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Essence Magazine 2023 Must Read
Bet on Black is a call to action for Black people all over the world to adopt a fresh, highly informed mindset that will change their lives. Blackness is a rich, expansive place that centers resilience, excellence, beauty, panache, and brilliance. But these notions of Blackness have long been distorted by American racism, where for generations Black folks have been expected to live a subordinate, second-class existence in the country they call home. Williams delves into some of the cornerstones of leading a first-class Black life, including:
- Don’t Let Anyone Make You Their Black Sidekick
- Carry Your Blackness Proudly Everywhere You Go
- Disrupt Oppressive Power Structures
- No Need to Codeswitch
- Black Community is Invincible When We Get Together
In this book, journalist and attorney Eboni K. Williams delves into some of the cornerstones of leading a first-class Black life, ranging from understanding one’s history to investing in the sometimes challenging processes of success. She does this all while sharing intimate details of her own story. Bet on Black will reawaken your own self-worth and understanding of the value of celebrating Blackness—whether yours or others’. Williams boldly proclaims that Blackness is the single most misunderstood construct in America. Bet on Black invites you to join her on the quest to show the world what Blackness really is.
“I find, in being black, a thing of beauty, a joy, a strength, a secret cup of gladness.”
I AM IN A DEEP LOVE AFFAIR with my Blackness.
I carry my Blackness with me everywhere I go, boldly, proudly, audaciously… unapologetically. Whether I’m on The Real Housewives of New York, on The View, or on my podcast Holding Court, I’m Blackity-Black Black, pro-Black, perennially centering Blackness, whatever you want to call it. I can talk about Blackness through any angle or lens, whether as a court-appointed legal adviser or on the couch with my girls in some chic Walker Wear sweats talking shit. I can talk about being Black all day, every day, however way. I carry my Blackness with me into every room I enter, whether serving as a public defender, private defense lawyer, television journalist, executive producer, event host, or reality TV show cast member. My mode of Blackness has been informed by Southern sensibilities, academic achievement, and the oft-intense glare of media. My Blackness has nurtured my spirit, and I wrote Bet on Black to feed yours as well.
We’ve long been aware that Blackness has been perceived by some as a threat, as an unacceptable breach of an American social contract that, for centuries, has proclaimed brown skin to be an inferior marker of identity. As seen with slavery and Jim Crow laws, this dehumanizing contract proclaims that our heritage should be downplayed and subcategorized, permanently positioned as an afterthought in the collective consciousness. Some might argue that we’ve moved past these notions of inferiority and become an egalitarian society, but as Black people we know that’s ridiculously naive and dishonest. We know that a racist social contract still exists in the minds of many and continues to shape our society’s institutions. Regardless of these realities, I wrote this book to unite us so that we can collectively refuse to have our futures dictated by anti-Black nonsense.
Since the early seventeenth century, when Africans were first brought to American colonial shores, ideas of Blackness have been associated with a subordinate, undesirable experience codified in law for centuries. This is a lie maintained by a white power structure invested in maintaining supremacy at all costs. We now know how utterly arbitrary and mind-numbing this bottom-tier human assignment always was. There have been countless books celebrating the traditional American social order, which requires the dominance of whiteness, heterosexuality, Christianity, and maleness. Whiteness is inherently inflated in this rather tired mix, and if we start to do the work of telling the truth about ourselves as Black people, then we can build an environment for ourselves where we can truly live and thrive. We don’t need to depend on anyone else to give us freedom. We never have. We can ensure our full liberation by starting with a basic truth—that everything we’ve been taught, told, and force-fed about white positioning in this nation and beyond is completely arbitrary.
Yes, it’s made up. And once certain folks have stopped clutching their pearls at this assertion, we can go about the great work of figuring out what this means for Blackness. Whiteness has been inflated, placed high on a pedestal, and positioned as superior, which means that what we’ve been told all of our lives about the positioning of Blackness as inferior and subordinate is just as arbitrary.
It’s why, as we cellularly move through life and handle our day-to-day, we should no longer buy into subordinate positions based on our skin color. It’s a very American notion to say that Black people have a place in every space they occupy and that this space is always secondary to that of whiteness. We need to be extremely hostile to that assignment. This subordinate ranking is as false and made up as the tooth fairy, and we have to start treating it as such for the sake of our individual freedoms and collective well-being.
