Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Black daughters, Willow Smith and the challenges of “be you”

So my sister sent me the link for a great music video “I Am Me” by Willow Smith, daughter of actor/musicians Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith.  Unlike her debut video “Whip My Hair” when she was ten, or follow up songs like “Do It Like a Rockstar,” Willow in “I Am Me” does a sedate and heartfelt ballad about being yourself.

My own daughter is three.  I am very conservative about showing her media, especially music videos, but I like this one for many reasons.  Willow has short hair, rides a skateboard, has a quirky style with an oversized shirt, dances around and acts goofy, in other words, at thirteen, she’s more appropriately a child than in her earlier videos.

And of course what’s not to love about the lyrics:

 

Days pass, I’m tryna find who I really am
(I’ve been lookin’)
People don’t like the way I dress, or where I am at
(I’ve been lookin’)….
I’m me, I’m me, here’s my vulnerability
I’m free and you can’t stop me
I’m free, I’m me, and that’s all I can be

 

When my daughter watches Willow on her skateboard or earnestly playing her keyboard in the park, it’s such an important departure from the glamorized, sexualized images of young African American women in media.

My daughter would watch this video all day every day if I would allow that, which I will not.  However, in hearing these lyrics over and over, I’ve also been thinking about the prescription from so much of youth and young adult lyrics to “be yourself.”  In “I Am Me,” Smith says:

Create yourself, redo yourself, renew yourself
Be you, do what you do

Like other earnest young artists, she’s challenging young people to be authentic, which is wonderful.  She’s modeling a departure from conformity and in a vulnerable way, which is admirable.  And then I think about how so many young people who have been coerced and conditioned until they have a hard time accessing their authenticity.

Children are told what to do by parents and teachers, what to believe by religious institutions, what to like by consumer culture and media.  And now, with today’s technology, any fashion or social faux pas will be photographed and texted to everyone in their world to humiliate them.  That’s not to mention epidemic rates of abuse and neglect, or their impact on how young people feel afraid and disconnected.  What a difficult context to take risks of being authentic.  Smith, in contrast, has had her every move scrutinized and paparazzied from birth, so there’s no loss of anonymity if she takes risks to be different and visible.

Smith has also grown up watching her mom, Pinkett-Smith decide to start and headline a heavy metal band when her acting career wasn’t keeping her too busy.  What a wonderfully large range of creative role modeling to get from your mom.

I hope my daughter is learning from Smith about how girls can be quirky and alternative, but more importantly can value emotional substance over being pretty or sexy.  Meanwhile, it’s my job as a mom to support her attempts to be authentic.  Like today, when she wanted to change into the purple shirt after I had done her hair.  “Really?  You want to change now?  We talked about this.  If we put the shirt on now, it’s gonna mess up your hair.”  Or how she wanted a particular pair of underwear.

So this is where I sigh, and I put on the purple shirt or go get the requested underwear.  And I suck it up as she goes to daycare with her hair a little fuzzy from the costume change.  I like to think that I’m supporting her personal expression.  I hope this will pay off in ten years when she’s thirteen and has media, peers, and the fashion industry telling her how to dress, and the hair industry telling her she should have straight hair.  Hopefully she’ll remember the experience of insisting on her own mind, her own choices.   And in the background Willow Smith will be dancing playfully in her oversized shirt and short Afro singing:

 

Express myself, ’cause it’s my liberty
(I’ve been lookin’)
Your validation is just not that important to me
I’m me, I’m me, and that’s all I can be

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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