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The Curse of Black Excellence

Still from the trailer for

“American Fiction,” a 2023 film starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, and others, masterfully combines comedy and drama to explore deep feelings and experiences within the Black community. 

The protagonist, Monk (Jeffrey Wright), is an established professor and novelist disillusioned by Black people’s relegation to offensive tropes and stereotypes. Wanting to prove a point and frustrated by lack of support for his published work that stays true to his voice, Monk pens a satirical, disingenuous novel “based on a true story” that directly feeds the Black stereotypes he despises. The novel performs maddeningly well, catapulting him to the forefront of the “white gaze.” He secures coveted publishing opportunities, interviews, awards, and even a chance to make a movie. To maintain the charade, he pretends to be an ex-convict, changing his vernacular and attire to fit the role.

The film draws viewers into Monk’s inner world as he navigates his hypocrisy, grief, burgeoning relationships, and the complexities of family bonds. “American Fiction” intricately weaves a tapestry of ideas and scenarios that characterize common Black experiences. Laden with symbolism, it addresses Black elitism, broken families, even the Black community’s opposition towards queer individuals. The movie also explores white allyship, amplification of minority voices, and confronting biases.

Among the film’s many worthwhile themes, the one that resonated most for me is what I call the curse of Black excellence.

“The Black Narrative”

Growing up I dreaded Black History Month. For me, Black History Month was not a time of celebration. I remember watching movies and shows during February that were always deeply traumatic. As a young girl, I watched the dark stories of slavery. I witnessed vivid images of men being beaten until blood oozed from wounds, and women being violently raped. I watched the stories of the civil rights movement: buses set on fire; people lynched, dragged through the streets tied to trucks; churches bombed; and little boys killed based on adults’ accusations. My earliest memories of Black History Month were Black people being degraded, demeaned, and discredited. As an adult, I understand and value sharing these stories as immutable parts of our history, but as a young child, everything was sensationalized and overstimulating.

After February, I was still inundated by one-sided narratives portraying drugs, heavy gun violence, poverty, laziness, lack of education, fatherless homes, Black men in gangs. Portrayals of Black women were equally unfavorable. The prevailing narrative painted Black people as pitiful and barbaric. Without the distinct privilege of encountering the beauty within this community, it would be impossible to imagine things differently. The one-dimensional narrative stripped nuance and complexity from Black people and overlooked their beauty.

We live in a reductionist society addicted to identifying people through thought-terminating stereotypes. These destructive, widely-accepted tropes limit Black individuals to very confined spaces.

In the movie, Monk only attains notoriety when his story corroborates a pre-existing narrative. When his work seems too intellectual or not “Black enough,” his books collect dust on shelves. People want to believe the story they’ve been told.

The reasons for this transcend the film. Confirmation bias pushes people toward the familiar and comfortable. Americans often gravitate toward narratives that confirm their belief in Black inferiority. This absolves them of their guilt. It also perpetuates dehumanization. Consider the zoo to conceptualize this pattern. Though zoo animals are fully sentient, living creatures, we justify their captivity by reasoning that we are superior to them. We make sport of their oppression, deriving pleasure from seeing them behind cages or glass.

If the accepted narrative can keep Black people subhuman, America remains far removed from the pain it has caused. This, I think, is the first curse of Black excellence. Excellence destabilizes preconceived ideologies and rewrites the narrative. Where it once was believed that this community was filled with lazy, violent, bestial people of low intellect, excellence in any capacity suggests otherwise. Distinction screams, “Hey, look at me, I am here, I am alive, complex, dynamic, and powerful.” The Black community’s advancement forces Americans to acknowledge they were wrong all along. Black people are humans, not mere animals to be caged. After justifying the oppression of others, being awakened to their humanity is unnerving because it forces difficult self reflection.


Excellence in the black community brings to the fore past struggles, and it shapes the present. A simple dive into U. S. history reveals that many “great accomplishments” occurred not through hard work or innate ability alone, but through family ties and legacy. It is easier to advance in life when the path has already been paved.

Those who advanced through their predecessors’ contributions often see their mediocrity rewarded and celebrated, their greatest accomplishment inherited at birth. This is in no way intended to undermine those who have worked and sacrificed to get where they are. It speaks to individuals who have lived in an ecosystem where they are used to being on the receiving end, uncontested. Advancement based solely on predecessors celebrates inherited privilege.

Now, many experience the destabilizing sting of a shifting world in which effort and qualification can bring the advancement once limited to legacy. Those who had success handed down to them are waking to the reality that their achievement had more to do with absence of opportunities for others than their own capability. True excellence from any minority robs white Americans of their cherished belief that they are inherently special.

“Black on Black”

If excellence throws Black women and men into conflict with those outside the community, it also sparks a conflict akin to Stockholm syndrome within the community. I find this to be the most destructive effect of Black excellence.

Many deep within the community fight to overcome the ever-present limitations imposed on us. We rage against the ways we have been told we do not fit in or we’re not enough. Excellence for us is subsistence; we don’t have ancestors handing down the promise of a brighter future. The problem arises when achievement is like a hit of the drug of validation, especially from one’s oppressors. Status can form an identity that convinces achievers they are better than members of their own community who have not had the same opportunities or achieved the same accomplishment. They transfer the shame conferred from outside to others in their community.

Black elitism is poisonous, but it is not a modern occurrence. During slavery, slaves who worked in their master’s house very often looked down on slaves working in fields. They perceived proximity to the master and the master’s way of life as a victory. But whether in the house or in the field, both were enslaved, nonetheless. Black excellence can perpetuate this cycle of internalized racism. Some in the community seem to regard prestige as highly as a position in the master’s house, looking down on those who still live in fields of poverty. All the while, they fail to realize their oppressors’ rubric still governs them.

During slavery, physical accomplishments determined worthiness. Strong men capable of doing a lot in the field and fertile women were considered valuable. In some ways we have moved to intellectual plantations, going from collecting cotton to collecting diplomas.

The film ends with a clear message of acceptance: despite false narratives and consistent attempts to belittle the Black community, it is neither defined by others’ standards nor confined by their fears. There is no prerequisite for the consideration of Black humanity. Black worthiness is inherent. The Black experience, despite adversity, is one of redemption and resilience. Let those who pursue excellence do so not to prove worthiness, but as an affirmation of their inherent value.

Image: still from the trailer for “American Fiction”.

About the author

Ezrica Bennett graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oakwood University. She has worked as a book editor for the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and has written for the Adventist Review and the Southeastern California Conference. She is a writer, public speaker, and coach, passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith, and a youth elder at the Loma Linda University Church. More from Ezrica Bennett.
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