The Problem With Black Exceptionalism


In April of 2014, I released my third book, “Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens.” Every time I appear on a radio show to promote my new book, I’m asked why I wrote it. My answer is generally the same every time and I think it’s important enough to share with you, as it speaks to issues much larger than my book.

I’m tired of how we as a community promote Black exceptionalism: “my child got accepted here,” “my child won a scholarship,” “I’ve accomplished this or that.” “She’s the first Black something or other…” Black people usually can point to any number of individual superstars and high achievers. But for every one child or adult that is exceptional, hundreds of thousands more are low-performing, content with mediocrity, and destined for lives of poverty and failure.

I was an exceptional young person, and my parents were proud of me. My children are exceptional youth, and I’m proud of them. But being “exceptional” in a context wherein the masses of your people are suffering and failing, is a bittersweet reality; It reminds me of the early days in Michael Jordan’s career when he would drop 40, 50, and 60 points in a game and his TEAM would still lose.

The presence of “exceptional” Black schools, people, and institutions should be acknowledged as signs of hope and pride. But Black exceptionalism has a dangerous side as well. To the same degree that we (and the media) celebrate and promote Black success and achievement however, we sometimes tolerate and ignore mass Black FAILURE.

Furthermore, we can sometimes forget (or fail to understand) that neither Black success or dysfunction are organic or innate, but the partial result of empowering experiences, institutions, and personal initiative on one hand and systemic institutions of oppression which collectively work to stunt, deprive, and cripple our intellectual, cultural, institutional, and creative capacity on the other.

And I don’t even have enough space here to address how some of us who deem ourselves “exceptional” often become arrogant, competitive, self-absorbed, vulgar careerists who are detached from community concerns…..

These oppressive systems I refer to subtly persuade us to tolerate our collective oppression by pointing to this or that exceptional or accomplished Black person who “beat the odds.” In effect they tell us, “Don’t be upset that the majority of the schools your children attend are criminally low-performing, staffed by new or inexperienced teachers, and setting your children up to become prison laborers or menial/semi-skilled workers, because 98% of the students that attend So and So Academy or This and That Institute graduate and go on to college.”

The problem of course, is that such schools can only physically accommodate relatively low numbers of students, so the majority of our children must settle for the inadequate schools (which are the majority of them) and thus, inadequate educational opportunity. The old “No Child Left Behind” motto is an absolute mockery. In truth, most of our children are left not only behind, but so far behind that they will never catch up (without radical educational interventions and innovations).

In this way, those who work to keep us entrenched in economic and political impotence, defend their ruthless system by suggesting that while the system is imperfect, IT is not fundamentally flawed, but is a meritocracy that fairly rewards and recognizes people that work hard, follow the rules and are well…..exceptional. In other words the system is not the primary problem, YOU BLACK, BROWN, AND POOR PEOPLE ARE!

It is perfectly understandable why we Black folk spend so much time highlighting our exceptional kinfolk. We’ve survived centuries of emotional scarring and psychological torture. We were groomed to be poor, docile servants, and the education system was designed to insure this reality. It’s easy to sell us messiahs and exceptional men and women when so many of us fall to incarceration, drugs, and the countless other traps laid for us.

Certainly life cannot simply exist of complaints, losses, suffering and failure. Such a life would quickly become demoralizing. We should be proud of and continue to support our individual superstars. But we must also work tirelessly to build a CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM! Because while our individual superstars break records, win awards, and accumulate riches and accolades, our TEAM IS STILL NOT WINNING, and we fail to adequately understand and challenge those factors responsible for our collective LOSING!

To soothe ourselves from becoming too depressed, we live vicariously through examples of Black “success” on television shows, in the media or we place a certain relative on a pedestal. It’s as if we’ve conceded that “I don’t make the grade, but I can feel accomplished by associating myself with someone who does.” Why not take that same energy to enrich ourselves and our family/community members? Many times the only things separating us are discipline, hard work, and motivation. We cannot buy into the false concept that certain people were “born” to be accomplished and important. Nor can we support a small minority of our people and allow the vast majority to fall by the wayside. As we know, without proper guidance, our exceptional youth can turn into entitled jerks, and those remaining can become demoralized, satisfied with mediocrity, and never tap into their true potential.

Do some people have more “natural” ability in certain respects? Yes. Do others struggle in certain respects? Yes. But good coaches have high expectations for the entire team! They also create routines and structures to make sure every team member is well-prepared and performing at their highest level.

I wrote my new book to expose our youth to concepts, skills and habits that are empowering and that many don’t receive from home, places of worship, or school. It is a basic and easy to follow playbook and framework designed to move us from Black youth exceptionalism to the thinking/preparation required for a championship team. My goal is not simply “no child left behind,” but also “no child in front by themselves.”


 Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

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