This is why we have to rethink the popular notion of Black Excellence

BY Nii Ntreh April 29, 2024 2:01 PM EDT
In recent times, gymnast Simone Biles has come to embody popular conceptions of Black Excellence owing to multiple world and Olympic successes. Photo Credit: DW

Similar to the mythical Greek problem of tying down the notoriously mobile statues by Daedalus, the task of pinning down in time when and how Black Excellence entered popular usage is almost impossible. As a concept in itself, Black excellence may even have been theorized before conservative African-American economist Thomas Sowell published Black Excellence – The case of Dunbar High School in 1974.

Despite the problem stated above, it is not very difficult to find anyone who has an understanding of Black Excellence. If you put together all the think pieces and the millions of tweets, you would find the common themes of high achievement, leadership, hard work, credentialism and general opulence. Lingering among all these descriptors of Black Excellence is also the condition for Black people, in the west and especially in the United States, to rise above their systemic and structural impediments. To put it simply, Black individuals are excellent if they beat the odds, real and imagined.

In fairness, to excel is to overcome your challenges and/or beat your adversaries. The Oxford Dictionary says to excel is to be “exceptionally good” or “proficient” at something. This presupposes that excellence is not a norm and it is the outlier since it is quite evident in a given population that those who become remarkably good at whatever are few. Yet, this understanding of the concept of excellence within African-American social relations is often tied into high achievement and prestige.

It is perhaps understandable that in a fair system that rewards results – a meritocracy, – those who are exceptionally adept at this or that are going to be rewarded with wealth and prestige. There are even well-reasoned arguments by some social theorists and political thinkers about how important meritocracy is to liberal democracy. American democracy is hailed as that which offers opportunities to the willing and able and does not deny them their dues at the end. What these and other arguments fail to factor is that Blackness is a preexisting condition whose perpetuation in American democracy can be problematic for the purported meritocracy.

Black Excellence is the idea that Black people must maintain a podium finish lest they are described as lazy, underachieving or mediocre. For many Black people, the fascination with excelling is because the meritocratic order is not keen on rewarding Black normalcy. Even the “average” 9 to 5 job and the uneventful rites of passage of homeownership and a 401k plan do not often come easy for Black people.

Yet, according to a Bureau of Labor report, Black people are more likely to hold multiple jobs than other Americans. African-American women are among the most highly-educated groups of people along the lines of ethnicity and gender in the United States. These and other indices lend credence to the fact that Black people may have to do twice as much to be found good enough. This has been the American condition for a considerably long time even if we are keen on celebrating remarkable recent social progress.

Indeed, Black fascination with excellence may have historical origins in W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth. The pioneering sociologist and civil rights icon was initially drawn to a class of Black people whose high education and disposition to liberal skills made them suitable for leadership. One of the criticisms of that proposal – as DuBois himself later saw – is that he was asking for a sort of Black leadership created in the image of whiteness. Secondly, DuBois may not have considered the depths from which Black people were coming. The period after the end of slavery was not any kinder to Black aspirations.

The historical and modern conditions of Black American citizenship should be considered when one speaks of Black Excellence. There are very few conversations about why there is even a need to celebrate Black Excellence. And if there is a justifiable need, why is Black Excellence largely resigned to certain spheres of achievements more than others? The arts (specifically music) and athletics undoubtedly occupy an outsized place on the portrait of Black success. Why is that? There is a more fundamental investigation that needs to happen in the vein of understanding why excellence seems to be the most important driver for Black people and not, for instance, sustenance and even good health.

One must also take issue with the association of Black self-actualization with wealth given that intra-Black wealth inequality is the widest in the United States among all ethnic groups. The implication is that the money gap between your favorite rappers and your neighbors is very instructive of Black relations.

Perhaps, the obsession with excellence is a media creation and not what occupies the minds of everyday African-Americans. So often, the TV anchor interviewing the Black author or athlete would like to point out the significance of this person’s achievement and what that signifies to the larger community. The conversation may happen in good faith but it also props up the dangerous symbol of acceptable Black citizenship. It reads as if high achievement is preferable Blackness for American purposes.

Given how excellence is a precondition to good Black citizenship, one wonders if the obsession is not over exceptionalism, in actual fact. The time is overdue for conversations on what this means for young Black minds and bodies. The pressure that comes from feeling unfulfilled until you can compare with high achievers can be a debilitating state-of-affairs. Exceptionalism is unnecessary to fulfillment, no matter what motivational speakers and the media tell you.

Given how long the fascination with Black Excellence has occurred, there will be no easy remedial measures. But the problem clearly invites philosophical and popular review. Excellence is a virtue you do not want to discourage. But it is neither a mortal sin nor cosmic injustice to partake in the atmosphere of the commons.