The aspect of success when it comes to Black people is one that’s layered with many nuances and gray areas. When I think of Black success, I imagine the endless amount of T-Shirts in large letter font that say “Black Excellence”, and two-piece H&M suits talking about brunch. Am I saying that this is a bad thing? Absolutely not. I think these things are needed in moderation and taking context into heavy consideration. A lot of the time when Black excellence and the concept of Black success come into play, I can’t help but see a Black person in a suit and tie. This was something that I had in mind when it came to being Black and successful when I was younger.
As the years have progressed my perception of Black success has changed based on my experiences and who I have interacted with. One of the many things that have become a forefront in my life is what success means to me. Being a first-generation college student, my entire life has been dedicated to being successful. At the time, being successful just meant getting out of my city, and becoming a Jay-Z-like figure. For me, this meant that I had to be perfect in every single facet of my life. If I felt that I was being stagnant or not doing “enough” when it came to extracurricular activities or just career-wise, I was regressing and was failing.
This type of mindset is not far-fetched when it comes to Black people’s perception of success and what it takes to succeed. Historically, much of what is perceived as success and how to obtain it is deeply rooted in whiteness. Now, while it is perfectly fine and admirable to hear stories of Black people succeeding against adversity, most of these stories are rooted in harmful ideologies of sacrificing your own mental health and physical health for success. Many of us can relate to hearing these stories from elders and the trials that they went through. With those trials and triumphs comes a whole new set of trials that are imposed upon us.
With the whole concept of success being centered around whiteness, there are people who think that a suit and tie can save them from racism. Just because people try to force themselves to fit standards of whiteness, doesn’t mean that they’re safe from racism. All it means is that they sacrificed a part of themselves for the dream of 40 acres and a mule. One that will constantly be promised but never given. What’s the point of putting so much pressure on Black youth to adhere to an outdated and biased standard when there are so many obstacles in play that hinder them from that?
When I was younger I would always see these articles from these pro-Black social media accounts showcasing these Black kids who would have these ridiculous GPAs or would invent some new product. They would talk about the various struggles that these children would face and how they were setting the standard for other Black kids. However, why does no one talk about what should be done to remove these barriers?
Black kids shouldn’t have to do all these things while facing adversity. Black kids should be allowed to be kids. The trope of Black exceptionalism does nothing but ignore and, in some cases, applaud the toxic mindset of having to go through adversity for someone’s accomplishments to have merit. After a certain point, when does it go from giving Black youth their flowers to not allowing their lives to have worth if they aren’t excelling in every facet of life? This is just as damaging as the systems that make these stories possible.
As the years have gone by I have constantly thought about what Black excellence means to me. What should be the standard for it? How would I quantify it? I have slowly come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a concrete standard for Black excellence. Having these ridiculous expectations for Black people would do us a disservice and spit in the face of the many Black youth who could not outrace the systems that pin them in place. No one will be able to tell their stories, who will sing their praises?
There are endless amounts of systems developed to keep Black people in the same positions, yet no one really cares or focuses on these systems when these stories of Black excellence are told. There needs to be more conversations as to why these systems are still in place and how we shall dismantle them. They should not be used as companion pieces to these stories of Black success.
Black excellence is whatever it means to you. You do not need to come up with the cure for cancer or make a rocket at the age of 5 to have validity. Just like there’s no set character that defines Black people, there should be no set guideline to how valid your life is. Black excellence to me is doing your best to live a solid life amidst the systems that want nothing more than to use and discard us. Black people do not owe anything to anyone but ourselves. All that we have to do is be Black and die.