04/18/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

Weakness Isn't an Option

It seems that oftentimes, when we speak about notions of manhood, we view the topic with a limited scope. We talk about the "man box," with references to not showing emotion or weakness, and trying to be tough, as though there are not circumstances in which it is reasonable to expect boys or men to be that way.

But there are certainly circumstances and environments in which having to fit in the "man box" is not a choice but rather a lived reality... Where much is at stake -- indeed, where survival is at stake.

I have experienced in my own life how this is the case.

I don't have much of a relationship with my father, but I have been told that in many ways I am like him.

I wouldn't argue against the veracity of this point. I think in some ways being like him has been very beneficial and in others ways it has been harmful.

My father is a hard and sometimes violent man. I can't say for sure why this is. His father -- my grandfather -- passed before I was born and I never met him. I also didn't spend that much time with my father, as he was incarcerated by the time I was in second grade. However, when he was around, he was very harsh in his treatment of me, adamant that I would not grow up to be soft. Ironically, the toughness that was pushed on me was most helpful in my standing up against him due to his terrible treatment of my mother. I've been told that I was punished more harshly than my sister because I had a penchant for never backing down from my father, even at a very young age. I had, in fact, absorbed all his mannerisms and utilized that strength and lack of fear to attempt to subvert his dominance, much to his dismay.

Nevertheless, despite some intensely bad memories of my father and his short temper, there are lessons I have learned from him that I keep with me at all times and that have become mantras that allow me to navigate my world. When I was a young child, my father told me, "Never let someone think that they are crazier than you; whatever level they are willing to escalate something to, you have to be willing to take it a step further." He also told me, "Every day you live, you will have to deal with some sort of racism."

My ability to advocate as loudly and as publicly as I do for the issues I work on every day is likely directly attributable to these lessons I learned from my father. His words, though they may seem hollow or cliché, have come to ring true to me, and have helped me keep my perspective. They have allowed me to remain perceptive of the world I inhabit. I also learned from my father to develop a certain fearlessness -- after all, if I didn't fear him, it is unlikely I will have fear of anyone else.

In addition to these lessons I learned from my father, I also learned lessons from my older cousins -- lessons about how to navigate the world we grew up in -- West Las Vegas -- but also how to navigate the greater world. One of the lessons learned came as a direct result of my first public fight at the bus stop.

As the middle child and only son, I didn't grow up with brothers, only cousins, and I was the youngest of this older generation of cousins. As a result, I was the pseudo-little brother to many, and, as is often the case, I looked up to my older cousins, my older cousin Antonio especially. I got hand-me-down clothes from him, I started rapping because of him, and I learned how to fight because of him. When I was ten years old, Antonio and I started going to a summer program for inner-city kids in Las Vegas called NYSP, The National Youth Sports Program. Inner-city kids from all over the city would be bussed everyday to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where we would engage in all kinds of different sports activities, and, if we were lucky, maybe even find a cute girl who we liked and who happened to like us back (though admittedly I was far too shy for it to matter if she did).

Along with the sports and the faux summer relationships, though, came trials of respect. After all, life is a gladiator sport, and this summer program was no different. As the summer got started, word began to circulate that this kid Marquice wanted to fight me. Of course, at ten years old, I did not really want to have to fight - partly because I didn't want to disappoint my mother and partly because Marquice at ten years old looked like the thirteen-year-old version of Mike Tyson. Nonetheless, word got around to my cousin Antonio and my other cousin Dequan, and soon a date had been set for the fight. On the morning of the fight, Antonio and I walked to the bus stop, with me secretly hoping it would all blow over. It didn't. We got to the bus stop and there Marquice was. After about ten minutes of chatter and whispering amongst my peers, it appeared that the fight was about to begin. Antonio, who was known for being very adept at fighting, prompted me to quickly get over my apprehensions about the fight by whispering to me, "You either fight him, or you fight me." Dequan seconded this. As a bystander to some of my cousins' fights, this left me no real option, and so I stood up and I fought Marquice.

