Overachievers Are Not "Black Enough" for the Black Community

Prescribed Black Identity  

Obviously, an analysis of human complexities based upon race is far too simplistic. The factors that influence how humans think and act are too com­plex to be subsumed under the one characteristic of race. Individuals who are racially alike may think very differently from each other. Conversely, individ­uals who are racially different may think in very similar ways. For example, one might presume dissimilar goals for white liberals and black separatists. How­ever, such persons often have similar interests regarding the progress and psyche of black people. They share an agenda that proffers up black people as perpetual victims. Both are invested in keeping us dependent or struggling or downtrodden or angry. And, as a result, we—the dependent, struggling, down­trodden, and angry—do not reach out to access the full strata of the system. We remain, in essence, fodder for their ideological fires.

You must admit that large numbers of black folk at the lower economic stratum give fuel to the fires of liberals and separatists alike. Their philosophies—liberal or separatist—have merit only as long as the flock doesn’t exceed expectations. Black overachievers, for example, cannot rely strongly on either white liberal support or black separatist acceptance. Think about it. Overachievers do not fit a prescribed way of being black. Their identities are “unknown” to us, and they are shunted by both groups for not being “black enough.”

The power of race in affecting how young black persons see themselves and others is a very important consideration in the movement toward psycho­logical freedom. Race delivers a regulator of sorts to the development, range, and expression of one’s being. Its specter often serves to suppress free and unencumbered enunciation of who you are. From my own childhood three dif­ferent persons significantly affected my racial identity, and thereby my psycho­logical freedom.

Diane, A White Liberal

Diane, a white liberal person, befriended my mother some years ago. When I was very young, Diane was genuinely and sincerely concerned with our family. She was there to help us with loans and emotional support. She sort of adopted us, and she always came through whenever times were tough. But things became different as our family became increasingly self-sufficient. Somewhat predictably, Diane changed. It seemed her friendship and loyalty were based in large part upon a relationship in which she would always have the upper hand.

As long as we were her “project,” she was happy. Long-term dependency was her aim. That is, her liberalism went only so far as to help us out of a current problem. Once my mother’s favorite son became increasingly more educated and self-reliant, Diane’s relationship with us changed. It was ever so slight at first, but as I became more degreed and achieved beyond her wildest dreams, things changed. Diane’s relationship with Mom became somewhat strained. I believe the source of that strain was independence. Once we were perceived as independent, the niceties ceased.

This taught me that once you draw equal to your benefactors, things can become a bit funky. For Diane, anything short of equality was acceptable. She seemed to be saying to us, through her white liberalism, “We want y’all to do well, but not that damned well!”

Barbara, A Black Activist

Barbara, a black grassroots activist, always pushed the neighborhood children to achieve. “Challenge the white man and become successful,” she would state vigorously. However, Barbara had her own way of impeding the progress of others. As long as black persons aspired to become teachers, athletes, preachers, or entertainers, her world was right. Their achievements coincided with her game plan for us all. In her eyes, these professions—noble as they are—fell within an acceptable range of achievement for black persons. She believed that attainment below that range meant the underachiever’s efforts had been com­promised by the white man. Anything attained above that range meant the overachiever had sold out to—that’s right!—that very same white man. Obviously, the white man figured heavily in her worldview.

When I and others began to exceed the expectations of even the most opti­mistic of neighborhood folk, Barbara became uncomfortable. It seemed that as long as she perceived some incongruity between the achievements of white folks and black folks, “her game had no shame.” That is, she could run her rhet­oric past benefactors in order to fund, financially and morally, her philoso­phies. But when faced with black overachievers, she withdrew her support. Barbara began to attend less to those of us who had understood, accepted, and mastered the formulae for success. Given her investment in uplifting en masse her people, Barbara’s inattention to budding advancers was to be expected. After all, advancers do not need or are unwilling to await the uplifting. An opportunity—fair, or sometimes less than fair—is their only requirement.

However, unexpectedly, Barbara came to view us as threats of sorts. I believe, in her eyes, we became apart from the community, apart from “the people.” We had ascended too quickly and too independently. It wasn’t that Barbara wasn’t happy for us or proud of us. It was that we were now foreign to her. And our foreign success, but familiar skin color, drew steam away from her uplifting the community en masse philosophy. Just think of the ramifications if a successful kid or two became twenty or forty kids?

Barbara knew that if black kids continued to achieve on their own— without guilt, intimidation, or rhetoric—eventually one of her benefactors would ask, “If those kids can do it without our help, why can’t others?” and “Why do we need you and your programs?” Overachievement was antithetical to her game plan. Its recognition could bankrupt her entire approach. It was as if Barbara was saying, through her black grassroots activism, “We want y’all to do well, but not that damned well!”

Harry, Blackness Personified

Harry (who would later change his name to something more relevant for the 1960s) moved into the neighborhood during my fourteenth year of life. In my opinion, Harry was one of the original black militants. He talked of black nationalism, pan-Africanism, economic isolationism, and mistrust of all white persons long before most militant groups reached their height in popularity. I remember him as the first person I knew who used the terms Brother and Sister. He sported black leather jackets, black turtlenecks, and a manner of uncompromising surliness. For the times, he was blackness personified.

Except for an occasional forage to the ice cream man, Harry would while away his time in Vernon Park. Six days a week Harry would offer his view of the world—sometimes com­manding large audiences, sometimes only an inebriate or two. Prominent in his speeches were references to those persons he held in equal disdain with the evil whites: the Uncle Toms, the sellouts, the step-and-fetch-its, and the bootlickers of the black community.

People like Harry always amazed me. While critical of their achieving brethren, they rarely offered any substantive or viable alternative, only rhetoric and derision. Any black person who adopted the American Dream was rejected by Harry as selling out, as compromising his black identity. Black advancers represented a serious threat to Harry and those of his ilk. Their suc­cess in “the white world” compromised Harry’s ability to generalize evil intent to all white persons. These black people were, to Harry’s chagrin, doing too well. He seemed to be saying, through his black separatism, “We want y’all to do well, but not that damned well!”

A False Dichotomy of "Us" and "Them" 

Folks like Diane, Barbara, and Harry influence children and how they see themselves. Irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or even politics, such role models present attitudes and behaviors that endorse the ill-conceived dichotomy of us and them. They assert that “those people” believe and behave in ways that are different than our own. They shout, “We are us and they are them.” Then they go about blithely perpetuating their false dichotomy. Worse, their examples encourage black children to voice the same racism and separatism that many of us have fought to eradicate. Parenthetically, it is a racism and separation that exceedingly few of these children have known except through our examples.

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Dr. James Davison, Jr. is an African-American licensed psychologist and university professor. He conducts a private practice in Seattle, Washington, and has appeared on several nationally-aired programs including The Phil Donahue Show, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and C-SPAN. Dr. Davison hails from Philadelphia, and is the author of several books - Prisoners Of Our Past and Sweet Release - related to individuality and personal freedom for African-Americans.