Role Model Roll Call: Amandla Stenberg

Hubby and I would like to think that our child will always view us, and the other loving and nurturing adults in our family, as desirable role models in life. Yeah, right! Once this child hits fifth grade, at the latest, she will finally break away from all my attempts to dress her like a little lady and pay more attention to what she wants and what her friends think.


On the way, I hope she runs into more wide awake youngsters like Amandla Stenberg (Hunger Games, Sleepy Hollow). I’ve been wanting to write about Amandla for the last few months, just to big her up on her keen awareness of the B.S. that white America loves to rub in Black girls’ faces. You know what I mean; the nonsense that says our dark skin, full lips, curves and hair texture are not desirable on us, but when any white woman pays a plastic surgeon to achieve any one of the things that we were born with naturally, that she is somehow more worthy of regard and respect than we are. Even if one of them is a cheap and tawdry porn star, or one of the innumerable sisters of said tart.

Well, Amandla comes to mind today because she put one of the Jenner girls (who cares which one, really) in check about appropriating Black style and culture with no regard for the actual people whose creativity facilitate her temporary look. (This would be a good time to click away if you’re saying internally “It’s only hair!” When it comes to Black self esteem, hair is never, ever “only hair,” and only people who take half a minute to be enlightened can understand that.)

It’s not just her Twitter wisecrack about the Jenner girl that got my attention. On a purely personal note, both Amandla and my daughter have Zulu names, given by their Black mothers, and inspired by artistic works. This child isn’t some vapid little starlet. She has substance. She has spoken up about the appropriation of Black features before, notably in this video, “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.”

She has also voiced sympathy for the young people rioting in Baltimore, and frequently Tweets her exasperation about the silly questions White folks inadvertently ask about her hair, her looks and her heritage. We might not care to see our public figures like Amandla delve into areas of worthy of serious thought; and maybe that is because we think they are out of their depth intellectually, or that Hollywood figures are just acrobats, troubadours and assorted minstrels who are detached from reality and are bound to commit a huge gaffe one day, thereby ruining their credibility and overshadowing the discourse they are trying to lead. The latter is why I remain a committed skeptic of anything or anyone that comes out of that desert mirage called Hollywood, and why only Oprah comes close to being someone I would hold up as a personal or professional role model out there. Not even these megachurch pastors, preaching in their designer suits and microphone packs, make the cut. (Sir, are you going to give back Tyler Perry’s laying on of hands, in light of his out-of-wedlock child?) Oprah holds court in Chicago, with its flinty resilience and Midwestern pragmatism. She didn’t roll out massive agricultural and luxury residential developments in a semi-arid climate, and then suck the Colorado River dry to support them.

OK, let’s refocus. It is remarkable that I’ve bookmarked, but not followed, Amandla’s Twitter account where she makes the usual amusing, and often smart, teen observations on life, and her ex-cellent Tumblr page, where she showcases Black female beauty. Maybe when Baby Girl begins to drift from me and process all these issues of race and culture, she’ll see someone like Amandla in the mix, asking the same questions, and doing it from the shared perspective of watching a Black mother navigate the beauty standards that are so different from her, and falling somewhere in the middle. That is hugely powerful for tweens and adolescents. Amandla’s blog represents her as an actress and activist against child hunger.

We don’t worship celebrities in this house. It’s not what I know, so I can’t set that example for my daughter. My childhood was spent being indoctrinated in the legalism of the Apostolic church, which preached, among other things, that faithfully following the lives of singers, rappers, actors and athletes was akin to melting down the gold-plated communion serving ware and molding a calf. It was a no-no! And so I passed through my entire adolescence missing out on Whitney Houston’s miraculous live concert performances, and there was always homework or Bible study, so who had time to watch her effortlessly making everyone else look frumpy and clownish on the red carpets. And I never told anyone that I secretly relished the fact that I had one thing in common with LeDonna Gaines, the Goddess of Love, the Queen of Disco. Baby Girl’s childhood will be spent binge watching Wild Kratts, perfecting her crawl, and delving into spirituality, history and culture. But in case she wants to double check what we are giving her and run it by someone like her, there’s Amandla.