Jermaine Wright (makeup by Jade Landon) is a dancer and youth organizer who defies a singular definition. Credit: ThoughtPoet

Toxic masculinity—the set of unspoken rules that say what it means to be a “man”—denies male-identified people from expressions of vulnerability, sadness, pain, and even joy. This photo essay, titled #SadBoyEnergy (The Prelude), is a dive into the vulnerability of what it means for Black men to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and how that connects with the setbacks of showing genuine emotion that isn’t harmful to others through imagery and collaborative perspectives. 

Fighting against worry and depression has always been a war for me, ever since I learned what melancholy even was. Sadness has always been my comfort place. A universe I’m all-too familiar with all too well. I’ve never strayed away from this perspective and foundation that resides in my soul. It gives me the power to be honest. 

Trying to understand myself more has been leading me to find my roots and examine how my life choices have crafted me into who I am. I come from the blood of a Four Corner Hustla from out west Chicago and an ex-soldier from Virginia who never raised me. Yet here I stand, protected by a rising phoenix disguised as prayers from grandma. Regardless of how you feel about me, my destiny is already written.

I used to cry because I never knew who my family was, but now I use those tears to manifest my own peace that will inspire those around me. I’m learning who I am so that I can break generational curses by just existing. I’m not about to regress and destroy my peace. I’ll die before that happens.

I’m remaining focused so that my burdens may inspire and strengthen a city to save itself. A wandering angel disguised as a storyteller from Tuley Park. The big brother with no big brother of his own, who will empower a community through his struggles so that they will prosper. 

These photos are of masculine-identified Black men who do so much for the south and west side communities of Chicago, and who often don’t get asked if they are okay emotionally. In modern American society, many Black men aren’t checked in on about their mental health, and have lower rates of access to therapy and other mental and emotional support systems.This disparity often manifests as higher suicide rates and shorter average lifespans. 

These photos capture a certain vulnerability that most Black men don’t speak on.

Journalist Dometi Pongo curated open mics and now exemplifies the idea that one can be creative and still be themselves. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Producer Renzell constantly considers how to curate Chicago culture to allow artists to be themselves and represent their communities. Credit: ThoughtPoet
LetUsBreathe Collective co-founder and AirGo podcast co-host Damon Williams works to create a world without police through mutual aid and transformative justice. Credit: ThoughtPoet
South Shore Drill Team members say it is one of the few outlets that allows them to decompress. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Organizer and poet Toni Mono leads weekly “peace circles,” and grapples with emotional health by diving into community work. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Musician Chai Tulani honored a friend and fellow Chicago creative who passed away with original compositions written to uplift their community. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Footworkers Chi Blu and Rashad Harris facilitate free, blissful dance sessions that welcome Chicagoans of all ages. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Scientist and rapper Jordan “DXTR Spits” Holmes’s latest project, “How Men Cry,” seeks to change the narrative around mental health. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Organizer and artist Heavy Crownz’s music reflects his native Englewood and exuberates positive change for Chicago’s communities. Credit: ThoughtPoet
Runway model Carl Veney leans into the faith he learned at Burnside Community Baptist Church to sustain his mental health. Credit: ThoughtPoet

Black joy ‘Is where it’s at!’

When artist Adeshola Makinde thinks about the work in his current exhibition, it’s a giant, larger-than-life canvas image of the legendary Louis Armstrong—Makinde’s largest-scale piece he’s done to date—that rises to the top of his favorites list. “To me, [Armstrong] represented unrelenting optimism, amidst what I could imagine was pretty, pretty unbearable things that he…