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.

  1. 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 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.

I’m from New York and I have a lot to say about a lot. Email: alissabri2@yahoo.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store