Essay: A love letter to Black men and boys

A few weeks ago, I rewatched the 1994 sports drama Above the Rim. The film follows a basketball prodigy who finds himself in the middle of a feud between two brothers — both of whom wrestle with their own ghosts and demons. Though it illuminates an underworld that regularly seduces street kids with its quick cash and surface allure, Above the Rim also highlights the beauty of Black boys and men. It shows their comedic charm and reckless pride. It shows them smiling and sweating on concrete courts, grinning and gleaming in their stylish streetwear. As I watched, I smiled alongside them. I adored seeing them fully existing in their joy — a joy that is often violently denied. I thought about the Black men in my life and decided their lives deserved to be celebrated and their bliss protected. This is a love letter to those men, an earnest attempt to honor their joy and grace.

“Counting all the fingers and the toes / Now I suppose you hope the little Black boy grows.”
— Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”

Among the thousands of photos in my camera roll are two pictures of my father and brother, both taken during their boyhood. The one of my father shows him as a teenager posing alongside friends in front of a white house. He wears a big grin, a printed Chicago White Sox shirt and a hi-top fade. In the background, rural pine trees pierce a clear sky, their limbs imitating the wide-armed gesture of one of my father’s friends. The picture of my brother shows him, at 8 years old, closing his eyes and forming a peace sign with his fingers. His trimmed head is cocked to the side, like the tall bentgrass leaning toward the wind behind him. A slice of white sand and crystal clear ocean sit just above his ear. When I see these pictures, I see Black boys enjoying their youth without fear. I see their lives basked in warm light and blue sky. It makes me wish that living was not such a radical act for these beautiful Black boys.

“I only wanted to see you / Laughing in the purple rain.”
— Prince, “Purple Rain”

A year ago, my father and I rewatched the 1984 film Purple Rain. The scene in which Prince performs his signature song flashed before our television screen. We sat in silence as the singer stood regally under rose light, his voice plaintive yet pulsing with divine power. I realize now that the purest moments between my dad and me are like that scene. Quiet and introspective, loud emotion somehow booming underneath. Growing up, his restrained nature infuriated me. I mistook his lack of open, deafening affection for apathy. Eventually, I learned to give my dad space for his silence and interiority — the same space that The Kid’s father had while surrendering his pain to a piano in Purple Rain. I know that my dad’s love and strength are hidden in his hushed moments, hidden in the peace he defends from a world intent on shattering it.

“He shined so / sublime in his / white gold grillz.”
— Zeniya Cooley, “Bling Bling”

When I think about my brother, Sean, I think about the flamboyance of Black boys. I recall one day when he visited my mother and me after returning from a trip to Florida. When we greeted him, Sean bore several boxes of Nike sneakers. He smiled as he decorated our lawn with the shoes — a vivid array of bold colors and swoosh symbols. Later, my mother and I walked him to our front porch, and I noticed him shining. Standing in the sunlight, Sean wore a white cotton shirt and VVS diamonds. As I looked at him, joking while his jewelry gleamed, I felt a strong desire for that moment to last. Just then, I saw his beauty and how it blazed. Just then, I saw his freedom, however fleeting. I wish he could have glittered forever in the southern sun.

Over the years, I have read several tributes to Black boys and men. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Angie Thomas’s Concrete Rose, Brian Broome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods. They all honor the light of these Black boys and men. I think writers affirm and memorialize this light because they know — in a world of police terrorism and other violence — how easily that light can be extinguished. Deep down, I know, too. But no matter what narratives emerge to erase their humanity, to efface their joy, writers like me force the world to remember something. These beautiful Black boys are loved. They are loved fiercely.

Zeniya Cooley, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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