I love the South. I love country folks. I love country Black folks from the South. I have two of them for parents. And if you have them southern roots (pronounced “ruhtz”) like I do, you probably have more “play cousins” than you can count.
For those of you without it, I’ll give you some cultural capital in context. Stick with me, because I’m about to engage in come circuitous storytelling:
I’ve been outside the country for the latter part of the last few months, so I missed a rack of happenings in American popular culture. Amongst the movies, new songs, and references I noticed when I got back was this “Ooh kill em”, often used in hashtags. A quick internet search had me landing on this gem:
First of all, if you’re not familiar, Vine is the latest phone app that allows you to overshare things in your life no one else wants to see. Thankfully you can only film these “events” for six seconds at a time. However, every once-in-awhile one of these videos is so funny/clever/bizarre/annoying that it deserves our six seconds of attention. Or more.
So what does all of this have to do with cultural capital, play cousins, and fictive kinship? Maleek and Terio aren’t related by blood.
In this epic Complex interview (you gotta listen to the audio. Nobody short-sells answers like a nervous six-year-old!), the following exchange occurs with Maleek, Terio’s 16-year-old cousin who provides the footage and the soundtrack for his dancing and hooping protégé:
Interviewer: And so, how’re you guys related?
MALEEK: That’s my lil’ cousin.
Interviewer: Is there like, a parent’s sister’s son or something?
MALEEK: Nah, we like…he like, stay next door to me
Translation: they play cousins. (Not a grammatical error).
Brotha and Sistah vs Brother and Sister: Are y’all Really Related?
In academic-speak, this is an example of the formation of a fictive kinship, a relationship in which people who aren’t related by blood claim a familial bond. These relationships occur between and within all races of people. African Americans in particular have a long-held desire to unify through shared experiences, largely due to a unique and sordid American history of having their cultural practices denied and ridiculed. For example, during American enslavement, Black family structures were routinely destroyed by the trade of humans across the Atlantic and between colonists. This African American practice of identifying each other as “brotha”, “sistah”, and yes, “play cousin” developed as a valuable way to ascertain who was “down”, as well as in creating extended functional families. These ties were especially important when blood bonds between Black people had been broken. Today, Black Americans still use these fictive kinships in the same way.
I don’t know what the day-to-day interactions between Maleek and Terio look like. I do know from my own experiences with the teenaged “old-heads” in my neighborhood where I grew up in Ypsilanti – and with my older play cousins in North Carolina who I saw when I visited my parents’ homes – that these dudes were excellent part-time role models and informal mentors. They were flawed no doubt (I’m thinking right now about the time when this old-head named Tim tried to tell how you had great sex with girls. Looking back, there’s no way in hell he had learned anything for himself; that bullshit had to have come from sneaking into someone’s porn collection), but they were well-meaning and had nobly taken on a role passed down to them by older play cousins who had done the same for them. To be clear, I’m not talking about some Big Brother, Big Sister-type of relationship where these dudes provided daily and guided interactions. I’m talking about those times when me and the rest of the young bucks had our bikes in a circle talking about girls/bikes/cars/sports and a couple of the older dudes would roll up on their bikes and start schooling us. Just from reading and hearing the interview, I could hear at least the same type of bond between Maleek and Terio. Are they closer than that? Maybe. But I know play cousins when I hear them.
Ideally these two kids maintain a healthy relationship and Maleek becomes or remains an important mentor for Terio. It doesn’t have to be some “wonderful story” where Maleek becomes the main influence in Terio’s life, deters him from joining a gang, pushes Terio to go from wannabe rapper to English professor, Terio writes a best-selling novel, and Tyler Perry directs the movie version of his life (starring a light-skinned dude, of course). Maybe Maleek is just the fun “cousin” whose video-based encouragement plays a small part in helping Terio feel just that much better about himself. That’d be a realistic and important outcome. Hell, despite Tim’s ridiculous sex advice, he always told me how smart I was, and he taught me how to pop a wheelie. It’s that type of mentorship that makes play cousins special.
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. Maurice has been a mentor, old-head, and play cousin for a long time, but refuses to give bad sex advice. Ooh kill ’em!
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013