As someone who worked in and around the field of education for some years, I spent a lot of time around kids–mostly Black and all residing in urban areas. I was consistently surprised by their infatuation with the Disney stars of the day: The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, iCarly and a host of other largely White teeny-boppers with undeniably suburban sensibilities. And by “surprised”, I mean saddened, confused and a bit disturbed.
To be fair, I laud the age appropriateness of these young stars; with the exception of the early-sexualization of Cyrus (who performed an infamous pole dance at the Teen Choice Awards), these young stars are making ‘clean’ music, TV and films. Many of the Black artists marketed towards school-aged fans are far too adult, making kid-friendly sounding music with explicitly mature themes (see: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Drake). Much of what I loved about Chris Brown when he first debuted was the fact that he seemed poised to be the little heartthrob that Black girls deserved; I lost those sentiments long before Grammy night 2009, as his music and performance very quickly became sexually charged and more appropriate for grown-ass women.
Looking back at my own youthful tastes, I did have a serious thing for New Kids On The Block. But I was checking for them at the same time that I was obsessing over A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development. And with their Boston roots and music that was largely rooted in R&B and Hip-Hop influence, they weren’t nearly as white bread as them Jonas boys. As far as the girls who I admired, there certainly was no Miley Cyrus-esque chick that would have ever landed her face on my book bags and lunch pails. It would have been great to have a Raven Symone or some other little brown girl to identify with, but lacking one, I also checked for the (also too grown for me at the time) members of popular music groups and the older girls around my school for my “I wanna be like her!” fix.
Seeing little Black girls with the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus emblazoned on their nightgowns and blasting from their iPods does something to me. It’s not that I expect our little girls to walk around in head wraps listening to Lauryn and Nina (though I would love that, I can’t even lie), but I just wish that they had something more personal to identify with other than the blond, blue-eyed and largely soulless cultural products of the Disney/Nickelodeon stars.
The Whiteness of Miley, Carly and the like isn’t the only thing that gives me pause; if there was a show about a diverse crew of kids growing up in an urban environment, I could understand how Black kids in Bed Stuy may relate to them, even if the leads weren’t of their race. But show after show about White kids from middle to upper-middle class suburban settings? I suppose there is an element of escapism there, but I’d largely prefer for kids to ‘escape’ to the domestic bliss of a family like the Huxtables, where the home life may have been more ideal than what most Black kids experienced, but there was still an undeniable cultural ‘Blackness’ that made the clan relatable to many of us from very different backgrounds.
Many of us want to teach our kids the beauty of Black aesthetics and to place our culture at the center of their frame of reference, but that’s a pretty hard task when all the “cool” stuff is either extremely White or just too damn adult. I can’t blame parents who shield their kids from Nicki, yet let Miley have a place in the house. However, as I get closer and closer to being ready for my own little ones, I realize that I will have to work double time to ensure that my child has Black musicians, fashion icons and actors to admire. I now realize why my mother spent so much time exposing me to music and film from the 60’s and 70’s; lacking any interest or understanding of the Rap music that was getting bigger and bigger, she wanted me to see our people being beautiful, elegant and talented and selected images from her own youth to share. Perhaps loading my future baby’s Mp3000 (or whatever we’ll be using then) player with some Lauryn Hill might just be the way to go after all.