Black men: How are you doing?
In this episode, host Myra Flynn asks Black men, “How are you doing?” It’s a simple question, but the answers are anything but.
This is the latest episode of Homegoings, a seasonal podcast that features fearless conversations about race. This is storytelling — with soul. Follow the series here.
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How are you doing? It’s a seemingly simple question, but for the Black men I interviewed for this episode – getting an answer to that question felt nearly impossible.
There’s good reasons for that reluctance. We are living in a time where the images of police brutality, and violence, and murder of Black men has never been so accessible. Society has very specific expectations of Black men and the myth of maintaining masculinity remains dominant. Self care has not, historically, been part of the Black vocabulary.
And that has ramifications for things like physical and mental health challenges, which are also on the rise. According to theNational Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Black people are 20% more likely to experience serious psychological distress, like major depressive disorder, than white Americans, yet are less likely to seek treatment due to the inherent and validated distrust in the medical system.
For this episode, I looked inside my own home, to a Black man I know and love, my husband, for an answer to this question. Then, we head to a barber shop – a space where Black men have built community and expressed vulnerability for decades. And we end with a deep listen to one Black man, who finally gets vulnerable.
A heads up: This episode is gonna get real. There will be some unbleeped swearing, and conversations about mental health issues and suicide. If your heart is feeling heavy today, you may want to sit this one out. And ifyou are in need of support, you can call, text, or chat: 988. They’re available 24/7.
This is Homegoings. Welcome home.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a narrative version/transcript of the episode below.
Myra Flynn: Let’s be honest: How are you doing — it’s a hard question for a lot of us to answer. We don't live in a society that really wants to know.
Phil Wills: I saw a colleague of mine and I walked into the office and he said, ‘Hey, Phil, how are you doing?’ So you know, ‘how are you doing?’ is sometimes just an expression of saying ‘hi’ to somebody and not really asking how they're doing.
Myra Flynn: This being said, — many of us figure out a way to talk about how we’re doing eventually. We get there. Maybe it’s with a friend, or a therapist. Someone we feel safe with.
So when it came to the Black men I interviewed for this episode, I noticed there's something else going on here entirely. Getting them to really think about this question and answer it --- I didn't think it would be this hard. It's like nowhere is safe.
Even if you’re married to them.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Hi.
Phil Wills: Hi.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Who are you? To me?
Phil Wills: I am your husband.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Are you sure?
Phil Wills: I am sure.
Myra Flynn: This is Phil Wills, my husband of nearly six years. Phil was raised in Essex Junction, Vermont, and I was raised just an hour away, but somehow Phil and I never met until we’d both settled in Los Angeles. I’ve always thought that was kind of a magical story.
Anyway, Phil is defined, in our house, as a lot of things. He’s a Black man, He’s a father to our daughter Avalon. He’s a TV star.
And then there’s some things he isn’t. Like — a big talker. Especially when it comes to how he’s feeling.
Myra Flynn (on tape): This might be a more difficult question for you to answer with me. Because I'm your wife, but feel free to say it all. That's fine by me. The question is, how are you doing?
Phil Wills: How am I doing? I am doing... good?
Myra Flynn (on tape): Is that a question?
Myra Flynn: We’re laughing here but I’ll admit that sometimes this is a sore spot for us. I’ll be the first to say, we communicate in two very different ways. But it’s still kind of wild that I can’t get him to answer this question: I’m his wife! I’m supposed to know everything, right?
And Phil does have feelings. He’s just more of a “show not tell” type of guy.
Phil Wills: I tend to show my love in actionable ways. Meaning, I'll make sure the house is clean or, you know, take care of some of the responsibilities that are a little bit more heavy lifting and make sure that my family is taken care of.
Myra Flynn: But when asked to talk about his feelings, at times, Phil can be so darn optimistic, you gotta wonder — what’s really going on in there?
Phil Wills: Life is fun. I'm doing well with life. I'm doing well with life. It's fun. It's a ride but, life is good. I'm a happy person.
Myra Flynn (on tape): So, how are you doing?
Phil Wills: How am I doing?
Myra Flynn (on tape): Yeah, so … you're kind of giving, like, broad advice to the world on, like, love and life. I'm asking how are you doing?
Phil Wills: How am I doing with what?
Myra Flynn: So here we are. Which is to say, we’re pretty much where we started. Perhaps my needling curiosity about this Black man I’m married to is what sparked this episode. Maybe I’m trying to heal our house — or something. But the truth is, Phil is not an anomaly. For many Black men, vulnerability is not something that lives in their lexicon. Which is tragic because we are living in a time where the images of police brutality, and violence, and murder of Black men has never been so accessible. And the fear in our community, at least in my days on this Earth, has never been so palpable.
