I Didn't See Empowering Examples for Black Boys in Pop Culture, so I Wrote One

In her new book, 'Mid-Air,' author Alicia D. Williams created a character who finds strength in softness

<p>Jasiatic; Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books</p> Alicia D. Williams and her new book

Jasiatic; Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Alicia D. Williams and her new book 'Mid-Air'

In the opening scene of 2023’s blockbuster movie Barbie, little girls play with boring baby dolls until a new, empowering doll bursts onto the scene and disrupts their norm. As girls abandon their babies for the new-and-improved Barbie, an omniscient voice narrates, “Barbie changed everything. Then, she changed it all again...because Barbie can be anything. Women can be anything.” The world cheers as girls and women are finally set free.

And boys, can they be anything too?

Since the beginning of time, boys have been encouraged to grow into tough men who will rule the world, lead women and be a “man’s man.” At an early age, they are directed: Don’t cry. You’re okay. Don’t be soft. This narrative has never wavered. And far too often, boys are made to feel as if sensitivity is a negative trait and worse, a feminine one. When boys’ feelings are dismissed, they are denied space for much-needed reflection.

Enter Ken. Just Ken—

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While the Barbies are allowed to own their emotions, the Kens rush into battle. Ken is enlightened to real “manhood.” He witnesses other men condescending to women, pumping iron in pursuit of huge muscles and learns that being a man holds an automatic privilege to govern from high spaces.

Barbie made me think of my own life: In 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was all the rage, and so was his iconic red leather black-striped jacket. Every kid seemed to want one. And my 12-year old cousin Jermaine was a lucky owner. He proudly posed in Michael Jackson dance moves as I snapped photos; no doubt feeling special and larger-than-life.

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Courtesy Epic Michael Jackson in "Thriller"
Courtesy Epic Michael Jackson in "Thriller"

Girls complimented Jermaine’s new look, but his boys clowned him for the very item they had secretly wished for. Those guys knew what he quickly learned: that a Michael Jackson jacket was cool, but not cool enough to prevent ridicule from tough neighborhood dudes ready to accuse them of being soft or weak. Jermaine’s Thriller jacket was relegated to the back of his closet, and his fantasy of being a performer was gone, forever.

Jermaine went on to excel in baseball, football and basketball. During family gatherings, our uncles embraced him into the all-male club of stat-analyzing, bet-making and challenge-breaking. My grandmother would sit Jermaine at the dining table and tell me to “Fix him a plate,” to which I always scoffed, “He can make his own.”

My boy cousins were gifted muscular toys like army men and wrestlers. They learned to fix things with their toy tool boxes and compare stats from their baseball trading cards. To us girls, the women in my family passed down the traditional role of homemaker. We were given sewing kits, Easy Bake ovens and pink toy kitchenettes.

<p>Alisha Jucevic/Bloomberg via Getty Images</p> A line of Barbie dolls tied to the movie release

Alisha Jucevic/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A line of Barbie dolls tied to the movie release

Thankfully, we had other examples of womanhood like Barbie. Our Barbie dolls expressed a range of possibilities, from Malibu to astronaut to even president.

I’ve noticed the widest variety of role models for kids, especially boys, are found in books. Young protagonists face trouble and sometimes insurmountable odds, and like real people, they suffer failures, make mistakes and overcome challenges. Through a character’s journey, readers can explore the world around them, frame questions to ask themselves, gain courage to seek answers and tap into their own feelings.

When I was growing up, we girls had a range of books with empowering characters like plucky, curious Harriet in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and STEM-inspired Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Stories gave us permission and freedom to try on different roles of who we are and aspire to be.

<p>Victoria Sirakova/Getty</p> Children's author Judy Blume and some of her iconic books

Victoria Sirakova/Getty

Children's author Judy Blume and some of her iconic books

Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?, taught me how to navigate friendships and understand my changing body. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, helped 13-year-old me navigate the shame I carried from a traumatic event. Books let me know that I wasn’t alone, and characters taught me that yes, I’ll be okay.

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Boys, on the other hand, got comics. Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Carnival of Death. Daredevil in The Deadliest Night of My Life. X-Men: Phoenix Must Die. Comic books are an amazing gateway to lifelong reading, especially for reluctant readers. I love comics and appreciate how, over the years, the characters have become more diverse. With the expansion of the genre, the stories have incorporated more cultural events, social trends and social justice issues. But many still uphold toxic masculinity narratives with storylines depicting battle, aggression, revenge—all while saving (or destroying) the world.

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Boys not only need diverse examples to look up to, but more outlets in which to find them. Representation is an important link to building well-rounded human beings. I wrote my new book, Mid-Air, to add to this conversation in a productive way. I want to give boys agency to challenge toxic masculinity.

<p>Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books</p> 'Mid-Air' by Alicia D. Williams

Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

'Mid-Air' by Alicia D. Williams

The main character, Isaiah, is a sensitive, gentle teen who has a love for plants, rock music and painted nails. He is taught, like his friends, to stay tough and not cry. After keeping a traumatic event secret, Isaiah nearly loses himself and his parents send him South for the summer for a change of pace. Through new experiences, Isaiah learns to be curious and open-minded, express concern for others and ask for help. And most importantly, he learns to accept the gentleness that makes him “not tough enough.” Isaiah shows what strength can look like without an aggressive “beach off.”

What if my cousin Jermaine would have rather moonwalked across a stage or cooked with our grandma? What if he felt comfortable enough to wear his Thriller jacket and the boys in the neighborhood accepted it as normal? Who would he have become? Boys, like girls, should be given grace to dream of being anything, too.

As Ken puts it, “We were only fighting because we didn’t know who we were.” It is time to let young men explore who they are and all they can be, and hopefully, exploring emotions can be their norm too.

Mid-Air by Alicia Williams is on sale April 23 and is available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

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