The greatest Black people, ranked

OPINION: Despite America’s history of racism, there are some Black people who will always be beloved and respected by the American public.

US President Barack Obama participates in service event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (Front) and First Lady Michelle Obama (Back) help paint a mural depicting Martin Luther King Jr., as Mayor of Washington DC Muriel Bowser (R) looks on, at the Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family ShelterJanuary 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Obama and the First Lady attended a service event at the Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family Shelter for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Photo by MICHAEL REYNOLDS-Pool/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio

America doesn’t hate all Black people.

Not every Black person can become a business mogul like federal agent Dr. Herschel Walker, nor do they possess the temerity to karate chop chicken restaurant robbers and stab bullies in the belt buckle like Ben Carson. But, in spite of what your sixth-grade teacher might say during the critical race theory social studies lesson, there is a path for a Black person to become an admired and respected member of society. And if you examine the people who are heralded as great African Americans, a pattern begins to emerge. 

While Black people are not a monolith (unless you count the Sphinx, the Colossi of Memnon or people familiar with Boo Boo the Fool), there are certain qualities that are worthy of white admiration and respect. These are not stereotypes, nor are they determinative of Black people’s worth. However, these umbrellas are indicative of how America stereotypes Black people and determines their worth. In fact, this country is so predictable that most of the Black people who are held in high esteem by the American majority can be separated into five categories into which all well-regarded Black people fit.

Here are the “greatest” Black people of all time. 

5. Overcomers

Common attributes:

  • Grew up as a “disadvantaged youth” in the “inner city”
  • Usually the product of a broken home
  • Overcame “insurmountable odds”
  • Gives back to the community

White people love downtrodden negroes. 

You’ve probably seen an inspirational ESPN heartstring-tugger about the athlete who overcame an absentee father and a crack-smoking mother to become a pro sports baller (by the way, Black NBA players are more likely to come from two-parent, middle-class homes and most Black NFL players are raised by college-educated parents). Even though Black women are the most educated demographic in America, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock often use their white girl magic to serve as role models for underprivileged juvenile negroes who dream of escaping “the hood.”

These are the overcomers.

To become part of this beloved fraternity, Black people must prevail over their environment to achieve some feat that white people respect. To be fair, white supremacy is the thing that most overcomers have to overcome. 

Overcomers are partly why most white people don’t believe discrimination exists in the courts, the financial industry or in their workplace. For white America, these statistically anomalous Black overachievers don’t just disprove the “liberal narrative” of white privilege; it also absolves the recipients of their complicity in systemic inequality.

After all, if a 6-foot-7-inch teenager with a 43-inch vertical leap can earn a college scholarship, what’s holding you back? Majority-Black school districts might be underfunded, but Clarence Thomas grew up in a sharecropper’s shack and became a Supreme Court justice, so why can’t you? Sure, Thomas got an education at a private, all-white boarding school. Sure, he says he couldn’t get a job because people assumed he was accepted to Yale Law through affirmative action—not because he was ranked in the middle of his class. 

But white people love him because he doesn’t “play the victim.” 

Notable Overcomers: Tim Scott’s grandfather. Venus and Serena Williams. Any Black child in a movie who can learn to play chess.

4. Transcenders

Common attributes:

  • They “just happen to be Black”
  • Make white people “colorblind”
  • Able to “transcend their race”

Like Overcomers, the people known as Transcenders also had to battle systemic racism to achieve greatness. But because they have reached a level of excellence that white people can’t even imagine, America has found a way to accept them into the fold—either by pretending to be so that they “don’t see color ” or by suggesting that a Black person’s accomplishments make them “transcend race.”

First of all, “transcending race” insinuates that excellence and admiration are atypical to regular, everyday Black people. Even though Aretha Franklin grew up in a Black church and made Black music for Black people, her music somehow “transcended race.” Whitney Houston also managed to transcend her family legacy in Black music because white people liked it. Cassius Clay was an outstanding athlete until he became Muhammad Ali. As an outspoken athlete, Ali was hated until he retired, in which case he was able to transcend his race. 

White liberals are often colorblind because they must literally imagine themselves as visually impaired in order to conceive of a Black person as an equal. But when they are faced with sacrificing their privilege to achieve true equality, they will quickly remove the  Caucasian-colored glasses that allow them to see a Black person’s humanity. 

Until they “come out of the closet” as Black.

