Last week, NBC News ran an op-ed from Danielle Moodie-Mills, a very smart sista whose stuff you should be reading, titled “Does the Revolution Begin With a Free Black Child?” In the piece, she identifies the sartorial and behavioral eccentricities of young black celebrities—including Jaden Smith, Willow Smith and Zendaya Coleman—as indicators of a growing black liberalism that challenges the white American status quo.
Moodie-Mills suggests that respectability politics have caused us to turn up our noses at the “freedom” these black kids demonstrate by the way they dress and give interviews loaded with fake-deep, pseudointellectual, New Age f—kery.
She’s correct to a degree: Our conditioning has been conditioned to the point where we’re still expected to stifle our culture in the interest of conformity. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in dress, speech and hairstyles that tidily fit a Eurocentric standard. However, Moodie-Mills’ primary argument requires an asterisk or three: The “conscious, future-thinking black liberationists” she cites all benefit from class privilege.
Jaden and Willow give off the aura that they do whatever they please, at least publicly. Even if that’s not entirely true, Jada Pinkett Smith admits that she’s not a conventional parent. But she also doesn’t have a conventional net worth, and her kids don’t run in conventional circles.
Where does that leave the vast majority of black kids who are products of the proletariat? Certainly operating under a different degree of “freedom” than is allowed to the Smith kids.
I’ve yet to sire any spawn, but I’m generally in support of teenagers expressing themselves through their clothes and hair, to a certain degree. Unlike certain Stimpy-caliber idiots who think that the black community is progressively effeminizing its sons (while completely ignoring how straight dudes dressed in the early 1980s), I don’t think that Jaden dressing like a Bratz doll is problematic on its face.
However, Jaden will probably never have to worry about wearing the right clothes to interview for an office job. But there’s a good chance that your black son will someday, so he should learn how and when to dress accordingly.
During my solitary year as a full-time high school teacher, I built and taught a speech-and-communications curriculum designed to train black kids on Chicago’s far South Side on how to develop résumés, give interviews, speak publicly and dress appropriately for certain contexts. I became intimately aware of the fact that many black kids around Jaden’s age require more formal training to accompany their freedom of expression.
Sagging jeans—perhaps the worst, most persistent fashion style of all time—mean something much different to a Smith kid from what they mean to that teenager from Chatham whom the manager at Taco Bell automatically dismissed when he rolled up to a job interview with three-quarters of his ass showing.
The bigger issue of “freedom” for youths of any stripe is how it can clash with discipline and the foundational respect that all young people should carry for their elders. My parents always welcomed and supported my creative expression, but I never felt “free” from the (oft-executed) possibility of an ass whippin’ if I got out of line.
My pops was the enforcer—he came through like Super Saiyan Vegeta with a belt without asking too many questions, every now and again accidentally getting me with the belt buckle (which I imagined felt something like what happened to old dude in that one movie). Moms was about the psychological warfare; I didn’t live with her, so she warned me days in advance when I was gonna get f—ked up. Just when I thought she’d forgotten about it, she’d trap me in a room while wielding a pair of cleated Indian moccasins. Imagine me laid out in the fetal position, crying with a grid of pink welts on my high-yellow ass.
Just the same, I loved them both, and didn’t “fear” either one. Because (I think) I turned out just fine, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper extolling the virtues of corporal punishment. I disowned the piece 15 years later because I no longer think it’s necessary to put welts on your child in the name of discipline. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is not only a fake-as-f—k Bible quote, but it also serves as a detriment to a kid’s development.
But I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen these New N—ga Parents (henceforth NNPs) go in the completely opposite direction, contributing to something of a devolution of black parenting. My theory about NNPs is that they were justifiably so traumatized by their own harsh, often abusive upbringing that they fail to strike a proper disciplinary balance with their own kids.
When I taught, it was the hell spawn of NNPs who felt the “freedom” to puff up their bony, underdeveloped, 14-year-old chests to square up to me and cuss me out like a grown man, knowing full well that swearing back at them could cost me my job (and a roundhouse kick to the windpipe would lead to an appearance on the evening news). Their rallying call: “You can call my mama, I don’t care!”
NNPs don’t care that their child is the sole reason that poor Miss So-and-So needs to down half a fifth of Jose Cuervo Especial just to muster up the ability to drive to work every morning. But don’t let their kid earn anything less than a B-minus—boy, the NNPs will be up at that school faster than you can say, “You are not the father!”
Moodie-Mills asked, “What would the world look like if we allowed our black children to be as free as their white peers? If we encouraged their inquisitiveness and impulsiveness instead of telling them to be quiet, get in line and follow instructions?”
Inquisitive and impulsiveness can be a wonderful thing; as a parent, you should stoke the creativity in your child to the degree that your means allows it. But whether or not we want to accept it, there’s some degree of social conformity by which we need to abide in order to become gainfully employed, productive members of society.
I think that black liberation as it relates to us plebeians starts with candid conversations from an early age—my father’s openness about sex when I was still in single digits kept me without accidental babies or diseases. My mother opening up a checking account for me when I was a teen and teaching me respect for the dollar and my credit carried into adulthood.
Create a positive yet structured foundation in your child, and the “freedom” that comes as a result will likely be a positive thing … not a couple of rich kids and supposed role models waxing stupid on how wack school is.
Maybe Will and Jada are NNPs, but they can afford to be. Most of us cannot.
Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavyweights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. You can find more of his work at VerySmartBrothas.com.