Beyond the Surface of Black Excellence

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Black History Month Week 2— Are you ready? Because I want to talk about something that ties into an entire culture of people, a term that I use a lot; one that I never quite defined for you. I want to talk about what it means say black excellence.

I’ve mentioned this term countless times, I know that, but I never quite said what it means. In our society or even on Urban Dictionary, you’ll find that we define it as what we see. We see things like an athlete on scholarship, a girl accepted to every Ivy, Will Smith, Oprah, or even the upcoming Black Panther Movie. When people think of the term black excellence, this is the direction they go.

But does that mean this is all the phrase may ever encompass?

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Absolutely not— like I said in my posts on this concept last year, black excellence is so much more than one person or one achievement or one underprivileged black student earning their way into a great University or program.

Just because I’m here at Cal Poly as the 1% does not mean that those of us in this representation here are the definition of the term.

I share this sentiment with Kiri Rupiah, Mail & Guardian’s social media editor when she says “I don’t see the value of being the only black person in the room.” That is not what black excellence is, that is inequality or under representation, a lack of equal opportunity… That is not excellent. No where close.

Living a life worth living is where the real merit comes from.

Consider the simple state of existence— getting up, eating when you can, and going back to sleep. This is what I like to call being. But working, parenting, studying, living, this is what I call excellence. It is achieving what matters as an African American who is making something of themselves.

Take a single mother: she is black excellence in the way that she is pulling it off by herself. Or an adult deciding they want more, so they go back to school part time for a GED or higher degree: they are black excellence in believing in their worth of deserving something more. How about the und

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erprivileged, those who often consider themselves the underachieving? They are excellence in their determination to keep going in spite of circumstance, or opportunity, or how many times they are told the word no. They are still going.

There are far too many ways to be brilliant to define it only in terms of fame or money; in what society sees as worth. At some point, it comes to how we define the achievement of working towards something, any goal of merit.

Consider how far black people have come, from the allowance of getting educated, of literacy, to the voices and the platforms we are now seeing African American people uphold. As much as I wish I could say we were out of “firsts” by now, it is still a great thing to see people striving to go after each and every one of those achievements until we break the standards and the barriers that seem to hold us back; no matter how many misdirected steps we attempt towards equality.

When I say the words black excellence, I am talking about the things that I see in my culture beyond skin color, beyond stereotype. I see hard work and a challenge to

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adversity. I see beauty in the struggle or sometimes, just another struggle to overcome. I think we need to stop seeing terms of culture as derogatory, but simply as an appreciation of what makes us different. It doesn’t mean black people are better, as a disparagement of others. No, this excellence is the celebration of who we are. Of who I am.

Because I am excellent. The black single mother is excellent. The struggling black student or the worker or the human being just barely getting by, all of them— all of us— are excellent.

Because we are still going.

And that is incredible.

The Resilient and the Risen– Black History Month

Just like that, the first month of the year has flown by. Maybe it was the three day weekend Cal Poly students had or just a lot going on for the new year, but here we are folks. Welcome to February, or as I like to say…

Welcome to Black History Month.guilherme-stecanella-371624

Since this blog started with my writing after all, today I want to talk about one of my favorite African American women— Maya Angelou. As a voice of many, Angelou was involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959 as well as the Arab Observer in 1964, the only weekly news set that used the English Language in the Middle East. In the 50’s, she joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild in which she met the likes of James Baldwin who became a mentor and friend later on.

After traveling in Egypt and working in Ghana, she came back to the US and became a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem in 1982, also accepting an appointment of Commission for the International Woman of the Year by Jimmy Carter. Though I wasn’t alive yet, some of you may remember her deliverance of On the Pulse of the Morning at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration in 1993, later meeting former President Obama in 2010 for the Presidential medal of Freedom.

As if that wasn’t enough, she was also the first black woman director in Hollywood. Angelou found herself becoming a bigger part of history than I think she could have ever imagined, as she worked her way across several industries and platforms, sharing her perspective and her voice at every single one. She died in May 4 years ago at the age of eighty six— her words now live on through the pages we keep on our shelves. I know that I’ve got a few.sandrachile-483700.jpg

Speaking of pages, there is one poem I have of hers taped to my wall: Still I Rise. Back in my senior year of high school (back in my day), I performed this poem for my class during our poetry unit. It wasn’t hard to choose. The way her personality exudes throughout the poem, her words of resilience unwavering and incredibly smooth, this was one poem I didn’t mind standing in front of the class to perform. It holds one of my best high school memories and one of the writers who helped pave the way for African American achievement along the path to where we are now. Tonight I want to honor what she has done and the words she left behind.


