lid off and the cricket won’t jump out. The sad reality is that these men and boys have lived with that proverbial lid for a long time and now the lid is off, they live within those boundaries that have been set for a very long time.

    How do we change things?

    • From whence comes the hopelessness and helplessness? If not lack of jobs and structure for men to grow into (since so many thousands and thousands of jobs have been eliminated or moved to other countries or given to workers who work outside the law), what else could have been causing this pain?

      • Eric M. says:

        Julie, the hopelessness and despair is not a recent advent. The forces that have created it have been at work for hundreds of years. It’s just that the economic downturn exacerbated a long standing, systemic, entrenched societally created and perpetuated problem.

        • And what are those forces?

          • “And what are those forces?” The force of women and a society who see men as nothing more than use and success objects. Male value is earned. However, unlike being a woman i.e. a sex object at least men can buy our way out of it by producing. At least we can “be” a man and are not born one as women are born an inherently valued woman. Unless she’s ugly….nothing worse than being an ugly woman. Male value is earned, it is bought.

            You see, there used to be much less wrong with the way things are for men. However, since the social contract between men and women is now broken, there is no reason to be held under the old paradigm. It used to be that men would earn commitment from women in marriage out of the whole deal but women removed ALL of their liabilities and made men keep ours. Men don’t deserve to be foisted into a gender role that women made obsolete and unrewarded. If many men are becoming like me (and to me it is obvious they are) they want out. We don’t want to “be” a man anymore….what is the point….it is now a liability in entirety.

            • So if back in the days of yore, when things were better for men, women were born with an inherent value of “a sex and reproductive object” of sorts and men had to earn their way into getting the reward of women and family? Unless she’s ugly of course. Is that it? Men could find worth in working and earning and feel rewarded by women who would hopefully be pretty enough to be mated to a working man? A

              And women, who want now to earn and work (never mind they used to work all the time pre industrially), and live a life of worth not based on their vagina or uterus or looks but accomplishment, that’s messing things up? That being purely valued for their reproductive and sex use as a reward for someone else’s success doesn’t sound so good to me. No wonder women had a crisis and revolted.

              What about the men who don’t seem to be having this crisis. There are some. Men who enjoy working for their own sense of accomplishment, don’t define themselves by “work” per se, and who are married or partnered to people they enjoy being around?

              Both parties, male and female seem to be chasing each other around in a huge identity crisis. Women have to take responsibilities they are still leaving in men’s hands and men might could start defining themselves through relationships rather than work.

              I recall my mother being the only one of her sisters to not marry after high school. Everyone thought she was crazy. She enjoyed working. She worked even when she finally did get married, though for my dad’s business. She was good at what she did and I think she’d have truly gone off the deep end as a mother of many kids, stuck at home. Some people need to produce more than kids. And perhaps some men may find their inner value in things other than society tells them to.

              • FWIW, I never ever ever wanted to define myself as “woman” just because. I’ve always defined myself by what I do and what I can accomplish in this world. Some of that is monetary. Most of it is based on community and roles and what I contribute. But I never have felt that my inherent worth was just “being a woman.” I’d go out of my mind if I was at home all day tending house.

                • Peter Houlihan says:

                  It’s a subtle thing, I’ve only really begun to see it in myself lately I started going deaf two years ago, had to quit my job (couldn’t hear customers anymore) and my college course (no point if I can’t work in the field) and I’ve been on the dole/government training courses ever since.

                  Until that happened I genuinely didn’t realise how much my sense of self worth is tied up to what monetarily valuable stuff I can produce. It’s crazy, I’m getting down (like seriously down) because a piece of code isn’t working out or a polygon isn’t rendering properly and suddenly my life seems to be futureless.

                  Even though I know its stupid and I know it’s just a hangover from caveman days I still can’t shake the idea that I’m only worth what I earn (or hopefully will earn in the future). I wonder how many other people feel like that :(.

                  • “Even though I know its stupid and I know it’s just a hangover from caveman days.”