The good news about being Black today is that we can place our history, self-awareness, and understanding of who we are in this world front and center. We can let others contend with their comfort or discomfort with our choices as we refuse to succumb to projections of inferiority or second-class citizenship. These projections have nothing to do with who we are. Let’s blow up the bullshit. Let’s stop placating others or being silently complicit with racist lies and tell the truth: Blackness is and always has been deserving of a first-class, mainstream, fully liberated experience. Let’s spread the good news about being Black in America with a fresh, unfettered celebration of self.
For years the prevailing narrative was that Blackness was something to manage, downplay, quiet, suppress, distract from, even erase. With Bet on Black, I’m flipping that paradigm on its head by maintaining that Blackness is a treasure to lead with. Blackness deserves to be centered. Black folks today need to bring their Blackness with them into every space they enter and occupy. Despite the racist fearmongers, a push to create space for Blackness isn’t about mass white displacement. It’s about allowing Black bodies and brains to occupy spaces with confidence, with an informed, well-thought-out process through which we readily wield power. It’s about recognizing that we have every right to access resources, professional opportunities, wealth, and the full emotional spectrum of the human condition in the same way that our white counterparts have done for eons.
I wrote this book because history shows it’s common for Black folks to contend with manifestations of white insecurity that would have us become caricatures of who we really are or be removed from the playing field altogether. I want us to celebrate the expansiveness of our experiences, to honor this precious thing popularly known as Black excellence, to abjectly refuse subordinate positioning in everything that we do and in whatever way we define Blackness. Bet on Black is ultimately about reframing and reimagining our possibilities as a people. When we open and alter our own states of mind as they relate to racial identity, we embrace processes that will create a different reality for what it is to be Black in America.
I penned Bet on Black to help others in my community avoid the trap of white judgment and the limiting of our potential. I want Black folks to divorce ourselves from white comfort and white expectations and be concerned only with the preservation of our divine authentic selves. Whatever feels good to you is what you need to be in exclusive relationship with. And listen, I know a lot of us are out here trying to get chosen by somebody, so here’s your opportunity… to choose your own damn self. Figure out how you want to carry your Blackness with you in whatever room you occupy, whether it’s an office, a classroom, a café, a courtroom, or a TV show set. Let others reconcile their comfort with your choice… they’re working through whatever they’re working through, and it’s not on you. Your job is to figure out who you are in this world while letting people simply deal with it.
Over the course of this book, I’ll present key ideas that I believe are essential to embodying Blackness while sharing aspects of my personal experience that are relevant to whatever we’re exploring. Think of what’s to come as a meditation on interconnected concepts that I’m sure will produce a range of emotions. I’m going to flow and do my best to guide y’all along. I’ll also provide occasional key takeaways—aka Bet on Black Moves—that I hope will inspire readers to walk an exceptional walk. Readers can expect shout-outs to specific historical events and contemporary figures who exemplify a Bet on Black consciousness, who’ve unabashedly occupied rooms and expectations with panache and flair. These public luminaries had the vision to pave a way for themselves with trailblazing work that exemplifies what we’re capable of even when faced with oppression. And along the way, I’ll give glimpses into my own life, providing anecdotes that I hope will be of service to readers and offering some insight into the trials and tribulations of your beloved Auntie E. I’m going to make myself vulnerable on the page because I believe that’s the only way to grow, to share honestly and forthrightly and encourage others to do the same.
On top of all of this, I’ve provided a literary reference guide at the back of the book for readers who want to do more research on the topics I’ll be exploring. But for those who just want to read Bet on Black and be done, never fear, I’ve got you. I’ve done the work so you don’t have to.
I want Bet on Black to get people talking. You don’t have to agree with me, as I’m aware that some of my opinions might feel controversial and against the grain. It’s okay if you don’t see eye to eye with me about everything. I just want you to think about the issues I raise, ask yourself questions, ask your friends and family questions, and start looking at how we see ourselves as Black folks in this nation with a fresh lens. If my words can help accomplish that, I’m happy.
I’m confident that the more we can recognize and embrace the power of our identities and history, prioritizing the authenticity of Blackness, the more readily we can create the paths that will allow us to walk contently in our joy and happiness.
So, are you ready for some good news?
“The South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.”
—W. E. B. DU BOIS, The Souls of Black Folk
I’M THE COMPLETE AND TOTAL SHIT because the blood of Harriet Tubman runs through my veins.
The spirit of Tubman informs the lives of all Black people in America, of all our ancestors who survived soul-deadening subjugation. Her blood runs through the veins of all of us who stand on this land and dare to proclaim, “I’m here, so y’all need to make way.”
