As a kid, I remember walking through my elementary school cafeteria each February and passing a bulletin board, “Black Achievers,” adorned with illustrated headshots of African American historical figures. Their portraits were neatly tacked along the bulletin, each paired with biographical captions. They’d broken records, championed social movements, built enterprises, authored classic literature, and proven that, unlike other rights and privileges in their era, greatness wasn’t reserved for whites. They were the archetypes of discipline, hope, and hard work, so exceptional that, although millions of Black Americans existed alongside and prior to them, they were the few who earned a spot on my radar.
But as a neurodivergent Black kid in the ‘90s, devoid of discipline, hope, and work ethic, the dream of becoming a Black achiever became more out of reach as my time in that very school continued. I was positioned to take on the narrative of the Black failure—the failure necessary for juxtaposition to the achiever. Not even a bulletin board of people who looked like me could convert me from being the Black problem-child who needed evaluation and accommodation—the one who couldn’t be treated by the inspiration of aspiration.
Transitioning into adolescence, I was less fitting for the Black History Month displays and more for bulletin boards posted in the entryways of Walmarts, plastered mugshots of shoplifters and photographs of missing teenagers. Because like many Black youth who are runaways, convicts, and violence victims, I struggled with undiagnosed and unaccommodated disabilities. Like any child, I erroneously relied on my ecosystem to identify whatever was troubling me and make appropriate interventions. I couldn’t fathom then that I was born with neurological differences that would require my own pursuit of accommodation and treatment before I could receive the benefits of achievement.
But I was bright and gifted whenever I just applied myself, indicating, in my young mind, that my suspensions, detentions, and tardies reflected my 14-year-old character. History’s achievers and believers had already proven that, with the right mindset and values, not even the skies traveled by Mae Jameson were unreachable. Therefore, my failures were self-inflicted.
These failures, littered with referrals and abysmal report cards, demolished my self esteem. It didn’t help that I was once the star child of a widely embraced activist family. I was now a disappointment to the legacy of Black achievers, my family, and possibly God. I’d look on with resentment and awe at my honor-roll cousins and scholarship-poised classmates. I sulked when adults asked, “How are you doing in school?” Why couldn’t they just ask me anything else, I’d wonder. They were curious about my progression toward Black achievement, or my decline toward Black failure. Fights, missed assignments, quizzes with red X’s, skipped classes—that’s how I was doing. I hadn’t the language nor the awareness to explain that I wasn’t failing school—school was failing me.
Nonetheless, in my mind, a Black failure I was.
I didn’t recognize the correlation between my and some of my peers’ failing grades and the systems’ entangled webs of improbability for even the most superficial Black achievement. Food deserts, prison pipelines, criminalized disabilities, undifferentiated lessons—threats to survival and security are the failures of this society. Black children who marvel at illustrations and collages of Black achievement every February aren’t explicitly, intentionally taught about these phenomena in the classroom. Because if they were, they’d likely be empowered as critics of the Black condition rather than critical of their Black existence.
Over my lifetime, I’ve heard resounding commitments at all levels of society to celebrate Black history all year, perhaps suggesting that our achievers’ accomplishments and contributions are worthy of year-round heralding. That may be right, but the Black people who are worthy of more love and investment are the ones whom society failed or the “failures.” They risk perishing in the present while we look away in romanticization of the past. They fill classrooms and prisons across the country. Their struggles aren’t investigated unless they ascend high enough to look back and tell us what they overcame.
As a Black person whose face now adorns a wall at my alma mater, I’ve been in the unique position of teetering the line of failure and achievement. Had it not been for self-sought treatment, a second-chance college summer bridge program, God, and HBCU advisors that loved me, I’d perhaps be on that other bulletin of convicts and missing people outside of Walmart. But I’m not exceptional. I’m a product of miraculous chance.
No one is more deserving of my honors and accolades than my peers who sat next to me in summer school and in-school suspension. But those are my people—the troubled, traumatized, victimized Black youth. Those on the spectrum. Those who walk into school and solidify their failure with cries for help in the form of misconduct and plummeting grades. Those pushed out of communities and classrooms and left to the mercies of capitalism. Those grappling with anxiety and addictions. The ones who were failed.
Honoring Blackness means creating space, accommodations, and tolerance for all Black people. It means acknowledging that no Black children have agendas either to achieve or fail. It means recognizing that when children exhibit struggles within the system as it exists, it’s time to question society’s investment in their “excellence”—not their own. It means reminding them, even through the admonishment of white supremacy, that they’re deserving of acceptance and embrace. It means challenging any rhetoric that leads Black children to believe that their failure or achievement results from their character.
I now have a neurodivergent child of my own. And whether society says she’s an achiever or a failure, it’s my job to continually assure her that the opportunity to love and nurture her is the greatest achievement I could ask for.
Desmera Gatewood is a neurodivergent, Black, non-binary writer and organization development practitioner. They get joy from parenting, sudoku competitions, and group facilitation.