Black excellence is something many of us strive for. The idea of Black excellence paints itself in a beneficial light, allowing for self-actualization of community efforts to overcome the clear adversity Black people suffer daily, but in reality, often masks an undertone of perfectionism and obsession: two concepts which can possibly lead to anxiety and mental unwellness.
Black exceptionalism is a specter of our community that harms us as much as we imagine it helps. It is the idea that by virtue of being Black, we are gifted, burdened or obligated to excel. Anything short of one’s best is a divergent off the straight and narrow set up for us by whatever generation suffered before us – and a dishonor to what we owe them.
The history of Black exceptionalism and Black excellence can be associated with early philosophies of Black culture and the rise of Blackness as a distinct ethnic identity. During the early 20th century of Black culture, there was a clear agenda to re-frame the narrative of what it meant to be Black as we distanced ourselves from rural life and into urbanized existences. For many, it meant climbing to the apex of what America had to offer and carving out a space where it was impossible to deny African-Americans as contributing members of society.
W. E. B. DuBois himself submitted a case for the “Talented Tenth,” a population within the African-American community who should be afforded the opportunity to become educators and leaders. At the time, this sentiment was an attempt to push back against the racist caricatures of Blackness as not only ignorant, but incapable of true leadership. It’s this philosophy that can be attributed to the rise of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
However, years later during the Black Arts Movement, there became an understanding of what it meant to become a part of the Talented Tenth: a separation of sorts between success and failure, and failure within Blackness typically meant an inability to capture a sense of whiteness – a sense that you can be of gain or a challenge to whiteness.
Today, Black excellence has mutated into something horrifying: ill-defined expectations of grandeur. We attribute Black excellence largely by the situational outcomes of Black life and Black experience. It’s not a participation trophy, but it also isn’t a “First-in-Show” ribbon. It’s an epithet or a title that requires a communal agreement more so than any amount of schooling.
There is no register of what you need to do to obtain it, however like any toxic unit of measurement, it’s better defined as what it isn’t: failure, which is sometimes incorrectly attributed to mediocrity.
Failure is not an unfamiliar sensation. As college campuses across the country gear for their fall semesters, it’s something many Black students will face as they adjust to the shifting terrain of their academics. However, Black excellence as a mood and aesthetic says that there is no such thing as failure.
Perfection, at least perceived perfection, is to reject mediocrity and flaw despite the flaw and mediocrity that being the things worth doing and a life worth living. For African-American communities, it’s sustained by a sense of intergenerational fulfillment and “survivor’s guilt”—an idea that we have not suffered as much as others of our community’s long-history and thus should be capable of excelling.
It’s a standard that we as a culture hold double for Black women, as the decline of Black women’s mental and physical health takes another hike in recent decades as they struggle to keep up with this obligation.
To highlight the hypocrisy of Black excellence and its damages: despite Black women holding higher rates of college attendance, but of graduation and collective GPA, they’re also increasingly pigeonholed culturally for their escalating achievement. At the same time, Black women are also perceived as far more unsuccessful.
According to the University of Michigan’s Tabbye Chavous and Courtney D. Cogburn in Superinvisible Women: Black Girls and Women in Education, “Despite the obstacles that Black women have confronted in their history in the United States, they have made substantial progress in educational achievement and attainment. In fact, Black women’s general rates of increase in attainment within undergraduate and graduate education since the 1970s exceed those of women in all other racial group categories in the United States.” Despite this, the achievements of independent successes of Black women are dangerously juxtaposed with “endangered” Black males resulting in a toxic competition.
Black womens’ successes are trivialized at best and at worse posed as a threat towards the greater African-American community. Thus, how many avenues for Black excellence is there offered that also doesn’t, in some way, “threaten” the community and are seen as something worthy of this undefined goal considering even greatness is seen as the usual?
Perhaps, that’s the key issue with Black excellence. It’s always pursuing the vanity of the “First Black” to do anything. It transforms personal achievements into “already trodden paths”. Even achievements like a college degree have become trivialized next to the expected greatnesses set to follow it.
Post-college depression is a concept that has joined the narrative as the talks of college loan debt holds its place among the top topics in the 2020 presidential election. However, what is ignored in this discussion is the adversity faced by African-American graduates.
In 2017, the Washington Post featured writer, Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, in their Health & Science discussion where she analyzed Post-College depression. In her analysis of this on-coming of sadness she suffered just a week after graduating in 2014, she launches into an analysis of how a lack of achievement afflicted her mental health.
“The activist identity and experience I’d developed in college…came to a crashing end when I found myself working long days as an insurance claims adjuster, a job I jumped at when it was offered because I was worried I might find nothing else,” Meadows-Fernandez writes.
“I’d hoped to find a position at a nonprofit that would allow me to make a difference, but there was a shortage of public service jobs in my area. I had applied for county and state positions… but it can take months to have your application acknowledged… I felt immense pressure to find a job that was somehow related to the psychology degree I’d gotten in college; I wanted to take a first step in my career and start my life.”
Of course, popular media such as the Read, Dear White People and GROWN-ISH often frame the after-college pathway to this Black excellence as what we might hope: the obtainment of some sense of wonder or prestige – that hard work and intelligent choices can reap the golden standard, but what we often fail to accept about fiction is the fantasy.
Life is so much harder and rife with so many other obstacles to that gilded stage of “excellence” than 30 minutes within a plot written for you to win without obstacle, distress or the infamous rejection of the “overqualified” Black youths currently endure in real life.
It’s all a part of the intergenerational obligation. The cultural drive to excel over your whiter cohorts supports a claim that there is no room for “mediocrity”. This sentiment became a topic of conversation, particularly after the passing of prolific writer, academic and voice, Toni Morrison, as expressed by writers such as Jason Reynolds, a New York Times Best-Selling Author.
There is always a fear that “failing up” will become the normative that destroys our community, but in a world where our mightiest icons such as Beyoncé, are recorded destroying themselves to live up to this idea of excellence, there might not be any other choice.
In a world where we are teaching ourselves to value Black lives, minds and alternative pathways towards achieving and loving your Blackness, there should be no speak of such a critical sacrifice of your self-value for the sake of something that cannot sustain you: not in a way that will keep you happy beyond a moment.
It’s necessary for a Black community that’s proud of itself, and loves itself, to be okay with doing its own very best – rather than the best of the community.