Beyoncé’s fans were colorblind until she came out as Black during her halftime Super Bowl performance in 2016. Halle Bailey was a hueless Disney star before colorblind Little Mermaid fans realized they weren’t as colorblind as they thought. And how could Michael B. Jordan play Superman? Everyone knows Krypton is in Europe. (To be fair, the Daily Planet never writes about Black-on-Black crime in Metropolis.) 

If you notice, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and John F. Kennedy didn’t have to transcend their whiteness. 

Only Black people can eclipse their history, culture and the physics of light refraction. 

Notable Transcenders: Barack Obama. Oprah Winfrey. Black artists whose work can be appropriated by white artists.

3. The Good Ones

Common attributes:

  • A credit to their race
  • Are usually “very articulate”
  • Don’t need to “make everything about race”
  • Possess the ability to make white people feel comfortable.  

These are the people who white people are talking about when they say “one of their best friends is Black.” They’re the Black guy that white women “dated in college.” They are the last word in sentences that begin with “Why can’t you be more like…”

Because Blackness is seen as “unprofessional” and talking about the history of white supremacy is “controversial” (and illegal in some states), a Black person can become one of the “Good Ones” by not “making everything about race.” 

To be clear, the Good Ones aren’t “sellouts,” nor do they “act white.” (no, white people are not a monolith). Every Black person knows that there are certain occasions where we are forced to suppress our Blackness to disarm white people and make them feel comfortable. The white community is willing to overlook the melanin in the skin of anyone who can run, jump, sing or otherwise force a group of thin lips to form a smile. Even enslaved people knew that they could be as Black as they wanted to be—as long as they can find a way to make Caucasians clap, dance or cash a check. However, when they outlive their ability to make Caucasians clap, dance or cash a check, they revert back to being Black.

Local television reporters are usually “very articulate” Good Ones until they decide to wear their hair the way it grows out of their scalp. When Michael Jordan refused to endorse a Black candidate by famously saying that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he wasn’t saying that white people don’t like Black people; he just knew that Republicans don’t like Black candidates.

Most Republicans “just happen to be white.”

And, I know what you’re thinking, but Black conservatives like Candace Owens, Herschel Walker or Jason Whitlock don’t belong to this category. White people don’t respect them or even like them any more than a police officer loves his billy club or a Klansman loves his hood. They are just tools used against Black people to protect whiteness.

Great Good Ones: Booker T. Washington. Carlos Watson. Condoleeza Rice. Black children adopted by white families. Enslaved people who didn’t escape.

2. Americans

Common attributes:

  • Sacrificed themselves for something that benefitted white people
  • Fought white supremacy without making white people mad
  • Teared up in front of white people
  • Did something that white people stole

Being an American is one of the most difficult levels to achieve. Even the most outstanding Black people are known as “African Americans” until they do something that white people can steal, monetize or use for their own benefit. These people don’t just transcend race, they are enshrined in American folklore as proof that America isn’t as racist as it seems. However, the status of an “American” is always temporary and reversible. 

Black WWII veterans were Americans in WWII but reverted back to their status as “negroes” when they came home and became subject to Jim Crow and the Red Summer of 1919. Simone Biles was an “American” for a few years…until she couldn’t bring home Olympic gold. If you ask most white people, they’d probably guess that it was an un-American communist like Colin Kapernick, not a “real American” like Jackie Robinson, who said

There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.” 

Notable Americans: Rosa Parks. The Tuskegee Airmen. Colin Powell. Any Black person who thinks the Star Spangled Banner slaps.

1. Late Greats

Common characteristics:

  • Their past has been whitewashed
  • They were despised by white people
  • They are dead

Death is the only permanent way for a Black person to achieve respect and admiration.

Although most white people disliked him when he was a living, breathing human being, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most beloved Americans of all time because he died for civil rights. (Late Greats are never murdered; they “give their lives for something they believed in.”)

To be clear, Late Greats aren’t respected for their works; they are respected because they died. The Republicans who were silent when Donald Trump attacked John Lewis lined up to praise the civil rights hero when he died. However, they wouldn’t honor him by passing the voting rights legislation that bears his name. Americans were outraged by the death of Emmett Till but not enough to convict the people responsible. Ida B. Wells is celebrated as a hero among white feminists…but only after she died

That’s because America is only able to celebrate a Black person’s contribution to humanity after they are gone from the face of the Earth. I’m not saying that a living, breathing Black person is worthless to white people…

I bet most white people would happily say Black Lives Matter. 

Oh, wait…

Notable Late Greats: Frederick Douglass. Black suffragettes. Jesus.

Michael Harriot

 Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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