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Black excellence shouldn't be pursued over personal wellness

Waves explores the uncomfortable idea that black kids should always excel to be considered worthy. The radical idea of averageness needs to be embraced more
Thu, Oct 07, 2021

We don't get to be average.

In our families, we've got to be the star cousin who understands the cultural protocols that come with family gatherings – we've got to be respectful. At school, we must be the student that matriculates with distinction and occupies leadership positions. We've got to get early university admission and maintain our marks so we don't flunk out of our first degree programme choice after matric finals. At home, we must be the picture of good parenting and family values.

We don't get to be average.

With all this performance, it's a wonder how any child manages to breathe, much less enjoy being alive, when most of their character development is rooted in their ability to achieve. Imagine the shock or gravity of that ability being threatened by any number of things. Sometimes by purposeful action and other times by sheer misfortune. Take the story of the Williams family of Waves.

Ronald Williams (Sterling K. Brown) runs his family with the proverbial iron fist. He's a patriarch through and through, yet it's obvious that his brand of fatherhood and style of marriage is rooted in benevolence and seeking to give his children the world, while still acknowledging that they're black in America.

Granted, he's noticeably harsher on his son, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) than he is on his daughter, Emily (Taylor Russell). Ronald pushes his son to be the best high school wrestler, to have good grades, to understand their family businesses and to respect authority.

However, it is this extreme parenting style that sees Tyler slip into a depression when he can no longer cover up the severity of a shoulder injury which is impacting his ability to wrestle.

As soon as Tyler starts experiencing his dream and life slip away on account of this injury, his other psychological and behavioural issues begin to impact his day-to-day life.

Towards the end of the film, Tyler's father is accused of having pushed him too hard in how he chose to raise him. Granted, it's also obvious that Ronald's character is a far cry from mean-spirited or unloving, however, it seems his parenting styles and overall understanding of life is misguided in the face of a teenage black boy. Now, is this any excuse for Tyler's behaviour? No.

However, a most telling moment of this film is when Tyler and his sister embrace after he has his second bad night out. It is obvious that not only is Tyler spiralling but he is exhausted and touch deprived. He simply needs to be held, reassured and listened to at that moment.

Specific to boy children, there's a moment when their hugs are no longer as long, where kisses aren't as bountiful, where pats on the back aren't the norm. This occurs prematurely, often this moment should never come. Perhaps Waves would end differently if someone had simply spoken gently with Tyler.

This isn't to say that black children shouldn't seek to be the champions of their fields. However, at some point, to leave greater room for mental health and emotional wellness, we must de-centre black excellence as the cornerstone of black success.

More so, as a society, we must free our children from being the measuring stick upon which we use to conclude just how much we've succeeded over the systematic racism that seeks to keep us subservient to whiteness.

Perhaps, it's okay to be average in stature when there's joy and peace in your spirit and mind. In a world like ours, it's time to consider which is of more value, external excellence and acclaim or personal wellness and self-discovery.