When famous African-American celebrities die, you can bet your bottom dollar that if white folks liked them, the word “transcend” is going to pop up in their obits like lies in a Donald Trump speech. For white America, “transcend” is that gold stamp of approval, much more elevated and polite than the old word “credit”—as in “This Negro was a credit to his race”—but in some ways used to the same effect.
You see, when it comes to black people, “transcend” is used as a way to say that blackness, in contrast with whiteness, is limiting. Blackness is that small tributary outside the white mainstream, and to swim in that mainstream is an achievement worth noting.
But as we talk about blackness transcending these so-called limitations, white America inevitably washes off the celebrity’s blackness. Whether it’s Michael Jackson, Prince or, most recently, Muhammad Ali, the black culture and community that nurtured, influenced and provided the foundation for the celebrity’s success is tossed away as a mere footnote. Blackness as an essential part of the famous celebrity’s being is surpassed by the idea that his or her acceptance has created a universal state, a place where everyone in America has equal ownership, to the point where acknowledging the celebrity’s blackness is somehow gauche. As a result, African Americans become the eternal venture capitalists who always get bought out and forgotten when the famous black celebrity goes public.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is not as if we black people don’t want to share our genius with the greater world. A mere 13 percent of the American population, the black community takes great pride in the societal impact we have not only domestically but also internationally. No other minority group in the world can point to as many achievements as African Americans.
But think about it. There’s something nefarious about the fact that only blacks and minorities are required to transcend beyond their way station on the American racial spectrum. Transcending is a perpetual one-way street for black people, yet famous white people like Antonin Scalia, David Bowie and Merle Haggard weren’t asked to transcend their whiteness for black people to recognize their importance. They didn’t have to transcend being Italian American, British or an “Okie from Muskogee.” They were just accepted for being who they were.
So why does this ubiquitous use of the word “transcend” occur when it comes to famous black people? Easy. Because in American society, blackness is the eternal other, and as a result, it’s unthinkable that blackness could actually be the mainstream and whiteness the tributary. Because to say that would mean that we have this whole racial thing all wrong. What if the impetus was not on the famous black celebrity to transcend his or her race but, rather, for white America to transcend itself, and embrace the blackness the now deceased black person represented? Sounds good. But to do that, white America needs to take a more serious step—one that has bedeviled white Americans since the first blacks arrived on the American shores.
White Americans must transcend a mindset that values the privilege surrounding whiteness, while regularly celebrating the erasure of blackness, in order to see the black celebrity as he or she is. The transformation of the why-must-everything-be-about-race? white person is the heavy lifting white Americans must do before they can transcend. And if they can do that successfully, then the word “transcend” will truly be redefined.
Then and only then can African-American celebrities be remembered for all their humanity, including their blackness, and not just the parts that white America wants to acknowledge … and ignore.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.