NOTE: Link at bottom is now song instead of lyrics.
In our preparations to parent an African-American child we’re entering the once foreign world of rap music. Now, I have talked before (and Dawn has reminded me) about how race is a social construct. I am fully aware that Boomer is not going to emerge from the womb crying, “waaaaaayo! waaaaaaforreal! waaaaa’ight!” And I also know that he is going to culturally take after us the most, at least during his formative years.
However, because of his appearance, he is going to be perceived by the rest of society as black. This recognition means two things: many white people will treat him differently because of his hair texture and skin color, and because of this he will experience racism, both subtle and outright; and he will be in many cases accepted into the black community not just on his appearance alone but because of the experiences of being black in this country he will share with other black people. Also, of course, his birth parents will be black, and it is important for us to acknowledge and honor them in his upbringing.
Attic Man and I have talked a lot about code-switching. It’s something a lot of black folks have had to learn how to do. It’s the ability to change your speech patterns, body language, and other subtle cues to give you the best chance of surviving in whatever environment you find yourself in. So for instance, code-switching can allow a black man to be (more) accepted in both a corporate boardroom and on the corner. These are not the only two places–they are just examples. Other spaces include the family, the church (of all stripes), public thoroughfares, various neighborhoods, and all social classes (including middle-class black). The extent to which someone is able to code-switch often determines their level of success. And by success I don’t just mean the all-American make-alotta-money kind but also social success at all levels. I mean also belongingness.
At some point Boomer is going to feel compelled to make decisions about his identity as a black man in this world. This means he’s going to have to figure out what it means in terms of his white middle-class academic liberal upbringing and in terms of the other spaces he might be invited into. What I’m thinking is that if he chooses to identify as a black man whose history is connected to that of the larger African-American community, there is a certain amount of cultural knowledge he’s going to need to have. Of course we will make sure that he, just like any other child of any other ‘race’ we might have, has a thorough understanding of American history and the role of African-American people in it. But part of that history is also music and art and literature (both written and oral). We don’t want him to step out into the black community cold not knowing anything of it.
“Knowing” is different, though, from memorizing facts about black history and being able to recite the history of hip-hop. It means learning culture the old-fashioned way: by living it. Reading and listening out of context is, I believe, an irresponsible way to raise a child of color. Amber has written about the danger of appropriating other cultures and I agree with her. As she has described, a preschool of mostly white kids celebrating Kwanzaa from a teacher’s guide is not doing anything to advance understanding between social groups and may indeed serve to further alienate them. This kind of context-less appropriation is at the very least disrespectful and at the most racist. So we don’t intend to have lots of good ‘black’ books around play rap and jazz and have that be that. We intend to continue to make connections with black people, not in a forced way (“hey! you’re black! Let’s be friends!”) but by trying to accept opportunities when they arise. Sometimes that has meant putting ourselves in the position to have opportunities, like joining St. Benedict the Moor church. The advantage of this approach is not just that it gives our kid people who look like him and understand some of the issues he’ll be facing, but that other black people will be able to model for him different ways to be black. You can be black and a professional; black and a laborer; black and a rapper; black and a violinist; Afrocentric; loud; understated; proud; shy; and really, the list is endless. We want Boomer to encounter as many people as possible living in as many ways as possible.
The other reason for our foray into rap is for us and our own lingering racism. Rap is often seen by the white folks as the mouthpiece for a violent and misogynistic culture (as if black folks have the corner on that market…), and a brief flip through a rap video does nothing to disabuse one of that notion, as long as one is just passing through. But if we’re able to look at rap the same way we do other forms of cultural expression–as an artform that is, as I like to say to my students, in conversation with culture–we can start to look past that very simplistic white reading of rap (“it’s not real music; it’s just noise; it’s dirty and violent”) and think about how it reflects, critiques, distorts, interacts with, and transforms black culture. I hope that in doing so (and, again, in not limiting our experience to a few albums and videos out of context) we’ll be able to peel another layer of our deeply ingrained, subletly pervasive racism. This step is crucial because if Boomer cranks the stereo with Mos Def when he’s 15 we won’t have to worry about the “this is noise” comment also communicating that to be black is to be noisy and culturally unrefined, and that because Boomer is black he must also be noisy and culturally unrefined.
The plan is, then, to continue to read on hair and music and that sort of thing, and to start to acclimate our ears to different sounds, along with our continued effort to put ourselves in the path for friendships and acquaintanceships with black folks. We will be sure to play rap, among many other kinds of music (“white” and “black”) in our home and car. We’ve talked about the appropriateness of some of the lyrics–especially the use of the n word, which we’d like him to understand the implications of before he hears it in a song–and we’ve decided to play whatever for the first six months and then make some mixed CDs of stuff that’s more appropriate for younger kids. Right now very high on the list is an incredible piece by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, “Astronomy (8th Light)” from Blackstar.
I don’t have all the answers. I just think we owe it to our kid to explore the questions.
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