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

Originally published on Good Men Project and cross-posted here with permission.

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 b*tches so crusty/disgust me.”

In support of this I could hear all the hetero black women’s narratives of

“sorry a*s broke n*ggas.”

In support of this I could hear all the black men narratives of “broke a*s 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 know 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 football 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.

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