The Duality of Black Excellence

February 21, 2023

wocdc brianna
Brianna Nelson

I am writing this on WOCDC's fourth anniversary, and there is this sense of pride in knowing how far we have come over the years. My story is one I have shared in spaces before but perhaps haven't given myself or you the whole picture. I started WOCDC in a place of survival. I wanted to create something to help community members thrive and address my loneliness and isolation as a Black woman navigating Durham Region. Four years in, and I'm still learning this thing every day, but more often, I've heard the term Black excellence in relation to my work and towards me, and to be honest, it still makes me feel uncomfortable, and I'll tell you why.

Black excellence is something I was taught to aspire to, and for me, it has always felt like this unattainable and unsustainable goal. It was about being the best you could be and achieving greatness, and when I moved to Durham, I felt like the complete opposite of that. Moving here made me feel so unspecial and unimportant. It brought about this uncomfortable hypervisibility due to being one of a few Black students in my classes. That lack of Black representation convinced me that with every move I made, people saw. I spent those "formative years" judging every part of me that I now find special – the gap in my teeth, the coils in my hair, the colour of my skin. I struggled with the idea of feeling worthy of anything. Thinking about where and who I was back then, I was the furthest thing from Black excellence by its traditional definition.

My past is why I have difficulty accepting phrases like "Brianna embodies Black excellence" now. Someone said that to me in a meeting, and like usual, I deflected, but not just because I can't take compliments. I realized that I don't feel like my work is excellent, nor do I feel like I am excellent.

And that's what it is, Black excellence, embodying that in the traditional sense, comes with this duality of praise and celebration intermingled with overwhelming pressure especially living within the intersections of Blackness and womanhood. I am the youngest daughter of two Jamaican parents who immigrated to Canada for a better life. My mother worked tirelessly to provide for our family, and I am reminded every day that everything I do is not just about me. I am also reminded that being excellent is the only way to make myself and my family proud. However, lately, I've been giving myself more grace and space to unlearn this and replace it with the following:

I am always trying my best. My output is not a representation of my worth. I write this with the understanding that I have done some amazing things over the years with the help of an incredible team and community members. My perception of Black excellence is one that acknowledges that my pitfalls are necessary as a space for learning and growth. I define Black excellence as celebrating Black history, identity, creativity, and vulnerability. It is not perfectionism, and I will not continue to play into a system that expects me to work twice as hard as everyone else because that is unsustainable.

I deserve rest, as do you – and there is excellence in recognizing that and reclaiming our time.