When Exactly Do Black Sons Change from "Cute" to "Scary"?
Guest Post by Kelly Jean-Philippe
Host, Welcome to Fatherhood Podcast
“Oh! My! God! Look at all that beautiful hair!”
My wife, our then-one-year-old son, and I were meeting with my college friend and his partner at a New Jersey diner in June of 2021. We were catching up after many years of not seeing each other, and I was introducing him to my son who was sitting on my lap when we were abruptly interrupted by a White woman in her mid to late 60s exiting the main dining area.
It didn’t take me long to realize this woman was swooning over my child. She stood at the threshold enchanted, utterly captivated by the caramel-coated young man sitting on my lap, and his hair. She was so exaggerated that she temporarily blocked the way for others attempting to leave the packed dining area.
I instinctively pulled my son closer to my body, as if to shield and protect him from her line of vision though we were seated directly opposite the doorway where she was standing. She motioned and called to others who were on their way out with her to come see the object of her adulation.
My son, an exquisite combination of me and my wife’s physical features, has had a full head of hair since birth. At the time, it had grown to make him look like a little curly Don King in his hay day, except way more adorable. He has almond-shaped eyes that are bright and expressive. His cheeks were proportionately plump, matching the shape of the pacifier that was keeping him settled. We dressed him in a cute, short-sleeve, blue button-down shirt that accentuated his caramel skin, paired with khaki shorts, and punctuated by white, high-top sneakers.
My son – now three years old – was and is, indeed, an exceptionally beautiful human being!
As she was joined by the others, she began to goo-goo ga-ga my son. “Aren’t you the cutest thing ever?” she asked rhetorically.
“Thank you,” I replied with a sheepish smirk on my face.
“Do you want to come with me?” she said with her gaze fixed on my child and both hands extended as if to entice him to her. My son looked intensely at her with those bright, expressive, almond-shaped eyes, suckling on his pacifier, unbothered.
The whole scene made me feel awkward.
Those who were with her were now attempting to move their caravan along to go on their way. Then came the announcement, “I just want to take him home with me!”
This woman’s highly inappropriate words shook me to my core, but not just because they were inappropriate. Other than what she might have meant or intended when she said she wanted to take my son home with her, her words revealed the profoundly disturbing, dreadful, and inevitable reality that my son had yet to experience the ominous transition.
Her words forced me to recall the previous year, and the racial tension between Black and White America that framed how I was beginning to perceive my society and the world as a first-time father. They forced me to remember the time I cleaved to my then three-month-old son following the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23, 2020, in Kenosha, WI, sobbing, and apologizing to him for having summoned him into this world. They obligated me to meditate on the chilling question spread across a poster held by a young Black boy in protest, considering my own son: “When do I change from cute to scary?”
When exactly does one of the most important changes in the life of a Black boy happen? When does he go from “cute” to “scary?” Does it occur between the ages of 11 and 12? Is it, perhaps, as he grows from 13 to 14? Or has it taken place by the time he turns 9?
Her words forced me to recall the previous year, and the racial tension between Black and White America that framed how I was beginning to perceive my society and the world as a first-time father.
That change for Black boys (and girls) in America is amorphous. There is no socio-cultural methodology that crystalizes their shift from cute to scary. Many cultures, however, have ways to mark the transition from one phase of life into another, including:
Ulwaluko, a ritual circumcision and initiation from childhood to adulthood intended as a teaching institution, to prepare young males for the responsibilities of manhood commonly practiced throughout South Africa.
Seijin no Hi or Coming of Age Day (成人の日) is a public holiday in Japan held to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the age of maturity and to help them realize that they have become adults.
A quinceañera is a celebration of a girl's 15th birthday. It has cultural roots in Mexico and Spain and is widely celebrated by girls throughout Latin America.
A bar mitzvah (masc.) or bat mitzvah (fem.) a coming-of-age ritual in Judaism where children having reached a certain age, usually 13, are said to "become" b'nai mitzvah, and held accountable for their own actions.
These celebrations all capture the pivotal moment participants in their respective cultures come of age.
But what determines that moment for Black boys in America?
The lingering impact of that White woman’s impudent sentiment makes me face the daily reality as the father of a now 3-year-old son, and after the arrival of yet another son, the transition from “cute” to “threatening” seems less distant and illusive. Someday it will happen for my sons as it happened for the 9-year-old Black boy who was accused in 2018 of touching a White woman’s backside inside a Brooklyn bodega; and for 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was murdered in Ohio in 2014; and for 14-year-old Emmett Till who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955; and for 23-year-old Elijah McClain who was murdered in Colorado in 2019; and for 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery who was murdered in Georgia in 2020, and countless others.
The truth is, neither I nor they will ever know precisely when it happens, because in their Daddy’s eyes they will always be my exceptionally beautiful caramel-coated babies; and they will never perceive of themselves as scary or threatening. However, by the time I realize they have come of age in that way, their names may trend on social media platforms for a few weeks before the rest of the world and society moves on without them.
Kelly Jean-Philippe started the Welcome To Fatherhood Podcast after he and his beautiful wife welcomed their baby boy in the spring of 2020. Not only was parenthood a brand new experience for their family, the societal context at the time of the birth, both locally and globally, played a huge role in the challenges Kelly faced as a first-time father. While experiencing what he considers his most life-changing event, Kelly’s early days as a father were fraught with anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and unrest. The Welcome To Fatherhood Podcast became a way for Kelly to openly talk about the experiences of his fatherhood journey as it unfolded. Kelly's family expanded with the arrival of his second son in February 2023. Like his family, the Welcome To Fatherhood Podcast, on which DCG founder Allan Shedlin recently appeared, has also grown to include difficult conversations, such as pregnancy loss. Kelly's growth as a father is reflected in the complex and intimate topics he explores in each podcast episode.