Learning How To Smile

According to the CDC, homicide(1) & suicide(4) rank as two of the top five causes of death for Black males aged 1-44 in the US. In my opinion, the main culprit behind this utterly insane & depressing statistic is that Black men are not expected, encouraged, or allowed to be happy.

Learning How To Smile
Smiling doesn't come naturally to all of us lol

According to the CDC, homicide(1) & suicide(4) rank as two of the top five causes of death for Black males aged 1-44 in the US. In my opinion, the main culprit behind this utterly insane & depressing statistic is that Black men are not expected, encouraged, or allowed to be happy. From the arrival of the first slave ships, Black men have faced relentless dehumanization; not only by those who captured & colonized us, but also within our own communities. Recent initiatives like "Black Boy Joy" signal some recognition of the dire state of Black men's mental health, yet they barely scratch the surface in addressing the deep-seated issues that have distorted our collective perception of Black male success in America.

Now ever since I can remember I been...

Growing up, acceptable expressions for a Black boy in my social circles were limited to strength (read: hard), nonchalance, dominance(via athletics, women, or violence), & humor. In high school, if I would have randomly smiled at another Black boy I probably would have been met with a response like 'what the fuck are you smiling at?' or 'you see somethin' you like?', in a threatening tone. Back then the only markers for success for a Black male were making a lot of money, having a lot of women, & constantly stunting on those whom you felt were beneath you. As a result, many Black men who have made it out of those oppressive environments still find it hard to genuinely smile because of the conditioning that had been placed upon us in our youth.

Puberty was not kind to the kid πŸ˜” This was the closest you were getting to a smile from me back then.

Personally, my obstacles to smiling were two-fold:

  1. for whatever reason, God decided not to gift me with an innate technical understanding of how smiles work
  2. being that I was already perceived as sensitive I dared not do anything that would further project that I was vulnerable

This resulted in me internalizing of a narrative that equated vulnerability with weakness & joy with frivolity which meant for most of my youth, you couldn't pay me to smile. Fortunately, a tragedy later in my life revealed to me that there is no greater display of strength than vulnerability & embracing my inner softness is ironically what inspired me to want to learn how to smile again.

The Barriers

I promise I'm actually trying here πŸ˜‚

Smiling is something that is uniquely human. Even babies, who have no concept of happiness or humor, smile often, proving that smiling is something innate - beyond logic or reason. It's a universal expression that transcends cultural boundaries, typically communicating happiness, friendliness, & openness. And it conveying those emotions are precisely why I felt like I wasn't allowed to smile as a boy during my formative years. I can't say that I grew up in a happy home. As a child, being too happy or having 'too much fun' was seen as an offense, likely due to my mother's own trauma which reduced her capacity to experience, & consequently to allow, joy. She would tell us to smile for pictures but there really seemed to be a deep disconnect within her, & my family in general, between smiling and happiness. We were attached to an identity of struggle, poverty, and pain and I truly feel like that's why smiling, joy, & fun were always something that felt restricted in my home to an extent. Not only that, I feel like my mother often saw happiness and the smiling that came as a result of it as a lack of discipline, fearing that if her children are "too happy," we might become less manageable or lose focus on responsibilities & obligations inevitably leading me to feel guilty for experiencing joy or fun.

The last whooping I remember getting came after disobeying my mom after she told me not to go over my Aunt's house across the street while she was at work. My cousins were over there & I loved playing with them so I was super bummed to not be able to go. I stepped outside my house & saw my Grannie sitting on the porch at my Aunt's house. She saw me outside, likely looking pitiful and sad, and she told me to come over... which is exactly what I wanted to happen lol. My child logic told me that yes, I should obey my mother BUT my mother should obey her mother & since her mother said I was good to come over, I should be good, right? Well, my mother came home from work, saw that I was at my Aunt's house, brought me back home, & whooped me. In her mind, I'm sure the punishment was due to me disobeying her but in my mind, the punishment was due to me being happy & having fun. This subconsciously programmed me to feel that being happy will ultimately lead to pain. You, like me, may have experienced the phenomenon of feeling afraid to be happy or noticing that you are happy and immediately being afraid of it ending. I think this is due to experiences similar to the one I just recalled where smiling or being happy ultimately ended in suffering.

Probably my first ever seflie. Too bad I look like a psychopath.

For some reason, smiling seems to communicate vulnerability & vulnerability was not seen as an attractive quality in men when I was coming up. I often look back on old school pictures and came across three that illustrated to me that I consciously started to refrain from smiling around the age of 10. This is around the age that I stopped being given the grace of a young boy for being sensitive and had to start showing that I was 'hard' or deal with the consequences of being seen as soft. I wanted to be accepted by the men in my life who appeared to be tough so I started to form this outer shell to try and prevent my soft insides from being exposed. But the problem is, it never actually stopped me from being affected. When I saw the list of who made the basketball team in middle school & noticed that my name wasn't on it, I stood emotionless, as if it didn't matter to me at all. But on the inside I was dying - and it took everything in me not to break down crying right there in front of all the other boys who had made the team. Luckily, I was able to hold back my tears long enough to be excused to go to bathroom where I could cry in privacy.

