The trope of the “extraordinary Negro” that Reynolds and Kendi describe shows how segregationists and assimilationists ignore evidence in order to maintain their racist beliefs. (“Negro” is now widely considered to be an outdated and offensive term for a Black person.) Throughout U.S. history, white people have struggled to understand successful Black artists, writers, activists, and business leaders, ranging from Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. Du Bois and Barack Obama. The public often turns them into celebrities and depicts them as “extraordinary Negroes” who are not like other Black people. But the idea of the “extraordinary Negro” really just lets racists continue to believe in Black inferiority.
For instance, when Phillis Wheatley published a book of eloquent poetry in the 1770s, this challenged the common racist belief that Black people are inherently unintelligent. Racists responded in two ways: some looked for a new racist idea, like the assimilationist idea that slavery made Black people unintelligent. Others argued that Phillis Wheatley was just an “extraordinary Negro”—an exception to the rule of Black stupidity. Later, in the 19th century, assimilationists pointed to the Black elite to argue that Black people can rise to white people’s level if they learn to improve themselves.
Thus, segregationists and assimilationists both dismiss successful Black people as “extraordinary Negroes” in order to protect their pre-existing racist beliefs. But what Black success really proves is that Black people are capable of accomplishing the same things as anyone else. In other words, it proves the antiracist principle that Black people are equal to every other racial group.
“Extraordinary Negroes” Quotes in Stamped
In the book, he claimed to be exempt from being an “extraordinary Negro,” but racist Americans of all colors would in 2004 begin hailing Barack Obama, with all his public intelligence, morality, speaking ability, and political success, as such. The “extraordinary Negro” hallmark had come a mighty long way from Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, who became the nation’s only African American in the US Senate in 2005. With Phillis Wheatley, racists despised the capable Black mind, but with Obama, they were turning their backs on history so that they could see him as a symbol of a post-racial America. An excuse to say the ugliness is over.