Black Excellence: A source of inspiration OR trauma response?

As part of Black History Month, Khalid Agyemang explores Black Excellence and whether it always acts as a source of inspiration – or a trauma response.


What is Black Excellence I hear some of you ask? Black Excellence is an extremely nuanced term, one that is forever evolving and differs from person to person within the black community. 

The term for many within the African diaspora refers to extraordinary high levels of achievement, success or ability demonstrated by black people – often not seen before. 

Over the past two years I have done a lot of deep questioning, which is not uncommon for me, and for a growing number of other people too. Which makes sense considering all the lockdowns we’ve had. Plus the way the world is constantly spiralling in what appears to be a tornado of rapid change, it can be easy to feel off balance. 

One of the blessings of the global pandemic that shall remain largely unmentioned is that for many of us, it gave us the time to take a step back. To recalibrate, rejuvenate and re-evaluate many areas of our life whether it be our mental health, careers or our relationships with others – especially our loved ones.

Self reflection

I’ve really tried to be present and practice authentic self-improvement and self-love. Not in the bastardised Westernised fashion that can often be seen on social media, but in a way that is grounded in truth and self-acceptance. 

In a way that inspires me to go on and reach for the stars whilst being grateful for how far I’ve come on my own personal journey. By doing so, the topic of ‘Black Excellence’ as a philosophy, lifestyle and as a source of inspiration has occupied many contradictory thoughts in my mind. 

These thoughts have comforted me and held me close in the bosom of endless possibility, but they’ve also tormented me and reflected parts of myself I’d rather not see.

Source of inspiration

One of the greatest expressions of Black Excellence is the representation it provides for the younger generation to strive for success. On a surface level it says you can do it, you can achieve great things in the face of oppression and racism. 

I completely understand and see the need for celebrating those from our community who have defied the odds when they were stacked against them and achieved greatness. Especially when you consider the ghastly, barabic history of the trans-atlantic slave trade and colonialism, as well as how it violently ravished many of us our dignity, resources and ultimately – our lives.

For a people who were once considered objects instead of humans for ill-gotten financial gain, I understand the incessant need for us to affirm our worth for the world to see it makes perfect sense. 

Trauma response

However, it is for that exact reason that I believe that the intrinsic nature of Black Excellence is a response to the trauma we have experienced. Part of the genius and brilliance of Black Excellence is that it rewrites the narrative of success placing black people at the centre. About time too.  

Although, one of the elements of Black Excellence that I think needs to be explored, investigated and yes critiqued is the close proximity to the institution of whiteness and capitalism that it often has.  

I say this from a place of love and compassion. Dressing up in the garments of people who have oppressed us and assimilating in spaces where we have begged for a seat at their tables for generations is not going to equip us with the armour required to liberate us mentally, physically or spiritually. It will however, allow us to enjoy some of the thrills of capitalism, whilst inviting us to subconsciously uphold and maintain the status quo.

One of the elements of Black Excellence that I think can be extremely detrimental at times within is closeness to capitalism – is the fact that it promotes unhealthy levels of exceptionalism. All this whilst not taking into consideration that many do not have the same level of access, or have started from an even playing ground to obtain such levels of success. 

It places an artificial importance on the individual and not the collective promoting rugged individualism instead of group consciousness allowing no room for rest which is counter-productive on so many levels.

This form of Black Excellence sends out a very clear message. The message that as long as you achieve great amounts of success and wealth within a system that was not built for you or your people – you matter. This can be dangerous in more ways than one. 

You will be invited into white spaces and celebrated (conditionally) as long as you hustle and do what it is by any means necessary to achieve success. But at what expense? Your mental health? Your physical health? Your connection to your community? The same community that helped build you? 

Time to redefine

I am just asking questions because I would love to know. Not to mention these are questions that need to be addressed if we are truly to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery in a way that is progressive.

I strongly believe that the notion of Black Excellence needs to be redefined. Or at the very least, more encompassing of all black people who do not necessarily fit into the category of what is deemed as Black Excellence. 

For me, for it to be a true tool of inspiration, as a philosophy it needs to be seen through the lens of African liberation. It needs to allow greater room for the ordinary and the mundane elements of our lives that are essential to our wellbeing. 

Yes, Black Excellence is the young graduate who has graduated from a top medical school. Yes, Black Excellence is the black person that has been made senior partner at their practice. 

But it is also the black woman who wakes up to go to a job where she has to constantly deal with microaggressions to get ahead. It’s also the black man who has to monitor his response when dealing with the police in order to ensure his safety.

Simply put, Black Excellence is whatever we say it is –  as long as it gives us air to breathe and actualise success on our own terms.