Having A Baby Made Me Rethink Black Excellence

"Nothing about the situation I found myself in aligned with the vision I subscribed to for so long. Part of me felt like I was undoing everything both I and my ancestors had worked for."
Sage Howard thought she knew what success meant 鈥 until she had a baby.
Sage Howard thought she knew what success meant 鈥 until she had a baby.
Illustration: Damon Scheleur/HuffPost; Photo: Nija Inez

When I was 6 years old, my mother transferred me and my sisters from the predominantly Black public school in our neighborhood to one with a 鈥渕ore diverse鈥 (read: super white) student body in Manhattan. While I wasn鈥檛 the only Black girl in my class, I was one of a handful 鈥 and I was new, which made me stick out even more. Most of the other Black students attended the school since kindergarten and had already adjusted to an environment structured around values set by white educators and parents.

It was there that I remember my earliest experience with racial microaggressions. For one, classmates laughed at me because I referred to the teacher as 鈥淢s.鈥 鈥 a sign of respect at my previous school 鈥 instead of calling her by her first name, which was the norm at this one. Being thrust into this setting made me hyper-aware that I was an outsider, creating an unsettling sensation in my chest that I now know to be anxiety.

There鈥檚 a feeling that many people of color learn to live with when they find that they occupy a space that was not intended for them. It鈥檚 an aching desire to crawl into oneself and hide. As a little girl, I didn鈥檛 have the words for it. My parents knew the feeling but didn鈥檛 appear to have the words either. They insisted that my sisters and I would be OK because the school mirrored a society we鈥檇 soon be thrown into and expected to succeed in as adults.

I grew up in a household where our American Dream was 鈥淏lack excellence.鈥 On the surface, Black excellence is simply the celebration of the success of a Black person. At its root, however, it measures a person鈥檚 ability to attain mainstream white standards of success despite facing constant adversity. As I understand it now, Black excellence means adhering to respectability politics, a deceptive vehicle that measures my worth by standards set by white men.

There鈥檚 an 鈥emotional tax鈥 that Black Americans pay in their professional lives, which is essentially how the heightened experience of being marginalized affects our health and well-being. It鈥檚 also commonly known in our community as the Black Tax, when corporate culture requires us to work twice as hard to get the money and recognition white men do.

Nevertheless, we鈥檝e persisted. Growing up, my friends referred to my family as the Cosbys because my parents were professionals whose careers afforded us upward mobility. My parents raised us to believe that we should aspire to the same. I was encouraged to go to 鈥渢he best鈥 schools, get the highest grades and present myself in a way that would make me most palatable to future (white) employers. This often left me feeling as though I had to shrink myself by not being too opinionated. It also manifested in an inability to trust my gut and a quest for unreasonable perfectionism. I was seeking external validation, and I was in deep.

After a college degree from a 鈥渞espectable鈥 school, whether it be an Ivy or HBCU, the checklist of Black excellence follows as: a fancy professional title, no major vices, a home to call your own, a perfect marriage, and then kids to carry on the legacy. And so, as you can imagine, I found myself completely conflicted at my first obstetrics appointment. A kid out of wedlock at 26 was not on the checklist.

During this time, I was two years out of graduate school and still desperately struggling to land an interview, let alone a job. Nothing about the situation I found myself in aligned with the vision I subscribed to for so long. I found it very difficult to get work that matched the vision I had been given for myself. I told myself there was something wrong with me. I wasn鈥檛 married, I was still living in my family home, and to make ends meet I took on short-term temp gigs. Even those dried up at the peak of the pandemic. I was barely capable of caring for myself, it appeared, and I had no stability nor a plan in place to take care of another person.

Part of me felt like I was undoing everything I鈥檇 worked for and everything my ancestors worked for. Ultimately, my decision to have my son was rooted in understanding life after my dad鈥檚 passing. I wanted so badly to be joyous for following an intuitive decision. But I felt like a failure.

Why was it so difficult for me to find joy in starting a family on my own terms? It was in moments of deep reflection that I realized I was living by guidelines meant to protect the way people perceived me while rejecting my most natural expressions of life and my appreciation for it.

Sage Howard with her son.
Sage Howard with her son.
Nija Inez

Respectability, I realized, required us to trade in our authentic selves for a more palatable version. It requires us to love our Blackness, but only to the extent that it looks and feels good to the society we live in. It defines our innate desires as moral defects. As I processed my decision to give all of myself to motherhood at 26, with no financial plan, a voice popped into my head. It told me I was lazy, I wasn鈥檛 trying hard enough and that I was embodying the negative Black mother trope.

Ultimately, it took months of therapy, journaling and relying on my support system to find that I was operating from a pretty toxic brand of Black excellence. It eventually became clear that I could create stability for myself that existed outside of how I looked on paper. I had the ability to reimagine success.

And it was a pretty powerful rebrand 鈥 one that many of my peers have been working on. 鈥淲e often have the 鈥淚 can do it all by myself and take care of everything鈥 attitude, says Olivia Steadman-Oladipo, a mother and wellness coach. 鈥淏ut we can鈥檛. We need help. We need community.鈥

While the independent, strong woman mindset has the potential to put a person on a path toward self-sufficiency, the world demands a lot of us. It might be worth rejiggering our priorities as young parents and as Black Americans in general. 鈥淲hat are we actually working towards, and what can we pass on to our children?鈥 says Steadman-Oladipo, who actively tries to define success holistically. 鈥淏lack excellence is wealth, and not just in the financial sense: in wellness, in health, in sustaining our bodies and our legacies, and passing that to our children.鈥

What I鈥檓 learning is that a reframing of success involves keeping the parts of the checklist that work and discarding the others that dismiss our cultural or individual values. 鈥淏lack excellence, to me, is what Black people initially chose to move forward with in the face of feeling like they had to go the extra mile. I think it鈥檚 a positive reframing of something that was initially negative,鈥 says Jessica Orenstein, a Black woman who鈥檚 a behavioral scientist and mental health advocate. This is true, as it helps many of us push through adversity. 鈥淏ut I also think it鈥檚 added a lot of pressure to how we uphold certain norms.鈥 This pressure often makes it difficult for us to feel relaxed and believe that we鈥檝e done our best.

Our generation has a big part in dismantling this shrinking of ourselves. In fact, social media is largely shifting younger generations鈥 understanding and attachment of Black excellence 1.0. 鈥淭hey鈥檙e not necessarily looking at white peers or Latinx peers, they鈥檙e looking at Black peers who are making bank on TikTok or Instagram, and they鈥檙e, like, I need to be like them鈥 that is their definition of Black excellence,鈥 says Orenstein.

She points to a movement on social media that she鈥檚 incorporating into her own beliefs about success. 鈥淟et鈥檚 promote Black mediocrity 鈥 and 鈥楤lack mediocrity鈥 is not to say it鈥檚 without excellence, but when we鈥檙e pushed to do more and be more, it always turns out excellent,鈥 Orenstein says. 鈥淚f we put that focus into self-care, even our mediocrity is going to be excellent.鈥 Honestly, this feels like self-love at its most radical.

For me, it鈥檚 a combination of factors, including the ease of seeing various Black experiences on social media, that鈥檚 allowed me to grow. I am prioritizing agency over my body, my money, my morals and my time, and it鈥檚 comforting to know I鈥檓 not alone in this.

Leaning into this new experience has required me to find comfort in living in the moment. One of my greatest joys is watching how naturally my son develops in the absence of imposed societal standards. He is so naturally himself. He鈥檚 messy, he鈥檚 emotional, he鈥檚 joyous, he鈥檚 loud and unafraid to express himself. He is all the things I am learning to be more of.

It鈥檚 been a year and a half since I had my son, and while there are days when I struggle to celebrate the 24/7 grind of motherhood, I鈥檝e leaned into the joy and chaos. When I find myself tripping over limiting beliefs about success, I remind myself of three things: There is power in care, there is power in mindfulness and there is power in love. This is the version of Black excellence I鈥檓 passing down to my son.