Why We Need Better Black Heroes
I was born in 1998, right on the cusp of Gen Z. I’m old enough to remember the exciting scramble of dial up, or the deep tenor of the “You’ve got mail!” AOL notification. Things like Motorola Razrs and Tamagotchis and MP3 players, or when the Nintendo Wii came out that one Christmas, or having to hit a button three times to get one letter to text. Things like being indoctrinated with a love for the fallacy of the nearly-impossible-to-achieve Black American dream.
Born on the sunrise of a new generation, my peers and I grew up ingesting the stories of Black achievers of the much coveted American dream. For career day, we dressed up as tiny Oprah Winfreys, Ben Carsons, Barack Obamas, and Kobe Bryants, girls in our patent-leather Mary Janes, boys clawing at the uncomfortable snap-on-ties that would be abandoned by lunchtime. We were entranced by sitcoms of rich, Black, Republican families like the Cosbys and the Banks. We were told, Reach for the stars! You can pull yourself up by the bootstraps, if you work hard enough. Get straight A’s, you’ll see! Do well in school, get into a good college, and you’ll be right on your way! Look at how Oprah came from an extreme case of poverty but was so determined to be successful, she worked her way into being a billionaire. Do you see how Ben Carson was just a poor, failing kid of a single mother in Detroit, and he worked his way into becoming one of the best neurosurgeons in the world? You can do it too! Just work hard enough and you can achieve it!
The message seems innocent enough. Uplifting, even. We smiled up at our teachers, our principals, our parents, our pint-sized hearts swelling with pride and aspiration. People like us had made it, and we could too. But as someone who internalized those messages of the power of Black representation and idealized the Black achievement of the American dream, I can see firsthand that it did more harm than good.
- Idealizing the Black American dream further supports the Black capitalist fallacy that if you work hard enough, things will eventually fall into place. If you hustle hard enough, things will get better. All you need is a lot of hustle, a dollar, and a dream. If you’re poor, you’re to blame, because you’re not working hard enough. This violent mantra has been recited vehemently by both self-proclaimed Black capitalists and subconscious Black capitalists, who have normalized blaming poor Black people for their oppression. Not only is the delusion of a Black capitalist society unachievable in a white supremacist world, slapping “Black” in front of capitalism does nothing but change the race of the oppressor. It is still capitalism, it is still an oppressive system, and therefore it is nothing to aspire to.
Systemic anti-Blackness and the efficiency of capitalism are the causes of the suppression of Black wealth and opportunity, not the laziness of poor Black people. In recent decades, America has experienced tremendous economic growth — the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, while wages for workers without a college education have remained flat. Black Americans face these obstacles most acutely, from outright discrimination, to lower pay, poorer benefits, and greater job instability. While the job market continues to expand, opportunities for Black Americans remain slimmer than their counterparts of all other races, and they are continuously restricted by anti-Black labor market policies.1 According to Brookings, the myth of the pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps actually isn’t a myth at all for white Americans: “Twenty-three percent of whites born in the lowest fifth of the income scale remain in the lowest fifth as adults, but 16 percent make it to the top fifth, close to the “ideal” of even distribution.” However, for Black Americans, it remains a fantasy. Fifty percent of Black Americans born in the lowest fifth of the income scale will remain there as adults, while a skimpy 3% will make it all the way to the top.
Despite these odds, some Black people, the Ben Carsons and the Oprahs, do undergo heroic journeys to the top, and a genuine congratulations to them for their achievements. However, realistically, the people that we have been conditioned to idolize are anomalies. Their extraordinary accomplishments shouldn’t detract from any bright Black child who wasn’t given a miraculous opportunity, or just the right amount of luck for their potential to blossom and be fully realized. Many Black centennials are clinging to the vestiges of a disproved misconception. They see a Black person in poverty and blame him for failing, instead of blaming the anti-Black society that crafted and ensured his failure.
- The deification of these successful Black archetypes has also built an obsession with exceptionalism that I believe pervades Gen Z intensely. Black centennials are being suffocated by their own nearly-unattainable dreams, stifled by the anxiety of needing to achieve the extraordinary ascent to upper class comfort. While this desire is absolutely rooted in our reality — that Black people are required to swim against more vicious waves simply to be comfortable — it has become more than insistent desire. There is a difference between determined ambition and a constant source of pain and anxiety. There seems to be a shared, incisive pressure felt by my generation to be great. We all need to be exceptional. We all need to be millionaires, to make it. We can’t just be. We have to be miracles.