This was one of the experiences that led me to start hating myself. I hated myself for not being good enough to make the team & I hated myself for not being hard enough to not care. I really look back on those times with awe these days because back then I had no outlet for those feelings - I just had to eat them. There was no friend, no coach, no teacher to comfort me. My mom was likely relieved that I didn't make the team because it meant having one less thing one her plate to manage. I really have no idea how I made it through those moments but somehow I did. But the cost of 'making it through' was the inability to outwardly express any positive or negative emotion in a healthy way throughout my teenage and young adult years.

The Breakthrough

Rumi says 'You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens' and I would have never fully understood what he meant by that had I not been told by my mother that she effectively had terminal cancer. I remember hanging up from that call with her and trying to go to work after the initial shock subsided. And like that moment when I didn't see my name on the list of who made the basketball team, I was dying on the inside. Except this time, I didn't bother excusing myself to the bathroom to cry in privacy. Instead, I sat there at my desk, in a call center of about 1000 people, bawling my eyes out in front of all the guys & all the girls I'd previously wanted to be seen as tough by until my supervisor came over & sent me home. This was the straw that broke the camels back. I no longer had the capacity to care about what others thought about my emotional expressions. It was as if the levy that had been holding back all these feelings for so many years finally gave way to the pressure leading to an irreversible flooding of emotions that refused to be stopped or controlled.

β€œThe first half of life is learning to be an adult, the second half is learning to be a child.” - Picasso

I spent the next two years purging what seemed to be an unending flow of negative emotions. Guilt and shame surrounding my sensitivity. Guilt and shame surrounding how suppressing my sensitivity led me to treat others poorly. Anger and hatred towards those who'd made me feel inferior for having feelings. Anger and hatred towards myself for having feelings. But throughout the purging of all these negative emotions, something strange also happened - I found myself having moments of joy, peace, and happiness as well. I found myself smiling through the tears & often felt a sense of joy and peace from refusing to continue to deny my true self. I learned that the walls I'd built around my heart to block out the pain were also blocking out the happiness. It turns out, we can't just pick and choose the emotions we want to feel and through allowing myself to finally feel all the nasty emotions that I'd been avoiding for years, I also allowed myself to feel all the positive emotions that had been seemingly avoiding me for years. I found a strength within myself that I truly had never seen in any of the supposedly 'hard' men who had teased me for being weak as a boy. And this newfound strength made me feel powerful. It made me feel happy. It made me want to smile and to dare anyone to try and stop me.

"A smile costs nothing but gives much."

Tumblr post I made back in the day of the only picture I ever took smiling in college. I was unaware at the time that it was, in fact, traumatic experiences that made me not want to smile.

For a while, I still kept these smiles private because even though it felt good to me to smile, I damn sure didn't think that it looked good on me. Part of it was the fact that I honestly just thought I looked weird smiling - especially smiling with teeth. The other issue was that deep down I still didn't feel like society would find a smiling Black man as an acceptable thing. And to be honest, I still don't love the way I look when I smile, it's just that I no longer care about how other people believe I should show up. I've been blessed with the gift of genuine happiness and liberated from what author Jason Wilson brilliantly defines as 'emotional incarceration' - that being a prison of Black men not being allowed to express the full range of emotions. Being given this gift, I feel called to be an example of what's possible for others like me. Because , being a Black man myself, I know that we're just as human as every one else. We want love and happiness just as bad as everyone else. So regardless to how stupid I feel like smiling makes me look, I do it in the hopes to teach my brothers that being healed & happy is the only real success there is.

Me and Grannie - one of my biggest reasons to smile.

Growth Challenge

The Public Smiling Experiment

  • Description: For a day, consciously decide to smile at people you interact withβ€”on the street, at home, at work, in the store. Observe their reactions and how it makes you feel.
  • Goal: To experience firsthand the impact of your smile on the world and yourself, challenging any fears or beliefs you have around public perception of your emotions.
  • Tips: Use discernment - as I highlighted in this post, not everyone sees smiles as a friendly gesture lol. If you're a single person, it might not be a good idea to smile at someone else's partner. Typically when we make eye contact with someone, we can sense where they are energetically. Trust your intuition.


The theme for February's newsletters is Self-Compassion. I've found that it's generally a lot easier for me to have compassion for others than it is for myself and I wanted to explore all the reasons that might be & how to overcome them. The practice of self-compassion encourages us to acknowledge our flaws and mistakes without harsh judgment, fostering a more forgiving and nurturing attitude towards ourselves. In a world that often emphasizes perfection and productivity at the expense of personal wellness, learning to be compassionate towards ourselves is literally a game-changer. It helps us navigate life's challenges with greater resilience, promotes a healthier self-image, and improves our relationships with others. I'm really looking forward to exploring self-compassion and the self-love that will grow from it together this month.

Thank you for showing up to do this work with me and I'll see you next week πŸ’œ