"What you say to me?" -- Solange Knowles
If you would have told me three years ago that today, I would voluntarily spend my free time with a baby laying on my chest scrolling through YouTube to watch cartoons and "Sesame Street," I would have told you that you were a liar and ya mama only uses one egg in her cornbread. But here we are.
"Sesame Street" was one of my favorite childhood shows. When my son was born one year ago, I couldn't wait to share in some of my favorite books and programming that helped to shape me during my youth with him. As the parent of a young Black boy, it is important to me that he sees people who look like him reading books, enjoying the process of learning and expressing joy.
Fortunately, "Sesame Street" has always and continues to dedicate itself to proportionate representation of people of color throughout its programming and merchandising. It's the only place on television where you can watch Usher sing the ABC's with Elmo, Bruno Mars sing about self-confidence and Romero Santos sing- a-long with the residents of "Sesame Street."
One of the many wonderful videos we watched was entitled "I Love My Hair," an ode to Black hair in its natural form. The video features an adorable Black girl muppet singing and frolicking in celebration of her love for her beautiful Black hair. She sings about how beautiful it makes her feel. She boasts about how she can braid it, cornrow it, wear it an afro, or let it hang and flow. Kinky, curly, coiled... no matter the form, her hair is beautiful.
As a parent, especially of a young Black child, you want to feel like you are instilling a sense of pride in your child at a young age. I looked over to my son who was sitting on my lap and he was in love with this song at first listen! He was bouncing up and down, laughing, smiling, pointing at the screen and I swear I thought I saw him do the Bankhead bounce but I could be wrong. Either way, it was one of the most adorable things I have ever witnessed.
My little man has a lot of hair. When he was born, he had a head full of jet black straight hair. As he has gotten older, his mature grain has set in and his mane is full, brown, curly and full of silky coils. When the sunlight hits it just right, the brown hue in his hair shines brightly and you can see every spiral in his big beautiful Black baby boy afro. His hair is just one of the many forms that Black hair grows in naturally and it is just as beautiful as all the rest.
When it is time for bed, I rub his head and his hair until he falls asleep. His mother washes it and takes care of it, keeping it clean, moisturized and fresh. When he is sleepy, he plays in his afro and he lets us know it is time for a nap. His hair is an extension of his identity already, and his mother and I love to watch it grow. It's so beautiful.
Unfortunately, as I sat there watching my son dance and express joy at a song celebrating one of the most beautiful things we as Black people possess, our hair, the only thing I could think about was the inevitable day that someone, probably a well-intentioned older Black person, would tell him that he needs to wear his hair a certain way that is "universally acceptable" in order to be successful. All I could see was the day my son's joy and smile would be wiped away, the way little Black boys always have their joy and innocence taken away by those who allege to "mean well." I have never felt sadder.
[My son's] hair is an extension of his identity already, and his mother and I love to watch it grow. It's so beautiful.
At the age of 1, my wife and I have no intentions of cutting his hair anytime soon. However, we have already been given unsolicited opinions and "advice" about how to "manage" our son's hair from other Black people. "When are you going to cut it?" "You aren't going to braid it are you!?" "He is going to look so nice when its cut low!"
He's 1. His hairline isn't even fully formed. He still has a bald patch in the back of his head because... he's only 1... and his hair is still growing. My wife also wears her hair naturally and utilizes a hair maintenance system on herself that she has translated onto my son's hair as well. His hair is always combed. It is always moisturized. It always smells good. It is always washed. His hair is beautiful... but yet for some it isn't enough. Even at 1... a Black boy's image is policed.
Many of us in the African American community are familiar with the older guard's imposition of respectability politics and assimilation. For many of our elders, the road to success and even survival is making sure that our appearance and actions as Black people do not make White people uncomfortable. It's when your grandmother told you as a child to make sure you put a hat on your head so you "won't get too dark." It lives within the slight faded marks around the nape of your neck ladies that serve as reminders of light burns from Saturday night hot comb sessions to make your hair "straight and pretty." Or the complaints your mama muttered about you as she braided and combed your "nappy" and "bad" hair before Easter service.
