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The Power of the Head Nod Between Brothers

The head nod is a distillation of what it means to be a black man in America — and the brief moment of joy, pride and shared confidence that comes from seeing another brother in the street

“Do all black men know each other?” 

This question often gets asked by non-black friends after they see a brother nod at a fellow black man he passes on the street. I’m not chiding them. It’s a fair question, because it probably does seem like all black men somehow know each other. Like there’s a secret society, a Fraternal Brotherhood of Blackness. But there are no meetings. We don’t need them. We have the Head Nod.

The head nod is something black men all do, from sea to shining sea, from Compton to Detroit, from Birmingham to Tacoma, from Newark to Oakland, from Kansas City to Savannah, from Miami to Cleveland. It’s a birthright, a tradition. It’s a free-floating group therapy session where we speak only in head nods. It’s a distillation of what it means to be a black man in America — and the brief moment of joy, pride and shared confidence that comes from seeing another brother in the street.

“There’s a lot that’s wrapped up in that greeting,” my friend Langston explains. “There’s a historical understanding of oppression. There’s an acknowledgment of the current racism, overt or covert. It’s what we do to support each other. It’s what we have: acknowledgment.”

“For us old heads,” adds Marc, another friend, “there’s something else, too: We’re still here. We ain’t made it yet, because any number of things can happen between here and providence, but we made it this far and we’re still going. Still striving. Still nodding.”

After all that, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that it’s not a big gesture. Typically, in fact, it’s subtle — like a tiny bow, but with just your head. Or it’s a quick uplift of the chin. Either is appropriate, though they come with different meanings, per this absolutely correct blog post:

“Usually, when you give the upward nod, it’s to someone you know, someone of the same age or you might just be at a considerable distance that nodding your head up is the best way that person might see the gesture. You usually nod your head down as a sign of respect to someone that is older than you or complete strangers. Either you can’t go wrong with, but you should never let a passing moment between two black men go by without acknowledging him.”

To that end, there’s a warmth to the head nod that you don’t often see men freely share with other male strangers. That is, it’s not exactly common in mainstream America for two men who are strangers to openly give each other messages of support and affirmation in public. They don’t biggup each other as they’re moving through these streets. 

So, you’re probably asking, how long has the head nod been a thing? 

The short answer: We’ve been doing it for as long as there’s been black people in America. 

There are, however, scholars who will give you the long answer. Then there’s this brother who conducted an academic study and published a paper based on his findings of how black men in the halls of power in D.C. give each other the nod. “I found that the nod transcended political and occupational boundaries,” he writes. “In this case, the nod happened across party lines amongst Black Democrats and Black Republicans and up and down the occupational ladder between black service employees, staffers and members of Congress. In addition, I observed how the nod was taught in informal settings as a way to build networks of support that they could use for professional advancement.”

Reiterating what he found about the head nod’s bipartisan nature, he adds, “Anthony, a Republican committee staffer, said, ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t nod.’ He further explained that the nod meant, ‘I’m in the struggle,’ ‘I see you, brother; I see you, sister,’ ‘I see the struggle.’”

Meanwhile, out west in San Francisco, light-speed gentrification has reduced the black population to a fraction of what it once was. So for black citizens who still call the city home, a well-timed head nod can make all the difference in their day. My man @WorkingMichael conducted his own field research on the matter. It’s less academic than what I just cited — and he published no paper — but he did present his results on Twitter:

“That analysis, by the way, occurred before Last Black Man in San Francisco got released,” Working Michael tells me now. “What I’ve noticed is absolutely there’s been a post-Last Black Man in San Francisco bump in head nods. Both in terms of the ones that I get as well as the ones that I give out that are received and returned. I think after the release of that film, we’re solidly +60 percent return of head nods given. And I’m probably receiving a 100 percent increase in head nods from brothers in the city.”

All of which is to say, the head nod is the complete opposite of invisibility. Ralph Ellison wrote a whole book about the invisibility of black men, and this quote captures its theme well:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The head nod perfectly counteracts this feeling. Or as my friend Marc nicely sums up, “To me, the head nod is twofold: It’s both the acknowledgement of the shared struggle, and a signal. No matter where you come from, if you’re rich or poor, married or single, we’re all black in America. And with that comes certain experiences. They can be good or bad — I’m not assigning any value to those experiences, but they’re unique to having this color of skin, this hair, these lips and this nose. The nod acknowledges that you see that person in a world where we all too often aren’t seen. 

“As for the signal part, that’s easy. It means, if it starts to go down out here, if the race riot breaks out, I got your back. You’re not alone.”