Kendi: Donald Glover, Jaden Smith, and the Future of Blackness

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I don’t remember most of eighth grade.

I did not have a great time (who does?) and have spent a great deal of energy forgetting those days. But now that I am a high school grad, a whole four years older, I can reflect on that time with a bit more curiosity and a bit less cringing.

One overarching theme in my eighth grade experience was identity, especially as it pertained to race. Specifically, the idea of what it meant to be Black; what it was and, even more so, what it was not. In my eighth grade class of about 350 kids in Atlanta, Georgia, the majority of us were Black.

We were a diverse group of students. We were light skinned, dark skinned, comedic, academic, country, hood, boujie, a spectrum of people and personalities all connected under our racial identity. We were all so different as human beings, yet we were expected to behave under a singular idea of what others thought it meant to be Black.

It meant you listened to one kind of music, Rap, and preferably Trap.

It meant you dressed one way (I got my first pair of Jordan’s in eighth grade and have not worn them since I left).

It meant you talked one way,

walked one way,

didn’t give a fuck about school or really anything at all one way,

and moved through the world in one narrow, restricting, manner.

If you didn’t adhere to this invisible set of rules, you weren’t “really Black.” You were an oreo, a coconut, or any other food that insisuated exterior Blackness and interior whiteness. “white” was anything “Black” was not.

I’ve seen this change drastically over my high school years. The definition of what it means to be Black in America has expanded to mean and accept a broader spectrum of identities than ever before. This can largely be attributed to an emergence of diverse media portrayals of Black people in movies, television and music. Famous Black artists across all fields have worked to intentionally push the boundaries of what Black is, and what it can be.

Donald Glover, also known by his music alias Childish Gambino, has been vocal about pushing this boundary for years. In his 2011 debut studio album titled “Camp,” he raps candidly about not fitting in with Black or white kids his age. The emergence of Black kids who shared that same sentiment became the foundation of his fanbase.

In 2014, Donald took to Twitter to write a poem about being Black in America, highlighting the fact that white people inherently have the freedom to be whatever or whoever they want in this country because their race is seen as the “default.” They are, in essence, blank slates, whereas being Black in America comes with a set of defined stereotypes, expectations, and often limitations.

The poem was ahead of its time and received heavy criticism after it’s publishing. Now, at a point when the entire nation is having race related conversations, the piece seems more relevant than ever.

Donald Glover is one of many Black artists broadening the definition of Blackness for future generations. Musician, actor, and all around icon, Jaden smith sent the internet into a frenzy in 2018 when he posted a picture of himself wearing a dress. People seemed absolutely BAFFLED by the idea of this Black boy, mostly known for his role in the “Karate Kid” remake, confidently walking the streets in a dress.

His response was a short and sweet Tweet that read, “If I Wanna Wear A Dress, Then I Will, And That Will Set The New Wave…” Now, he regularly sports clothes labeled “gender non-conforming,” while rocking gold grills to go with them.

The same could be said for artist Tyler the Creator, who can be seen promoting his most recent album titled “Igor,” wearing a pastel pink suit and bright blonde wig. Artists like Frank Ocean, Lil Nas X, Kevin Abstract, and many more who have helped pave the way for Black people in the LGBTQ+ community by coming out and advocating for social change surrounding sexuality within the Black community.

Things have changed a lot since I was in eighth grade. While social media most certainly has its drawbacks, it also exposes young people to diverse role models they may not see otherwise. It helps to normalize what may not be normal in their everyday circle, like boys wearing dresses. Being Black no longer means you must fit into a mold, it means you get to break the mold, set the trends and be the culture you wish to see in the world.

I wish eighth grade me could have known all this. I walk Black, talk Black, and move through this world Black simply because I am Black and that can mean whatever I want it to.