Michael Ian Black never thought of himself as qualified to speak out against gun violence. But after seeing repeated school shootings — from Sandy Hook in 2012, which happened in the next town over from his Redding home, to Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 — he found himself asking an obvious question he had not heard addressed. Why are America’s boys so broken — as all these shooters were boys. And what does it mean to be a man today?
An op-ed in the New York Times turned into a book, which debuted this fall, “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son,” published by Penguin Random House. The comedian known for starring in “Wet, Hot American Summer” and “The Jim Gaffigan Show” previously wrote childrens and humor books.
A far cry from the early days of Black’s stage persona as a comedian/actor, which ran toward cynical or snarky, Black is raw and honest in this book and opens up a conversation that young men and tomorrow’s men desperately need.
There are many key lessons Black raises here, but perhaps the main point is the need to redefine what masculinity means and how we define a man and strength.
“One of the things that men think about themselves when we think about manhood is strength,” he said. “It’s probably the word that first comes to mind when we kind of describe an idealized manhood. There’s all kinds of strength: physical, mental, financial strength ... but what I would encourage men to think about is how much strength it requires to be vulnerable. How much power in yourself do you have to have and confidence in yourself to be able to open yourself up?”
Black wants to reframe the way we think about manhood in terms of the strength to be vulnerable, to be dependent at times, to need other people and to empathize with other people.
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“All of that requires a kind of strength and I think we would all be better served as humans if we allowed ourselves to feel those things,” he said.
Black hopes the takeaway for young men who read his book is that they realize they are enough and not to compare themselves to others as there will always be someone else you think is smarter, richer, more handsome or athletic, etc.
“Whatever gifts that they have are enough. We can always improve, we can always become better men but whatever you have, whatever I have [inside], is enough to accomplish everything that you want in this life and I don’t mean just in terms of career. I mean in terms of your heart and the love that you have to give. ...”
Book promotion tours have largely gone virtual this year and Black’s is no exception. He is looking forward to “visiting” his favorite book store, R.J. Julia in Madison, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, for a Zoom conversation with fellow author Molly Jong-Fast.Read Full Article
“I can’t be there in person; I wish I could, because it’s always fun to go there. One of the great things about R.J. Julia is they give authors who speak there a book at the end of the night,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the conversation. Molly is a spitfire and I think we will have a really good engaged talk.”
Interestingly, while the book is mainly a letter to his son, Elijah, who headed off to college this fall, the original opening chapter started as a letter to Black’s father, who died when he was 12.
“At one point, the book began with me saying I wish I’d been able to have this conversation with my dad and I never could because he died young,” he said. “I also don’t think he was really capable of having this kind of conversation, because of his own upbringing and the generation that he belonged to.”
The further into the book Black got as he was writing it, the more he realized that he was writing a letter to his son but also to his father and himself.
“It’s a really personal look at my own struggles and trying to figure out who I am. I think having such a personal look ends up kind of ironically being a lot more universal because we realize that all our challenges are kind of the same.”
Asked the biggest difference in his parenting style from how he was raised, he said, “I think fathers [today] tend to be more communicative with our kids because we engage more. We tend to be more available in terms of nurturing, we also are more committed to helping out around the house.”
Men have had to adapt to new roles, and while many men celebrate women’s successes in the workforce, some have struggled with their changing roles.
“A new kind of gender parity and growing gender equality requires us to rethink our traditional roles,” he said. “That’s ultimately a good thing for men to have that opportunity to rethink who we are and how we function.”
Andrea Valluzzo is a freelancer writer.