When I walk into a space and people witness my audacity, when I insist on taking up space and saying what I think and feel and know, it’s because I’m decidedly pushing against a narrative that tells me I’m less than. I’m refusing to accept a narrative that says I’m inferior, with a worthless, subordinate history. I’m not staying in an arbitrarily assigned “place” of lower or less. I know the truth, that my history—our history—is rich, layered, whether I choose to focus on the Black American experience or trace our roots back to Africa or explore the global diaspora. And this is a truth that I was fortunate to have known since childhood. Once I sit with the glorious expanse of my history, of our history, I have to pinch myself, because it’s remarkable, even with the pain and tragedy, for it’s also resilient, brilliant, and complex. And once again I have to say to myself with a smile, I’m the complete and total shit.
I’m making these statements to be provocative, yes, and to hopefully make you smile, but I’m also very serious about what I believe here: knowing our actual story is an essential part of having an advanced, fully liberated Black American experience. We’ve seen far too much evidence over the years of how we’ve internalized notions of inferiority that were created by a white supremacist society.
Perhaps the most famous symbol of this internalization is the doll test of the 1940s. For those of you who don’t know, this was an experiment conducted by the wife-and-husband team of Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark, two trailblazing Black intellectuals who were the first Black Americans to receive their PhDs from Columbia University, after having attended Howard University. In their study, a large group of Black children between the ages of three and seven in both Arkansas and Massachusetts were given the choice of four dolls to play with: two Black dolls with brown hair, two white dolls with blond hair. Most of the kids chose the white doll, seeing the white doll as having preferable characteristics. To make matters even worse, when the Black participants in the study were asked to identify with the Black dolls in some way—makes sense, right?—some of the kids lost it, breaking out into tears, not being comfortable with the association. To be clear, this means that Black children couldn’t bear the thought of self-identifying with the toys that directly represented who they are.
We should all be outraged at this element of our history and the ideas of subordination that have been ingrained in us. The doll test was later used as a key component by the NAACP as they litigated the Brown v. Board of Education case that reached the Supreme Court. Brown v. Board ended the notion of “separate but equal” and declared school segregation illegal throughout the United States. The case relied on words from one of Dr. Kenneth Clark’s papers based on the doll test: “To separate [Black American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Okay, so some of y’all may be wondering, Why is Eboni bringing this up? This is bullshit that went down more than seventy years ago and we’ve come a long way. After all we’ve accomplished with the civil rights, Black Power, and Black Lives Matter movements, with all of the TV shows and films and theatrical productions we’ve pushed to create and be a part of, surely Black people know their worth at this point, right?
From my own observations, I believe many of us would still pick the white doll with blond hair today. Sure enough, another brilliant sister, the scholar Toni Sturdivant, took the time to update the study. Soon after Sturdivant’s daughter started to attend a predominantly white preschool, the little girl came home and said she didn’t want to have brown skin, yearning to have blue eyes like her classmates. (Now for those of y’all in the know, this statement hearkens back of course to The Bluest Eye, the 1970 debut novel from future Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison. In the book, she groundbreakingly deconstructed racism and self-hatred via an eleven-year-old Black girl with an all-consuming desire to look white.)
Inspired by her daughter’s pain and her own personal horror, Sturdivant wanted to better understand how Black kids see their identity. She revisited the Clarks’ doll test but addressed some of the methodologies of the original study. She was concerned that the Black kids in the Clarks’ study were being interviewed in unnatural, potentially stressful conditions that could distort their responses. So she ended up observing Black girls for a year in a racially diverse preschool setting with no direct interaction from an adult clinician. She later published her findings in the peer-reviewed academic journal Early Childhood Education in 2020.
The girls in her study had the option of playing with a darker-skinned Black doll, a lighter-skinned Black doll, a white doll, and a doll positioned as Latinx. Sturdivant observed that the Black girls routinely favored the Latinx and white dolls, choosing not to play with the Black dolls or do the Black dolls’ hair. Sometimes the Black children in fact stepped on or over the Black dolls to get to other toys. Keep in mind they didn’t treat the white and Latinx girls so disdainfully. And when they did choose the Black dolls, the girls tended to treat them in abusive ways, again differing from how they treated the lighter-skinned dolls. One girl even placed one of the Black dolls in a toy pot and pretended to cook it.
