Will Smith’s Incredible Leap: Why His Slavery & Black Parenting Comparison Fall Short

June 6, 2013  |  

Will Smith stars alongside his son, Jaden, in his latest movie, After Earth. It’s a story about a father-son pair who crash land on the Earth 1,000 years after humans were forced to evacuate the planet. In an interview surrounding the movie, Will Smith takes a leap bigger than the one that catapulted him from his mythical planet on the big screen while discussing parenting and the tradition of slavery.

Asked about the way he and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, parent their children, Smith said “I think that, specifically in African American households, the idea coming out of slavery, there’s a concept of your children being property and that was a major part that Jada and I released with our kids. We respect our children the way we would respect any other person.”

I’d like to say that I see what Will Smith is getting at here. What he seems to be saying is that he doesn’t believe in stifling his children, in controlling their lives and personalities down to the letter. The right to a child’s personhood — the space to be who and what they want to be — seems paramount, and is evident in the expressive ways that Jaden and Willow dress and wear their hair (see also: Willow’s angsty pre-teen anthem “I Am Me” where she yells about how unimportant your validation is to her). Their kids, I think, are essentially black, famous versions of the little kid you see at the grocery store with his/her parents wearing cowboy boots, a cape, and a tutu because their parents let them dress themselves that day.

And that’s great! As someone who doesn’t yet have children (and who may never have them unless Obama does something about these student loans of mine), I’ve had time to sit and make a list of things I swear I’ll never do as a parent. One is that I’ll never make my kids eat brussel sprouts because I don’t even like brussel sprouts. I also won’t force them to take up piano because it’s something that I always wanted to do, or not allow them to study art because I don’t want to risk them getting paint all over my walls.

What I will do, though, is give them curfews to keep them safe, give them chores to teach them the value and importance of work and responsibility, and put punishments in place for unacceptable, disrespectful behavior. Treating a child like an adult, it seems to me, is folly because they aren’t adults and don’t know how to be one. It’s like giving someone a car without teaching them how to drive it. Guiding your children, setting boundaries and parameters, telling them to clean their rooms (something that Will says they don’t do with their kids) isn’t acting like an overseer — it’s acting like a parent.

Even more than the blurring of the line between being overbearing and being a simple responsible parent is Smith’s implication that black parents are even more domineering and controlling than parents of other ethnic groups because of our duration of slavery. Ever seen an episode of “Wife Swap” or “World’s Strictest Parents”? Those shows are filled with white families who run their houses like a military barracks. Further, black people are not the only folks who were enslaved or mistreated. Why would that penchant for slavery-like parenting only persevere in black people?

So, I get what Will was trying to say; he just made a pointless detour in saying it. He was in the air, inches from the rim, ball in hand, perfectly poised to make a slam dunk — but then he said, ‘wait, let me do something completely left field like throw the ball at the ceiling and see if it still makes it in.”

It didn’t.

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