HBCU Week Special: HBCUs, #BlackExcellence and Mental Health – Part 2

BY NIKKI ADEBIYI, FOUNDER @ BOUNCE BLACK

In the first part to this post, I wrote about the harmful pressures that can be associated with the notion of Black Excellence. At Bounce Black, part of our mission is to champion a healthier vision of success and Black Excellence, and that begins with conversation.

So, here’s some further discussion with alumni of HBCUs / predominantly Black colleges around Black Excellence and things to consider as a hopeful student.

On Black Excellence and Black campus culture

Black people have endured so much that I believe the bare minimum of striving for success should be considered Black excellence. On paper, we should be extinct as a people. For example, instead of hashtagging “[#BlackExcellence]” after a Black business gets off the ground, how about we hashtag it for when someone has a solid business plan? Firstly because a lot of the White-owned businesses are handed down generationally, and they’re looked at as successful without even writing the genesis of the business plan. A bunch of Black-owned businesses are developed after years of developing gifts, trial and error, etc. To develop a solid business plan in spite of the preceding challenges is worthy of recognition as far as Black excellence goes.

Trestin Gamble, Mississippi State Valley University

“Black excellence is something I was much more keen on in my younger days. Nowadays, I think it can put too much, absolutely unnecessary, pressure on people. What does “black excellence” even mean? I beg. It often goes: high flying corporate career or overnight success entrepreneur, making loads of money, and saving the world before you’re 30. Being the youngest, first and best. This archetype is so problematic and is no good for mental health in our community. In the world of black excellence, there’s no space for black baby steps, black rest, black mistakes or hurdles, black not-having-it-all-together, black changing your mind, black middle aged success…dare I say black mediocrity…the list goes on. Why does being black mean we need to be excellent? Not saying that I don’t strive for excellence in all that I do, but the pressure can be too much sometimes. What does it mean to be black and not excellent? Excellence really needs to be self defined or you can really run into problems. I think the black excellence narrative also stems from the whole ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as far’ mantra. Is this something we should revisit for the sake of our mental health? Can we afford to revisit this? 

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Editor’s Interval

Whew! Was that a word, or what?

Briefly, the answer to Rachael’s question, I think, is a resounding yes! Given the rise of contextual recruitment practices that identify potential by taking into account the environment in which people have achieved what they have, it might be worth updating the narratives we pass on to the next generation.

Drumming it into the heads of Black children that they must be excellent at all costs comes with exactly that — costs — and increasingly so in terms of wellbeing. It can also be counterproductive in the long term if these thought patterns are packaged with a fixed mindset that doesn’t recognise failure as a key part of the learning process. Not knowing how to fail early on in life, or not feeling allowed to, can have disastrous consequences later in life.

For me, being taught only that greatness runs in my heritage didn’t prepare me for when I encountered situations that didn’t reflect that. As a result, I took failure personally and struggled to recover from it. I’m still unlearning and shedding off that fixed mindset now as a twentysomething.

So, maybe a healthier approach would be to teach Black students the value of process and journeys, not merely outcomes. Teach them that they can be excellent in what they do with perseverance and persistence, not perfection(ism). Teach them the power of a growth mindset and having “not yet” in your vocabulary, but also teach them that they don’t have to work themselves into the ground in pursuit of their goals.

With that said, back to the discussion:

I think we are excellent by virtue of being black. Not because of what we produce or achieve, but by virtue of still existing, still being able to stand in the face of indescribable adversity (historical and present day). To exist in such toxic, unwelcome spaces that were not created with us in mind, yet built on our backs. Being able to exist here – that is black excellence to me and we all embody it.

Spelman is a college full of super high achieving black women – the home of “black excellence”. Everyone really smart, driven and killing it – that was overwhelming at first. I don’t think it impacted my mental health negatively though – it made me want to get involved and find my place. Interestingly, I don’t think I’d cope well if I was in that type of environment now though. 

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Spelman College exemplified the epitome of Black excellence. Black Excellence culture was ingrained the first week involving Spelman’s history while affirming our greatness as future Spelman women. 

Black Excellence is both exhilarating and exhausting, affirming yet debilitating. It shines bright against the backdrop of adversity while being impossible to sustain. Black Excellence is usually coined with the “talented tenth”, negating the whole 90 percent. Black Excellence seems to be the bare minimum necessary to get in the door to white mediocrity; therefore I’m not a personal fan of the term. 

Being able to thrive as a Black person in the world is Black excellence.

Jana Wallace, Spelman College

Editor’s INTERVAL

In my late teens, I read essays like W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth, and took the idea of a Black Elite class wholesale. I tried to teach myself several things at once because I wanted to be a high-powering polymath, who embodies everything DuBois wrote about. Black Excellence was, frankly, my idol. And as I mentioned in my first blog, these high expectations only crushed me and held me back further when I didn’t achieve them. When my mental health was adversely affected, I lost my sense of identity altogether. Who was I if I couldn’t be at the top of my game, and have or be the best in everything?

