It’s Groundhog Day every February because the scene is always the same: The department store’s automatic doors slide open and I’m immediately bombarded with apparel that features the faces of influential Black people, inspirational words and pictures of fists being lifted into the air. And every time Black History Month comes around, I mentally prepare myself for the reality that I might start crying in the clothing aisle of any retail store. Because the whole thing is exhausting. The performative act of concern from the capitalism machine of the fast-fashion industry. The overdone accomplishments and successes of Black people of the past and present, and the insistence on excellence as the standard.
And I get it, Black History Month, just like any other culturally themed month, is considered a trend for corporations and therefore boosts sales. But what’s missing and the part that needs to be addressed is the failing to actively show up for Black people in real life. As much as I love and appreciate highlighting my successful Black ancestors, I find that it’s more necessary to nurture those in the present, without requiring them to check boxes that mark them as successful.
Let’s be clear, I’ve never once walked into a Target and seen a shirt that honors the Black people surviving at predominantly white colleges or institutions, which is a feat in and of itself. I’ve never seen a tote bag emblazoned with a single Black mother who’s been holding her family together on minimum wage. Or a shoutout to the Black dads who surpassed all the systemic pitfalls to be present in their families’ lives.
The most common words that I see in the stores are ”Black excellence.” It would typically be poorly pasted in cursive font on a T-shirt woven out of cheap fibers, and my stomach would drop. Why is our livelihood based on excellence? If Black History Month is a time to celebrate Black people, why is there not enough space to pay homage to our ancestors who weren’t considered excellent? Should we honestly strive for excellence instead of prioritizing rest?
For many of us, rest is not a word that we were taught as Black people. As descendants of enslaved people, we were forced to work long hours doing field work, and the only time that we had any space to rest was on Sundays.
During enslavement, ”Black excellence” equated to families being ripped apart at slave auctions.
Once freed from slavery, Black people were taught that they had to work twice as hard to compete with their white counterparts. A 2017 Los Angeles Times opinion article found that Black people are the worst sleepers out of all racial groups, and the disparity can be linked back to slavery. That’s because Black people have never been safe in America.
“Aboard the ships of the transatlantic slave trade, African captives were made to sleep en masse in the hold, often while chained together. Once in the New World, enslaved people were usually still made to sleep in tight quarters, sometimes on the bare floor, and they struggled to snatch any sleep at all while chained together in the coffle. Slaveholders systematically disallowed privacy as they attempted round-the-clock surveillance, and enslaved women were especially susceptible at night to sexual assault from white men.”
In the present day, Black people still don’t get rest. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Black people still hold multiple jobs, a trend that has increased throughout the years. The mere idea of rest means that someone, somewhere is working harder than you; it’s a tenet of Black excellence.
There was a time when I found comfort and security in that narrative. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburbs made me more aware of how I interacted with non-Black people. I often code switched, in even the most subtle ways. I found myself centering my existence on my accomplishments versus my personhood. I took every Advanced Placement and honors class, not solely because I wanted to, but because the world around me told me that I had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. What Black excellence often means in white spaces is that specific Black people are more palatable to society when they engage in hard work. Like somehow my existence in these classes and around these people made me more tolerable.
And I know at first glance that Black excellence seems like an attempt to acknowledge the strength and capabilities of Blackness, but it soon becomes a blurry line of Black people trying to prove to the world that our contributions somehow justify and explain our existence. It humanizes the savage.
Black people’s humanity has always been in question. During the time of chattel slavery in America, the “three-fifths compromise” asserted that only three out of five enslaved people should be counted when determining a state’s total population. This was solely for legislative representation and taxation and was not enacted in order to assert the humanity of Black people.
Chattel slavery exploited Black bodies through slave auctions and cruel conditions. The Jim Crow era exploited those same bodies through public lynchings. And currently the media’s constant circulation of Black death causes desensitization.
At the time of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, I didn’t know what I feared more –– COVID-19, which had taken hold of the country and was killing Black people en masse –– or the harsh reality that at any given moment I could lose my loved ones because of our skin color. After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, many people attested to his good character and named him a “gentle giant.” Similarly, people mourned the death of Elijah McClain and asserted that he was sensitive and kindhearted, yet still the victim of police brutality in Aurora, Colorado.
On one hand, these sentiments may be important for families who are grieving and coping with the loss of their loved ones. On the other hand, no matter how good or excellent Black people are, we are still subjected to the reality of the society that we live in. It is imperative that we remember and mourn the beautiful lives that Black people have lived, but these people didn’t not have to be excellent to be alive.
Black History Month is an important time to reflect on the contributions of Black people but also a moment to acknowledge that excellence doesn’t have to be the standard to ensure equal rights.
I understand that Black History Month was first introduced as a way to uplift the contributions of African Americans in the United States. Often the everyday items that we use were created by Black people and are highlighted during this time. The clothes dryer, the gas mask and the traffic light were all invented by Black people during either chattel slavery or the civil rights movement. It baffles me how we have navigated being considered less than human while making contributions to humanity.
Reflecting on these real stories is what leads me back to the idea of Black excellence being complex and also problematic. As a group of people, we have overcome many obstacles; our achievements should be recognized and uplifted. But the storyline that we must be “excellent” in order to matter is one that is played out.
This Black History Month, I am going to shift my focus from believing that Black people have to be excellent to acknowledging that we are human, we are tired and we deserve as much normalcy as we can get.
As a child, I tried my best to ensure that I was a “good” representation of my race. I thought that if I worked hard, I would make my ancestors proud. I now realize that it is a heavy burden to ask us all to find ways to be excellent and therefore acceptable. There is beauty in us doing the best we can with what we have.
I propose that this year more people will focus on Black love and care instead of Black excellence. To the Black people celebrating: Enjoy your family. Hold on to your little brown babies and kiss their foreheads and the soles of their feet. Cook good food. Drink lots of water. Parents: Hold each other tight while dancing in the kitchen to throwbacks and tell your kids, “Y’all don’t know nothin’ ’bout this!” while they roll their eyes and giggle. Love, pray, meditate and drink tea. To be alive and well in a country that wants you dead is excellent and enough.