What I learned was this: My father wasn't lying about the difficulties I would and still do face, and those difficulties are not just limited to me, nor are they limited solely to poor folks, or black folks. My father was also right about never letting someone believe that they can take advantage of you. You have to be willing to rise to any challenge. My cousin was right, too: In that moment before the fight I admittedly was scared, but that fear of fighting Marquice was overcome by the possibility of having to fight my cousin... So I put my hands up and came out swinging.

Today I understand those lessons in bigger, broader terms. As a result of these lessons, I can see now that to combat the problems of inequity and inequality that continue to plague our society, we need to be willing to rise to whatever level is necessary. After all, the consequences of backing down are typically the scariest of all, just like at the bus stop.

That having been said, I've also learned that one must tailor one's survival techniques to the unique circumstances at hand, and there are challenges that come along with that. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written really well about this tension in several different pieces, as in the following excerpt from his piece, "A Culture of Poverty":

"If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting-not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that's still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group."

He also discussed the applicability of these learned skills in "Other People's Pathologies":

"That culture contained a variety of values and practices. 'I ain't no punk' was one of them. 'Know your history' was another. 'Words are beautiful' was another still. The key is cultural dexterity -- understanding when to emphasize which values, and when to employ which practices."

For me, learning how to tailor my survival techniques in this way has been interesting. I was a rapper before I was a community activist, and a community activist before I was an attorney. I am still learning how to navigate these new spaces, where the rules are very different, where, as Coates said, different practices need to be employed. What in some contexts would be considered disrespect can, in a different space, be deemed intellectual curiosity, and thus must be met with intellectual discourse as opposed to force -- what may likely have followed that same prompt in the past.

I find that something I valued growing up where and how I did -- something I miss -- is that there was always one set of rules, and they were well-established. You always knew when someone was being disrespectful. When someone would say certain things, their intent was clear, and they knew that they may be called to answer for what they had said at a later date.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak about what to me has been the most difficult aspect of both inheriting and learning to fit within the "man box" of my surroundings, and that is its impact on my mother and grandmother. When my grandmother would hear about my getting in trouble, she would ask me, "What happened to you? You used to be such a sweet boy." The effect of those words on me was profound. I realized that the mannerisms that would be helpful in my staving off threats and disrespect were the same mannerisms that made my mother and grandmother fear for my safety and fear that I would become my father. I distinctly remember times when I allowed myself to be bullied or disrespected so as not to appear like my father in the eyes of my mother.

It was perhaps in these instances that I learned the greatest lesson of all, which is self-restraint. It took a tremendous amount of resolve for me not to react violently in instances where I was being disrespected, where another kid believed himself to be getting the best of me. After all, my instinct was, as my father had taught me at an early age, to not let anyone think he was crazier than me. But I grew to understand that the counterweight was stronger: I didn't want my mother to have to hear about some angry outburst or about me injuring another child. The idea that my mother would look at me like I was my father was powerful enough to keep me from using the lessons learned from him and my older male cousins to exact justice.

No one prepared me for the realities of how the "man box" necessary for my survival would impact the women who were raising me. But once I understood the tension there, when I realized I had to choose between, on the one hand, reacting and striking fear into others or, on the other, not reacting to avoid striking fear into the women in my life, I chose the latter.

At first, it was an uncomfortable decision. It made me feel less like a man -- indeed like a punk -- perhaps even like I was exchanging my "man box" for a "woman box." But I suppose such a sacrifice was necessary for me to truly become the man I am -- struggling with the boxes, but not confined by them. After all, none of these boxes fit quite right; the women in my family, my aunts, were known for meeting force with force, the tools of the trade in our part of Las Vegas.

As the birth date of my son continues to approach, I wrestle with how I will frame his "man box."

The words of my father and the lessons of my cousins still ring true: The world preys on those who are weak. But self-restraint is also necessary, and finding the proper balance between self-defense and self-restraint can be a long and very personal journey.

This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project