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The Head Nod & How It's Used To Communicate Safety Between Black Men

To some, it may look like a simple gesture but for Black men especially, it can be a way of saying, I see you and all is well.

We all know that culturally, there are different ways of communicating. When it comes to Black people, since slavery there has been a reliance on a head nod to communicate safety. To some, it may look like a simple gesture but for Black men especially, it can be a way of saying: “I see you and all is well.”

WUWM's LaToya Dennis organized a roundtable conversation with Anthony Courtney, Andre Ellis, Trevis Hardman and Kwabena Antoine Nixon to talk about the head nod.

Anthony Courtney founded an organization called My Brothers Incorporated. He describes it as a manhood training program. Courtney is also the eldest, and is respectfully called Baba by the other men. Baba is an African term denoting respect due to one’s age and status in society.

Courtney explains the origin of the head nod: “When Black people were planning rebellions, the men on the plantations OK what would take place, they wouldn’t talk. When it was going to go down, they simply [head nod]. They wanted to clarify when it was going down so they would [head nod] and went about they business until they were ready to take care of business."

He says that over the years, the meaning of the head nod has evolved: “What it is is an acknowledgement of a brotha wherever you went in the country. During our time, when you may not have known these other brothas or you are in a situation where there are very few black men and you might have been in meetings or whatever with a lot of white folks." Courtney says you would simply nod your head at each other.

“That was it. And that was an acknowledgement of that this was a brotha, even though you may not have talk to him. In most cases, 99% of cases, you got the head nod back. And if you didn’t get the head nod back you watch this brotha,” Courtney says.

WUWM's LaToya Dennis extended roundtable discussion on the use of the head nod and how it communicates safety between Black men.

Andre Ellis is 60 years old. He’s the founder of We Got This — a grassroots program aimed teaching young black men to grow food and clean up their neighborhoods.

“It was often a form of safety. You knew that you all had to connect, I see you. If something go down, we’re together. And it also was a form of respect with each other because even if we were at events where, what I remember in the '60s and '70s, especially being a young boy, '67, '68 when the riots came, what I remember is I couldn’t wait to grow up to be big enough to do the head nod. It was a form of cool as well, especially if your hat was tipped to the right in that deep dip,” Ellis says.

Trevis Hardman is a small business owner and the youngest of the group.

“Normally, most people nod their head up — what up. You know, in a what’s up manner. It’s totally safety because most men, our primal instinct is wired to fight. So what it does it lets the next brother know, 'Hey everything’s cool,' we can walk past each other and we can go about our day. And when you do run into the people who when you nod your head and they don’t nod back, it kind of does give you a feeling of not being safe or something might just occur,” Hardman says.

Kwabena Antoine Nixon rounds out the group of men. He’s 51 years old, and an author and a representative of the I Will Not Die Young Campaign. Before COVID-19, he held barbershop conversations for Black men.  

Nixon says the head nod is not as popular today as it used to be, but that he goes out of his way to recognize the young men he works with a head nod.

“Boys be what they see, when we have barbershop conversations, the youngest person in there is 15. One of the requests is that I ask them all to get up, one, make sure you’re seen by somebody not your age; two, everybody go through the room and do this, ‘Peace king, I see you.’ You have to teach it in the beginning as early as possible,” says Nixon.

He says it’s all about making positive behavior popular for young people.

“It has to become fashionable. Death is fashionable in our community, murder is fashionable, dying young is fashionable. Why I say that? Because they get more love sometimes in death then they do in there everyday life. They get more props on social media for doing something ignorant then they do some positive. So we’re making living fashionable now, we’re making living long fashionable, we’re making having conversations and peace fashionable,” Nixon says.  

Bringing back the head nod is just one way they are saying: “I see you and all is well.”

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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