Black Boy Joy

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My joyful boy at his favorite place – the aquarium

My son started at a new school a week or so ago. Other than his father, he is the bravest person I know, and I know he is going to be just fine. In time, he will be fine.

 

In the meantime, there are wobbles here and there. I am doing my very best to still my own wobbles and hold him steady through this period of change. We will be fine. One of the ways I know we will be fine is because he can talk to me. On a drive to his best friend’s birthday party where he got to see and play with friends from his old school, he said quietly, “When I’m at school, I miss my friends”.  “I know, baby”, I responded. “I know and I’m sorry.” Deep breath in, and out.  This is okay, I tell myself. He can tell me and I need to show him that I can handle it. I hope the day never comes when he has to think twice before he shares his sorrows with me.

 

This morning, I have my own sorrows. I am sad about the death of Kobe Bryant. I don’t know why. I’m not a sports fan by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. I don’t all that much about Kobe, except that he played a beautiful game for 20 some years all for one team, which is remarkable in the basketball universe. I also know he raped a 19-year-old girl. I know he treated his wife poorly. I know that he was considered a god in his craft, and like all men with delusions of divinity, he behaved as if he did not owe anyone anything.

 

And yet. I can’t help but gasp out loud when I see footage of him flying and performing superhuman feats on the court. I know nothing about sport, but I know beauty and that is beauty. In this world, superhuman ability and beauty are not often assumed to co-occur in black bodies. In black male bodies. Superhuman strength, sure. When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, he was described as looking ‘older’ than his age, implying he presented some sort of physical threat.  Michael Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Brown infamously said,

When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan […] Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.

Black male bodies are often associated with brute strength and superhuman ability. Often, these are used to emphasize the threat presented by those bodies, and justify actions taken to address that perceived threat. In Kobe’s world, this is not all that different. I have often heard of people speak of black men’s natural aptitude for sport, as if it is some kind of genetic predisposition.

 

In some ways, Kobe complicated this narrative. He played a beautiful game, but he did not pretend that it was innate or easy. He worked hard. And all of that effort played out gracefully before audiences around the world. It’s no wonder we were all so enthralled and desperate to love him. Here was a black person, using their body to make magic, and escaping the usual mores of the superhuman negro.  It’s no wonder he was so beloved. He was black boy joy.

 

It’s no wonder he felt like a god.

 

My sadness is borne of all of it. The loss of this talent, and beauty, but also the realisation that our culture is so starved and desperate of black boy joy that we are not able to hold our idols to some sort of account. This reckoning of all of the losses feels like a stripping away of some innocence.

 

I worry about my son. I worry so much, I wake up feeling ill to my stomach. He is a beautiful boy. He loves as he is loved by his family and friends – fully, and openly and without condition. Will the world love him in the same way? Does he need to work himself to the bone and embrace the warped masculinity that is endemic in the sporting world in order for the world to see his beauty? Or will they just see something otherworldly, threatening.

 

My first thought when I heard about Kobe was: Vanessa. It is the last thought I will leave here. For she is a mother, just like I am. And while I have my partner and our families to help me continue to celebrate my son’s beauty, Vanessa has lost her daughter and her children’s father in one devastating blow. May the grace we all saw in Kobe, against all evidence and ugly truths, settle over her and her family.

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