Black excellence is a curse.
To unpack that loaded statement a bit, what I mean to say is that Black excellence, as both an ideal and as a state of being, is a cumbersome burden to carry at times. Its weight, often masked by the façade of black people succeeding, ignores the reality of having to shoulder expectations akin to perfection.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that I understand the necessity of Black excellence as an affirmation.
For years, the degradation of blackness at the hands of white supremacy has meant the proliferation of various harmful and mythical stereotypes about black people, all rooted in our supposed baseness. So as a counter-reaction, I understand Black excellence’s importance in grounding black people in a way as to empower them to see beyond and imagine greatness for themselves and their community.
However, in a paradoxical way, the very platitudes that we sought to set us free have ended up trapping us.
To be black in a white majority environment is to understand you must work harder in everything you do to be seen.
The price of visibility comes with hurdles, and even when you do get noticed the situation can very quickly turn into tokenism.
Terminology like Black excellence not only creates a standard that hardworking black people should strive for, but also a pressure to refine your work and yourself to its purest most successful form.
But where does that leave Black people?
Where does that leave Black art?
While the term Black excellence can appear nebulous at times if we break it down to its simplest components (the two words it’s comprised of) then we have:
Black – relating to a socially constructed racial group
Excellence – meaning (as taken from the OED) a “state or fact of excelling; the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree; surpassing merit, skill, virtue, worth etc…
Thus, Black excellence as it stands requires an uncanny quality for greatness bound up in success if it is to be achieved by a person racialised as black.
Yet what it is asking is impossible.
Perfection, as a concept doesn’t exist.
Terms like excellence, super, amazing, outstanding etc. are all subjective hyperboles projected onto things that fall in line or exceed certain standards or rules.
To achieve Black excellence is to ask Black people to be faultless.
Yet, beyond this insurmountable pressure to adhere to an ideal lie’s Black mediocrity.
We don’t have to be amazing all the time nor succeed at everything we do.
Their beauty in the mediocre, and potential for growth.
Like a seed, seeing the mediocre as something that can be nurtured with care and guidance over time transforms it from its state of banality to something with infinite possibilities.
To be mediocre is to simply exist in a world that demands so much of us.
White people, whether they be directors, writers, artists, musicians etc. get to be mediocre all their lives and are rewarded for it.
We are punished.
Black mediocrity isn’t a call to not work hard for something. The reality of our world, entrenched in inequalities bought about by exploitative systems, means the effort we exert will always be more in certain cases.
Black mediocrity is a call to not dismiss black people, their efforts, and their art simply because it isn’t outstanding all the time. Simply because it’s not “excellent”.
I recognise the importance of critical engagement, so I’m not asking for us not to critique. But am asking us to see the sublime in what is unrefined, what is unpolished, what is unfinished.
When I see mediocre black art, black people, black things. I’m reminded we are fallible creatures, and that gives me hope.
Perhaps the solution lies in a redefinition, or expansion of Black excellence to encompass mediocrity.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that at this current moment in time, to be black and excellent can feel suffocating and I no longer want all that weight.
I want to know what it’s like to be allowed to inhabit mediocrity without feeling guilt, or that I’m not doing enough.
I want the chance to fail at something and not feel wrong.
I want to be allowed to exist without the fear of needing to mark my significance, my work, my creations, as special.
Black mediocrity isn’t a confession admitting defeat, but rather an acceptance that Black people and our efforts can exist in a myriad of ways and forms.
Stream of conciousness over.
Thanks for reading.