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FLEX-ing to Realize Black Excellence Keynote speech by Washington and Lee University Dean of the College and Professor of English and Africana Studies Lena Hill at the Black Future Leaders Experience conference, Feb. 8, 2020

I want to begin by thanking the Office of Inclusion and Engagement for supporting this event and President Dudley for his opening remarks, his unfailing support of all of our students and his consistent efforts to make W&L an inclusive campus. I am also profoundly thankful for our panelists. Many of you are W&L alumni, and the range and impressiveness of your accomplishments is not only inspiring but — because of your relationship to this institution — feels attainable. If I had not felt relaxed before, I certainly do now: the bar for me has been lowered. The panels I have had the opportunity to visit have provided wise advice related to career choices, activism, internship and fellowship applications, and thriving. Panelists have spoken from lived experience and authentic wisdom delivered with true care and useful details rooted in thoughtful reflection upon lessons learned.

I feel fortunate and honored that many of the panelists are my current colleagues: Dean Futrell, Dean Simpson, Dean Mason, Professor Hill, Professor Cowins, Professor Colbert, Professor Abah and Assistant Director Cooper. This team at W&L makes our work satisfying.

And to SABU, the organizers of this event: Words cannot convey how proud I am of you. This was your idea. You planted it, watered it, cultivated it and now we are all enjoying the magnificence of the blossom that is the programming today. You are indeed FLEXing!

But what does it mean to flex, especially in the context of the “Metamorphosis of the Black Persona”? We are definitely not thinking of the kind of metamorphosis Kafka explores in his 1915 novella about Gregor Samsa.

In terms of “flexing,” are we talking about what is going on in “Creed 2”? Okay, full disclosure: Our 12-year-old son recently discovered the “Rocky” films and promptly watched all eight (yes, there really are eight): the original “Rocky,” five sequels, and the last two films, “Creed” and “Creed 2.” I will admit that I was something of a “Rocky” fan growing up. I have vivid memories of crying very dramatically in the theater with my big sister when Apollo Creed took his last breath in “Rocky 4.” These films represent a classic metamorphosis: We see flawed men physically transform their bodies and their spirits into winning machines. So when the metamorphosis we reference is related to “flexing,” do we have a picture of Michael B. Jordan in mind?

I suspect the “Creed” reference is not completely off base. You have chosen an acronym with meaning, and in my remarks today, I want to unpack your key term to ensure we’re on the same page. I want to take some time to exhort you to flex with a purpose: to flex to realize black excellence.

I recognize a call to strive for excellence is not new. In fact, some might think it antiquated, slightly anachronistic, even possibly problematic. Throughout history, African American leaders have embraced different relationships with a call to excellence. When I teach early African American literature, I love tracing black leadership through the writers who (1) played a seminal role in shaping a textured picture of black identity and (2) pushed back against the derogatory stereotypes often circulating unchallenged in the American popular imagination. These leaders enjoined African Americans to improve their circumstances through rare accomplishment.

Early black leaders like David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Frances Harper, Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett called upon black Americans to seek excellence in all that they did. These early leaders never advocated cutting corners. Indeed, what I always tell my students when we arrive to the scene in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” when the protagonist looks upon a photographic portrait of Frederick Douglass and preposterously imagines himself like the 19th-century self-emancipated leader is that Ellison is demanding readers confront a stark and unavoidable contrast: Invisible Man has no right to think himself like Douglass because true black leaders should not flex without substance; they must work before they perform.

Still, the call to black excellence has at times come under scrutiny because of the rightful realization that it should not accompany an assumption that we must strive for excellence to achieve what others are given in exchange for average efforts and average accomplishments. Our excellence should not become a prerequisite for fair and equal treatment. Yet we must guard against the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I have always detested the saying “It does not take all that.” When this statement is offered in relation to our studies and work, it is dead wrong: Often it does and should “take all that.” To that end, I would like to spend the rest of my time contemplating how we can flex to realize black excellence.

So, first, the definitions:

  1. Definition #1: to move or tense a muscle to show strength
  2. Definition #2: to bend, especially repeatedly
  3. Definition #3: to stunt or show off

These definitions definitely hold the potential for negative connotations. But if we tarry over these meanings and connotations, we quickly see the brilliance of the organizers’ acronym for a conference focused on developing into black leaders.

The first definition of flexing assumes a show of physical strength that is the result of physical effort. Some may think athletes flex their muscles simply to show off their fine physique. Undoubtedly, that’s part of it, but it is also to remind opponents and spectators alike of the time they’ve dedicated to preparing for the contest at hand. Their excellence is the result of hard work. One does not gain muscle density and size by sitting on the sofa watching Netflix.

Two weeks ago, we were all shocked to learn that basketball giant Kobe Bryant perished with his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash. Since his death, there has been an outpouring of grief and coming to terms with his legacy. Not all of it has been positive. After all, he was a human being and therefore necessarily flawed. But what no one disagrees on is whether he worked for what he achieved.

Kobe’s work ethic is legendary. In high school, he was known for arriving to the gym at 5 a.m. to work out alone. He played benchwarmers to 100 multiple times. At the 2008 Olympics, he was up and practicing before other players opened their eyes and headed to breakfast. His “6-6-6” workout was non-negotiable, and he dedicated hours to watching films of himself and deconstructing his game. In his time away from the court, Kobe devoted similar energies to other interests. When he wanted to know more about investing, Kobe cold-called business leaders and peppered them with questions, acknowledging that some of them may have sounded silly.

