Black and Average

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The White family didn’t focus on excellence. I didn’t grow up with the expectation of becoming a doctor or lawyer. The White family that includes my great aunt that sang for the Queen, countless cousins that were the first Black Canadian to [insert position here], worked as hard as possible to make it in Canadian society since my great grandfather came to Nova Scotia from Virginia in 1900. Maybe because of this “excellence” that already existed in our family, my grandfather, the main father figure in me and my younger sister’s life, didn’t pressure his children or his grandchildren to reach this stereotypical idea of success.

My grandmother only went to school up to grade six. Neither of my grandparents finished high school. My mother says growing up her parents told their children that they should go as far in school as they wished. Two out of four of them got a university degree. My grandparents were cool with that.

By the time I was born, my mother, the oldest of her siblings, had a steady, well paying job, a university degree and a house she bought with a man she thought would be a good father. To my grandparents, that was excellent.

I always hated school. I was not a good student. Every report card said that I was too quiet. I didn’t participate in class. I was a bad speller. I’d sit in class and daydream. I’d rely on my smarter friends to listen to instructions so I wouldn’t have to. I wasn’t failing but I wasn’t excellent. I was purely average. Not mediocre — average.

If my mother was the kind of parent that demanded straight A’s and had the hope of me becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer, she would have been extremely disappointed. Apparently, my father was that kind of parent but he was not around to push his expectations on me and my sister. I am so thankful for that. My mother worked in a job where she talked to injured workers, over dinner she’d tell us about people she met who worked in factories, or meat packing plants or gas stations and make it clear that if we didn’t get some kind of post secondary education, we’d end up in jobs like that. That was as far as our ‘work twice as hard to be half as good’ speech. And my sister and I got the message.

Getting me to care about school and put time and effort in to my schoolwork was a struggle. It got so bad my mother did a lot of my elementary school projects because I refused to redo my work or clean up my messy handwriting. I remember sitting next to my mother at the kitchen table watching her do my projects, getting the message that she wanted me to do well in school but I couldn’t do it on my own. She had to do it for me in order for me to succeed.

If my mother was frustrated that I didn’t seem to take school seriously, she never made me feel bad about it. Sure, she’d do my projects because she wanted me to get a good grade but I was never punished for being average. I still got to watch my shows and listen to my music and write my stories. I didn’t sit in class full of anxiety when a test was returned. If I failed something, most of the time it was a math test, my mother would give me a disappointed look and then I’d go back to the basement to watch City Guys.

I wanted to do well in school. I envied students that were able to sit and focus in class, that would study hard and get the highest marks. I knew my mother would love it if I was that kind of student — my sister was that kind of student. But I wasn’t made to feel any less, I wasn’t made to feel as if grades were the most important thing in the world.

Through middle school and high school, I stayed average, coasting by with B’s and C’s with an occasional A here and there. Looking back I’m proud of myself for even passing classes through the trauma of losing my grandparents, my mother going through cancer treatment and living with crippling anxiety and depression. I remember, months after my grandmother died, my mother was in the hospital for cancer surgery and I just walked out of a test, leaving it half done on the desk. I did that a lot — just walked out of school. I told my gym teacher I didn’t have my clothes, she said I still had to run laps — I walked out. I couldn’t stop crying all morning — I walked out. Now I wonder why no one ever called my mother. Maybe no one even noticed I was gone.

Being average didn’t hit me until it was time to apply for universities. It was as if all of a sudden the future was rushing to meet me and I wasn’t ready. Friends were getting accepted to fancy programs with fancy plans of majors and careers. At that point in my life all I wanted was to be a dancer — I was taking hip hop classes, I was training in my basement, I had dreams of going to LA to take classes from famous choreographers and sign with an agency. All of a sudden people were asking me what I wanted to do with my life and I had absolutely no idea.

What I did know was I had to go to university. My mother was pretty chill about my average grades but going to university was expected. It wasn’t even a question as to if I was going. So I went through the process, copying my friends, applying where they applied. I really wanted the whole university experience I’d seen on TV, living in dorms, going to parties, being independent. But with average marks the farthest school from my house that I got in to was a 45 minute bus ride away.

I suffered my way through five years of undergrad just skating by. I skipped class — a lot. I barely studied. I didn’t participate in classes. If I did go to school, I went to class and went home. I got B’s and C’s again but graduated with honours. When I think about that time now, I think about how desperately sad I was and how easy it would have been to have just quit. I could have dropped out or tried to get in to another school but I stayed. I wanted to make my mother proud.

I did my undergrad and a post grad certificate. My sister did her masters. I’ve worked consistently since I was twenty, sometimes two jobs at the same time. I currently am working the best job I’ve ever had, making the most money I’ve ever made. My sister has moved to another province and is building a life on her own. We’re not doctors or lawyers, we haven’t changed the world but we’re doing okay. And we know that’s enough to make our mother and our grandparents proud.

There has been talk on social media about letting go of the phrase “Black excellence” because it puts pressure on Black folks to be excellent in everything we do. I never looked at it that way. To me, Black excellence is who we are, no matter what we do, simply because we’re Black. My grandmother was excellent because she raised four children, one with special needs and had a precious bond with her grandchildren that they still carry with them. My mother is excellent because she left a man that had multiple families and worked extremely hard as a single mother to give my sister and I a good life. The Black kids I went to school with are excellent — whether they graduated high school or not, have children or are single or queer, have fancy careers or work at the mall.

We’re excellent simply because we live in a world that tried to erase us.

Our ancestors fought unimaginable odds in order for us to still be here in 2022. Black people have faced discrimination since we were brought to what was to become North America. We have been tortured, mutilated, slaughtered, tossed aside, deprived of everything and look at us. We are the culture. Whatever is cool right now is because Black folks made it cool. Everyone wants to look like us, sound like us, dress like us, embody our Blackness and they can’t — we’re born with it. We’re still able to smile, to create art, to dance and laugh and sing. We’re able to celebrate how far we’ve come while recognizing how far we have to go. We’re breathing, therefore we are excellent.

Maybe that’s why my mother and my grandparents never pushed us to be what white society deemed as excellent. We were Black children living in Canada, growing and learning and going to school in a society that didn’t care whether or not we excelled. I think they just wanted us to live the best lives we possibly could. And if that’s the case, we’re making them proud.

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