• Veronica Wells-Puoane

White Decorum: Suppressing Black Joy From The Crib To Commencement


Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash


The other day, my infant son and I were dismissed from a classical concert. It was a free concert held at a local college featuring graduate students and some professional musicians. Normally, such an event wouldn’t have been my scene. But my husband/son’s father was performing in this concert.


My son, 9 months at the time, was excited for the event. He’s been exposed to all types of music since he was conceived. I knew he had a good ear in utero when he’d kick to Jazmine Sullivan and Brandy’s vocal runs but paid my own serenades dust. He knows good music. And as the musicians tuned their cellos and basses, he bounced gleefully on my lap.


Sadly, he wouldn’t get to see the show as we intended. During the opening remarks, my son let out two short, playful, yet high pitched screams from our seat in the audience. Immediately, my husband’s professor and the conductor that night began gesturing in our direction. She pointed at me and my baby and then swung that same finger in a circular motion toward the door.


I had an inkling that she might have been talking to me. But then I thought, I don’t know this lady from Eve, surely she wouldn’t attempt to communicate with a stranger in this way, especially in front of an audience.


But after those introductory remarks, she came to the microphone, turned in our direction and said that children who could not be quiet, would need to be moved to the lobby. She said that the students had worked hard on this performance and it was being recorded. She ended the mandate with something of a backhanded compliment, I assume to ease the blow.


“You may have the cutest baby in the world but you still need to go to the lobby if your child is too young to keep quiet.”


We were being put out.


I obliged…kind of. I spent the entire 2 and a half hour performance walking in and out of the auditorium. I wasn’t going to deny my baby the privilege of hearing live music. But to her point, I did not want my son’s excitement to be a disruption.


I do wish she had handled it differently though. I wish she had made it known to her students, including my husband, that young children should not attend because the performance was being recorded. I wish she had found a better way to communicate with me that evening. And more importantly, I wish she’d considered the cultural nuances of that moment. I mean, the optics alone should have given her pause.


But beyond that, I wish she would have considered the ways in which Black folk are chastised during or worse, excluded from experiences simply because they can’t, don’t or won’t adhere to rules of decorum established by white folks.


My son is Black, of both African and African diasporic ancestry. His interactions both musical and otherwise are steeped in a centuries old tradition of call and response. When you appreciate something, say something. And not for nothing, with all the studies released about the benefits of classical music on infant brains, you would think this lady would have realized that my son, as the youngest member of the audience, had the most to gain from the experience. Instead, we were asked to leave.


My baby is too young to have registered the offense. He listened from the door, attempting to babble along at some points and clapped his tiny hands at the conclusion of every piece. I was sweating, carrying him in and out. But he had a great time.


I wish she had found a better way to communicate with me.


Sadly, I fear that as he ages and understands, there will be other instances in which rules established by aristocratic Europeans, across time and space, have the potential to snuff out the joy in other ceremonious and ordinary occasions.


The other day, my cousin told me an administrator instructed her to turn her music down as she dropped her daughter off at school, claiming the music didn't foster learning.


Even my cousin's baby spotted the jig and told her mother, "She just didn't want us to be happy."


From the mouth of babes.


Every year, around this time I watch with soul-swelling satisfaction as Black graduates walk across stages collecting their diplomas. It’s a moment of pride, accomplishment and joy. All the feelings that would warrant jubilation from both the graduate and their families. But far too often, that type of celebration is frowned upon. When I graduated from high school, administrators threatened to have security dismiss and remove any family member who caused any type of noise after their child’s name was called. I’ve even heard of schools withholding diplomas and even arresting family members who celebrated after their student’s name was called.


Whose idea was that?


Had to have been a white person.


She just didn't want us to be happy.


Black folk in this country know better. We know that just a few generations ago, our ancestors were forbidden from learning to read and write. The only time they set foot on campus was to erect a building or provide the type of free labor that allowed these universities to thrive in the first place.


The act of their descendents graduating from college is a reason to celebrate, to make noise, to dance, to ululate, and my personal favorite: shout.


White folks don’t know like we know. Yet, their rules of what is civil and decent dictate the way Black folk, from infants to elders, are allowed to behave and the joy we’re allowed to express in spaces they’ve deemed too dignified.


It’s a sad shame.


As much as white folk have taken from us, why do they feel entitled to our joy too?



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