Black Exceptionalism Is Not Always Black Excellence

When Black people struggled to penetrate media of any kind, any representation was historic — but we need more from our art

On the last day of the 2021 edition of Black History Month, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio hosted a program celebrating the work of Black composers. The performance included work by William Grant Still; Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; and Jeffrey Mumford. Being a faculty recital, the music was performed exclusively by White musicians, which is admittedly a redundant statement. I could be making an Oberlin joke here, but really, the overwhelming Whiteness of classical musicians and instructors would be true almost anywhere in America. Conservatories aren’t exactly brimming with Black harpsichord players.

While all of this cast grave suspicion on the equity of Oberlin’s staffing metrics, none of this was as bad as the event’s flyer, which featured not portraits of the three Black composers, but headshots of the five White musicians. To clarify: A performance titled “A Celebration of Black Artistry” marketed itself with pictures of five White people.

This kind of basic faux pas is so pervasive that while it may not have been intentional, it can hardly be called a mistake. (How many eyes fell upon that flyer on its way to the internet? Is it a waste of faith to pray that none of the eyes were Black? What year is this, anyway?) Regardless of how ubiquitous Black people may seem in media and corporate brochures, moments like these expose the continued need for more actual agency and less toothless representation.

Black people love to see Black folks winning, yet we are reluctant to unpack what qualifies as a win. If you don’t look at the data too closely, you might be convinced that a respectable level of representation has been achieved. Many of the TV series and movies that have come out in the past few years seem to have gotten the memo. And yet, in 2017, fewer than 20% of lead film actors were people of color. There are more Black directors now than perhaps ever before, but in a field that multiplies exponentially on a daily basis with the goal of cementing audiences to their couches, the ratio of Black impact remains minuscule. Hollywood attempts to balance this by advertising the offerings of Black artists more, without actually putting a dent in the ratio. Always a minority, never a bride.

Representation used to feel like a life-or-death situation. Black people struggled to penetrate media of any kind, so any portrayal that made it onto a screen or television was historic. There were no cinematic offerings for Black audiences in most genres; no Black action heroes, no cowboys, no protagonists of almost any kind. And so, for a while, blaxploitation was what we had. Protests from organizations like the NAACP were largely dismissed by Black audiences thirsty for representation, and such icons — Super Fly, The Mack, and Shaft are the holy trinity of blaxploitation — remain inspirational in their own ways, having affected hip-hop on a molecular level. They may be stereotypes, but they were our stereotypes.

If the goal is truly better representation, rather than merely more representation, then “for the culture” is a survival tic we can afford to shed.

Underneath that decade of pimps, hustlers, and anti-heroes lay an unspoken plan that Black film would one day collect enough resources to be able to generate agency, to call its own shots. Black capitalism as balm. Of course, being Black capitalism, that’s not what happened. Instead, Black film evaporated for a while until the late 1980s, when Spike Lee almost singlehandedly brought the Black film industry back to life and by not concerning himself with the meager gains of hand-me-down representation. For Lee, independence was part of the syllabus of representation. Still, blaxploitation films were for the culture.

Unfortunately, “for the culture” is horrible at gatekeeping.

Half the time someone hits me with a “for the culture,” the phrase is being used as a defense of some piece of Black art I am haranguing. I say, “Lovecraft Country is hugely flawed,” and the well of Black culture echoes back, “We never get to do horror, so whatever it is, it’s for the culture.” What the well wants me to do is shut up. The well doesn’t acknowledge that Lovecraft Country largely exists on the shoulders of Jordan Peele’s immensely successful forays into horror, and so we already have evidence that we don’t have to settle for pioneering-while-just-okay. The well sees only a Black person kneecapping another Black person’s art, as if I have taken food out of Misha Green’s mouth and ruined her career with my double-digit tweet.

If the goal is truly better representation, rather than merely more representation, then “for the culture” is a survival tic we can afford to shed. There may be no greater case against the merits of representation alone than President Barack Obama. As great and moving a figure as he was, at some point Black folks had to contend with whatever policies he established in Black people’s interests (or, rather, the lack thereof). The gains asked for by and designed in the interest of Black people under the hand of Obama — as opposed to things we would have done in the same amount of time regardless of who was in the White House, or things that we might benefit from but were not on our checklist — are slim.

By now, it’s far easier to level criticism than it was five or six years ago, when the goalpost kept moving from “He’s the first Black president!” to “He’s only been in one term” to “What did you expect from the first one?” These are the bruises one gets when the backpedal of representation as an end and not a mean hits your shins.

Let’s be clear: No one should ever give up representation as a tool. We simply have to shift it as a priority. We have different needs from media and entertainment these days. Representation stands in for people where they are not present, avatars of Funny Black Friend and Magical Negro being broadcast to places where actual multifaceted Black people are not. I abhor respectability politics, so it is important here to differentiate between that dismissive philosophy and calling for broader, more nuanced, and frankly better representations of Black people. But if the purpose of representation is to merely inspire, then the representative need not actually care about Black people to fulfill the bullet points of the job description. Clarence Thomas is Black representation. Tiger Woods is Black representation. Black exceptionalism is not always Black excellence.

I would never make a case against more representation. I only ever make a case that it strive to be good for Black people. We need representation, but we can no longer afford to treat it like an end goal. Representation is a day one proposition, a minimum standard. Representation without agency may be better than being dead, but that don’t make it living.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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