It's when you are told by your Black English teacher that "You have to be twice as good as your white counterparts to get half of what they have" -- as if success and intelligence in Black children is something to strive for to spite white people instead of something we are taught to want, achieve, embrace and excel in for ourselves, our own growth, pleasure, satisfaction and community advancement.
For Black men, there has always been an underlying unspoken spoken that there is only one way to be a "respectable" or "GOOD" Black man. This mindset is embedded in the minds of little Black boys at a very early age. "Good Black boys go to church." "Black boys don't cry." "You are alright boy!" "Don't embarrass me in this store in front of these White folks!" "Get you a good job and you have to make a lot of money or else you ain't a man." "Don't settle down too young, have fun at the expense of women." But at a certain age "Boy you need to settle down and find you a good woman and give me some grandbabies!" "Pull your pants up." "Your pants are too baggy." "Your pants are too tight."
Even our hair is policed by those who claim to have our best interests at heart. "Good Black boys don't have dreadlocks and cornrows." "Cut that hair boy. No son of mine is going to be out here looking like a thug." "How do you expect people to take you seriously with braids?" "With dreadlocks?" "With an afro?" I mean damn Big Mama can I live?!
Who is afraid of the free Black boy?
The Black boy that likes Kendrick Lamar and Linkin Park. The Black boy that may not grow up to be a deacon but loves humanity and finds God outside of the "church" and "organized religion"?
What about the successful, compassionate Black boy that has it all but will never have a wife because he prefers to have a husband? Is he not a good Black man? Can he not be a good father too? What about the Black boy that has locks that grow freely from his scalp that he allows to coil and loop into a unique manifestation of crowning Black glory as their hair follicled heart's desire? Is his freedom congruent to being good?
We have to learn to let our boys be free. When you stifle, police and control Black boys, you leave unfinished works in progress who grow into men who are still boys at heart.
We have to learn to let our boys be free. When you stifle, police and control Black boys you leave unfinished works in progress who grow into men who are still boys at heart. Confused about our identities. Little boys who become men who never feel like they are enough. Little boys who become men who equate their manhood and masculine identity in the amount of money they make and the amount of women they can sexually conquer. Boys who suffer from anxiety and depression. Boys who never feel like they are enough ...but can't talk about it because men don't talk about our emotions. This isn't creating strength; it is fostering weakness. We are creating men who do not know who they are, but are forced to navigate the world pretending that we are fully in control of our identities, sexualities, bodies and our emotions. The reality is many of us are a wreck inside because of all of the constraints we have on our lives as Black men. And it all starts from the first time you question when is that little Black boy getting his nappy hair cut?
Elders, it's not your fault. The time periods that you grew up in have shaped your opinions and what you deem to be acceptable. You grew up watching your father called "boy" by white men. You watched 5-year-old children call your mother "Shirley" and "Marjorie" instead of Mrs. Johnson or Mrs. Parson as you were taught to call their mothers until the day you die. You remember seeing Emmitt Till's disfigured corpse for allegedly whistling at a white woman. All of those fears and ways that you were taught to deal with white supremacy as a child came rushing back to you when you became a parent and you attempted to pass them on to your children because that is what you know. But you are clipping your child's wings before they learn to fly. You are killing the beauty that is Black girl magic and Black boy joy.
You are going to have to be afraid of my son. Don't touch his hair.
He will be a free Black boy. And at the age of 1, free to let his hair grow however the almighty sees fit. Free to love. Free to talk. Free to understand. Free to ask questions. Free to disagree. Free to read books. Free to express himself. Free to love art. Free to love sports. Free to hate sports. Free to date. Free to learn Spanish, French, Mandarin and Swahili. Free to rap. Free to sing. Free to define himself. Free to desire. Free to dream. Free to find God. Free to question God. Free to dance. Free to smile. Free to cry. Free to show joy. Free to be Black. Free to be that little boy in my lap dancing in joy of his beautiful Black hair.
You will never steal his joy. Not this little Black boy.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.