Black woman holding a coffee mug and reading a book while in a reclined position

First Person

The Burden of Demanding Black Excellence

Black people don't get to reap the glory of simply just being—too many of us have been punished, even murdered, for just living our lives.

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In the 1930s Carter G. Woodson—the inventor of Black History Month (formerly Negro History Week)—lamented that his idea to encourage the study of African American culture all year long had been exploited and commodified for personal and corporate gain. It is now, once again, that time of the year where institutions and corporations take diversity out of its dusty drawer, put their best Black faces forward until the 28th of the month (29th on a leap year), until they’re retired for next year’s pageantry. 

Instead of this annual celebration of Black excellence, I’d like to call for a celebration of Black averageness—Black mediocrity. Rarely do Black people ever reap the glory of simply being. Given the diverse ways that Black lives are policed, and often end, for the most mundane reasons (napping, waiting, eating lunch, jogging)—from Emmett Till to Renisha McBride, Elijah McClain to Armaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor—the resilience of our existence is a testimony. Black Excellence is beautiful but it is also an exhausting, even violent, concept. Black excellence places a demand on Black folks to hyper-excel and to practice excessive forms of labor and productivity and then, and only then, are they worthy of recognition … of living … of life. Black life is often marked as only exceptional, dramatic, or traumatic. Recently, the “magic” of Black girls and women has been touted as our power to “save U.S. democracy,” rather than the recognition that we are merely trying to save our lives. Black magic, much like Black excellence, is an act of erasure. It obscures the painful sacrifices, the many defeats and the tireless labor. Even recent popular images of prominent Black women represent us as literally carrying the weight of the world on our backs and in our arms serving as both the mules and the mammies of the nation. We don’t want to be magical, we want to be free.

Black folks who reach magnificent heights will always be sources of racial pride. They will be lauded and applauded by their communities (and by a few white folks too). And, yes, we love to see Black excellence. But excellence does not afford Black people the opportunity to exist unbothered. And, arguably, this privilege to just “be” is what many Black people would appreciate most. Barbequing, standing, golfing, and shopping rank among the high crimes that have prompted the regulation of the state. Reading Black bodies at work is a familiar and perhaps even comforting practice that aligns with American cultural expectations. Had the Black folks at the golf course, the Yale dormitory, the Starbucks, or at the public park been “at work” in these spaces, their role would have been understood, properly assigned, and ignored. The audacity of being Black AND at rest and at play were acts that needed to be both interrupted and policed.

Celebrating the Black mundane, on the other hand, recognizes the beauty of quotidian Blackness. In the words of the incomparable Issa Rae, Black people “don’t get to just be boring.” What a delight! Not to be at the center of praise or controversy but to lead what they call “a simple life” without interference from ever-present and diverse forms of white racial violence. This fragile wish is perhaps the most understated and underrated Black American Dream—to be left alone.

My favorite image by artist Kerry James Marshall is entitled Past Times. In Marshall’s image, leisure is represented as a luxury of time; as time “left over.” The stark Black figures in Past Times are engaged in various leisurely activities—golfing, boating, water skiing. Minding their own business. It is fascinating to read interpretations of Past Times that treat the figures in the image as “placeholders for an imaginary past that perhaps did not really take place” or that ascribe their immediate environment to affluent white suburbia. What makes these readings of the image particularly interesting is that there appears a cognitive dissonance between Black people and enjoying life. Marshall himself admits that he wants to “show that representations of African Americans can be incredibly mundane, that they can be ordinary and they don’t have to be event-filled or anxiety-laden or about political activism.” Attempting to divorce his works from the political, the traumatic, and the stereotype, Marshall expresses a desire for an everyday blackness in which the matte black figures in his works “can just be a picture. Period.” 

Perhaps it is time to cede that Carter G. Woodson’s goal to encourage the study of Black history and culture all year long has failed. Even Woodson thought so. Black narratives of heroism promote the notion of Black exceptionalism, the idea that only some Black lives matter. If our desire to recognize that Black history and culture are not at the margins of American history but define it, then perhaps it is best not to focus on Black achievement as a measure of worth. Blackness in its boringness, its ordinariness, is the space in which we are free to love, to play, to contemplate, to rest and to exist. And that is enough.

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