Checkmate: Three Young, Black Chess Masters and the Pressure For Smart Black Kids To Be Great

I woke up yesterday morning to Masters of the Game and Leaders by Example, a story in the Sunday Times about an amazing trio of beautiful black boys who are flying in the rare of air of international chess champions. James Black Jr., Justus Williams and Joshua Colas each became chess “masters” before age 13, a title of distinction given to fewer than 2 percent of the 47,000 members of the United States Chess Federation. The three are being hailed as prodigies and phenoms for their prowess on the chess board and for the inspiration they’ve spread among young African American chess players,who are considered rare, beautiful flowers in the sport. Of course, the importance of their accomplishment is not lost on the boys. In the Times’ story, James, Justus and Joshua acknowledged they are role models for kids who want to take up chess. But what stood out to me was the quote from James’ father, James Black, who said that though the boys’ parents are “aware of what their sons represent and ‘talk about it a great deal,'” they’ve “tried not to pressure them too much.” Added the father: James “knows that the pressure comes along with the territory. What is going to happen is going to happen. As long he plays, we’re sure that things will work out for the best.”

I get what the father is saying, I guess. The boys are 13—children—so you have to be careful about the kind of “pressure” you heap on their shoulders, particularly African American boys, who, no matter the background, financial status or station in life, have an incredible amount of obstacles to overcome to be phenomenal. Still, as the mom of three brilliant brown babies of my own, I’m always in search of like-minded parents who understand that sometimes, pressure is a good thing—that pressure isn’t so much about climbing what seems to be the insurmountable, but about having high expectations for yourself and using those high expectations to achieve what no one else thought you could.

This is something I had to remind Mari just the other day when, in our parent/teacher conference, she revealed that she was disappointed in herself because she “only” has a 98 average in math, rather than the 100 she thinks she should have. Her teacher, whom I respect greatly, reminded her that she’s not perfect and that it’s okay to have a 98—great, in fact. While I agree with him—it’s fantastic that she has a 98 average in a subject that does not come easy to her and a 98 is nothing to sneeze at—my child was telling us that she thought she was capable of a 100. Obviously, I don’t want my child to drive herself to drink over two points, but I’m proud of her for knowing what she’s capable of and having high enough expectations for herself that those two points mean something to her, even if they don’t to anyone else.

I swear, I don’t want to sound Tiger Mom-ish. But ain’t nothing wrong with a little pressure. Parenting your kid through that pressure to make sure they don’t cave under it is the trick. Nick and I do this by constantly checking in on our kids to make sure that we’re not overloading their schedules or taking away the opportunities they have to be kids. We talk to them, too, about the pressure we felt at their ages when we were the smart, determined black kids who got great grades and pushed ourselves to score even higher. As parents, we also find solace in talking to like-minded parents about what they’re doing in their house to balance high-expectations with the pressure so that their kids can maintain that balance, but still win.

None of this is easy.

But it’s doable.

And necessary.

And, if James, Justus and Joshua are any indication, pretty amazing.

Photo: “Speed Chess,” by bogschess for Flikr.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I totally agree with what you said..Aint nothing wrong with pressure,its the balance of it all.

  2. I believe so too. Nothing wrong with a little pressure as I feel our brown babies have to always work twice as hard no matter their abilities simply because they are brown. Thank you for bringing those beautiful boys to our attention as these are the moments I share with my kids about how much they can achieve if they apply themselves.

  3. Where did you get the image for your article? It is stunning. Is it possible to get a hi-res image of it or print? Was it created with a filter in Photoshop? Liked your article too and those three boys are a great inspiration for others.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Hey there, Nancy,

      It’s an awesome picture, isn’t it? I got it from Flickr, in the Creative Commons section. If you look under my signature in the post, there is a photo credit for the photographer, bogschess. Click on the name and it’ll take you to the photographer’s site.

  4. That is awesome! I need to show my son this article, he is becoming a little chess master. I got him a teaching chess game last year for Christmas/Kwanzaa and he has taken off considerably. He has beaten his dad a few times, his dads friends just as much, his older God-siblings and even his God-father. He plays with his sisters all the time and they are still trying to talk me into learning (I don’t like the idea of being beaten in chess by my 10 year old, HAHA!).

    The best part about this is he plays ALL of the time, day and night. When he is not reading, or playing chess or watching A.N.T Farm he is playing chess with his dad, by himself, with his sisters…

    With all of that said, I know he will be excited about this article and will be even more excited that those kiddos look like him!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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