The worst feeling in the world is not belonging. This homeless feeling of being exposed to the elements yet pressed into a box is the plight of the Black woman. What I love about Sula is how seamlessly Toni Morrison explores the binary codes with which women are often programmed. There is good woman and bad woman, right and wrong, Nel and Sula. Sula defies socio-gender norms. She is evil and lesser. Nel defies herself to assimilate to the larger cause of being easily digestible. She is good and greater. This is the Black conundrum that we all face, really; from “inner-citied” spaces to ostensible privilege, we are only allowed to exist within limited scopes of reference.
Blackness, as an identity, is incomplete and incapable of providing the true context in which we exist. This is by design. The concept is stingy, offering only limited resources that must be fought over by many. Thus, we are all looking for a seat at a table that can’t accommodate anyone. At first glance, the Black abstraction is a weapon of the white man, a function of the white supremacist system to divide and oppress. The lesser acknowledged truth is that we’ve taken it upon ourselves to weaponize the idea and caste ourselves. We carry on the great American tradition of dismissing complexities in favor of easily palatable half-truths. This good, that bad. Nel and Sula.
There is no greater example than Respectability Politics—the idea that, in order to be taken seriously outside of our comfortable Black spaces, we must present ourselves as palatable and relatable to the culture at large. The concept, to me, is bombastic and pusillanimous in the contemporary context—chickenshit, if you will. Yet, we hold on with voracity. As a person who values personal authenticity, I find the thought of masquerading in order to succeed very vexing. Even more frightening is the potential to unwittingly undergo Kafkaesque metamorphosis and become the very character that I’ve pretended to be for so long in order to keep my success.
It has been argued that Black Excellence is really self development. It means shedding the nefarious dried skin layers of oppression and reaching heights that, to generations before, were impossible. I love the idea, but as it is, it is romanticized.
George Floyd walked into a grocery store for a pack of cigarettes. We all know what happened next: he may or may not have had a counterfeit bill; a $20 dispute resulted in the loss of a life and global outrage. Not everyone that I knew was on his side at first, however. Some of the first questions to arise during kitchen table conversations with my “Black Excellence” friends were, in essence, “What did he do to deserve it?” Well, he was drunk, 46 with no real accomplishment to his name. Using fake money to buy cigarettes in the hood. He didn’t apply himself apparently, he didn’t try hard enough to preemptively escape the circumstances that led to his demise. He knew the game. Why didn’t he play it well enough? While some shouted “it doesn’t matter what the reason, the man did not deserve it!”, others reasoned that he was at least partially responsible for his death because he chose the existence that led to it in the first place. He didn’t choose the life of an engineer, entrepreneur, cyber security professional, college graduate, avid traveler, surgeon, or someone otherwise respectable.
He chose the hood. He chose alcohol. He chose poverty. He chose death.
These conversations left me wondering how widespread these questions really were. They never shared these thoughts aloud in public or on social media. They were, they said, unwilling to face the backlash. People wanted a reason to be angry, and the Black community wanted to rally around every slain Black person regardless of their choices and the role that they played.
It is awfully striking that our Excellent Black brothers and sisters behave in formulaic fashion, especially in work and public spaces—a restricted and highly pointed style of communication that must always refer to a certain level of personal decoration. They are their achievements and affiliations. No yeah, but yes, absolutely! Raw self expression is sparse in scope and is programmed to be perceived as less refined than calm concision. Suits and ties are always quite necessary for the business occasion, even when white colleagues sport polos and Brooks Brothers’ khakis. Another unsubtle insinuation. There’s the constant need to prove one’s worth and quality that feels reductive.
“Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga
OJ like, “I’m not Black, I’m OJ”… Okay.– Jay-Z “The Story of OJ” 4:44
We be like, I’m not Black, I’m Brown. I’m African American. I’m Mixed. I’m Educated. I’m Successful. I’m Different. I’m Accomplished. I’m Well Traveled. I’m Your Colleague.
