#BlackExcellence is a methodology, an ideology, a marketing schema, and an aesthetic, and it deserves to be re-examined for its elitism and the capitalist exploitation it can and often does engender.
By Dalí Adekunle
There has always been a place in the American economy for “get quick rich” schemes, especially ones that save your soul. Now, it’s Black culture that’s being exploited and sold back to us. But at what cost?
In the fall of 2019, internet personality and comedienne B. Simone hosted the “Beauty and Business Brunch” in Dallas, Texas to a hungry audience filled with some of her most loyal fans. The crowd was almost entirely young Black women inspired by B. Simone’s meteoric popularity, lavish lifestyle, and most of all, by the economic potential she embodied. Not long after, in March 2020, B. Simone would launch her “Road To A Million” campaign on Facebook, stating, “I will have to make $5,000 a day for 50 days. By April 5th 2020, I will be a millionaire.”
Although I wasn’t in attendance, photos of the brunch littered my social media feeds. These images reminded me of the Christian conventions I attended as a child, where I’d tug at my itchy lace socks, surrounded by beautiful Black faces dressed in the pastels and prints of their Sunday best, ears enraptured and attuned to a well-dressed “Brother” illuminated on the stage.
At the Dallas Marriott Hotel, B. Simone’s message, although not specifically biblical, was still one of faith. She proselytized the sermon of #BlackExcellence. “Living in faith” was swapped out for “manifesting your dreams,” but the effect was still the same. She was the example that would lead her congregation out of the payroll Gehenna and into a financial promised land. However, just like any good pastor, her life changing message wasn’t free. If faith needs works, then manifesting your dreams requires the purchase of her book, Baby Girl: Manifest The Life You Want, retail price $25.00 before shipping and handling. At a time when economic upheaval is a familiar anxiety, the low murmur of fear that most Americans endure, B. Simone’s Millennial evangelism revived old-school prosperity theology with a social media twist.
Prosperity theology is a tentacle of charismatic Christian pentecostalism that began in the shadows of World War II as television became the national mass media . The gospel of “health and wealth” wormed into the hearts of Black Americans through such televangeling media personalities as Pastor Joel Osteen, Bishop TD Jakes, Pastor Creflo Dollar, and Bishop Eddie Long. Especially popular among the poor, the prosperity gospel claims that faithful congregants can shatter the shackles of poverty through prayer, faith, and by donating to the church from their already paltry wallets. Within this theocratic vision, the accrual of wealth is evidence of God’s favor: an offspring of a marriage between Protestantism and capitalism. Indeed, B. Simone’s resemblance to Southern mega pastors continues even to the point of scandal. Just like Charlotte televangelist Todd Coontz, who was convicted of tax evasion last year, B. Simone’s Baby Girl: Manifest The Life You Want campaign ended in a plagiarism scandal and her book’s discontinuation.
Although the blatantly avaricious nature of prosperity theology has fallen out of style, its influence has evolved in tandem with the pseudo-spiritual movements of “manifestation” and “aligning with one’s purpose,” and particularly within Black spaces as #BlackExcellence. In hindsight, B. Simone wasn’t a false prophet as much as she was an ideological auctioneer. In promoting #BlackExcellence, she exploited the innate creativity of Black communities seeking methods of financial survival. The hustle has long been a symbol of Black resilience in the face of white supremacy, and the hashtag has been employed for the purchase of first vehicles to the celebration of academic achievements; it is sprinkled on entrepreneurial ventures and artistic accomplishments alike. Most importantly, #BlackExcellence is used to defy historical expectations imposed via state violence, institutional racism, and a leech-like political system. However, in the twilight of a pandemic laying bare all of our societal assumptions, #BlackExcellence deserves to be re-examined for the exploitation it can and often does engender.
Although it has been used for decades within Black American vernacular, “Black Excellence” went mainstream on social media, particularly on Instagram, in 2010. On Instagram, Black Excellence transformed from the celebration of a singular event to a lifestyle. No longer was it a momentary exclamation, but branded content. In its current use, #BlackExcellence is a methodology, an ideology, a marketing schema, and an aesthetic.
Nonetheless, the capitalistic ties of #BlackExcellence are linked to internalized respectability and classism, and it distortedly centers the onus of “success” on Black individuals. Presidential candidate and “man of God” Kanye West often tags #BlackExcellence on his Instagram and Twitter posts, but Mr. West’s version of racial activism is too often shrouded in narcissism and internalized self-hatred.
For Black Zillennials, Millennials, and Gen-Xers, the hashtag even informs economic choices: from the kind of profession one has, to the kind of home one owns (if they can afford to own one), to the Black-owned businesses one supports. The financial expectations of #BlackExcellence are an apt response to the depreciation of wealth within the Black community, but using the master’s capitalism will never dismantle its inherently anti-Black foundation. Adam Smith’s free-market economy would have never existed without the spoils of British imperialism. His conceptualization of the “Wealth of Nations” was informed by the exploitation of Black labor, and it will not evolve even at the helm of Black leadership.
