written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Deesha Philyaw; originally published at Literary Mama
“He’s not one of the cool boys. The brown boys are cool, but he’s not.”
Then-almost-four-year-old Taylor pointed at a magazine photo of Israeli-born hip-hop music exec Lyor Cohen posing with the rap group Run-DMC. I knew she wasn’t mimicking anything she’d heard from her father or me, so I wondered about Taylor’s reasoning.
“Why isn’t he cool?” I asked, hoping I sounded nonchalant. History had shown that if I acted too interested in situations like this, if I let on this was Something Important, Taylor would shrug, clam up, and wander away in search of childish things.
“Because he’s white, not brown,” Taylor replied impatiently, conveying with her eyes the unspoken, “Don’t you know your colors, Mommy?”
“Can’t white people be cool?”
“No,” Taylor said, shaking her head. “Just brown people, like these cool boys.” In the photo, the three members of Run-DMC wore their trademark black hats and leather. Was wardrobe the essence of their cool in Taylor’s mind? Or was it the self-assured expressions on their faces?
I ruled out Run-DMC’s music as the reason for Taylor’s cool proclamation. She demonstrates little interest whenever mostly sanitized — and, therefore, mostly old-school — hip-hop music plays in our home. Like her parents’, Taylor’s taste in music is eclectic. Suzuki violin tunes, Spanish folk songs, and Shel Silverstein reading from Where the Sidewalk Ends are in heavy rotation on her CD player at bedtime.
I also knew that when Taylor affirmed black as cooler than white, this was not the result of a segregated life. Her classmates, family friends, and relatives by marriage, include not only whites, but also folks with roots in South America and India. The only preferences I’ve observed in her are those borne of a child’s natural self-interest: older girls know more games and squabble less over toys than girls her own age; boys tend to match her energy level better than girls; Uncle Wayne earned his privileged place in her heart by regularly hoisting her up and strumming her like an electric guitar while singing crazy ditties at the top of his lungs.
I wondered if Taylor considered any of the people in her life “cooler” than others solely because of the color of their skin. When had “cool” become more than a temperature in Taylor’s world, in the first place? How did concrete attributes — skin color, clothing, facial expressions — translate into the ambiguous “cool” for her? How does this translation work for any of us?
These questions quickly slippery-sloped to a query that is never far from my mind: What is race, really? Certain experiences have led me to declare it a meaningless social construct. But I have also experienced race as the essence of identity, of expression. For some, race is the essence of even life itself.
If the question of race isn’t challenging enough to me as an adult, life offers no shortage of opportunities to explain the concept of “blackness” to my preschooler. Peyton’s arrival was one such opportunity. The pictures emailed to us by the adoption agency a few days after Peyton’s birth prompted Taylor to ask: “Is she white? Or is she black but white, like Grandma?” “Grandma” is my mother-in-law, whose fair skin continues to be a source of confusion for Taylor. Her father, Taylor’s late great-grandfather, was a pale version of Frederick Douglass.
I explained that Peyton was lighter-skinned like Grandma, but still black like us. That seemed to satisfy Taylor for the moment, but after we brought Peyton home, she asked a few more times if Peyton was black or white. Her furrowed brow suggested skeptical acceptance of my answer.
And no wonder. Our skin is brown (or in the case of Grandma and Peyton, lighter than brown), but we are black. To a child’s mind: black where? What answer can I give that will make sense to her? Black in our speech, fashion sense, musical tastes? Such narrow definitions play dangerously close to stereotypes and inevitably exclude perfectly black black people. (If wearing a throw-back jersey dress or a platinum Jesus-piece were prerequisites for blackness, what would become of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, respectively?)
Blackness is something less tangible then — black in our souls? A year after our “Lyor Cohen is not cool” moment, and I am tempted to settle on this explanation. But then I remember: Taylor is only five years old. I also remember that on her bookshelf, alongside Dr. Seuss and The Magic School Bus science series, there are books of black folklore, books about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., books like Nappy Hair and I Love My Hair. There is Shades of Black, a book of photographs featuring children across the spectrum of black skin tones, hair textures, and eye color. These attributes are celebrated, likened to buttered popcorn, lamb’s wool, and rare gems. I don’t generally put much stock in mantras, but I make an exception for the book’s “I am Black, I am unique” refrain.
Black is everything and nothing. But in a world which necessitates the self-explanatorily titled Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?, color-blindness is not an option. In a world in which an adoption case worker compliments Peyton’s “good hair” and “nice, light” complexion, we don’t do Barbie. Little Afro-puffed black girls are bombarded as it is with cultural “beauty” standards which restrict them; an anatomically impossible representation of that standard simply adds insult to injury.
In her memoir The Black Notebooks, poet Toi Derricotte, a black woman, writes of often being mistaken for white. What makes her black? She says it’s the fact that the very first people who loved her were black.
That’s as cool a definition as any I’ve heard.