In an anti-Black capitalist society, the guilt of Black “success” is almost unavoidable
The notion of being Black and having wealth comes with the guilt that my access and “privilege” is at the expense of others in my community
I just knew that things would change for me the day I closed on my book deal. In my mind, this moment was going to be bigger than anything I had done in my 32 years of life, and I wanted to be aware and very present. I wanted to rejoice like all the viral videos of Black kids getting into college. I wanted my moment of Black joy. Then, on April 4th at 10:37pm, the email came.
Subject Line: WE ARE A WRAP!
I took a few moments to catch my breath as excitement ran through every bone in my body, preparing for tears of joy I expected to be on the way. I waited, and when they didn’t come that day, I knew they would come the next day. And then a week went by and still nothing. Just a hollowness, and the constant internal questioning—who the fuck did I think I was?
What did I endure to receive such a great opportunity, one society constantly told me I wasn’t worthy of? All the deaths and murders I had written about began running through my head, as did this underlying feeling that because those Black victims never received this I didn’t deserve it either.
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Many of our ancestors never got a taste of what economic stability looked like. Rosa Parks was immortalized into American History only to die a poor Black woman—a trajectory she shares with many of our greats.
For me, the notion of being Black and having wealth comes with the guilt that my access and “privilege” is at the expense of others in my community drowning under capitalism.
Yet here I am, with an agent, a publisher, a contract and a royalty rate, discussing options for a second book while negotiating over movie rights on my cell phone. Living in my renovated apartment in a rapidly gentrifying section of Flatbush, Brooklyn, knowing that my acquisition of wealth could very well help with displacing my own people. Watching the community I fight so hard to protect be destroyed by the impact of my wanting more for myself, despite my intent to use my resources to help others.
Is using the resources I amass to benefit others enough? Do the ends really justify the means?
As a Black person, trauma, failure, and denial of opportunity is what I know. But accomplishment, and the ability to live and thrive in its aftermath while watching so many other Black people suffer? That’s hard to process.
We watch anti-Blackness occur on every level of society in America, with Black trauma sold like porn for the excitement and appeasement of whiteness—and we in turn learn how to function and perform in the chaos. That is being Black in America. That is the compass from which I’ve learned to operate spaces, to not to be too Black once I’ve reached success—to not be too successful when I’m with my Black people who have never achieved it.
I finally took a day to just sit in what I was feeling. I analyzed the guilt that comes from having people in your immediate circle who may not be doing as well. The guilt from not feeling I was oppressed enough in comparison to my ancestors and any Black person dealing with less privilege than me. I want wealth. I want to have nice things. I want to use my wealth to help people, my people—knowing that my participation in any form of capitalism will inevitably hurt the same folk I long to save.
I think about being in the public eye with a growing platform, and followers, and virility that had become my life. 3 years ago I could say whatever I wanted without much fuss. Nowadays, I’m reaching nearly 60 million impressions monthly, knowing that one statement could end it all during this age of “cancel culture.” This fear of pissing off the wrong white people. This fear of pissing off the wrong Black people. This overwhelming fear that I might reduce my Blackness and my voice to sustain the stability I finally achieved for the first time in my life.
I think about others with platforms and the daily cognitive dissonance many of them practice not wanting to lose the stability and wealth they have acquired. I watch Black pundits discuss Trump and the bombing of Syria who have never once made a statement about Obama’s bombings and drone strikes. We all know they know those were wrong too, but also know what they are protecting. The image of Black men. The image of the community. The not wanting to lose all that they have acquired, and deserve to have.
I know that I deserve every opportunity that I’ve worked my ass of for, because my ancestors deserved them too. Whiteness has denied Black excellence for forever in America. It has tokenized the few of us that have limited success, using it to say, “Look how far you’ve come” rather than the true narrative of, “Look how long I stopped you from getting here.”
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Harriet Tubman got to her version of freedom, but went back 13 times to bring others with her to also get what she found. That is my duty to my people and my ancestors, to break down walls and take opportunities that will in turn open up spaces for others—while always staying rooted in my Blackness. To go back and get others to have fulfilling lives and careers at all costs.
As long as anti-Black systems exist, my survival in America will at times come with the use of them. My sole purpose should be to abolish the systems that make anti-Blackness reign supreme, regardless of how much success I have.
To be guided by fear of going back to the days prior to “success” can easily make one forget their actual purpose. We have seen time and time again folks go from rags to riches and become new people. Losing their authenticity with each check deposited. Going from a mindset of liberating everyone to criticizing those you once claimed you were fighting to save. My liberation has to remain steadfast in liberating others. In the spirit of Harriet. In the spirit of every Black person that went back and pulled another with them.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram