“You have to work twice as hard for half as much.” Most black children, myself included, grow up hearing this statement on the laps of our hopeful mothers, our determined fathers. Though a tinge of sadness tints their words, encouragement stands bright at the center.
And so, we move forward through life working twice, sometimes thrice as hard as anyone else, without fail, without pause, without rest. If we rest, we lose. And if we lose, we’ll never get to compete again.
This thinking, however, is a house on sand. This thinking can create a pressure to always be great, to always display and embody black excellence. While at times the idea of black excellence serves to remind me of my inherent greatness and pushes me to press on with the strength of my predecessors, at other times, I find it strangles my creativity. It cultivates fear and anxiety that I’m not doing enough, not saying enough, not breaking those looming racial barriers and overthrowing the system.
Over the last few years, there has been a revival, a renaissance, if you will, of black art. We are not only seeing an increase in the quantity of black stories being told through film, television, literature, fashion and music, but an increase in variety as well. The variety is what’s important here. For so long, black narratives centered around either slavery or urban drama, featuring the violent, tragic, gang-banging life of the black American. While both are facets of the black experience, they do not represent the entirety of the black experience. Fact of the matter is, I can’t relate to either of those stories and am pressured to feel like I should.
Luckily, now, I have a lot more to choose from, to relate to. From heavily awarded and record-breaking films such as “Black Panther,” “Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “The Hate U Give” to stand-out and wildly popular television such as “Insecure,” “Dear White People,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Scandal,” “Atlanta” and so on and so forth. All of these explore different aspects of what it means to be black in a way that is fresh, innovative, awe-inspiring and daunting. Daunting, because with all this powerful work created by talented icons, a standard is being set.
Black people are no longer constricted to the screen, to play out stories that we ourselves aren’t telling. We’re behind the cameras, dominating the writers’ rooms, signing the production checks. Names like Issa Rae, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Boots Riley, Angie Thomas, Shonda Rhimes, Donald Glover, Justin Simien and George Tillman Jr. are defining black history now. It’s an exciting time to have such a variety of voices screaming, singing, whispering tales of fantasy, reality, mystery, drama, horror, thriller or otherwise from new perspectives. When these works win awards, there’s a nod from the black community as if to say, “We’re not surprised,” or, to put it plainly, “We been knew.”
This is especially seen in the fashion industry as of late. “What’s happening now, we haven’t changed how we design or how we communicate, we’re just now starting to be accepted. […] You have people in the white establishment that’ll try to label it and box it in, call it ‘street wear,’” says Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer and creator of Pyer Moss and latest winner of the CFDA Fashion Fund during Business of Fashion’s Voices panel. The fashion industry is forced to acknowledge the diverse array of designers out there that don’t necessarily adhere to the image of a “black designer,” especially those who work in luxury fashion and couture.
All of these works and creations are hailed as those that have changed some part of the world, shined a light on injustice, revolutionized media itself. So, when I create, I feel that expectation weighing on my chest like a boulder, as if everything I do must at all times be world-changing. It’s exhausting and constricting, when we don’t allow ourselves and our fellow black creatives to create art for art’s sake and not to make some grandiose statement on racism.
We place this pressure on ourselves and each other— a perfect example being the Vogue September cover shoot of Beyonce by young photographer Tyler Mitchell. The general reaction was less than impressed and underwhelmed. Our high expectations were not met, yet we don’t expect revolutionary art from the hundreds of other photographers of Vogue covers.
As soon as we heard that Beyonce would grace the coveted cover of the September issue, no less photographed by a young man of color, we set a standard and a pressure for this duo to not mess up, to not squander this opportunity, because we believe that what they do determines how long the door will stay open for the rest of us. Their work reflects on us as a race.
But sometimes we fail. And other times, what we create doesn’t transcend the realm of human imagination or provoke the thoughts of millions. Sometimes it’s just meh. And it’s important to be okay with the mediocre, to embrace it even, because then we allow ourselves to be human. We allow ourselves space and time to grow.
White people get to do it all the time with little backlash—not every Marvel movie displays innovative writing and not every romantic comedy, featuring white leads, reinvents the wheel—yet we approach opportunities with this fear that this one chance is all we have. If we mess it up, we may not get it again, ever.
We can’t get caught up in the one chance and strangle our ideas until they’re frail and dull. Our creativity is our own first, the world’s second. It’s our choice to share our story and the world’s privilege, not its right, to receive it.
At the end of the day, in spite of everything working against us, we have to take the risk. That’s the common denominator— risk— the audacious boldness to tell our story in whatever form that takes, even if it ends up being mediocre.