Excellence speaks for itself and doesn’t require a neutered and ‘good’ persona—just an authentic one; that if we are ever going to truly branch beyond the limitations forced upon us, we must take the liberties that we will without regard for what works for our oppressors. This, the underprivileged Black class has in spades—the confidence to live authentically regardless of social convention. Consequently, this version of Blackness is the most admired around the world and the most emulated. How, after so much oppression, do you have the swag, bossiness, gall to step onto the world stage and own it? Alas, it’s not the dressed up Divine Nine with 4 degrees and extensive service travel in Costa Rica that is admired and reproduced, but the Rihannas of the world. Is this wrong though? Many of the ideas around what makes a well rounded and sophisticated Black human are rooted in colorist, classist, archaic ideas that, operating within the context in which they were formed, for which they were made, worked for a time. But times have rapidly changed. Pressing your hair is no longer necessary or professional—it’s actively submitting to an oppressive culture. Rejecting African American Vernacular English is no longer pushing oneself to communicate at the highest caliber—it’s participating in a system of language inequality and scrubbing oneself of cultural authenticity. Door knockers and braids are no longer ghetto fabulous, they are cultural heirlooms.
There are fights in the boardrooms. People speak up finally to say, “Code switching is outdated, painful, and yet an ever present requirement for success. I finally want to braid my hair. I finally want to wear my African print. I finally want to be myself.” But when the self you want to be is reflected back through the image of someone’s childhood friend being murdered with the bended knee of megalomaniacal white privilege (that is, American Capitalism and Government), the cries become whispered pragmatisms. “Well, you know how those niggas can be…”
The lower class Black citizen is frequently denied a seat at the table with their Elitist siblings. Big brothers and sisters quietly consider them lesser for lack of trying or successfully achieving. In reality, it isn’t that we aren’t trying, it’s that we aren’t trying to play the game that we know to be rigged. Listen, if you want to see me as lesser then you will no matter what I do. If you want to deny me opportunity, or make it as difficult as possible to play the game and win, then why play at all? I’m too good for this, and I will not compromise myself or be stressed out perpetually trying to reconcile two polarities. I will live by my own rules. Reclaim my soul.
Respectfully, I am not glorifying one side of the divide over the other. If the caste can be simplified into two groups—the haves and the have nots, further defined as the lower class, inner city Blacks and the upper class or highly formally educated Blacks—both use a Dewey Decimal system of Blackness to exclude the other. Their qualifiers are different, but still rooted in a sense of elitism, and still damaging. The former believe themselves to be, often, the “most authentic”. They may very well exclude those who leave these environments and adopt other world views. Outsiders aren’t welcomed in. They could never understand. Within the limited scope of what is allowable, you are a part of the fold, and the community is loyal. There is love there, palpable, syrupy, blossoming even in the dead of winter. It is truly overlooked by the outside world, and unfairly so, however laced with toxicity it might be.
I would know. This was my upbringing. Both Nel and Sula. A blend of both extremities.
My family lived in the worst area, but demanded of me and my brother what many parents evidently did not. My family came from a blend of privilege and struggle, so that I was trained to carry myself exceptionally well and was very well read and ahead of my class throughout my childhood and teen years. My great grandfather was the founder of my family’s church. I was a 3rd generation preacher’s kid, and it played an immense role in my formative experiences. I was also exposed to drugs, alcoholism, abuse, murder, assault, police brutality, bloody sneakers, gang wars, criminality, predatory activity, an unusual amount of death, and the ever occasional dead body. My first time being drugged was in a church. An addict left their laced juice on the counter and I mistook it for mine. I suffered for the rest of the day on what was later confirmed to be an LSD trip. I was 8 and afraid. The adults told me it was “the Holy Spirit”. I thought I was being attacked by dogs and rescued by angels over and over again. I was lying in my grandmother’s bed.
I was naturally inquisitive, friendly, temperamental, fiery, loving, and violent. A group of boys chased my best friend and I with a knife around the neighborhood wanting to “see and touch” our private parts. We barely escaped into the house and tried to tell my family. They didn’t believe us. So, we sought to poison them with bleach lemonade and grab some weapons to even the score. Thankfully, we were caught before we could.
I would play rough, mean well, fight harshly and get over it all rather quickly. My family wouldn’t allow me to act like “the rest of them”. They were not as reactive as I was, and took extra measure to control my exposure to the neighborhood. I reflected my father’s friendly yet fiery temperament more than my mother’s passive and peaceful nature. This contradiction has ultimately shaped me to be an amalgamation of both Black rigidities while belonging to neither of them. I was raised during a different time, when DC saw the most murders in the United States, and the War on Drugs was in full swing. The Black ideologies explored here have relaxed a bit overtime, but still maintain common themes. I simply speculate from the middle ground what I discern to be an ideological tug of war.
From where I sit, the version of Blackness that most consider “authentic” isn’t even real though, it is the result of carefully constructed White media campaigns. It excludes the teaching of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, ignores the postulations of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Langston Hughes, Baldwin and Malcolm X are not the central focus of these perpetuations. These record labels and entertainment companies aren’t run by us. They are run by White men and profits. They decide what will sell and put the Black talent to work, selling it. The Black youth buy it in spades and perpetuate the lie. Still, there is some authenticity to it, albeit far removed. After all, the White male boardrooms are unimaginative, They take what has worked in the past with “Blueprint” artists and Black figures, conglomerate these ideas, and build the Black person they want to see.
In short, this vast difference in values and perceptions leads to a greater divide than should ever exist in our community—those who will “act right” for success (as my grandmother would say) and those who will refuse wholeheartedly, but often accept for their own culture that which has been fabricated by the very system that they refuse to participate in. It’s a conundrum that we find ourselves in. Which is the real Black?
I would argue that that question is irrelevant. The real conversation that we should be having is about how we should define ourselves moving forward. It’s nice that we’ve attempted to redefine and reclaim Blackness, but it still is and will always be rooted in the White man’s caustic ideas. If an abuser wanted me to forget my name and gave me an entire false identity, I could grapple with that identity for the rest of my life. Or, I could say “Trauma has occurred and I cannot change it. But, what’s next for me irrespective of that? “If that would’ve never happened, who would I be right now?” That is the goal. It’s not about forgetting as much as stepping out of the shadow of a looming lie. We are not inferior, and we know that. White supremacy is rooted in a historical lack of self-esteem when standing next to Asian and African dynasties, Middle Eastern wealth, and complex social, political, educational, and economic advancement that they had not yet achieved, but everyone else had mastered. The scrawny kid in class used conniving means to run the school yard. But they are not actually tough—just willing to do whatever it takes to look tougher than everyone else.
So why continue to buy into that dynamic?
Nel realized after Sula died that she really wasn’t that different from her sister. That she projected the parts of herself that she was ashamed of onto her only best friend, that she helped to fuel the vitriol against Sula in order to soothe her stinging inability to live up to the standards of goodness that she subscribed too. She scrubbed herself clean and acquiesced to submission.
Both the Sula’s and the Nel’s do something with vivid beauty. Inner city Blacks have the audacity to laugh, live, walk to the beat of their own drum regardless of systemic pressure to conform. Outer city Blacks have the ambition to do what it takes to prove that they belong any and everywhere—that it is only a matter of setting a goal and applying oneself to achieve it. Both reflect the whole of our ancestors, before we were torn apart.
“Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga. Still nigga.”
As long as we subscribe to these limiting ideas about how we can be and who we ought to be, there is no escaping the rigged game. We will always find save points. But we will ultimately lose the boss battle every single time.
Ellie Imani loves words! Since she was small in the laps of her elders listening to them tell their stories, she has honored the power that words hold.
She began telling stories as a small child and won her first poetry contest in the 7th grade. She was published for the first time in the 9th grade. Since then, she’s worked as a content creator for non-profit organizations around the DMV and written poetry and personal essays nonstop.