Illustration by 4oremost.
"I ain't gotta do nothing but stay black and die."
I think sometimes about Sundays in church, when it was time for the offering, how we raised it into the air, asking the Lord to bless the envelopes full of checks, folded fives & loose change and some hands raised but holding only the prayer. There was a slyness to being broke during offering time, as everyone stood and marched in single file to give unto God, dropping what the week would allow into wicker baskets held steady by deacons. There was a way to touch the rim of the basket, look like you dropped something in. To give with your heart while performing for the watchful eyes trying to see who's giving and who can't.
This past month was lit from many angles. Black people continued to be Black. Deray announced his campaign for Mayor of Baltimore, Obama said "Giiiiiiiirrrl," on camera, Scandal came back, Kendrick Lamar was very Black in a very white room, Beyoncé talked about baby hair at the Super Bowl. I got tickets to the tour. Quite lit. Thank you ancestors for letting me have the money to do that. I'mma go to that concert and get my life. I'mma go hoarse yelling about nostrils and hot sauce and Red Lobster (them biscuits) and probably still cringe a little bit when she sings that last lyric "Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper." Paper. I think about the art touching the rim of the basket, giving only the desire to give.
"Black Excellence can't only be when we succeed in 'respectable' ways"
I'm weary of what formations we find ourselves aligning ourselves into. I'm weary of staying gracious to systems that have continually not showed grace to Black people. To be really real, none of these Presidential candidates excite me in any real ways nor do I think they really give a red cent for my black self. The fact that Republicans are real is a daily sobering. I think about my vote. I think about the black people who will be evicted in 2017, the kid shot by the cops in 2018, the summer of 2020. One candidate only says Black Middle Class when she talks about Black people and I think about all the names she doesn't say. They know not all Black people got all the same problems. They address those of us they see themselves in. Maybe having money gives you access to a kind of whiteness, but not all the way white, like touching the rim of it.
Wherever I look I see Black people being excellent yet I'm slow to use the word "excellent." In America, excellence can be dangerous. Meritocracy is real and dangerous. Even racism believes in Black Excellence, trying to point at the Black President to diagnose its own demise. Lately, I've been trying to be more aware of what metrics I'm using to define excellence. I don't want my definition of greatness to be dictated to me by the systems used to oppress my people. Did you see that movie "Dope"? It was ok. The problem I had with it was that it gave in to that tired "get out the hood" narrative. The hero of the movie is excellent and gifted, so he must, and is able to, move out of hood. Why must the only way to be Black and excellent be to move away from Blackness? I call bullshit. Black Excellence can't only be when we succeed in the "respectable" ways, in ways that requires us to divorce us from other parts of ourselves. (Black People: respectability politics are for real for real tired. Blackness is big enough for us all to be Black and different).
I celebrate all ways of excellence, the many ways we rise, our skill at thriving and surviving. I never bumped that Talented Tenth that Du Bois was talking about too heavy. It leaves room for too little. Excellence, when it is too rigidly defined, leaves us valuing certain stories over others, leaves us assimilating instead of reaching towards newer, better ways of being. It leaves us placing ourselves over our comrades. It leaves us under-valuing ourselves and when all we have to offer isn't much, it makes our bounty look like not enough. And sometimes it ain't, but excellence, our excellence, can't be on a metric that requires abundance, it has to also include we who make it work with what we got.
Everything Black and Brown folks do is excellent because it's a feat to persist in a country and indeed a world that benefits, profits, and necessitates your oppression, your incarceration. Survival is excellent when the local police department questions the legitimacy of your body. Survival is excellent when someone else's American dream eats away at your neighborhood, your schools, your house, your health, your fam. It's madness that we still find ourselves justifying ourselves. Our presence is offering enough. Black people are a blessing that this nation continues to undervalue and exploit. Racism and White Supremacy are clever and daily beasts. Our excellence has context. It makes us excellent for making the rent and excellent for working at it. It means we are worthy of grace even when we fail, it makes us the geniuses of our own survival, it makes us excellent for all the creativity it took to get this far, the skill it takes to be Black and alive.
I'm trying to step into a season of Blackness defined only by itself, where my excellence owes no explanation, where I look to no institution outside my black self for validation. I think back on that old shame of touching the rim of the basket, not being able to offer something up to the basket. I'm putting the value back in the people and not the material that they have to offer, that greater thing to bless is not the offering but the one who offers, or wants to. I want to praise the grace of the hand, not the basket. The everyday excellence every black person carries so well - when all we needed to do was be black and alive to ever be enough. That's excellence.
This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter Network for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 29 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth.