PHOTOGRAPHER: RENELL MEDRANO
STYLIST: DARRYL GLOVER | GROOMING: VERNON SCOTT
Many of you reading this story are like us. We haven’t been around on this planet long enough to truly know and experience the deepest parts of American history. We are told by older folks that this current tornado of racial tension that we feel now is nothing new, and that it has always been here in hiding... but maybe it hasn't really been so hidden. It has been worn on the long and toughened expressions of black men and women for decades. Expressions used for self-preservation and to guard themselves from the harshness of the world they know.
This reminds us of a beautiful moment with Maya Angelou in Salado, Texas. To a predominantly white crowd, Angelou told an inspirational story of a poem she had written. The poem was about a maid she once saw on a bus in New York City, carrying two shopping bags, and laughing whenever the bus would stop abruptly. The woman would also laugh when the bus stopped slowly.
“Now, if you don’t know black features, you may think she’s laughing, but she wasn’t laughing,” Angelou told the crowd. “She was simply extending her lips and making a sound — ha, ha, ha, ha.”
It's these types of insidious nuances that have shaped how we have come to this place in culture. And it is the undoing of these types of systems of thinking by cultural leaders (in arts, politics, entertainment, etc.) that has paved way for a new generation of excellence.
I'm sorry, I know you came here to read about Caleb McLaughlin aka Lucas on our favorite show “Stranger Things”. You didn’t come here to read yet another thought piece about how this world sucks.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Can we get to talking about some lighter things now? You’re depressing me!”
You’re absolutely right. Why shouldn’t we just jump right in to more lighter topics? However, it is important to know that in order to do that, we must always look to where we’ve come from to truly understand and appreciate our new cultural leaders and examples of excellence. We need to celebrate those that we see shining brightly through the darkness. Thanks to the use of social media and hashtags, we are seeing more examples than ever. A look back at the past few months have seen a huge surge in Gen Z single-handedly making tangible change and moving legislation as one of the most socially aware and involved young generations in modern American history. (Please tell me you’ve seen this incredible speech by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler at this years March For Our Lives?!)
Another one of those is examples is Caleb McLaughlin - a young actor who is the complete embodiment of Black Excellence and Black Boy Joy.
For readers who are not familiar with Black Excellence or Black Boy Joy, they are self-explanatory movements that started with a hashtag (see also: #BlackGirlMagic). These movements are meant to showcase the achievements of the black community, as well as to celebrate the range of emotions that black people are expected to hide. In our current social and political climate that we have now, nothing is more refreshing than to see a young black man living his best life.
Upon walking onto the WE THE URBAN photoshoot, Caleb held an air of maturity, greeting everyone professionally and with great humbleness. With impressive credits such as Lucas on “Stranger Things” and young Simba on Broadway’s “The Lion King,” it is no surprise that his demeanor is that of someone well beyond his years. But behind every successful person, is a support group that helps guide them along the way. For Caleb, he credits his success to his friends and family.
“I’m truly blessed to have them,” Caleb says, “They keep me focused and motivated. They do a great job of helping me balance work with my everyday life.”
This statement rings true as the photoshoot progresses. His father, who is in attendance of many of Caleb’s photoshoots and appearances, keeps a watchful and encouraging eye on his son. The day is cold and frigid, with many of the shots being taken outdoors, the last thing he would want is for Caleb to feel uncomfortable. It is very apparent that Caleb’s dad plays an important role to his life.
Despite the cold weather, Caleb pushes on, posing for each look as a seasoned fashion model. It’s hard to believe that he is 16 years old. It is only between shots that we catch glimpses of his carefree nature, cracking jokes and breaking the seriousness of a fashion shoot with a smile.
It is this very nature that Caleb’s fans adore and makes him relatable. Successful acting career aside, Caleb lives his life as any kid should. He is a gamer, dreams of taking a photo w/the cast of “Black Panther” (who wouldn’t dream of that?!), and gets zits like every other teen. Hence, his hashtag #EmbraceYourFace - a movement of his own where he asks fans to send unedited, unfiltered shots of their face, that he later posts alongside photos of himself on Instagram. Clearly, he is enjoying the process of being a kid.
“Heck yeah, I’m enjoying every minute of it. I’m in no rush to skip any steps. Growing is a process… Trust The Process!”
And it isn’t just zits that connects him to his fans. A quick look to his Instagram, and we see Caleb smiling and dancing with fans at various comic conventions. We see him encouraging others to #BeYourBiggestFan. Yes, another hashtag, that helps his fans see the best in themselves to succeed. He takes the spotlight away from himself, and helps his fans see their own light.
“I appreciate all of the love and support from my fans. They have been one of the many bright spots in my journey. Our connection is awesome. It feels good to know that your hard work is being appreciated by so many people.”
We are so used to tearing each other down, that our society has kept up those stereotypes and barriers that do not allow people, especially African Americans, to truly shine. Without the conscious effort of allies to showcase the hard work made by minorities of all walks in life, we wouldn’t be able to celebrate people as much as we do now.
We’ve come a long way and still have a lot of ground work to do. And thanks to social media and hashtags, we can change the narrative and allow kind people like Caleb, to use his platform to raise people up. The true embodiment of Excellence and Joy.