So without further ado, Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

noah-silliman-163561.jpgDoes my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

samantha-sophia-374229.jpgOut of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


Whatever challenges you currently face and anything that stands in your way of success, I hope you can find your way to rise above it. Happy February everyone, have a wonderful weekend. And Welcome to Black History Month.daniela-cuevas-21263.jpg

 

How We Overcome– Times Up

eddie-garcia-503631Week 1 of the quarter is officially over and it has been exhausting… I forgot how hard it was to get back into a routine of work, studying, and getting up early after doing none of that for several weeks. Yet the week is done, it’s time for another blog post, and today I’ve got something big to talk about.

So let’s talk.

Now my parents have raised me to be a believer in something better— a better day, a better health, a better love, a better future. Whether I’m sitting in class believing that I can make it through a boring lecture or writing a new chapter hoping I can make it something worth reading, sometimes hope is all we’ve got.

That is until someone hands us some concrete evidence that maybe hope is working.

That evidence came this week.

If you didn’t watch the Golden Globes last weekend, chances are you still know exactly what I’m talking about when I say the words “Times Up”. From the MeToo movement to a fiercely strong front of women standing up around the country, you can bet that things are changing.

sand feetAnd I’m not just talking about sexual harassment. I mean everything.

The questions is, is it happening too slowly?

I know, there is a point when we may be asking too much from the world around us, from the status quo. But I have to wonder why it took so long for a black woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille Award; it took ten years after its creation for any woman to earn it and another fifty six after that for a woman of color to earn it. A black woman. Was this too much to ask until now?

I have to wonder what this kind of thing says to the kids who are trying to live up to the idols they see when… Well, when they can’t see them. It’s all about representation. If you listened to Oprah’s speech, she started off with her own anecdote about watching Sidney Poitier win the Oscar for best actor back in 1964.

She saw him before he went on to win the same award she just did eighteen years later.

Now it’s 2018 and that award is finally in her own hands. It’s been a long time coming, don’t you think?

Yet like I said, my parents raised me to be a believer. In capability, in strength, in change, and most of all in myself. Because no matter how many people have torn Oprah down in the past, no matter what she’s gone through, there’s a reason we know her by her first name— she believed in exactly who she was and became the woman she is now by doing everything she could to get here.

alexander-andrews-394973She is an overcomer.

I think in this day and age, each one of us has to be too. As a teenager and as a minority, I’ve definitely caught myself wondering at times why the world was stacked against me: in missing out on opportunities, in trying to make it to class on time, even in losing touch with good people. Then there are things like finding someone to do my hair, in losing out on jobs I was perfectly qualified for, and even filling out college applications knowing very well what it means to be a minority applicant.

Just because society may act like things are settled out evenly for everyone, that doesn’t mean certain people aren’t going to be the odd ones out every single time.

So we overcome, we work harder.

I am growing up in a very different age than watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, the second African American to ever win an Academy Award. And yet, I am here to see the first African American woman win the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was hoping we would be out of firsts by now.

It brings to mind a quote, kudos to you if you know book it is from:

“So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Moments like Sunday, those are the boats. And circumstances that allow moments like olayinka-babalola-281459Sunday to still matter, those are the currents.

So we beat on through them, we keep going. We keep believing in change and the ability for every single one of us to make a difference.

Because maybe in another fifty six years, we won’t have to worry so much about the “firsts”.

Maybe the world will finally echo it back when we say the words Times Up.

Black Excellence

little-lightsIn the spirit of Black History Month, I did some writing after the spoken word performance last Wednesday. Before I knew it, pen was running on paper and this is what I had left in my hands. It’s funny how you find inspiration in all the places you never think to look. This year, I have been paying more attention to the people around me, who I am, and what this month means to me. In doing so last week, somehow I found a new rhythm to run with, so without further ado, here is my new poem and I hope you enjoy it— feel free to leave any comments below!

 

Black Excellence

 

How to write a love song, how to feel inspired

when things just ain’t so pretty—

my people are so tired.

What about the times you left us

shot down on the streets,

for making music out of tragedy,

for walking to our own beats?

shadows-on-mountainWhat about the rest of us,

the writing on the wall,

the scripture found within our hearts

when He says, let the future fall

where it may? For we have a right to stand

to ride out in the heart of the storm

in a holy war, of love but so much hate

of anything but silence for he said

We have a dream.