I mean, do I really need to say more? Are you outraged? Embarrassed? Undone? Wondering how the hell this could be our reality in the 2020s? After all the Black Girl Magic memes, Black Girls Rock telecasts, and My Black Is Beautiful hashtags, I’ve occasionally found myself legitimately shocked that we are still here. But I shouldn’t be, and neither should you. Five to one. That’s the ratio of how many positive comments are needed to cancel or outweigh a negative comment. Social science researchers Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada identified this five-to-one ratio, and it stands. So of course a relative handful of social media posts and newly created messages of Black girl awesomeness are not going to undo the hundreds of years of narrative around Black girls as ugly, undesirable, nappy headed, (sexually) fast, angry, and bad. I’ll tell you why this madness is still happening with our kids, but also so often within ourselves as adults. It comes from a lack of centering Blackness in our history, from a lack of understanding where we come from, what we’ve survived, how fuckin’ dope we are to have survived such bullshit, and what we’re truly able to do when we seize opportunities.
Take a minute to think about the implications of Sturdivant’s work: What do her observations mean for the future of the kids profiled in the study if this is how they treat self-representations? As they get older, will these girls continue to see Blackness as occupying a subordinate position in America? How will this affect their prospects in the world, their decisions around career and relationships? What type of work will they have to do later in life to overcome this distortion of their identity as inferior, as someone fit to be discarded? What will they have to do to see themselves as beautiful and grand, skilled and talented, deserving to be chosen for a variety of opportunities in their fine Black skin?
I think these questions point to why there were so many videos posted on social media of Black children losing their mind over the sight of Disney’s trailer for the 2023 film The Little Mermaid. As most of y’all probably know by now, the title character is played by Black singer and performer Halle Bailey. I think our kids were shocked to see a Black Ariel because they just didn’t think that occupying that sort of exalted role in a fantasy setting is supposed to be for them, based on generations of conditioning in America. A Black mermaid should be one of the most normal things we see in a mass entertainment context, greeted with a certain degree of excitement but also nonchalance. Why shouldn’t we be spotlighted in this way? At disturbingly young ages, our kids have absorbed this idea that they’re still supposed to occupy a lower caste in America. The messages are loud, consistent, and pervasive. Our media (and yes, that includes the news) tells us that Black girls “fight,” that we are fast in the pants and no boy or man actually will want us unless we lower ourselves by resorting to desperate seduction, and we’re told that our appearance will always be measured against, and inevitably fall short of, the universal holy grail of the global beauty standard: the white, Eurocentric, female aesthetic. We’re all supposed to be blond, thin, white skinned, straight haired, and blue eyed—or damn close to it. And that’s completely unacceptable.
I don’t want to oversimplify things by stating that knowing our history is the only thing to consider when constructing a path toward Black self-empowerment and self-esteem. And I know some of y’all might be rolling your eyes thinking about your more militant sisters and brothers who’ve been spouting the “know your history” talk for years. But they’re absolutely right in their assertion that Black history is an essential component of positioning ourselves and future generations for success. An accurate and complete understanding of the Black experience, particularly our historical narrative, is inextricably linked to an actualized Black identity in today’s America. And as someone who knows her history, I just don’t trust that American schools are going to ever systematically do right by us. We have to do the work collectively on our own, for our kids but also for ourselves. We have to keep in mind that so much of our work as adults is about overcoming these notions of subordination that we internalized as kids, bestowed upon us by an anti-Black way of life.
I actually attribute much of my ability to not be subordinate later in life to being brought up in a household with Ms. Gloria and Ms. Katie, my mother and grandmother. They taught me that I should never perceive my skin color as being a deficiency. At the same time, I had access to books that centered our history… our truth.
All right, y’all, I’m going to move away from the subject of our collective history to spill some tea about my own personal history. Let me give a little snapshot of where and how I was raised: I grew up on the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, a historically Black working-class part of town, in the Ponderosa apartments complex, which consisted of rows of subsidized duplex homes. This was during the 1980s, a time of peak government project experiments when municipal funds were being allocated to lower-middle-class neighborhoods. Even though I didn’t have a full understanding of what it meant to live in what would be called subsidized housing, I did have an awareness that there had to be a reason why all of Ponderosa looked the same. The reddish-brown sameness of the homes signaled something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. All I had to do was gaze across the street to look upon what I would one day understand to be private houses with manicured façades and beautiful floral gardens. These homes were occupied by members of the Black community who were educators, government employees, or factory workers. Ponderosa, though certainly clean and pristine in its own way, just wasn’t pretty in the way the homes across the street were. In our gardens, you had green hedges, some grass… and, well, that was it. And we were supposed to be happy we had even that. We lived off of West Boulevard, and farther down this street were the actual projects, Boulevard Homes and Little Rock Homes. These were the rougher, stereotypical urban housing development towers you might think of from films like New Jack City or Candyman or the television show Good Times. At Ponderosa, we were squarely in the middle.