That’s why, in my current stage of life, I’m opposed to such ideas of Black elitism (which is reflected in the Bounce Black Manifesto). I’m still ambitious and striving to do well in what I do, but now I have an entirely different outlook on success, life and all the things that make it worthwhile. Destroying yourself while trying to be perfectly exceptional at everything isn’t one of them.

There was definitely a culture of black excellence at my school. The term inspired you to work hard and dream big. I think the effect was mostly positive because it helped me see the success of others as a win for me because we all contributed to black excellence. However, the term can cause students to put a lot of pressure on themselves because they want to live up to the standard of excellence. This can result in being stretched too thin because students are trying to do everything instead of mastering a few things.

Faith Reid, Spelman College

In one sense, that is the majority for me, I feel good about black excellence. I think, if explained and understood well, it can be a healthy mindset. I think it can also be demonstrated in a healthy way. I think there are anti-practices though. And that those practices are the ones that can hurt us rather than help us.

Ronica Hicks, Medgar Evers College (*PBC)

Wisdom for HBCU hopefuls and new students

As the researcher here, I was first to have the pleasure of reading these insights from HBCU and PBC alumni. I already wanted to attend an HBCU, but after this the only thing in my way is the school fees. Which is why, although I have no stake in the upcoming US elections, my ears definitely perked up when Senator Kamala Harris (an alumna of Howard University) pledged debt-free tuition for some HBCU students.

For readers who are considering HBCUs or a predominantly Black college, here are some final words of encouragement and tips from those who have been there and done that:

Generally, have a plan and stick to it. College is full of curveballs and opportunities unpredicted, so if you ever lose focus, see if those curveballs and opportunities align with your plan. 

Self care: take a day off every once in a while. Even if you don’t have a job. You need your time. Also develop a habit for renewing your spirit. Remember you’re not a body with a spirit. You’re a spirit with a dying body. Take care of what’s eternal.

Trestin Gamble, Mississippi State Valley University

Define excellence for yourself. If you need it, get counselling/therapy without delay. Talk to people about how you feel – trust me, you won’t be the only one feeling that way. Connect with your professors. Having black professors is such a blessing and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Having so many black staff and faculty is rare. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. There are soooo many opportunities at HBCUs. HBCU students are highly sought after and many companies make their presence known at HBCUs – seize the opportunities that come your way! Try something you never would on a normal day! Make friends with the dinner ladies haha. Explore the city you’re in, as well as campus. Go to all of the parties!! Have funnnnn! Socialise. Make friends! Make friends with people who are not like you – you’ll begin to see how diverse being black really is! Enjoy this experience fully because there is absolutely no where in the world like it – a whole university full of black people. Unbelievable 🙌🏾

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Any advice I would give is to not believe in the negative things you hear on the internet about HBCU. I would tell them that HBCU is also the safest for students’ mental health.

Germima Mounier, Florida A&M University

I would advise you to enter the HBCU experience with an open mind. We love to expand our intelligence just as much as we love to have fun. Find the balance and remember why you are there. 

Davine Anelle, Howard University

Take the time to truly learn your respective HBCU – volunteer, attend events, participate in various clubs and organization, connect with the faculty and staff. You’re joining a family with deep roots and rich heritage. Like family, there will be things you don’t care for, things to unlearn, relearn, and possibly heal from. Yet know you’re not simply graduating from college; you’re becoming a part of the HBCU tradition with priceless connections and networks that last a lifetime! 

Jana Wallace, Spelman College

Don’t be afraid to explore but find a good group of friends who accept you.  

Courtney Thompson, North Carolina Central University

Don’t take an 8:00 class.

Micah Temple, Norfolk State University

Step out of your comfort zone. Build YOUR brand. Be proud of your legacy. Manage your time wisely. Take stock of your academic investment regularly.

Embrace the rich diversity. Set goals, get involved, be adventurous. Build meaningful relationships.

Emanuel Williams, Alabama A&M University

I would advise students attending or considering an HBCU to consider what environment is best for them. An HBCU is a wonderful experience and it can be very encouraging and freeing; however, it’s okay if you are black and you don’t attend an HBCU. I think we should all value and support HBCUs whether we attend one or not. 

Faith Reid, Spelman College

Pursue a community of diverse people within the HBCU world and outside of it to help you process your thoughts and experiences. Give back to the school when you graduate to improve it by improving facilities, hiring staff and faculty. 

Maurice Wilson, Morris College

Immerse yourself. There are some opportunities that will be accessible to you by virtue of your attending an HBCU. I graduated after being given a full scholarship to attain my degree and to study abroad. Both changed the trajectory of my life and career.

Kanita Benson, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

And, finally, remember that:

Blackness is like an ocean. It is vast, it is strong, it is lapping foam and it is crashing waves. There are differences, but those make it majestic. Don’t feel the need to conform to just one idea of blackness since that is never who we are. Learn, but be your authentic self. You’re Black already.

Ronica Hicks, Medgar Evers College (*PBC)

*Mic drop*


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Don’t feel the need to conform to just one idea of blackness, you’re Black already.” – Read beautiful #HBCUWeek reflections on #BlackExcellence and #HBCU life on the @iBounceBlack blog: