Too many times we’ve heard the refrain “gone too soon” to allude to a life cut short. A wistful phrase lamenting the potential of one who has earned their wings prematurely. Sadly, the sentiment can also be applied to children of color and the premature death of their innocence. But I’ll call it grown too soon, instead.
In Black culture, being “grown” is never confused with being a “grown up.” Being a grown up means to reach adulthood and join the rat race, no matter how reluctantly. To be grown, is to adopt adult mannerisms. This can be a sharp/sassy tongue, acting out or promiscuous behavior. If someone tells you you’re too grown, it ain’t nothing good. And it’s usually followed by a reprimand or worse. Tressie McMillian Cottom (@tressiemcphd) covers the promiscuity aspect in an excellent NY Times Op-ed.
Few parents allow children to get away with being grown. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, very few children of color have the luxury of maintaining child-like innocence beyond the age of 8. Both in my childhood experience and in raising my daughters, I’d say eight was about the time the world reached into our lives and dictated that it could no longer be sugar coated.
Sometimes the experience is a world event (9/11, school shootings, a certain Presidential campaign) and other times it’s more personal – like dealing with overt racism by a classmate. Whatever the situation, it requires the adult to shoot straight with the only thing that’s left, the ugly truth. They’re the conversations no parent likes to have because you know, at its end, you’ve stripped one more layer of innocence from your child.
We’re foolish to think we can keep chipping those layers away without it leading to a little grownness. At the very least, our children come away with a wary world-view made worse as incident after incident shows them how tough things can be when your skin has a tint.
Unless society changes drastically, this is simply the way things are for brown children. Luckily, many parents find ways to balance preparation for the real world with plenty of opportunities to let kids be kids. And here, I applaud the authors of color who naturally portray this sticky wicket in our fiction. No heavy-handed lessons, just life as it is.
This matter hit home, recently, as I journey closer to the publication of my first MG novel, So Done. My wonderful editor sent over a sample book cover. I loved it. But the sample featured two young girls who looked years older than my 13-year-old characters. Despite the vivid color and fun lettering, the girls’ age was the first thing I noticed. The only, to be honest.
All I could think was – I don’t want these girls portrayed too grown. So Done’s underlying story showcases the adult issues facing the girls. I didn’t want them to look too mature lest anyone begin the age-old cycle of solely blaming young Black people for their grownness. You know the phrase – “Well no wonder [fill in some offense that’s their fault], look how grown they look.”
I outlined these concerns and after quickly assuring me it was only a mock-up to squarely identify the artistic style and direction, my editor said something else important – that she understood my concerns. That they were noted.
I’d like more people to start there – understand and note the concern. Remember why so many Black kids and other children of color exude an air of seriousness or level of maturity that leans dangerously close to being grown. It’s not an act. And in most cases, the kid isn’t being disrespectful on purpose. They simply can’t unsee the world around them.
Being grown too soon is the reality of far too many of our kids. In order to provide well-rounded depictions of our children, authors of color must be at the table to show exactly how kids are still able to be kids in spite of the grownness thrust upon them.