What is The Commons Crit?

I had planned to silently observe the ritual that Eb. Brown, Joie Lou Shakur, and Daniel B. Coleman created during their residency with The Commons at Carolina Performing Arts. I had not expected to confront a whirlwind of uninvestigated emotions, confusions, regrets, and joys. And I never would have imagined that silence would be the medium through which I could explore them.

Held at The Mothership in Durham instead of CURRENT, the ritual, called Nu Mas(k)ulinities, aimed to understand and heal toxic masculinity. It was, as Eb. Brown told me, a “theoretical deconstruction of masculinity.” This comes at a time when society is awakening to the particularly damaging ways in which toxic masculinity has affected the Black community. Unlike the final public performance, these intimate rituals were created by and for Black cis, trans, gender non-conforming men and nonbinary masculine folks interested in healing toxic masculinity. Quick and easy solutions were not the intent. Rather, participants were to explore their own understandings of masculinity and how they affected others and themselves, mostly in silence.

Silence, I found, creates clarity.

The ritual took place in a small anteroom that suggested years of wear and tear, its white, dusty walls decorated with framed prints. Alongside folding chairs sat a large, ornate table with a goldish-brown tablecloth—our altar. To accommodate our silent experience, Eb. and Joie covered many of the paintings and shielded us from any sunlight. Shut off from outside, we could find lucidity in a noiseless environment. The room felt calm and welcoming, helping me loose the chains that have long ensnared my own thoughts about masculinity.

In silence—no one spoke but Eb., intermittently—we (seven of us) began by writing down our intentions for attending and placed them on the altar, along with other items Eb. had instructed us to bring, things we felt tied us to a healthy masculinity. Each participant silently placed his items on the altar, creating an eclectic collection (books, keys, a poster of James Baldwin, figurines, photos) that revealed a vibrant diversity of masculinities.

I added my expired military identification card, a copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, and the edited volume Keywords for African American Studies. The items represented a silent commitment to uplift healthy interventions against toxic masculinity. 

Aside from soft music and Eb.’s mellow voice guiding us, participants sat, stood, or moved in silence. This silence allowed me to have an individual experience within a shared space; I held my own reflections while bearing witness to others’ private revelations. Within this pure silence, I began to release my preconceptions about the event and the people around me.

Eb. then led us on a journey to self-actualization. Through a meditative process, he brought us to confined corridors within our minds, where we might release our nerves and surrender the tension hemmed up in our guts. Throughout the various thought exercises, my weariness and uncertainty gave way to openness and patience. For me, silence demanded this sincere participation. We became both audience and performers, teachers and students. We listened to Eb., yes, but we also were meant to listen to ourselves, safe in silence to explore our own insecurities. When I heard Eb. ask, “What have you done to hurt the feminine you? What have you done to hurt the masculine you?” my own question arose within me: “How have I hidden my authentic self away?”

While the silence was freeing, it was equally challenging. Near the ritual’s end, we were asked to look deeply at another participant. In silence, we simply stared into one another’s eyes—the gateway to the soul. Social norms dictate that men not do this, so just this looking was an act of resistance. It wasn’t easy. As I stared into my partner’s eyes, I felt terribly afraid, vulnerable, even disgusted at myself. My flaws and mistakes felt written all over my face. But soon, I felt seen. I felt free. Someone saw me for me—no words, no names, no background. Just me.

Does silence make us see things that we otherwise would not? About others? About ourselves?

Silence allows us to receive others’ pain, trauma, neglect, and hurt. It makes us active listeners in a world filled with people who only wish to speak. We all want to be heard, but how often do we allow others to be seen? How often do we listen to others and even to ourselves? Here, silence provided the path toward healing.

Although the ritual I attended will not be recreated, others will have the chance to see moments of it during the Nu Mas(k)ulinities public performance in June, and may perhaps find a sacred space, as I did. Through silence, I found, deep within myself, a clarity that I never knew I was longing for.

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