Phil Wills: I’ll let this cop pass by.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Do you feel like you should stop talking when the cop passes by?
Phil Wills: No, I think I should talk louder when a cop passes by. Let my voice be heard.
Myra Flynn (on tape): If you had one word to describe how you're doing, what would that word be?
Phil Wills: Maintaining, that's the word that I feel is pretty solid in my life. These past few years really is just maintaining.
Myra Flynn: If Black men are suffering — they are doing so largely silently. And that has ramifications for things like physical and mental health challenges, which are also on the rise. According to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Black people are 20% more likely to experience serious psychological distress, like major depressive disorder, than white Americans, yet are less likely to seek treatment due to the inherent and validated distrust in the medical system. In short? Self-care, historically, not really in the Black vocabulary.
And don’t get me started on the social expectations of Black men and the myth of maintaining masculinity. I mean — this stuff is well-documented and out there. It’s doing real harm. So it feels to me like asking Black men how they’re doing isn’t just important — it’s triage.
Myra Flynn (on tape): When's the last time someone asked you how you're doing?
Phil Wills: Last time somebody really stopped me, looked in my eyes and said, ‘How are you doing? No, really? How are you doing?’ It's been a while since that's happened. I can't remember the timeline, but I'd have to say that you were probably the last person that really asked me how I'm doing and want to know how I'm truly doing. So, doesn't come often, unfortunately. Need to check in more often.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Hello. Are you Ron? It's Myra. We spoke on the phone. I see you already have a customer. So early in the morning. I love it.
Myra Flynn: This Ron Coleman. The owner of Ron’s Barber Shop, in Pasadena, California. When I asked if I could visit his shop he told me to come between 7- 8 a.m., before it gets hot.
If you look online, there are plenty of group therapy options for Black men with taglines like “healing in brotherhood,” or “Black but not broken.” But this episode got me thinking about the spaces Black men did in fact heal in brotherhood, before they were seen as human enough to be woven into the self-help system. And this curiosity brings me to Ron and his barber shop.
When I arrive, Ron is already very much up and at ‘em. I’ve come on “shave day” for his customer, Reggie Woods which according to Ron is every Friday.
Myra Flynn (on tape): That's a radical shave job.
Ron Coleman: Thank you. He'd beat up the last barber, so I gotta make sure I get him right.
Myra Flynn: You might be hearing that this is not a quiet sit-down interview. I’m dropping in on Ron's work day so he keeps working the whole time we speak. Which means I’m picking up a lot of noise! Clippers, soul music, the game on TV. And as stimulating as it is from an audio perspective, it's got nothing on the powerful visuals in his shop. His walls are peppered with some of the most powerful Black men and leaders this world have ever known.
Ron Coleman: You can look at the core of the shop and what I stand for. I have Honorable Elijah Muhammad on my wall. I have Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Nelson Mandela, Shaka Zulu, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. I have Dr. Amos Wilson. I don't know if you’re familiar with some of these people. You should look them up.
Myra Flynn: Ron’s shop has been open for a decade. And Ron himself has been cutting hair since 1982. When he was around the age of 12, he swept the floor of his local barber shop and was quickly promoted.
Ron Coleman: When I started cleaning the clippers I felt like I graduated. That was a big thing for a kid to clean the barber’s clippers.
Myra Flynn (on tape): It was like a right of passage kind of thing?
Ron Coleman: Yeah.
Myra Flynn: So, Ron was hooked. By the job, yes, but even at 12 he realized something special was happening in that shop.
Ron Coleman: I didn't know I wanted to cut hair. But I just enjoyed listening to the conversations they were having. You know, I was sweeping the floor, but I was ear hustling like a mug. It was just interesting to hear men and speak about things that were happening around our community.
Myra Flynn: I’m visiting Ron for similar reasons. I’m hoping I can ear hustle, eavesdrop or maybe even be allowed into some of the conversations with the Black men here. Because the barber shop is about so much more than cutting hair. The rise of Jim Crow laws in the late 1800’s early 1900’s, limited spaces where Black people could gather. The church was one of those allowed spaces. The barbershop was another.
