Black Excellence in the Age of Pandemic

America’s Black creative class is busy both re-framing some parts and eradicating others, of the life, culture, and history that we have led.

by Marcus K. Dowling on April 14th, 2020

2020 may be America’s most frightening year yet. If you’re a Black American that is living by the end of this terrifying year, you can also call yourself a survivor of sixteen generations of racism via slavery, unemployment, segregation, drug abuse, incarceration, gentrification, and now (if you look at relative death rates during the Coronavirus pandemic) outright genocide. Though this is a scary realization, as a Black person, I believe that Black people — because of cultural development uniquely specific to always surviving by positively re-framing our American experience — are in line to be the creative leaders who financially and culturally stabilize America’s unknown future.  

“Black people in America are always accustomed to being in a position where we need to exceed expectations,” says Gabrielle Barr, a Black, Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist and copywriter. “The post-pandemic era could be a ‘renaissance’ era for black creatives. We already see the beginnings of that in music, with D-Nice and his Instagram Live DJ sets. By being first out of the gates, artists of color are rising.”

Regarding that feeling that Black creatives are dashing out into America’s cultural creative lead in COVID-19’s wake, Black, Brooklyn-based technology professional Winston Ford notes an intriguing factor to consider. “White people have been freaking out and stuck in a social paralysis since the 2016 election. They’ve been waking up to the idea of the fairy tale of what they thought America was might not be true.”

“Though creatively and culturally, Black people may end up with a significant upper hand, we still live in an American system defined by economic inequality,” Ford says. “America, and especially white Americans, may not be ready to study the role that capitalism plays in American society. We have to think about how we use private industry to ensure that we maintain our essential infrastructure and livelihoods,” he explains.

COVID-19 has extraordinarily altered the American economy. Before the pandemic though, Black Enterprise Magazine noted that Black buying power would hit about $1.5 trillion by 2021. As well, African-Americans like Insecure actress and screenwriter Issa Rae, politician Stacey Abrams, chefs like James Beard award-winner Kwame Onuwachi, artists like Kara Walker, and just-minted billionaire rapper-tuned-entrepreneur Jay-Z had begun the process of opening doors for other Black creators to excel sustainably.

Related to being Black, creative, and sustaining, the path to achieving success akin to the previously mentioned quintet is far from simple. However, by surviving through many issues (exacerbated by the pandemic), the courage required for other Blacks to reach such rarefied heights of financial success and sociocultural impact could become commonplace.

Duke Ellington Square in Washington, DC in a vibrant sunrise.

Photo CC-BY Ted Eytan.

Black people in my hometown of Washington, DC, are being gentrified out of the city at an alarming rate. Add onto this the fact that the percentage of Black people currently dying to the Coronavirus in the Nation’s Capital is 20% greater than the percentage of Black people presently residing in the city. It’s disheartening.

I have yet to finally leave DC because I want to be a Black American leading America’s evolution and revival while living in the epicenter of the “great Black renaissance” to which Gabrielle Barr alluded. DC has been “Chocolate City” before, and as I look around a city that’s gentrifying, but still has pockets of Black people surviving and working within its limits, it’s inspirational.

Conditions in DC are similar to problems elsewhere. “There is not creative arts infrastructure in the Bay Area for anyone, especially Black people,” says Black, Oakland-based social care worker, and journalist Taylor Crumpton. “You can lose your source of income in the blink of an eye. It’s very disheartening. Some of our best minds now live in cities like New York, LA, Atlanta, and Houston because of income inequalities and gentrification.”

The redistribution of Black creative populations is essential to consider. What happens if this new Black American creative diaspora continues to be encouraged by soft power gained from artistic and social capital? How then does this become Black creatives having a dominant and controlling role over the resurrecting American economy?

An idea like this only becomes plausible if and when Black creatives source past Black American history dominated by desperation with a persistent chance of excellence, and maybe to our roots — like our hyphenated-American United States cohabitants — for inspiration.

“One of the coolest things is that as a Black creative, we already occupy a space of being an arbiter of culture nationally,” says Winston Ford. Ford, like myself, has busied himself during the pandemic by having international conversations through digital and online means, mainly with fellow black people. “Now we can connect globally with other Black people and leverage our collective ingenuity to maximize cultural impact,” Ford continues.

Winston, it turns out, is onto something.

“As a Black American in America, sometimes people look over you, or you feel invisible. But here in Kenya, you speak, they hear the accent, you make friends with a couple of people, and it’s like, there’s a certain privilege that becomes a part of everything because of where I’m from. It’s a strange dichotomy.” For author Marcus J. Moore, while writing October 2020’s The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, he found himself splitting time between Brooklyn, NY, and — because his wife took a job there — Nairobi. 

“While writing the Kendrick book, being here in Kenya unlocked a lot of the narrative for me that I couldn’t discover in New York City,” Moore relates. “Similar to me in America, for a long time, Kendrick was a guy who felt unseen. Then all of a sudden, he comes out with [2012 album] good kid, m.A.A.d city, and he’s a star. It’s analogous to my time in Kenya in many ways.” 

Even deeper, when asking Moore about how his personal, worldwide creative circle that includes jazz artists like British-Barbadian jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings are dealing with the pandemic, more notes on the unique heartiness Blackness provides become apparent.

“This is testing the true character of people. Independent black creatives worldwide that I rock with anyway already have taken to isolation as a form of creativity. A lot of these artists derive their art from things feeling crazy. So they feel very well adjusted and appreciate that others can feel what their creative space feels like daily.”

“People of color are already being disproportionately impacted [by COVID-19]. In the wake of this pandemic, also continuing to reduce the importance of Blackness during the pandemic to a series of negative stereotypes, is unnecessary,” Taylor Crumpton says. Crumpton’s statement mirrors that of Black American creatives, and those Black creatives of color worldwide inspiring our work.

At present, America’s Black creative class is busy both re-framing some parts and eradicating others, of the life, culture, and history that we have led. In doing so — while yes, also surviving genocidal conditions — the resistant and remaining Black creative class is preparing to emerge, post COVID-19, ready to control and define America’s financial and cultural future.