When former Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick stood before the Morehouse College Class of 2015 to deliver his commencement address, he joined a host of notable black men, who, in recent years have ascended to the heights of American public service and have too charged black men and boys to be exceptional. Nothing is particularly novel about the charge. Barack Obama unveiled “My Brother’s Keeper”, aimed at young boys of color, days after his commencement address at Morehouse College in 2013. His aim: to create more black male exceptions.
Here’s Gov. Patrick’s Commencement Address:
If anything can be said about the logic of exceptionalism, it is that its pitfalls can hardly be discerned from what it can produce and what it succeeds in celebrating. The pitfalls of exceptionalism are in who and what it betrays and in who and what it fails to acknowledge.
If the President, and many liberal politicians including Gov. Deval Patrick, have their way, the exceptions will continue to assume the centrality of social and political analyses and the outsiders will continue to be silenced — not in obvious ways but in a more insidious fashion which can be seen most glaringly in the absence of policy. The absence of a “My Sister’s Keeper.” The fact of no commitment to LGBT issues beyond marriage equality — which services and centers white gay experiences. The celebration of particular notions of civil rights.
The gospel of exceptionalism goes like this: black men have a duty to reach back into their communities, to be the next public servants, to be the next generation of thought leaders. The charge relies on a storied history. I’m talking about the Morehouse that produced Martin Luther King Jr. and two black mayors of Atlanta. This gospel tends to over-simplify a complex narrative.
On Sunday, I graduated. Four years after enrolling, walking across the stage turned out to be deeply poetic. Four years earlier I had been rejected to all but two of the schools to which I had applied — Morehouse was one of the two. I came to Morehouse, drawn in by the exceptional and allured by the elite status of an institution that prides itself on making men, never questioning the very basic assumptions about what it meant to “make men”.
And so the last few years have been interrogation. I’ve grappled with the idea that, for Morehouse, like so many other spaces for black men, making men is often at the exclusion of the outsider — the men who come to Morehouse living beyond the norms of black, male, and socially palatable; masculine, straight, and able-bodied; and so on. This is not to say that Morehouse is a bad place, but that the history of producing exceptional black men betrays identity as moveable, changeable, and deeply rich in complexity.
This is not a defense of developing a more expansive account of exceptionalism such as to unmute the outsider. The outsiders don’t need to be unmuted so long as it means preserving the usefulness of a language that centers the experiences of the exceptions; and renders the outsiders as corrigible to exceptional narratives. Exceptionalism ought to be rejected entirely. The language and vocation of exceptionalism as a tool for cultivating learned men reduces the possibilities of blackness. More importantly, this kind of thinking forgoes serious rigor.
So what would an “anti-exceptional” language entail for those of us who are beyond the norms? It means that we celebrate the narratives of success that don’t match neoliberal visions of “making it”. Anti-exceptionalism requires that we question normative assumptions about ability, success, gender, sexuality, and masculinity. It means that we cannot sacrifice expansive visions of freedom and inclusion in exchange for convenient narratives. Most critically, it means we should place the margins at center in how we think about higher education, and success more broadly.
I cannot help but place the kind of “anti-exceptionalism” I envision into the larger context of this present moment. #BlackLivesMatter was born not merely out of abjectly violent white supremacy. It was born out of a more insidious and deeply rooted exclusion of outsiders (an exclusion that some might say is in itself a form of violence). Put another way, #BlackLivesMatter places the margins at center -transgender lives, women’s experiences, and black men who resist hetero-masculine narratives. I suspect that institutions would prefer to lean on the exceptions not necessarily out of a hatred of outsiders, but because of an inability to see complexity. Which is to say, many institutions have a serious problem with marrying blackness with the other elements that form identity. At the heart of the matter is an inability to be mindful of this complexity.
At stake is a vision of blackness that renders the outsider as deviant, the margins as incorrigible and incapable of being celebrated. Whether this is the intention or not turns out to be beside the point. The fact is this: our lives are far more richer than the vision of exceptionalism that often gets lauded and it is this richness which should be centered and celebrated.