By Makaila Ranges || Contributing Writer
Welcome everyone to the first ever Black Excellence Gala. I am beyond honored and thankful that you have given me the opportunity to speak to you all today for the inaugural gala. I want to dedicate this speech to my mother, Marisa Allen-Ranges, who has continually served as a great supporter of mine.
She has continuously told me that no matter what I do she would be proud of me, and that sentiment has never wavered. During some of the darkest and hardest times in college, she always reminded me that “I could be working at the local grocery store and she would be proud of me because I am happy.” It took some time for me to realize that what my mom always told me could not be true of all parents.
This type of standard allowed me to embrace creativity and gave me time to decide who I want to be. Like my mother I want you all to know that whatever you decide to do make sure that you are happy and working to help others. When you free up space in your mind to think about who you want to be and what will make you happy, it allows for excellence to spill out of you. Thrive on your own time and Black excellence will follow.
My mother epitomized of Black excellence when she raised five children without parental guidance and little support. She showed me how to love myself, care for others, protest, and demand my space. She laid the very groundwork for who I am today. My excellence is a tribute to a Black woman who had me at 21 years old, who navigated life knowing she owed no one an apology for the space she took up. My excellence is a tribute to the amazing Black and Brown people on and off campus who saw that my voice could silence, shake, and humble crowds.
My goal today is to not bullshit y’all. Black excellence is not a flowery experience. It comes with struggle even in Black History Month. I will be completely transparent with you so do not expect me to gloss over my experience as a Black woman since I am expected to always be phenomenal and if I am not being phenomenal, I am expected to take a medical leave.
Janice Asare states that “The idea that being exceptional will somehow shield Black people from discrimination and racism is a fallacy. Oftentimes Black people who are deemed ‘excellent’ are hyper scrutinized and penalized for their excellence.” And that is often how it feels.
II. My time at F&M. What does it mean to be in my shoes?
I am Black and proud but damn I am tired.
Let me give you some insight on how I have been feeling for the past nine months.
Mind you what concern is number one depends on the day and the unrealistic goal or standard that is pushed onto me. It also depends on what identity people pick and choose to embrace that day on my behalf.
Lately, I have been disgusted by the ways that small-minded people have a limited understanding of my capabilities. The way that my gender and race signify hostility. The silence I feel when I push for equity, diversity, inclusivity, justice, and non-hostile environments. Sometimes people’s indirect and direct actions signal to me that I should feel lucky just to be here.
I have had a lot of time to think about this statement and those actions. I realized that they are lucky I am honest to the point of no filter and that I always live for some mess because I am always trying to tell a story. Also, they should be lucky they have us.
At the end of the day, never—I mean never—make yourself digestible to appease someone, especially not non-Black people. I have been put in situations where I have had to question if I am too much, if my hair is too big, or if I have had too many hairstyles in too short a period of time.
Let me tell you a story. There is one person at F&M who before they greet me as a person reacts to the way I wear my hair that day. Last week she told me that since she has been here I have had so many styles. Mind you I either have my natural hair out or I am wearing braids. I know a bulk of us can relate to that experience. In those moments, all I can do is shake my head in disbelief and remind people that I am free to make whatever damn choice I want about my body, my time, and my experience and I do not exist to make them comfortable. And I should not have to think twice.
You, Black excellent people, do not need to run your bodies into the ground or appeal to societal standards. Continue to be Black and proud because time is too finite to be spent appealing to the mediocre standards that white people set for themselves.
Anyways! Does anyone else feel like silence can be racist? Like you know that feeling when the class is reading a book with the n-word and a non-Black person gets called on to read that section. And you see the n-word coming up so you put your book on the table to make eye contact with the student reading. They felt your stare, so they look up and no one says anything, so they skip the word.
That moment of silence is how it feels to be in rooms where you make a spectacular idea and people let it fumble until someone else mentions it and then there is praise. Or the silence that occurs when someone asks who is interested in serving on a DEI committee. But wait, the real kicker is the silence that happens when you are the only one to say something is racist. No one told me how common that is. I physically cannot deal with that awkward, racist silence. It is difficult navigating and owning space at a place where Blackness is met with hostility or silence.
Considering all those factors, I found ways to remind myself of my Black excellence by choosing resistance, humility, and peace.
III. Black Excellence
Black excellence feels like listening to Alright by Kendrick Lamar on full blast walking into a full, predominately non-Black classroom with some fresh box braids or a fresh cut and the barber got the taper fade just right or you just got your hair loc’d!
Because I refuse to walk into a room until I am in a head space where I know that among anything I am Blackity Black and ready to unapologetically hold that space. Your beautiful melaninated skin deserves to be here.
For me, my idea and our idea of Black excellence needs to be expansive. It cannot only include this notion that in order to be Black and Excellent you must be number one, consistently grinding, creating new paths for others, and fighting the standard of white mediocrity. Nah, we are not going to uphold that toxic idea of Black excellence because if we do, we forget about millions of other Black folks who are excelling at life. I am standing here to let you know that it is perfectly acceptable to be Black and exist.
Too many times have I fallen victim to the idea that I must be spectacular at all times and every time I fall harder than the time before that. My body cannot sustain the trauma caused by not caring for myself in order to prove that I can do it all. Sure, you can do it all, but you cannot do it all well. Do what you can, the best you can, when you can, and remember to take a break because Black excellence requires beauty sleep. How else are you gonna sleep off the microaggressions?
We are the ones that make this pale place excellent because I know if there were not phenomenal people with these gorgeous Black bodies in these spaces this place would never know what excellence actually meant. We add culture. We add our own perspective on history. We are excellent.
I am not a product of F&M’s jaded classroom curriculum. Rather the product of Black student protest, creativity, and action. The classroom couldn’t teach me to be Black and exceptional since it was too preoccupied making sure the white people understood.
I want to thank Rocky for teaching me what it looks like to be Black and proud as well as Apollo Night, of course the BSU meetings, ACA’s carnival festival, the amazing Black women who surround me and tell me to hold my head high, and the other people of color on campus who continue to have my best interest at heart. This community of Black and Brown people on campus is the reason why I continue to hold the dual sword of tolerating this space and resisting what it tries to give me.
Being Black at F&M means pushing up against the institutional challenges.
It is amazing to have been able to build this platform, but I was not the only person who was bringing wood to the site. Where I am is a testament to the people who encouraged me to be unapologetic, Black, beautiful, and angrily passionate.
Fight against the idea of Black exceptionalism that encourages Black people to “sacrifice their health, mental wellbeing, and welfare for the sake of greatness.” Truly, I have fallen prey to this idea of Black exceptionalism whenever I think about what survivor’s guilt looks like to me as a descendent of enslaved peoples.
Being Black and excellent is not just something about achieving something no one else did. It truly is about embracing your Blackness and living, as well as not apologizing for it.
We are creative, amazing, beautiful, and most importantly Blackity Black.
Senior Makaila Ranges is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.