What Is a Brother?


This article originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of Esquire. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.

Perhaps you’ve seen the famous image that decorated everything from medallions to Wedgewood plates in the eighteenth century: a black slave bound, kneeling, eyes fixed heavenward, who asks, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Lincoln freed the slaves, so the story goes, and all men are created equal and therefore deserve equal protection of the law, but a brother . . . brother’s a different matter altogether, isn’t it.

I mean, if we’re brothers, who’s the mama? Who’s the daddy? Are we talking literal brothers here or some metaphysical tarbrush staining us all just because we all wiggle through the birth canal, born of woman, born to die?

Brother. Isn’t that what black guys call one another, and isn’t it reverse discrimination—a watered-down, conspiratorial echo of black power? Doesn’t the phrase “brotherhood of man” suggest a primal division—God’s separate creation of his creatures, multiple evolutionary bloodlines of white, black, red, and yellow—that it’s our duty to keep pure? Broederbond. Aryan brotherhood. The lost and found Nation of Islam.

When we look at a brother, do we see ourselves—similar features and faults, our shared humanity, common destiny; brothers beneath the skin in spite of our differences?

On the other hand, don’t brothers bring chaos into the world? Didn’t Cain murder Abel? Didn’t Joseph’s jealous brothers try to waste their younger sibling? What about Osiris and Set, Ahriman and Ahura Mazda, all those cosmic wombmates who went their separate ways, established warring kingdoms of light and dark, good and evil, the mythic Manichaean polarities that plague mankind even to this very moment?


We love our younger brothers, don’t we. Cute little buggers. We hate the sight of the tattling, tagalong nuisance, the late arrival who dares claim an equal share of our parents’ attention. An older brother is our first taste of tyranny. The big guy who shields us from bullies. When we’re really tight with somebody, we say, I love him like a brother. Big Brother spies on us. We grow unspeakably close to, unspeakably distant from, our brothers. We lose a brother, but he never goes away, his absence as tangible as the ghost pain of an amputated limb.

When we look at a brother, do we see ourselves—similar features and faults, our shared humanity, common destiny; brothers beneath the skin in spite of our differences? Or do we see what we aren’t—the dark side, the bad seed, the evil twin?

Is brother mired in the language and politics of male domination? Brother a means of extending, naturalizing patriarchal power, identifying family, passing property along the male lines? Recalling the chronicles of bloody feuds, fierce implosions of clans when women bear illegitimate heirs?

Did the revolutionary slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité leave someone out? Inevitably spawn a militant sisterhood still clamoring for a rightful share of the power its brothers usurped from the king?

If brothers weren’t raised by their parents but sent away at birth to grow up in separate households with no knowledge of one another, would there be some twilight-zone vibe of recognition if they passed each other on the street as adult strangers? If your answer is no, then wouldn’t you be within your rights if you responded to the kneeling slave by pointing out that maybe you are a man and a brother, since such categories are arbitrary, socially constructed? But so what. Why does that entitle you to any special consideration? If you say yes to the possibility of some transcendent, essential connector lodged in the souls of brothers, do you also believe that connection crosses race, gender, and class lines? Neither science nor religion has been consistently helpful to the kneeling slave.

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The poor brother’s still stuck on his knees, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t receive an answer. He should be asking a different question. Of course he’s a man and a brother. Why should he put that call in anyone else’s hands? His voice is the best, only, and final authority for membership in the human family. A better question might be, What kind of man or brother stoops to peddling human flesh?

Is it possible the enslaved man is lamenting not only the particular woes of his condition but also addressing, in his desperation, a universal dilemma that truly defines him as everyone’s brother: the existential loneliness and fear that comes with the knowledge that we are born alone and die alone? Isn’t that the daunting price of individual consciousness, the “I”? Eternal estrangement, the eternal threat of absolute extinction never more distant than the thickness of our skin. We know the inscrutable void that spit us out will one day just as abruptly gulp us down again. Isn’t this knowledge the razor’s edge we dance on all the days of our lives?

Brothers and sisters are a kind of hedge against oblivion. Although death remains a certainty, although time’s always running out, a brother, a sister, diverts time’s attention. Our attention. Multiplies our chances. Dilates time. Gives us more skin—thicker skin sometimes, thinner sometimes, more vulnerable—more time when we share joy, pain, terror, the bounties and threats out there. Share them with someone so much like us that the line dividing us blurs, becomes more like a permeable, superglue membrane.


If you’re struggling to rise off your knees, shed your chains, wouldn’t it be nice to find someone in this wide, surprising world who’s been where you’ve been and understands what you’re saying, who might be prepared to do unto you as he or she would have you do unto him or her if your circumstances were reversed? Someone behaving like we dream a good brother would.

FromEsquire US

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