SUCCESS: Olympic silver medallist Lutelo Muhammad and Brotherhood director Noel Clarke
TO SUCCEED or to fail. That is the question that every child faces. For a black child it’s not so much a matter of the options, but the amount of leverage the one has over the other.
You see, whilst our parents were concerned with putting pressure on us to succeed, they never attended to the pressure on us (young black men and women) to fail. Nobody talks about it, and yet the pressure to fail has had at least as much impact on our lives, communally, as the pressure to succeed.
I was talking to Noel Clarke the other day. You know, Noel. He’s the thespian turned filmmaker who wrote and produced Kidulthood, then Adulthood and has now got the final part of the trilogy, Brotherhood, opening in cinemas across the country this week. He’s the boy from ‘da hood’ made good.
Yet his success at the box office belies the pressure on him to fail. I kid you not.
He was keen, for example, to impress on me that he is a ‘stayer’ not a ‘player’.
“Despite the stereotype I’m a black father with kids by the same woman who is still with that woman and with his kids and providing for them.”
I mean, I didn’t even question that. But I didn’t need to. He knows and I know and YOU know that there is a lot of pressure on black fathers to fail. Arguably there is more pressure on us to fail than there is pressure on us to succeed as parents.
From the government downwards, we’re constantly being pushed, urged and begged to fail for whatever reason.
Otherwise why do we keep being told that black men are failed fathers? Is that not pressure on us to join the failed father queue? Add to that the pressure of the media - musically or otherwise - to fulfill the stereotype of who they have deemed us to be, and is it any wonder that with all that pressure our children succumb to failure?
There’s pressure on us to fail not just with regards to fatherhood/motherhood but also in the wider world and commerce. There is a palpable sense of frustration with Noel Clarke, for example, that he has had to once again make another ‘hood’ film to be taken seriously. Because this guy makes films, lots of them. But he only gets recognition when he does another ‘hoodie’. That’s where the powers that be (film critics as well as financiers) have deemed that his territory in the movies should be. In which case he’s on a hiding to nothing.
How can he compete with other film makers whose world is their oyster and who can make films on absolutely anything (including ‘da hood’) and be taken seriously, whereas his remit is so narrowed that if he is not feeling it or is bored with it or has exhausted his knowledge of it, he’s going to fail with that unremittingly critical audience of young people who are mostly the only audience he’s going to get with this ‘hood’ franchise. With our hands tied behind our backs how can we succeed?
Of course, we may be to blame for putting pressure on ourselves to fail. It is after all us who buy this narrative that this is the way you must be because you’re black. We buy it so easily that not that much pressure needs to be applied before we’re lapping it up and we’re dancing our way to an F for Failure. And because we don’t want to sit there with the dunce cap on our own, we put pressure on our peers to fail. We insist that they drag themselves down to our F-level rather than a successful A-level.
We complain all the time about the negative movies and portrayals of black men and women on screen in general.
But are we not, by patronising such films, also applying pressure for more of those films which not only highlight our failures, but insist upon them?
Having said all that, the pressure to fail starts at an early age. Not in the womb or the maternity ward as Freud would have it. Not even in the crib in a loving home. But the moment our children step out of our nurturing embrace there is pressure on them to fail. Not necessarily from school teachers (although we would be naïve to trust that every one of those teachers has our children’s success in mind).
No, the biggest pressure on our children to fail comes from their peer group. From those kids whose parents have told them over and over again - sometimes for protective reasons - that black equals failure. Be assured, those kids are gonna make damn sure that your kid doesn’t succeed, by putting the failure pressure on them.
But before we all start heading for the hills as a defensive mechanism and taking our children out of schools that have other black pupils, remember that there’s pressure on black children to fail at the white schools also.
Like one of my white guests said when we were discussing the need for black children to grow up with black dolls on one of my radio programmes recently, white kids should also be pressured to have black dolls to neutralise their sense of superiority over black children.
She insisted that her children, white boys, had a sense of entitlement over their black friends and she thought them playing with black dolls would diminish if not eradicate that.
The fact of the matter is that only us as parents can change the narrative of failure which pressures our children to not achieve their full potential.
Look at Olympic silver medallist Lutelo Muhammad. His dad, Wayne, and mother, Marcia, nurtured him to be as great as he has become. I know because I knew the boy when he was a baby. I last saw him when he was about seven years old, by which time he was already on a trajectory of excellence. And I remember very well how his dad told me that he was teaching him martial arts at a tender age.
Well, Lutelo’s taekwando success in Rio should be held up to all our children as a guide to fulfilling their dreams and not to be diminished by other people’s failure pressures.
But more importantly when ‘educating junior’ Lutelo should be held up as a perfect product of should be studied and learned by us parents of black children.