Ron Coleman: The Black barber shop, it was a gathering place for Black men – the foundation of us without being harassed by the police. We can come in and vent out things that happened throughout the week, a social event that took place. It was therapy. You wanted to find a job, the Black barber shop had the resources or knew somebody. You need your car fixed – anything that you need. We was the original Google, you feel me. You want to find out something, you come to the community, go to the barber shop. That's when the barber shop was a pillar in our community. That was two people that was most respected in our community as Black men. That was the preacher and the barber.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Those are the two men who knew all your secrets.
Ron Coleman: Yeah. I mean, it was crazy.
Myra Flynn: As much as I loved waxing history with Ron, the time has come for me to ask my question.
Myra Flynn (on tape): One question I've been asking Black men is how are you doing?
Myra Flynn: …and here we go.
Ron answers my question about his emotions, by talking about the emotions of others. After all, if the barber shop is as he calls it, “therapy for Black men,” Ron is the therapist.
Ron Coleman: I've had guys that tell me stuff that you know, that… me personally, I don't think I would have told nobody that. But sometimes you have to get stuff off your chest. And I think the Black barber shop, it was like a therapy session for men, for Black men. And not to be feminized for having emotions. Now, you don't want to have too much emotions, but it's OK to have some kind of outlet to express psychologically what you’re dealing with, you know what I mean?
Myra Flynn (on tape): Why don't you want to have too much emotions?
Ron Coleman: I don't think it's masculine for an alpha male to conduct yourself in such a feminine style of response to things, you know? Some things you just, as a man, you just got to deal with. I'm from the old school. I ain’t from the new – men crying and all that. I ain’t with that. But it's OK if you have to show those emotions. Even a pit bull will cry.
Myra Flynn: From therapy to masculinity, Ron moves on to talking with me about Farrakhan.
Ron Coleman: Minister Louis Farrakhan, he's been committed. He has a track record, a loyalty to the issues that impact us as African Americans.
Myra Flynn: He teases a little bit about our collective feelings…
Ron Coleman: The impact that the nation has had on our people is undeniable.
Myra Flynn: Then Reggie weighs in with some thoughts on his favorite Black male leader.
Reggie Woods: Jesus Christ was a brother. He was a Black man. Yes, he was. He was a man of color. He's the only person that ever did it perfect. We can never be perfect, and I'm OK with that.
Myra Flynn: Until I realize [record scratch] it’s time to shut this party down.
Myra Flynn (on tape): Can I make an observation? So both of you, I have asked how you're doing, like how your hearts are doing. And neither one of you have answered the question yet.
Ron Coleman: Us as Black men, we're facing a lot of mental challenges that we haven't faced in a long time as a group. One of the things is, it took me almost two weeks to watch George Floyd, the murder. And I had to get my mind right, because that could be my son, could be me. It could’ve been any one of us.
Myra Flynn (on tape): And that makes you feel ….?
Ron Coleman: That makes me feel scared.
The Sound Guy
This is Everette Saunders, Black man, father, sound guy — gifting us his vulnerability. Video credit: Flynn / Vermont Public
Everette Saunders: Mic check. One - two. Mic check. One - two - three - four. Mic check. One and two and three and four, and one and two and three and four. Mic check. One, two. Good?
Myra Flynn (on tape): We’re good
Everette Saunders: My name is Everett Saunders. Everette Asis. I am a sound designer, a composer for theater and for film, also producer for anything sound related, and all- around sound experimentation, sound installations. Sound… I’m a sound guy.
Myra Flynn (on tape): I'm intimidated. I have to make this sound good.
Everette Saunders: No, you're good. You're so good.
Myra Flynn: Everette Sunders is a self-proclaimed Phili cat (originally from Philadelphia) who I met at a party a while back. While everyone was mingling, he and I — total strangers at the time — locked ourselves in the room with the piano and wrote a song. I tell you this so you can get a sense of how deep Everette is usually willing to go — quickly.
Though I know Everette, he’s tough to know because of his schedule. Everette resides in Pasadena, California, about half of the year, and during the rest he does indeed do sound all over the country and sometimes the world. So, he doesn’t really stay still. And although he’s constantly exposed to people, finding community can be a harder task. What’s that saying? “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
So Everette gets creative when it comes to forming his community. Especially his community of other Black men which he intentionally seeks out and curates. He meets on a monthly Zoom group with these men. And if you’re thinking they meet up to talk about kids, cooking and Congress? Guess again.
Everette Saunders: I had just got off a conference call with a group of Black men about four of us. One of the brothers on the call was hit with something that literally brought tears to my eyes. Something that was so – it was very unjust. It took five years of his life. He wasn't incarcerated anything like that. But it took five years of his life in fear of possibly being incarcerated for something that he had no, no involvement with at all. How does anyone release the idea of possibly having your whole family ripped away from you – being taken and put away for something that you had nothing to do with at all. Living in fear for five years of your life that you could be incarcerated, it drives a person to levels of insanity. It drives a person to suicidal thoughts.
