February 1st marks the start of Black History Month. In the spirit of blackness, I visited a poetry open mic night celebrating “Black Excellence.” With no expectations, I sat down with an open mind ready to hear what these poets had to say. All that graced the stage did a great job speaking their truths. Millicent shared with us the communication struggles and misunderstandings of black women. Nyne pointed out how black people are so welcoming to other people, but others are not so quick to return the favor. Zach touched on inequality and the criminal justice system in America, while Omer just wanted to know why people can’t just let him be human. Ayokunle paid a tribute to Nina Simone and asked what legacy do we want for our black daughters. Outspoken Bean gave an amazing performance, yet again, with his enlightened take on the impact of Simone Manuel’s olympic victories. Natasha gave a very creative piece using the alphabet to share her experiences, her vulnerabilities, and her power.
Guiding us through this journey for the evening was the lovely Ebony Stewart. Her charisma, wit and charm allowed for a smooth and entertaining experience through these epics. She opened the gates with a familiar poem about her mother. Anyone who has (or knows) a black mother can relate to the situations she illustrated. The black mother is the most respected woman on the planet. In most cases she is the glue that holds the family together. She’s demanding. She’s compassionate. She’s loving, but she will beat that ass if she needs to!! All with love of course. She is usually under enormous pressure balancing bills, the family, and her sanity. Regardless, she champions all of it with dignity. Ebony’s poem hit home for many in the audience.
“Going to this event was like traveling through the black experience.” – Unknown event goer
Now, we as a society love to toss words and phrases around. I’m sure that some of you are curious to know what exactly does “Black Excellence” mean. Well, let’s dive into that. Urban dictionary defines it as:
“Someone that is black and portrays great qualities and abilities that make the black community proud.”
According to Kiri Rupiah’s article from the online magazine Mail and Guardian,
“[black excellence] cannot make a bold statement of simply existing. In other words, it exists through the shuttered lens of white people’s comfort. It is, in reality, an obstacle. The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is that white excellence is achieved without meeting resistance in the form of institutional racism.”
Within the context of the black existence, white people (or the system at large) are inevitably involved with the story. We seem to be in an epic, playing out this heroic journey with racism portraying the antagonist. Have you ever heard of the saying, “It’s hard being black?” What does that mean exactly? To me, it’s the idea that some outside force is around you all the time causing resistance. This resistance can be physical, emotional, or perceived. It all depends on an individuals upbringing, support systems and mentality. What makes Black Excellence so appealing is that in spite of this resistance, a person can achieve great things. That’s the essence of a great epic.
“It’s important to understand that one person’s strength should not have an effect on your own strength.” – Unknown event goer
I’m proud to be black. I’m probably too proud to be black. Maybe I’m over compensating because I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be. I grew up in Wisconsin, one of the whitest states in our nation. Since our country doesn’t truly view black history as a part of American history, I was fed a watered down version of black history:
- Slaves from Africa
- Slavery = bad
- Freed in 1865 = Not really…
- Jim Crow = put blacks in their rightful place
- Lynching = don’t look at white girls!
- Civil Rights in the 1960’s = Free finally?
- Martin Luther King Jr = Dreams a lot
That was basically it. From that small piece of information, you can deduce that black people are a disenfranchised group that have not contributed anything to society besides music, dancing, and civil rights. What you are then lead to believe is that the real creators of our society are white people. The societal structures, rule of law, religion, and every important doctor, scientist, musician and philosopher are white. People grow up believing these things. As a black person, you think to yourself, “What about other people?” Surely the human race encompasses every race, and there must have been knowledge gained from these other groups? Over time I have learned that certain white men throughout history have taken the credit for other people’s work. Similar to how businesses today own the rights to creations that their employees create. Black people did not have a right to own anything of importance until recently. Fortunately for me, I have a grandmother who believed in knowing history and knowing yourself. She filled in the holes left behind by the public school system. Other people, however, are not as fortunate to have such a grandmother. This contributes to the belief that black people are inferior. Then again, if it wasn’t for this belief and hatred, would I feel so strongly about being black?
The most interesting poems from that night were the ones that spoke on the cultural problems or concerns of the black community. I always found it strange how our problems are on full display in mainstream media. If you ask people on the street, most can give you the standard stereotypes. They say black people are poor, we’re uneducated, and that black fathers are either lousy, dead or in jail. Though there is some truth to all of this, it’s severely missing context and history. First, we don’t all live in projects. There are a lot of rich or well off black people in society. They usually don’t get recognized unless they are celebrities. Some don’t associate with other black people, while others are heavily involved in their communities. Black people, like everyone else, are just people. We have a wide array of characters, traits, and hang-ups. Second, black women are one of the most educated groups of women. They are doctors, lawyers, business woman, newscasters, etc, etc, etc. This leads me to my final point: black men. Sure, there have been some bad ones out there, and certain societal pressures have caused some black men to wander. Fortunately, like Big Sean’s song “Bounce Back”, the black men of the younger generations are picking themselves up and the stereotypes of old are slowly being hacked away.
“Black Excellence is being great in the face of opposition.” – Unknown event goer
Going to this event reminded me of why I love being black. I love the rich history of black people and other groups of people of African descent. We have faced troubled times, but you can never count us out. As soon as things get bleak, we bounce back with our heads held high. Seeing black people succeed and doing great things gives me energy and pride. This, however, does not mean I don’t have respect for other groups of people. As this country grows more divisive, we continue to fall into this trap. We start to adopt a “us vs them” mentality. Somehow someone else’s happiness bothers another, instead of understanding that these things are not mutually exclusive. I have love for all people, but the first step in being able to love others is to first love yourself.
The poems shared at this event were well written, but still most dwelled in the negative experiences we have. That’s not necessary a bad thing. Art reflects life, but I do wonder what messages people left with. We tend to focus on how bad life has been, and what cruelties were done to us. Rarely do we touch on what we are actively doing to resolve these issues. The element missing here is the “healing” part. For the black people reading this article, I encourage you to love yourself and learn about your history. Don’t dwell on what your father did or didn’t do, and focus on helping the next generation of men. Don’t dwell on how poor your upbringing
may have been, and focus on building wealth and collaborations for the future. Don’t dwell on the limited opportunities you may think you have, and focus on creating your own opportunities. We have the power to change things. I know this because I’ve see us do it before. Most importantly, don’t let others steal your joy! Be you!! Do what you want! Be who you want!! Eat fried chicken if you want to damn it!! Not too much though, the stuff is unhealthy. Put simply, never be ashamed of who you are and where you come from.
For the non black people reading this, if you see black people around you getting excited about the movie Black Panther, or if someone shares a quick black history fact with you, instead of getting defensive over their excitement, try to embrace it. You just might learn something. Go to events that are black centric. Get outside of your comfort zone. It’s not so bad. Black people go through this all the time. I experience similar things when I attend events around the city where there is only one other minority. I still manage to have fun. Why can’t you?