James Woodruff has been struggling to write about a dad who was embarrassed by his young son. The death of Prince today has put the situation in perspective. Here is how.
My first clear memory of Prince was in 1991. The song “Diamonds & Pearls” had just been released. I remember asking my father, “is that dude wearing make-up?”. My dad likely told me to shut up as he hummed and sang along with the record. It wouldn’t be for another few years ago that I’d see the video again and truly appreciate the artistry and creativity behind it.
Prince passed away unexpectedly this week in his Paisley Park studios. As fans and lovers of music as a universal language, we honor his gift, his achievements, and his contributions to the world. When I think of Prince’s legacy as a man, I pay homage to his total individuality. He was unafraid to fight against the stereotypes of what manhood and sexuality is. His representation as a black artist exposed many to another way of how black men could freely be themselves. In fact, he successfully lived his life outside the binary labels we create for boys regarding gender and sex.
A few weeks ago, a little boy in the elevator caught my attention. He was wearing a pair of angel wings with a flower headband. As his mother positively re-affirmed how beautiful he looked, the little boy gleamed with pride. He felt good about his outfit. He loved that his mother supported his choice. There was no shame. No over-analyzing. No projecting of her own ideals. For that day, she was simply a mother of a boy who felt confident enough to be who he is.
Prince exuded confidence; on stage, interviews, and most certainly in his music videos. In the “Diamonds & Pearls” video, he sported a manicured beard. Beards are about as manly as you can get. But at the same time, he was unapologetic in his affinity for high heels, mascara, and blouses. He embraced femininity without distracting people from his music. The most remarkable aspect of Prince the individual is that he cared not what people thought about him as a man. It was his presence that commanded attention and respect.
A few weeks ago, I was contemplating how I’d feel if my son decided that he wanted to wear a dress and makeup or like the little boy in the elevator, angel wings. I internalized my ideology, which is shared by many heterosexual men. Boys should be into basketball jerseys and sneakers and backward fitted caps. When I think about what my son looks like, I envision him being like me. Scrolling through photos of Prince posted across social media, though, it occurred to me that forcing my image of what I want my son to be would stifle his ability to think independently and creatively. I realized that labeling my son before he even gets here takes away his opportunity to explore and understand his place in the world.
Parents want to protect our children. Since we know the hateful criticism and bigotry that exists, we try hard to raise our sons in the manliest way possible. We teach them to be tough and admonish them for doing we think is too girly or feminine. We do this because we’re afraid of what people might think of them. The truth is fathers don’t want their sons to do girl stuff because we think it’ll mean, by extension, we didn’t do something right as men.
The line between acceptance and tolerance is rail thin when it comes to parenting sons who might be different. To be frank, I do hope that my son won’t desire to stand out so much by going against the grain as a boy. However, as I re-wrote this, my mind drifted back to the father in the elevator who remained silent. Was he embarrassed? Did he mind that his son preferred angel wings over a Polo? Did his son’s outward appearance make him want to shrink into invisibility? I don’t know. What I do know is weeks later, in the wake of re-familiarizing myself with Prince’s earlier career, I have to commend that little boy for having the courage to be himself.
Prince’s music may be distant to the young generation. However, his imagery across the decades reflect a man who relished being different. He didn’t try to be anything. Prince was just Prince. For boys who are ostracized for bending gender norms, Prince symbolizes a type of masculinity that doesn’t subtract from the physical aspect of being born a male.
As fathers, it’s not our job to question our sons’ differences. A father’s job is to celebrate the natural interests that a son develops over time.
If a son decides that being “weird” fits him just fine, then the only reaction a loving father should have is a nod of assurance, maybe a purple one.
Photo: Flickr/Culture Culte