To let our hearts sing with the faith that we bring,

sing it out sing it loud, give your brothers and sisters

a hand.

For we are beautiful, we are strong,

this world is all we’ve got.

This is our day, this is our chance,

raise your voice and take a stand,

as we are searching for the truth

in a world where promises come with fingers crossed.

But we are not lost.

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that is not America, that is not the beauty we see,

that is cutting us down at the knees.

This idea we stand for is so much more than a crowd of people

with something to say, something to believe in

and no way to have their voices heard.

This is more than America, this is more than a stand,

this is more than than any one of us.

For you look at my skin and I know what you see:

light-mountainA hoodie, or some skittles,

maybe everything you think we would be.

Because they say black lives matter

but their actions do not make sense

when I see beauty, I see strength,

I see everything we are.

For this is a stand, these are our voices,

and this,

this is what we call Black excellence.

Unapologetically Black

1/240

More than a student, a woman, and a freshman here at Cal Poly, this is the number that represents me.

I am one out of 240 black students here.

Welcome to Black History Month, one that I started off with something different here this week. On Wednesday night, I went to an open mic series celSplitShire-01466.jpgebrating this month in our theatre called Another type of Groove with one of my best friends. Neither of us were sure what to expect, but what we got was something more that we imagined it would be.

What we got was a beautiful expression of color, honesty, and the complete art of spoken word.

If you haven’t heard of him, I suggest you take a quick look at Judah 1 (click that link) who was a part of the series on Wednesday. As both a writer and someone who absolutely loves spoken word, he was something completely different to listen to. From the idea of love to his experiences in watching the young boys he teaches in camps or prisons years later, Judah 1 had something to say. And he said it well. Throughout the night we heard from him, his apprentice, and several other students here at Cal Poly who simply believed in something strongly enough to tell us about it. Some people spoke of the tragedies we see around the world and others shed light on a truth some of us may not be able to understand. Though there were students of all colors present in that room, I left that theatre with one idea left in my head.

This is Black Excellence.

Though there may only be about 240 of us here at this school, there is something so different about being around people just like you… Something I don’t think others understand easily. It’s like changing my hair extensions every few months in high school and having girls who knew me ask me if I cut my hair— there are things that I no longer have to explain or no longer have to try to be for other people when I’m surrounded by those just like me. As true as it is, it’s hard to believe that being around people of color here brings such a feeling of home and familiarity that I cannot find in most places. Even our Black Student Union club has a T-shirt to represent who we are: 1/160 (the number from last splitshire-5620year), with two words on the back.

Unapologetically Black.

Because that is who we are, this is what we represent, and we are proud to celebrate everything we are with the representation of our history reflected on our skin every day. Last week, I shared with you a poem by Langston Hughes, I, Too. Within those words is a past that we will always be bound to. Black History Month can be told through story after story, from the leadership of Dr. King whom we celebrated last month, to the literature of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This month is so much more than the one chapter in a US history book that tells you about slavery, or remembering that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that “freed” the slaves… It’s about remembering the black members of society who are recognized for something more than the color of their skin. We can’t just remember the Barack Obamas or Harriet Tubmans of the world, what about Marc Hannah who helped to create the 3D technology in films like Jurassic Park, or Patricia Bath who helped to create The Cataract Laserphaco Probe for removing cataract lenses. Every culture has it’s own story, it’s own journey to get to what it has become today, and there are so many people we aren’t educated about who paved the path that we now walk on. This month represents my culture, the history so many of us do not know behind it, and the pride my parents raised me with to be a part of it.

And to think, Cal Poly almost made the mistake of making my brother 1/239.

From the inspiration of the past and the open mic night on Wednesday, I have found myself writing a lot in the last three days. There was one line a student read on the last set before the event ended that I still haven’t forgotten.

youthThey tell children to pick out the love from the cracks in our promises.”

What does that mean to you? Think about that line, what it says about the reliability of our human nature, and hold onto the fact that I’ve got something new to share with you. I promise to be timely with this one— no cracked promises here. Keep an eye out for a new poem on Monday, one that goes right along with the theme of this month and a new style that I’ve got to say, I’m quite fond of. 

So here’s to another week of midterms, a fantastic Black History Month, and my new poem to come. Have a wonderful week, wherever you are in the world, stay safe, and be on the lookout for some new writing soon.