Myra Flynn: Now Everette isn’t talking about himself here. But he’s not not talking about himself either. Because this could be him. Someone he loves has lived in fear of being incarcerated for the last five years. Which is sadly, an all-too familiar story. In Black America, Black men just sit back and watch the system rinse and repeat.
Everette Saunders: I think the fact that that's still a possibility that happens in this country is disappointing to say the least. You know, I don't know if this is an edited show, but I'm going to say it's fucked up. What happened to him can happen to any Black male, at any given point in time. It doesn't matter what kind of life they're living. Anyone. You could be straight – this dude don't even drink, don't smoke, don't do nothing. You can be so straight and narrow, and at any given time your life can be in jeopardy and in trauma.
So, ‘how I’m doing‘ is basically to say I'm as good as expected to be from a person who has to constantly live in a state of possible trauma every single day of their life. So am I doing good? No, not at all.
Myra Flynn: There it is, an Answer. Everette's not doing great. But if you can imagine, not doing great, living in fear and dodging emotional trauma on the daily — might not be the worst of it. Go ahead and add a side of subjugation to that plate.
Everette Saunders: I'm also very frustrated at the fact that my doing is based upon other people who don't look like me. So that's a whole other thing.
Myra Flynn (on tape): What do you mean by that?
Everette Saunders: Oh, I’m talking about white people.
Myra Flynn: As you know, in each episode of Homegoings, we end with a deep listen. Up until now, that’s been some form of performance art. But not today. Today — Everette IS our deep listen. So sit back, take a breath and let the listen in. This is Everette Saunders, Black man, father, sound guy — gifting us his vulnerability. And that is one hell of a piece of art.
It's Not Easy
by Everette Saunders
I say society and, I've realized I've been saying society for so long that I mean white society; this idea that white people can write laws and rules that don't really apply to them, very much apply to melanated people, and we're all supposed to abide by it.
You know, because everyone says, everybody says they're innocent when they go to jail. Yeah, but some of the brothers that are in there actually are and their lives are gone.
The systemic forms of how these things are put down – they've been put in place to keep Black people under control, specifically Black men. Because, if you break down the Black man, you break down the Black family and if you're able to break down the Black family, then you can break down Black people.
One of the hardest and one of the real, the real most gangster jobs in the world, and that's being a husband and a father, a Black husband and a Black father. That's some gangster shit in America. Because, white society does not want you to have a successful union with family, because it's a threat. They see it as a threat to their industry, to their system; whether White people are writing the rules or whether they're enforcing the rules. It's all systems of oppression, and until we really start talking about systems of oppression and dismantling systems of oppression and how white people participate in those, some of those things, you know, you're always gonna have Black men who are never really doing OK.
I understand it's not easy, but we need each other so bad. I am more and more aware of how extremely important it is for Black males to have space with other Black males, to exchange stories, to exchange hardships. So, you know, you're not alone because you're going to feel alone.
I feel alone every single day.
And there's so many good brothers around.
I don't know no deadbeat dads. I don't know no, you know, whack husbands. I don't know any. But, I do know we don't talk to each other enough.
Do I break down all the time? No. Because I'm still, you know, I'm still a product of my father, my grandfather. You know, there's still a certain amount of strength that's embedded. You know, don't talk about why Black men die earlier than everybody else because you've been holding on to shit for decades, for decades.
And it's not, it's not because oh we're just trying to be super strong. No, it's because you have to. And having an emotional release, you don't always get to do it. And sometimes Black men just need to have a good cry. But for us it comes in death, when someone dies, then we allow ourselves to cry.
If a Black person asks me how I'm doing; you already live in this, you live in the same world I live in. So for me to be like, ‘Oh, I'm great.’ It's like, bullshit. You're not. You're not great. What are you talking about?
I mean, you don't have to ask me. Turn on the news. You can see how Black men are doing.
This episode was mixed, scored and reported by Myra Flynn. She also composed the theme music, and the music under our deep listen. Other music by Blue dot sessions and Jay Green. Brittany Patterson edits our show. James Stewart contributes to so many things on the backend of making this show.
Special thanks to Jay Green, Aquavis Warfield, and all the customers at Ron’s Barber Shop. Also thanks to Elodie Reed, who is the graphic artist behind all of our Homegoings artist portraits.
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