(Please don’t get it twisted, though: I have no problem with a red-brick, sky-high, “project-looking” building. I lived in one for five years when I first moved to NYC… and this was with a six-figure salary. Yes, ma’am! No shame in my game. I lived in the Riverton in Harlem. While beautiful on the inside and attached to a $2,000-plus monthly fee for a one-bedroom unit, it definitely shouted “the projects” with its exterior. But hey, if it was good enough for James Baldwin, former NYC mayor David Dinkins, legendary jazz pianist Billy Taylor, and countless World War II veterans, then it was absolutely good enough for my Black ass. But back to the Ponderosa.)
Growing up, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my mother, Gloria, my grandmother, Katie, and at various times my two aunts, Sherry and Barbara. These four women were my pillars, having all participated in raising me in some way. My mother, born in 1960, was a highly ambitious woman who nonetheless was reared in the Jim Crow South. As a child she saw how structural racism killed dreams and stifled hope in her community. Her own mother, my grandmother, had spent much of her life centering the demands of white families, having worked as a domestic. My mother wanted something different for herself, regularly centering her ambition and drive over the desires of white people. And she certainly wanted something different for me.
This was why, when I started kindergarten at four years old, she decided that I would be bused over from my neighborhood to Sharon Elementary. This school was located in southeast Charlotte, which is moneyed and predominantly white, and my mother knew that I could benefit from the district’s wealth and resources. Being bused to a highly resourced educational institution set me up for opportunities that many of my other peers who attended schools in my town didn’t have access to. At the same time, I began to experience a sense of otherness I’d never known.
- “Bet on Black is an illuminating account of overcoming adversity and self-acceptance in America. Williams has written an inspiring and hopeful narrative on Blackness, urging readers to put a stop to longing for the white experience and instead create their own path towards success and freedom.”—Bakari Sellers, New York Times bestselling author of My Vanishing Country
“I love this book. The title alone made me pick it up. It’s inspiring, empowering, and life-changing. Bet on Black is a poignant reminder of what my father [Malcolm X] said, ‘If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed.’ Eboni K. Williams reminds us that in loving ourselves, we promote our healing and growth as a collective.”
—Ilyasah Shabazz, author of The Awakening of Malcolm X.
- “Eboni K. Williams is pushing us to come for it all in this country. I felt excited reading it. I encourage anyone who is looking to expand and grow to read this account of Black life and the way forward.”—Nina Parker, Emmy Nominated television host
- "Bet on Black is perfectly timed and timeless in its message and motivation to tap into our God-given gifts as a collective community and to honor our ancestors by being intentional and purposeful in everything that we do."—April D. Ryan, author of Black Women Will Save the World
- “When I tell you at the end of Eboni K. Williams’s Bet On Black, I wanted to run out and get a tattoo that simply says, ‘BLACK & QUALIFIED!’ On every page, I found myself so damn proud to not only be Black but Blackity-Black Black!”—Tyler Merritt, Author of I Take My Coffee Black
- “Eboni K. Williams' latest shatters the lies that I've been told and believed about living in the boldness of my Blackness. This effervescent work serves as a guide and beacon of light for any Black person who has questioned themselves when the world around us often paints us into unsavory and subservient boxes. Make no mistake, this book is real, raw, unfiltered, and unapologetically Black, but also offers all the warmth, hope and light that Eboni so effortlessly radiates.”—Richie Skye, pop culture expert
- “Bet on Black is a bold, inspiring book that highlights the challenges but more importantly, the benefits of being Black in America. Reading this made me feel seen and empowered as Eboni K. Williams shares her tales of overcoming adversity and carving her own way in the world. This book is also a reminder of the power of community, embracing your identity, taking up space in the world, and becoming the most authentic version of yourself.”—Damona Hoffman, host of the award-winning podcast, Dates & Mates
- “Bet On Black is one of those rare volumes that has the capacity to change your entire worldview in a visceral and powerful way.”—Bowling Green Daily News
- On Sale
- Jan 31, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Legacy Lit