Being a Black Man
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The Hip-Hop Generation, Raising Up Its Sons

Natalie Hopkinson and son Maverick, 5.
Natalie Hopkinson and son Maverick, 5. "I want him to live up to his name and forge his own path," she writes. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Natalie Hopkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I walk into a restaurant for the reception welcoming my classmates and me back to graduate school. I am holding our 10-month-old daughter, Maven, on my left hip, while my right hand clasps the hand of our 3 1/2 -year-old son, Maverick. As soon as we enter, Maverick spots Norm, a 40-something white guy who is in my PhD cohort. Though my son has never seen this man in his life, Maverick runs toward him as if greeting a long-lost uncle. Norm stoops down to accept the hug, grinning back.

While I'm being introduced to a few professors, I look up and Maverick's working the room like a gubernatorial candidate -- "Hi. My name is Maverick, what's your name?" -- and offering students and administrators a tiny caramel hand.

The next afternoon, my classmates and our professor, a 50-ish white woman, remark about what a great kid Maverick is. "You have a fine boy there," Norm says. My chest puffs up with motherly pride. My professor agrees, adding: "I just can't wait to watch him grow up, and see his wonderful career as a rap star."

Eeeeeeeuuuuuurrrrrk?

Stop the record. Rewind: "Rap star?" Did I miss something? Like Maverick break-dancing behind my back? No, that would only come months later, thanks to the soon-regretted purchase of the DVD "You Got Served." Had he burst into rhyme during dinner? Nope, Maverick had long since grown bored of his favorite rap song, a Black Eyed Peas hit he turned into a potty-training anthem.

So where, pray tell, would our professor have gotten the idea that my son would have a future as a rap star? I don't know which increased my blood pressure more: the assumption that a rap career was an aspiration we'd dream for our son, or my own deep embarrassment for the comment, and the urge to shield my son from such a core part of my own identity as a member of the hip-hop generation.

It's a tricky paradox. As parents, we see it as our job to make sure our son doesn't live down to fake notions of black masculinity that too often are epitomized in rap music. But we find it equally important for him to be unapologetically proud of the ingenuity, strength and vitality of black culture, which of course includes hip-hop.

My husband, Rudy, and I were born in the mid-1970s and are part of the hip-hop generation of parents. Cynicism is our biggest enemy. Rudy is that 30-plus-year-old who spends hours playing video games, watching the Cartoon Network and elbowing the teenagers in line each Tuesday for the latest hip-hop release. He's the lawyer going to work in jeans and T-shirt, blasting hip-hop in his windowed office. Me: I've built my career writing about black youth culture and music, and still take pride in getting my groove on at the club.

Our kids go pretty much wherever we do, except the club, from the classroom where I teach college students, to Rudy's office, to Sunday football with Uncle Celo, fight parties, housewarmings and barbecues. They are used to being the only kids there.

We named Maverick after an early 19th-century Texas cowboy, attorney and politician who refused to brand his cattle. He said if anyone found a cow without a brand that meant it was a "Maverick." That's what I want for my son: to resist all the voices urging him to pick a brand -- whether a brand of politics, of black masculinity or of sneakers. I want him to live up to his name and forge his own path -- whether as a scientist, race car driver or MC.

To be fair, the professor who commented on Maverick's future turned out to be someone who knew enough about hip-hop to understand that it can be an art and an honorable career path, despite the icky way the culture is depicted in mass media. But that still doesn't explain how she calculated Maverick's prospects based on his behavior at that dinner.

File it under further confirmation of what author and educational consultant Jawanza Kunjufu calls a "conspiracy to destroy black boys." That's the power of black masculinity, a force that is skewed and amplified before being broadcast by media. It's potent enough to cloud anyone's vision, even those who should know better. We have our work cut out for us.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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