Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the achievements and resilience that make us great as a people. This came to mind when I recently rewatched the Great Debaters on a flight home from a speaking engagement. Seeing these young people fight for dignity and respect in that era touched my heart.
The Great Debaters chronicles the journey of the 1935 debate team for Wiley College, which was among the first HBCUs to have a debate team in the segregated South. Their tough but resolute coach, professor Melvin Tolson, portrayed by the legendary Denzel Washington, was determined to make his students feel empowered against their competitors.
The team encountered the challenges of living under Jim and Jane Crow, including debilitating racist encounters. But through their hard work and dedication, this small HBCU team from rural Texas ultimately beat Harvard in the national championships. The most empowering aspect of this movie is that it is based on a true story. Wiley College did, in fact, beat the University of California, the reigning national champion at the time.
While watching this inspiring film, I thought about what Black Excellence truly is, which I would love to share with you.
Black Excellence is not Perfectionism.
Perfection is not an attainable goal. Striving for perfection is damaging because of the fear that we will fail. Yet, we inevitably will fail because perfection is an ideal that is unachievable. Striving for excellence instead allows us to view failure as a part of the process, as it helps us grow, learn, and make better decisions in the future. Under the direction of Professor Tolson, Wiley College only lost one debate in 15 years. Although impressive, the focus was not on perfection. It was working every day to be their best.
Black Excellence is not Exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism is a trap to prove ourselves and our abilities to a society steeped in white supremacy. According to that racist thinking, only exceptional Black people merit accolades or respect. But the truth is that each of us, created in God’s image, is distinct, purposeful, with a seed of greatness within, worthy of respect and dignity. We have nothing to prove to a culture bent on excluding us. We should live out that truth confidently and for ourselves.
While watching the great debaters, the following quote stood out to me:
“Who is your opponent?
‘He doesn’t exist.’
“Why does he not exist?”
“Because he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth l speak!”
Exceptionalism is a myth of white supremacist society, and excellence is for us. Exceptionalism will not do us any favors in that society because our greatness is already within us.
Black Excellence is
- A result of knowing who we are and Whose we are.
- Knowing where we come from and on whose shoulders we stand
- The outcome of preparation and focused hard work aligned with skills, abilities, gifts, and experiences.
- An expectation and a promise that we will show up and do our very best every day.
- Giving ourselves rest and care in order to be and do our best.
- An important cultural value.
As Black History Month comes to a close, remember that excellence is a never-ending legacy we live daily. Black Excellence goes beyond the month of February and should be celebrated 24-7, 365 days a year. There’s no debate about that!
Continue to follow my leadership series at https://www.drjeanneporterking.com/blog/
Thank you for this. We have the power to define black excellence for ourselves. #365Black