Kobe was talented, but more importantly, he was a hard worker on and off the court. You will go into a range of fields, some of which do not even presently exist. You must take your work ethic and core values with you.

When I entered higher ed, I didn’t even know that some of my values might not fit. I wanted a Ph.D. and a career, but I also wanted a family. When I got engaged at the end of my first year of grad school, a fellow female grad student pulled me aside to ask me about my choice to change my last name. It never occurred to me that such a decision would be of interest to others. When a female professor doubted my commitment to my research because I decided to have my first child before finishing my dissertation, I was surprised but not bothered. No one can tell you about your own priorities, and as long as you let excellent work speak on your behalf, you need not worry about differing opinions.

The second definition relates to flexibility. Your education — and in particular a liberal arts education — is preparing you to be flexible in the best ways. You may be striving toward excellence in a particular subject or field, but more important than your major or your minor is your ability to learn to think. Our educational paths are not always straight or filled with an unmitigated list of triumphs. Regardless, your undergraduate education is preparing you to assume a flexible posture toward success.

This focus on flexibility might well take the place of the current meditation on failure in contemporary discussions of fulfillment. I will admit that I’m not always comfortable with these narratives, even when I hear brilliant people like Sarah Lewis hold forth on the topic. Lewis, an art historian, curator and Harvard professor, thinks about notions of failure in her acclaimed book “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.” She impressively argues that our most iconic creative endeavors — from innovation to the arts — are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. What is more, she insists that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure.

Put differently, failure is really the conscious acceptance of experimenting with your eyes wide open. I know I have failed many times, but I rarely think of these moments as overt failures. Now, this could mean that I have my own neurosis to work through, but I like your focus on “flexing,” because in many ways, you are renaming failure. You are directing our attention to the need to be flexible, to remain open to being nudged down unintended or rocky roads, and I suggest we demand excellence along the way.

Flexibility. People ask me if I planned to be a dean. I answer, “Most certainly not.” As an undergraduate, I did not have a clear idea what a dean was, or what a dean did. After spending a good deal of my high school career in biochemistry labs at Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine, I decided I was much more passionate about literature. By the time I completed grad school, I was in love with my research and the magic of the classroom. But one day I was invited into the world of administration, and I realized there was something — I’m not sure I would describe it as magical, but indeed powerful and necessary — about being a part of different conversations. About being at tables where one had the opportunity to impact large numbers of student experiences. About being able to shape an institution in different ways. I had to be flexible to discover this career path.

I have a feeling if you ask those on panels this question, they may have similar answers. Our bios do not always reflect either our failures or our flexibility, but I can promise you that flexibility is a core part of the path to excellence.

The final definition of flexing is likely the one you had in mind most vividly when you lit upon the acronym FLEX. The Urban Dictionary defines flexing as “showing off your valuables in a non-humble way, or stunting and showing off.”

I think there is an element of this meaning that inspired your acronym, and I think that is right. When I urge you to flex to realize black excellence, I am exhorting you to push yourselves to accomplish great things that might inspire and support others to follow.

Let me share words from Toni Morrison to make this clear. In Michael Hill’s book on prize-winning black novels, a work he titled “The Ethics of Swagger,” he opens by recalling Morrison’s reflection on winning the Nobel Prize. When asked whether she experienced a “sense of triumph,” Morrison replied, “I felt the way I used to feel at commencements where I’d get an honorary degree: that it was very important for young black people to see a black person do that, that there were probably young people . . . who weren’t quite sure that they could do it. But seeing me up there might encourage them . . . That made me happy. It gave me license to strut.” Hill explains that “strutting is to walk with an affected air of dignity or to swagger.” Swaggering and flexing are two sides of the same coin that may imply garishness to some, but Morrison’s remarks are more complex. They reveal a blend of responsibility, achievement and style that Hill claims fueled late 20th-century black artistic freedom.

It is a compelling claim, and I think it’s exactly right. Morrison flexes and swaggers to inspire, embolden and galvanize others to strive for similar success. The research, painstaking composition and beautiful prose that resulted in her work allowed her to occupy a leadership role in the world of artistic achievement that she took seriously. Her death this past August left us without one of the great authors of our time.

Thankfully, other black writers have and are taking up the mantle she left. But there are many fields where this is more challenging:

  • There are currently four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies versus seven less than a decade ago, and not a single black woman holds the position on a permanent basis.
  • Ursula Burns was the first and only black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Xerox, 2009 – 2016).
  • Less than 6% of full-time faculty in higher ed are black, and those numbers decline when we only consider four-year colleges.
  • From 2002 – 2017, of the people who earned Ph.D.s, only 4% of the total number were black, a slight increase from 5.1%.
  • Blacks as a percentage of students enrolled in medical school rose from 5.6% in 1980 to 7.7% in 2016, well short of our 13.2% of the population. Only 6% of physicians and surgeons are black.
  • Less than 2% of black freshmen in the US enter engineering programs.
  • Pipeline problems: Only 4.5% of doctoral candidates in STEM disciplines are black.

This afternoon, I trumpet your call to flex. Flex for black excellence. I challenge you to flex not only for yourselves, but for our nation and the world. Change will not happen if we are not represented at the leadership table in all these fields. Accept nothing but your best. Your best may not be perfect, but your effort can be. Be strong, flexible and proud. Refuse to compromise your values and put your energies toward your passion. The metamorphosis you are experiencing is beautiful to behold, and I thank you for allowing me to play this small role in your journey.