Summer Reading Contest Winner Week 7: On ‘Black Valedictorians and the Toxic Trope of Black Exceptionalism’

Summer Reading Contest Winner Week 7: On ‘Black Valedictorians and the Toxic Trope of Black Exceptionalism’

Peri Ferguson, 16, from King School in Stamford, Conn., chose a guest essay from the Opinion section headlined “Black Valedictorians and the Toxic Trope of Black Exceptionalism” and wrote:

My grandmother was a Black valedictorian. She couldn’t afford to go to college. Her family members were poor farmers, descendants of poor sharecroppers, descendants of slaves.

My father left the Bronx for an Ivy League school when he was 16, an “inner-city success story.” He entered an overwhelmingly white world that did not welcome him. His genius was blamed on affirmative action, and he faced scrutiny at every turn.

This is the problem. Everyone lauds the triumph of a Black student at a great college but no one wants to fix the system to make this triumph more common. They celebrate the exceptions, thinking that their existence means that every Black child can reach that height. But no one ever stops and wonders why these “Black valedictorian” stories are an “Ellen Show”-worthy exception and not a common occurrence.

This article spoke to me on a personal level. I, too, have felt the sting of being the only Black face in my A.P. classrooms. I fear being made into a perfect exception, held over other Black students’ heads. When people ask for my college list, I downplay my choices. I don’t want anyone to raise their eyebrows at my dreams that seem out of the ballpark for a typical Black girl.

We do not get anywhere with exceptionalism. We fix the gap with advocacy. The truly amazing thing about Black valedictorians is that they have a platform. And they can use it to shed light on a system that they have escaped.

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