The Black Experience: The Case For Black Mediocrity

Screenshot_20200210-155238Hello, everyone!

Welcome to The Black Experience, a month long blog series through February, in honour of Black History Month, which features Black bloggers, booktubers and authors. This project aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences both in real life and in publishing, as well as showing our individual and collective struggles.

Today’s post is by Roseanne A. Brown, author of upcoming book, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. Roseanne talks about the need for mediocre, regular Black characters, much like most everyday Black people, and not the superhuman and exceeding excellent idea of us that is usually pushed in books.


Once again February has come around, meaning it’s time for one of the best parts of the year—Black History Month! For twenty-eight days (twenty-nine this year!) we all come together to celebrate the African diaspora of past and present all over the world. Speeches will be sung, parades will be held, and stories will be told extolling Black excellence in all its forms, from the scientific achievements of Mae C. Jemison to the radical leadership of Kwame Nkrumah to the unwavering activism of Mari Copeny aka Little Miss Flint.

Yes, Black History Month—the whole year really— is a great time to celebrate all kinds of Black excellence.

But this post isn’t about Black excellence.

This post is about Black mediocrity.

Most of the Black people I know, including myself, are wonderfully average. We get up in the morning, send memes in our group chats, binge watch shows on Netflix, and have our mundane ups and downs same as everybody else. Most of us are never going to have a holiday or dance named after us, and it’s highly unlikely we can all become the next President of the United States. (But I’d be extremely impressed if we did!)

But the depictions of Black people we see in the media and repeated throughout society rarely reflect this reality. In fact, when a Black person gets any sort of recognition in the mainstream, it tends to be for one of two reasons: for something extremely bad or for something extremely good. What constitutes as extremely bad is obvious enough, and so many people before me have written about the trauma of constantly seeing Black pain, so I won’t go into that. But what about when the only counterpoint to narratives of Black pain are narratives of Black successes most could never hope to achieve?

Black excellence has given us everything from the traffic light to constitutional amendments to era defining pieces of art and much more, and I am not here to argue that our heroes are anything less than such. But it does make me pause when every time we come together to celebrate a successful Black person, it’s done in terms that defy humanity all together.

It’s the constant description as Beyoncé as a goddess whose talent defies all explanation rather than a woman who has worked far harder and longer than most ever could. It’s the elevation of Martin Luther King Jr. from an extremely important yet understandably flawed leader to a messianic figure whose name and message have been distorted by the very society that killed him.

For centuries, Black people have suffered under stereotypes that paint us as inhuman beings that don’t feel pain or tiredness or other form of human limits the way non-Black folks do. These stereotypes have been used to justify horrific injustices and violence against my people.

Simply put, constantly depicting Black folks as ethereal and untouchable beings is another form of dehumanizing us.

Though this is not the intent, the obsession with Black excellence as the default for the Black experience sends the message that only those in our community who have exceeded past all reasonable expectations are of any worth. You can’t just be a good Black tennis player, you have to be as good as or even better than Serena Williams for anyone to care. You can’t just be a good Black politician, you have to be the next Barack Obama before anybody notices.

This bleeds into Black characters as well. In the rare instances that a Black character is allowed to be a main character instead of the sidekick or the plucky comic relief, they are held to a standard that fandoms rarely hold non-Black characters to. Black characters must be strong, fearless, unflinching, an endless wellspring of compassion no matter what horrors or indignities they go through, and even then they rarely become fandom darlings.

Kylo Ren is my favorite character in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy due to the dynamic and layered portrayal of his character. Kylo Ren as played by Adam Driver is a fandom darling, but something tells me that if everything about the character was the same but he had been played by John Boyega or any other Black actor instead, he would be far less popular than he is. The second a Black character is depicted as anything less than perfect, they are reviled.

But the truth is most Black people are perfectly average, and our averageness doesn’t make us any less worthy of respect or admiration. And the traditional model for Black excellence rarely leaves room for the most marginalized within our community. For LGBTQ+, neuroatypical, disabled, and/or otherwise marginalized Black persons, getting up and choosing to live unapologetically in a world positioned against multiple parts of your identity is itself a triumph even if it’s not the kind that makes for engrossing TV.

This dehumanizing “Monster vs Angel” dichotomy is something I was highly aware of when I working on my debut YA Fantasy novel A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN. At first I was worried giving my characters too many flaws would make them completely unloveable in the eyes of my readers. But I would have been doing a disservice to my characters and myself as a storyteller to paint them as picture-perfect cutouts who only ever say and do the right thing. For better or for worse, I decided to let my Black cast make bad decisions, irrational choices and go down paths the best among us would never even consider.

This choice might not have made my characters excellent, but it did make them human.

It’s not that I want every Black character to be a train wreck. Far from it. I want Black characters that run the full spectrum of the Black experience. I want Black heroes and Black villains and Black characters who struggle telling the difference between right and wrong. I want stories showing us as capable of great anger and even greater goodness, and pettiness and graciousness and downright okay-ness.

I want Black excellence and Black mediocrity and everything in between. If the only time you see Black people is either when we are at our best or at our worst, then you’re not truly seeing us in all of our messy, human beauty.

To all my Black folks out there, know that you are excellent, that you have the strength and resilience from all the generations that have come before you and a brilliant spark that is all yours. But also know that even on the days when you are not excellent, when rising from your bed is a struggle and your greatest accomplishment is living to see another day, you are important and valid and we’re so glad you’re here.

So during this Black History Month while you’re focusing on all the great Black heroes of the past, present, and future, spare a thought for those of us just getting by. We’re pretty excellent too, if you only take the time to really look.

Rosie’s Links

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6 thoughts on “The Black Experience: The Case For Black Mediocrity

  1. I’m currently reading Roseanne’s book and I’m really liking it! I loved this post, too. I never really thought of this concept that much, unfortunately, but reading this post makes me feel this feeling of ‘this is what I’ve wanted my whole life,’ hahahah. I think these types of stories will have such a substantial effect on Black teens as well, in the best way possible!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. rosie’s book is amazing! i’m also currently reading it. and also understand what you mean, i never thought much of black mediocrity until rosie wrote this post

      Liked by 1 person

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