While I can’t deny that the attractions may be perfectly real, I believe the cumulative effect further enforces in us that our own regular, Black, lives must be close to worthless. We are not encouraged to take joy in everyday, average Black living. It seems that none of us, myself included, can bear the thought of living a normal life, in which we don’t make an Oprah-Winfrey-level mark on the world, in which we are not the Black heroes we learned to love. Not only does this frantic, anxious desire to achieve the American dream goad us into expecting unrealistic standards, it greatly damages our collective psyche. Our society is devoid of images of Black people living ordinary, but good enough lives. Instead, these images are interpreted to be the opposite: a quiet life is something that someone who didn’t try enough to get ahead is resigned to, a failed person without options.
We are riddled with anxieties, depression, hopelessness, because our ambitions are often greater than our realities. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be great, we need to stop beating ourselves up simply because America’s anti-Black, capitalist institutions are functioning as intended. Instead, we need to regroup, learn to appreciate ourselves for what we’ve accomplished despite our anti-Black world, and work on bringing it to its knees.
- The glorification of these Black American dream success stories has also resulted in a generation obsessed with Black representation, no matter the cost or implications. Black centennials are notorious for revering successful Black people for their ability to climb up the capitalist ladder and defy incredible odds — regardless of their pasts, their ideologies, or their characters. Black centennials have been so swept up in the power of representation — in “breaking down barriers”, in the professedly powerful images of the one intelligent Black man or woman among the sea of the white — that they forgo critical analysis of the actions of their successful Black heroes. They refuse to hold them accountable.
From their support of Kamala Harris, despite her blatant pandering and justifications for supporting both anti-Black truancy laws and anti-Black carceral politics, to the championing of Barack Obama as a Black American hero, despite his war crimes and covert drone strike war, to the vehement support that some Black Americans provided Bill Cosby, asserting that he was being victimized by anti-Blackness, Black centennials have got it bad. We deify every rich Black success story, shielding them from genuine, deserved criticism with “They just don’t want to see a wealthy Black man (or woman) win.” We proclaim that every Black “first” to penetrate a previously non-Black space should be championed and applauded for their inherent virtue. We parade these Black success stories around, wearing their names as proudly as if they were our own, without considering whether their actions deserve our support at all. We are under the hazy spell of Black capitalism and the saving grace of representation; we are starry-eyed at the idea of breaking the glass ceiling, and we need to snap out of it fast.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our fixation on model Black success stories has delayed true Black liberation. Our preoccupation with these people of the past has distracted us from the path at hand, instead offering a gilded detour that we need to abandon swiftly. These Black leaders are representative of fighting for a seat at the table, instead of throwing the table out entirely, and our faith in them has distracted us from working towards true Black liberation. Black liberation is impossible under capitalism, but the glorification of powerful Black Americans in the Black centennial psyche has decelerated our political consciousness. We have dropped the revolutionary baton, believing the work is closer to being over than it really is.
The legend-like status of these Black success stories has contributed to a generation obsessed with looking to the past for answers instead of looking to themselves. Instead of looking at reality with a critical eye, and seeing things for how they really are. According to Fanon, “It is not enough to reunite with the people in a past where they no longer exist. We must rather reunite with them in their recent counter move which will suddenly call everything into question; we must focus on that zone of hidden fluctuation where the people can be found, for let there be no mistake, it is here that their souls are crystalized and their perception and respiration transfigured.” We need to turn our eyes away from the Black leaders that have been championed under capitalism, and reignite our love for Assata Shakur, CLR James, Toni Morrison, Fred Hampton, bell hooks. These are the leaders we can truly see in ourselves; these are people who understood that the true path to Black liberation will never be found in the White House.
In order for us to move forward, we need to stop riding the waves of the Black capitalists before us. We need to shift our eyes away from the sparkly mirage of Black representation, and look around at our reality with discernment. We need to pick up the baton, and we need to pick it up fast.