                    Except that it’s not. That’s sort of the point. Mostly it’s a hangover from post-industrialization. You could argue it got it’s origins after the invention of the plough, but it’s difficult (and somewhat irresponsible) to draw a direct line culturally that spans such a great time period.

                    And even in the post-industrial west, where the ideal was that women were meant to stay home and make babies, and men went out and worked, that wasn’t really the reality for a huge number of people anyway. Women were working; they were just very restricted in which jobs they’d be hired for, and their labour wasn’t as highly valued by society.

                    • wellokaythen says:

                      A lot of the “caveman days” stuff is bogus. The whole concept of the “caveman” is a product of 20th century ideas about gender. It’s making paleolithic people into “Leave It to Beaver” stereotypes. Notice the similarity between the 1950’s suburban family sitcom and The Flintstones? That’s no accident.

                      It’s a huge anachronism that just keeps going and going because a lot of people prefer to use the past as a mirror instead of on its own terms.

                      Foragers actually had and have quite a few overlapping labor roles. They didn’t divide every single job into male and female jobs. Women did some of the hunting, and men did some of the childcare. Women and men had leadership positions, contributed to the decision-making, and did a lot of the same work.

                  • I feel like that. Yeah I do.

                  • Mark Neil says:

                    “because a piece of code isn’t working out or a polygon isn’t rendering properly”

                    I’m curious what you’re doing. Sounds like technical director stuff for 3D animation.

          • Eric M. says:


            “And what are those forces?

            The forces that reasoned that having African slaves was the right thing to do, that they didn’t deserve the same liberties as those that came from Europe or anywhere other than Africa.
            The same forces that reasoned that even though they were no longer slaves, they had to be kept down, that they (especially the men) were dangerous and, although they could no longer be enslaved, didn’t deserved anymore than what they had when they were slaves.

            The same forces that consider(ed) black men especially to be threats, that worked relentlessly to strip them of opportunities and dignity. The same forces that realize that if you disable the males of the (species or race) you disable the families and their ability to compete on equal footing. The same forces that now sit back and act as if those many years of oppression have no lasting impact.

            The same forces that don’t relate the high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, single or no parent families, crime, violence, suicide with those many years of oppression. These things don’t come about on their own. There are reasons for those realities. As Tom explained in his analogy, keeping people down can have long term affects.

            The forces that blame the victims, such as the little black boy who knows nothing other than despair because his father knew nothing other than despair and has a prison record and therefore can’t get or keep a decent job. So, that little boy grows up angry, resentful and rebels against “the system” that offers little hope. Then, he gets blamed for acting out his despair and hopelessness.

            • Wait hang on a moment…what you’re talking about is social oppression based on race. This article, and Julie, aren’t talking about race.

              • Right. I’d say those forces listed are evil and terrible, but that wasn’t what I was questioning.

              • Eric M. says:

                No, not just race. Men have been/are targets significantly more than women.

                • But you are focusing on race, slavery, segregation etc in your post. And you are correct obviously that all those things have had a profound impact on African American men and I’d also say it’s had a profound impact on everyone. Ryan started the thread with “forces” and he’s noting something gender based.

  9. Men are not valued as human beings but as human doings, particularly what we can do for women or society. There is no escape. Men, don’t think for a moment this will ever change. Gain resources… any way you need to…..ANY way. 90% of those you end up homeless and on the street are male. If you fail to make money women WILL leave you and society WILL let you rot and die.

  10. HidingFromtheDinosaurs says:

    An excellent article.

    I recommend Alexander Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” to anyone looking for an example of men carrying themselves with dignity in a situation like the one you describe (the musketeers are perpetually in search of new ways to supplement an unsteady income, are often poor and, as was common at the time, frequently accept monetary aid from their female lovers or patrons without the slightest bit of shame).

  11. Uncle Woofie says:

    …ya done good chief…!

