I hate wearing beanies. The shape of my head is messed up. It’s not the kidney bean slash xenomorph-shaped head where you can definitely tell the baby wasn’t a cesarian section. It’s not bumpy in strange places or shaped like a pointy cone. It’s a large ass water-head. My dad gave me that nickname. I think it’s recycled from his 1960’s childhood trauma. Vintage. He probably has no idea that it is, in fact, a derogatory term to refer to actual infants born with hydrocephalus, “a condition where fluid accumulates in the brain.”
This is how most nicknames of our jigsawed American past come to be. They are born from anguish and disgust and make their way into the general dictionary of the average being, endlessly recycled, losing little power until one day someone comes along and reminds us of their dark origins.
My dad probably has no idea “children who were born with hydrocephalus or who acquired it soon after birth from a brain injury or infection, among other reasons, had large heads due to the unfused bones of the infant and toddler skull expanding to allow for the additional fluid and accompanying swelling of a brain under extreme pressure.”1
“What you doing over there,
water-headboy?” he calls out to a pre-pubescent, nappy-headed kid.
He expects a civilized answer to the absurd question. For the white or culturally-confused people in the room, this is how most black fathers operate. They speak something entirely off the wall and problematic into existence and expect a sound, reasonable answer in response. It never goes as planned. This type of language only causes a subtle fear in the child, leading to a strained relationship of reluctant head nods and nervous flinches, which leads to ass-whoppings and smacks on the back of the head.
This is why I hate wearing beanies because they never fit my head correctly. Why would I want to decorate one of my dad’s favorite punchlines? It’s easy to remain out of sight and out of mind. Hopefully, I could be small; nobody will notice my big ass head in the corner struggling to balance on my disproportionate body. Strangely enough, most of my insecurities come from fear of what insult would be rewarded to them from my family and friends. Somewhere in the SparkNotes version of the English language black folk received after white governments loosened the noose on slavery, we didn’t fully grasp the definition of “term of endearment.” Grace your ear with a rap lyric, if you don’t believe me.
In a world’s past of whips, chains, and an extra piece of bread if we pleased our masters, we learned endearment could be awarded in light-hearted insults. I became accustomed to this dialogue like any black child raised by country-born black folk would. I realize that my dad wasn’t just calling me a
water-head boy to hurt my feelings, but instead, he was trying to break the ice with a nickname he felt a personal and genetic connection to, for the only other large-headed person in the room was his ass in the first place. But, it didn’t matter how accustomed, comfortable and complacent I became in the rhetoric of my kinfolk. I refused to wear beanies because I hated the shape of my head.
This truth remained until my dear friend, a beautiful entertainment professional dressed like a fluorescent fairy goddess in the peak of spring, gifted me with a black The Forty-Year-Old Version beanie. She collected it from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival just moments before the world entered isolation. She knew I watched the film once, fell in love with its every aspect, and knew I might appreciate the gift. What she didn’t realize was that I don’t wear beanies. She didn’t know my father had conditioned me to be ashamed of my skull’s shape and size. She didn’t know my head’s form was a gateway to hating other parts of my body. The body’s hate would act as a contagion, entering my thoughts and allowing me to second-guess the less physical aspects of myself– intelligence, talent, and character.
All she knew, I was an expressively vibrant and stylish person who loved The Forty-Year-Old Version. I wear the beanie every week since it was gifted to me, and I’m in love with it.
What changed? Like the phenomenal creative being RadhaMUSprime aka filmmaker, writer, and actress Radha Blank in The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)— I experienced an evolution.
I now look down at my misshaped Ross Dress For Less bedspread covered in pink, yellow, and orange colored beanies and think to myself, when did I get here? I’m wearing a different beanie with my big-ass head almost every day, and all it took was for my friend to gift one? That’s it? Can you crush two generations of head trauma with a single moment? Damn. That’s pathetic and beautiful.
The beanie is a metaphorical representation of the self-doubt which plagued my life since the inception of my first shame. My embarrassment is a learned behavior, something unnatural that pretends it’s a necessary skillset to protect me from my dad’s nicknames. The reality is I took ownership of the nickname years before I recognized its weakness and used that same large head to manifest whatever I needed to create and be the person worthy of the black The Forty-Year-Old Version beanie.
Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old-Version is a film loosely based on Blank’s real-life experiences as a struggling playwright in New York, filmed in her real-life environment. This movie takes all the cinematic 35-millimeter black-and-white beauty of classic New York films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan and modern films like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (without all the white maleness). It gives us some necessary seasoning since all these other films want to act like black folk don’t even live in New York.
The film deals with serious themes of doubt, lack of confidence, and generational trauma. It makes sense the beanie sparked a cosmic evolution in my relationship with my big head. I didn’t miraculously forget the shame and embarrassment of having a large head. I adjusted my perspective.
My head isn’t becoming smaller any time soon unless I can find that witchdoctor dude from Beetlejuice to hook me up. It’s about time I start acting like I have a big ass head. I spent years fantasizing about being a small, tiny person in the corner of the room nobody notices. I was never was capable of this genetically, ethnically, or creatively. I’m bursting at the edges with rapid-fire ridiculousness and uncontainable ideas.
Now, each colorful beanie I wear reminds me of the vibrant nature that lives deep inside me, the hidden fear that aims to drive me into a corner, and the people who see me how I am at my best, and not how I feel at my worst. Thank you, Queen RadhaMUSprime and The 40-Year-Old-Version, for a new version of me.
HOW NEW YORK GAVE RADHA BLANK ALL THE INSPIRATION FOR THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION.
Variety – Forty-Year-Old Version’ Filmmaker Radha Blank to Be Honored by Sundance Institute by Dave McNary
New York Times – A Writer-Director-Star Breaks Through. It Only Took a Lifetime by Alexis Soloski
The 40-Year-Old-Version on Netflix – Get your life together and watch The 40-Year-Old-Version on your ex’s Netflix account now!
Hillman Grad Productions – This film was brought to us by the brilliant minds behind Queen & Slim, The Chi, Boomerang, and Twenties.
Brené Brown’s ITIWJM: Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough. – If you’re looking for a private way to work on getting your -ish together, then check out this little gem from a renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, speaker, and scholar.
PODCAST IS AVAILABLE ON ALL MAJOR PLATFORMS
Opening/Closing Track: Can I Won’t by Slake Dransky, TSC
Are you struggling with conversations about racism, identity, and sometimes entertainment? Same. The pessimistically-proclaimed token black guy Myke Thompson is joined by his overwhelmingly-optimistic white friend, Grant Harvey, to discuss all things right and wrong in the world. Topics include everything from American society, the entertainment industry, systemic racism, and more. NOTHING’S OFF LIMITS ON THIS PODCAST!