This year, the Brookings Institute published sobering details about the financial inequities that Black Americans face. The institute found that, “at $171,000.00, the net worth of a typical white family is ten times greater than that of a black family.” The long-term economic ramifications of COVID-19 have yet to be determined, but during the economic depression of 2008/2009, the median net worth declined by more for Black families, 44.3 percent, versus the 26.1 percent decline that white families experienced. This data is a symptom of a putrefied debt that has not been paid; a debt that will not be recompensed via faith in Black entrepreneurship or Black scholarship. It will require a legislative overhaul of proportions that will far outweigh the purchasing power of the Black community, and if Black individuals do work their way out of this kind of oppression, it is at the expense of their physical bodies or the bodies of their compatriots.
Take for example, the labor practices of Tyler Perry, who recently entered a VIP section of #BlackExcellence: #BlackBillionaire. In a report written by Shadow And Act, the famed writer-director-producer-actor-CEO was revealed to have a penchant for dodging labor unions. In 2008, the Writers Guild of America West launched a complaint against Perry’s production studio for firing writers seeking union representation. In 2015, the Actor’s Equity Association put Perry on their “Do Not Work List” after Perry and his producers refused to sign a union contract. And in 2018, Perry sought non-union hires for his play, Madea’s Farewell, thereby limiting the range of benefits that he would have to provide his employees. Once fair wages, health insurance, paid time off, maternity leave, injury insurance, and retirement plans for his employees are off the table, one can easily calculate how such a God-fearing man reached the upper echelons of wealth.
Tyler Perry’s quote, “My brand is faith” is particularly apt because it highlights prosperity theology’s exemption of fairness for the glory of wealth at the expense of the most vulnerable.
Likewise, a cursory look through the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag reveals a plethora of stories of disillusionment, burn-out, and stress within Black intelligentsia. Many Black academics, hardly reaching the apex of their careers, are solitarily tasked with overhauling racist academic cultures all while drafting “Black Lives Matter” statements for their institutions. Regarded as some of the most “excellent” of the community, many Blacks scholars find themselves agreeing with the words of sociologist Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder in Social Science Space, “Leaving my job was the radical act of self-care that I desperately needed. For years, I considered my experience as a black woman in the academy (first as a graduate student and later as professor) as a very careful and strategic balance on a tightrope, all while feeling a constant pressure to be flawless, personally and professionally.”
It is not enough to celebrate #BlackExcellence when the Black people in American cultural, professional, and political institutions only represent a financial fraction of the Black population. It is not enough to celebrate #BlackExcellence when the Black people within these institutions are working their bodies to their physical limits. It is not enough to celebrate #BlackExcellence when our Black leaders participate in and propagate the racist structures responsible for Black oppression.
This is not an all-star criticism of prominent Black individuals. Rather, it is a challenge for what “excellence” entails. Inhuman and dehumanizing work, homophobia, ableism, resource acquisition, transphobia, plagiarism, colorism, are not excellent, even if our white supremacist system has assigned them value. Furthermore, along the path of assigning worth, a ripple effect exists for “non excellent” individuals. It is reflected in how they are treated within the Black community, how they are maligned by society at large, and how often their lives and premature deaths are devalued.
In order for the legacy of Black existence to evolve beyond its ancestry of labor exploitation, the deconstructive process must be both legislative and ideological. The first step toward that disentanglement should be the ratification of reparations to African Descendants of Slaves in the Americas as well as reparations issued to post-colonial states commensurate with our global knowledge of “Crimes Against Humanity.” This blood debt must be settled before any further conciliatory work can proceed.
The second disentanglement should be the annulment of an individual’s labor status and their ability to feed, house, and physically care for themselves. There is nothing excellent about 60 hour work weeks, regardless of the stature and esteem of one’s position; a work-life balance can never be achieved in an economic system that requires exhaustion to function. The final disentanglement is the most esoteric—the separation of “the self” from the meritocratic indoctrination that “struggle” necessitates value, virtue, and Godliness.
The prosperity theology of the Protestant work ethic has taught us that martyrdom is aspirational, that what we financially sow is what we will financially reap, and that God’s monetary blessings are reserved for his most faithful. It is no wonder, then, that the western representation of God is a white man, because he is not the God that will lead us to freedom, but the one that will deliver us to the hands of perpetual death.
Dalí Adekunle is the Director of Patient Relations and Engagement at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Health. She writes about media and cinematic depictions of public health, mental hygiene, and labor as it pertains to people of color.
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