Fifty-seven years ago, nearly three decades before I was born, Lorraine Hansberry, a talented author, playwright and activist, said, “I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be” than young, gifted and Black.

The words inspired many long before they would reach and resonate with me. The most visible fruits of Hansberry’s words is Nina Simone’s anthem “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Both Hansberry’s and Simone’s articulation of Blackness in relationship with intellect and joy helped me describe myself as special, despite an education system that didn’t agree. Their words shaped how I wanted to raise my children: confident and self-assured. Yet, outside of the explicitly pro-Black context, I struggled to find comfort with the word “gifted.”

For me, “gifted” conjures feelings of not belonging and failure — not to mention hierarchy and exclusion — around respectability and the pressure to excel while Black. The version of giftedness I’d been taught was a narrowly defined, easily measurable set of skills (focused, quiet and inclined toward math or science). I was hesitant to use that language with my children because I feared being challenged and feeling the pressure that accompanies the label. I knew that gifted Black kids have specific needs and are especially vulnerable to being tokenized or ostracized.

On the day I stopped resisting the word “gifted” to describe my children, my son had been a self-taught reader for just under a year. We’d gone to a bookstore while visiting my hometown. I expected the collection of books featuring mostly oceanic and prehistoric animals and insects would keep him, and my animal aficionado mother, distracted long enough for me to do homework without interruption. I hadn’t anticipated that he’d use the books as a spelling guide to search each shark — and eventually, insect and dinosaur — on YouTube for more information. He spent the rest of the day and most of the next few months quizzing us on shark facts.

Our journey started with watching him identify letters and their sounds at 2. I questioned my sanity and his memorization as he counted syllables and read sight words at 3. By 4, he was reading small books to his sister. As a 5-year-old waiting to start kindergarten in the fall, he can read chapter books, although getting him to sit still long enough is a battle. Our daughter is equally brilliant but doesn’t show giftedness in the same ways. At 2, she’s twice as competitive, displays off-the-charts comprehension and refuses to be left behind. She’s flexible in mind and body — I think she’s the next Simone Biles.

I continue to work toward giving them an understanding of Black identity that affirms them through tradition and protects them through awareness. Life has shown me that the world perceives the inquisitive minds of gifted Black children as a threat. I know Black parents often choose discipline over freedom in hopes of keeping their children safe. But parenting my children in preparation for racism brought the unintended risk of teaching them that they — instead of the society we’re in — were broken. I knew these lessons require a delicate balance of accurate history and continuous affirmation and challenge. With time I understood I had to change the way I perceived the experience of raising kids who are Black and gifted, including the joys and inconveniences.

I hadn’t realized that raising Black kids would require expanding everything I’d learned about giftedness. Giftedness is bigger than early reading; it’s having the ability to envision solutions that hadn’t existed before. Giftedness is having the vision to use what you have to create what you need. And exercising those creative muscles is foundational to the Black experience. What made my children gifted was their ability to display this at such an early stage. Once that was clear, I knew I had to stop shaping them for the traumas of the world and orient them toward the joys.

They need the space to define and then cultivate their gifts on their own terms. Knowing their potential brings a lot of pressure but offers a chance to teach them that it’s okay to have big emotions. It means that I can show them that for our people, giftedness is often expressed in community. It’s fine — and possibly preferred — if exercising their gifts requires tapping into the collective knowledge of loved ones and friends.

Likewise, it has meant sharpening my knowledge of my culture so I can guide them through our histories. I’ve taught them that Simone’s anthem is written for them. They wear their “young, gifted and Black” shirts as we do our at-home family science show. Their small questions prompt dynamic reflections. But they remind me that they’re just kids who happen to be young, gifted and Black in a world that isn’t great at accepting people at the intersections.

Despite my son’s ability to recite facts and figures on all types of animals, and my daughter’s ability to comprehend and execute a complex sequence of tasks, my children aren’t walking encyclopedias. They’re not ready to hear that I think they are capable of winning a Nobel Prize someday. They want to make weird sounds, play with mud and watch the spiders in our garden. They want to be wild and fearless and jump to the floor from the third step.

Their uninhibited joy reflects the love that’s possible if you move through the world with curiosity, self-assuredness and fearlessness. It’s the true manifestation of giftedness. It has taught me that no one has to assign it; it has always been ours to claim. They’ve proved the “fact” of young Black giftedness, of which Simone sang.

Black giftedness doesn’t look a certain way. It’s okay that our daughter hasn’t reached the same milestones her brother had at this stage. She’ll make her own. Our household has four types of giftedness complete with overlap, complements and divergence. There’s no finite amount of giftedness to go around.

My job isn’t to teach them how to color inside the lines. It’s teaching them to use their gifts to make a new picture that allows all of us to be fearless and free.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a health diversity content specialist whose writing, speaking and community activism aim to amplify Black women’s voices.

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