  12. Thank you so much for this brilliant and powerful post.

  13. As the mother of a beautiful, kind-hearted, generous and loving (yes, I confess I’m proud) boy, I see posts like these and my heart breaks for all the sons of other mothers who have suffered like this. This was powerful, Yolo. May you find the connections that you seek to make, and may they form into something stronger and more enduring than all of us.

  14. David Byron says:

    Thank you.

  15. ” I believe the recession is a ripe opportunity for us to re-imagine how we relate to each other economically.”

    Amen to this.

  16. Fabian Thomas says:

    Yolo, my soul-brother…once again, you write it, tell it, analyze it so well….and for that I thank, salute and love you….speak on… 🙂

  17. Owenswoman says:

    I made two shirts that read, “I am Poor.” I thought I should wear them and see what people say. Boldly display what I have been encultured to be ashamed of.

  18. “We have to acknowledge all that is within us that we can use to re-imagine the hustle; re-imagine the system…without waiting on the powers that be.
    We have to dig deeper into our imaginations.
    We have to realize that we have a lot together and little alone.
    You see, I believe the recession is a ripe opportunity for us to re-imagine how we relate to each other economically.
    Will we continue even in the face of this to be individuals; isolated and objective?
    Will we continue to let our distrust of each other prevent us from economic connection?”

    Yolo, Thank You.
    I bet you have a good idea how many billions of men, old and young, white, brown and black, all over this planet feel exactly how you have described.
    And to these eyes you have asked exactly the right questions.

    So, let’s talk about it. Right here. Right now. How I keep you as my brother? How do you keep me as your brother? Really, practically? How can we make our own shelter and our own food? In cities. How can we share what we have?

    And if somebody else has already been writing about this, speak up. Share that.

  19. A very honest piece…

  20. Very nice article

  21. This was an amazing piece. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

  22. Yolo, this is an amazing piece. Well done.

    “Male emotional castration was the first act of male socialization.” So true, so destructive. If it is not ok to talk about the emotional pain that overwhelms any man in this situation, it is like pressure building on a dam. And that pressure must be released or the dam will break. What a horrible legacy for so many men. Thank you for writing and speaking out and “transforming pain to power.”

    There is much power in your writing.

  23. I stopped going to barber shops and now cut my own hair. I do kind of miss the trash talking but I also hated it. Keeping and ensuring the black man stayed down was how racist society kept the black family muzzled and suppressed, by keeping them poor. After generation upon generation upon generaiton of that frustration and humiliation, some (many) simply lost their will, and have created generations of black men in anger and despair, with hope only through sports, entertainment, or crime.

    It’s possible to escaepe the cycle but it’s not easy if that’s all you see. I have no sons but do my best to mentor and counsel black boys and young men, especially those without present fathers, or with fathers working 2 or 3 jobs. This economy has only made a bad situation worse but I tell young men to be proud, keep their heads up, and work to continuously improve themselves, never giving in or giving up.

    • Amen, Eric! We need to show the youth what is possible. I grew up in an impoverished household, my father was in prison for drug dealing, my step-father was an alcoholic… I learned the values of hard work from my coaches, some of which were also my teachers in school. We need the right men to look up to for values and positive examples.

      But we also need to reinforce that positivity that these men had when the song came on the radio. It may never get better, but there are always glimmers of hope to keep us striving for it!

  24. “Male socialization runs so deep through our veins; that for many the shame of not having money, the shame of not being able to provide; collapses upon every other facet of our lives.”

    This is so real. I was a product of “workforce reduction” & I can confirm everything that you’ve written, in fact I was aware but could not change the feeling of hopelessness and despair.

    • Ditto…

      • Ditto x 2. At the time my wife couldn’t understand why it brought me down so much. After all, I have so much going for me in other areas of my life, how could I not be proud of myself and all I’ve accomplished? How could I not hold my head up high and keep ploughing away until I found that job? You know on an intellectual level that that is true, but deep down it’s been so ingrained by society that if you’re a man that doesn’t have a job, none of the other stuff matters.

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