Within today’s new cultural moment of Blackness, fresh, emerging narratives have risen to the top, one of which began with a simple hashtag: #BlackBoyJoy. Started by Chance The Rapper, the viral trend inspired an online response of young Black men sharing personal pictures of their own moments of joy- images that are rarely seen or put on display in the media.
In fact, depictions like these are so rare that the idea of Black masculinity has remained stagnant, often tied to residual notions of hyper-masculine, unemotional, violent beings leaving no room for notions of joy, innocence or boyhood. The lack of breadth of Black male narratives in the marketplace is not only irresponsible, but also dangerous as it is from these images and depictions that many, who are not Black, derive their perceptions of Blackness. Without aspects of joy, and innocence sprinkled into their socially constructed identities, Black boys are essentially always, already seen as men. The effects of this have already resulted in real-life ramifications, such as the deaths of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and 12 year old Tamir Rice all of whom were seen as older, scarier, and more dangerous than they were.
Because of this, there is a need to debunk the myth of Black masculinity in a way that allows room for Black boyhood to exist and become a place where young Black men can live and express themselves freely, and safely: This begins with Media & Hollywood.
Hollywood’s Contribution to Stereotypical Black Male Identity
The typically violent news stories that disproportionately focus on Blacks aren’t the only factors negatively affecting perceptions of Blacks in society- Hollywood is also to blame.
Commonly, films that have centered on the lives of young Black boys have been limited in range, often focusing on historical figures or movements, college experiences, sports or the music industry- all with violence, or hardships at their core. Movies like Boys in the Hood, and Menace II Society pushed out narratives that were, at the time, not highly recognized in Hollywood. However, as their popularity grew, stories of young Black men facing elements of their typically violent, impoverished environments became the sole narrative of young Black male identity. In contrast, films like Boyhood, The Goonies, Super 8, James and the Giant Peach, and the Sandlot all of which were not rooted in the lives of African Americans, featured coming of age stories in ways that were not affiliated with gangs, drugs or violence.
Today there is a new generation of influencers & filmmakers who are displaying Black male characters in refreshingly new ways but many of these storylines are still rooted in traditional Black tropes of the past. Although films like Dope, Netflix’s The Get Down, FX’s Atlanta and Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight, are each slowly stretching the landscape of young Black male identity, there is still more work to do.
How Brands Can Play a Role- It’s Bigger Than You
Not only should Hollywood be reflecting the world in a way that is true and authentic to our realities, but brands also have a responsibility to drive and shape culture in real-time. By choosing to display a different side of Black masculinity, and focusing on facets of innocence and joy within boyhood, brands can help contribute to positively influencing negative societal perceptions of Black boys overall.
Unfortunately, only a handful of brands are activating in this space. A few years ago, AT&T’s “Back In My Day” and “It’s Not Complicated” campaigns each featured a diverse array young children in comically ironic situations, including portrayals of Black boys who are shown in their natural state- free and childlike. Other brands currently in this space include Clorox and Subaru who each use the daily antics and mischievousness of children & adolescents to define their purpose — cleaning up after naughty boys, and keeping your child safe, respectively. Unlike the previous examples, Cheerios is possibly the only brand that features a sole story around a Black father and son who share special moments around the breakfast table.
As gender roles have become more fluid, a new space for alternative Blackness has been able to thrive and exist in the public sphere with men like rapper Young Thug and Jaden Smith actively challenging traditional definitions of masculinity & boyhood on a daily basis. Today, Black men like this man on the subway, and this young man with his father, are readily challenging perceptions of masculinity wishing to highlight the different ways in which Black men are living and experiencing life- more truly, and less stereotypically.
But the conversation around shifting notions of Black masculinity are not occurring fast enough. Brands wishing to tap into the Black experience can start here by giving Black masculinity permission to exist on multiple levels, without judgment or irrevocable harm. By making a conscious decision to feature fresh, new portrayals like #blackboyjoy that paint a picture of Black boyhood not normally seen, brands have an opportunity to lead the cultural conversation on race and identity in America while finding new ways to tap into Black realities in an authentic way- something I’d argue is long overdue.