The Troublesome Life of the Black Eccentric
“If a man loses pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I am weird. Odd. Strange. Peculiar. I am also Black. This mix of traits can elicit different reactions from society; especially when your nature, displayed authentically, defies convention. My Blackness roams around in the sweet voids between those adjectives, violently gnawing at any stereotype that seeks to contain it. My Blackness is wild and precocious. It is magical, dark, and deliciously playful. Both wise and childish. Spicy and bitter. I am the Black child who grew up but never lost their imagination.
Every Black child will have their innocence prematurely stripped away as soon as they are informed by society that they are Black and they realize what that means for them. When free-spirited Black children defy convention, people seek to regulate any sign of rebellion against their assigned place in society through behavior policing while they are young. The experiences of forced assimilation become ingrained into the way we eccentrics view ourselves, often causing various levels of identity confusion. The troubling life of the Black eccentric is filled with the exhausting duty of constantly looking for the evidence of your existence in a world that seeks to edit and erase you. This world will crack your bones and fold them in half if that is what it takes to put you within a box.
Experiencing the full gamut of judgments and reactions from others regarding my eccentric Blackness seems to be one of the hallmarks of my existence--but I should not be pitied for that. I am an example of what happens when social programming doesn’t manage to contain a free spirit. I am the result of parents who forced me to learn standard English but also allowed me to color my hair pink and wear knee-high socks that don't match. My parents’ eclectic taste in music and movies were the backdrop of my childhood. My mother was a theater major and my father majored in sociology. I knew all the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar and Fame, but I didn’t grow up listening to the gangsta rap, which was popular at the time. My childhood soundtrack featured Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, the Eurythmics, and Hall and Oates. Being raised by middle-class Black Boomers who were former blippies (Black hippies) defined my Black experience differently.
My parents are part of an invisible faction of Black folks that were upper-middle-class, well-educated, and well-traveled. My mother worked for Northwest Airlines and would travel to foreign places, bringing us back gifts and trinkets from all around the world. I lived vicariously through her travels and it taught me that there was a big world out there that I could one day explore. I had the privilege of economic security growing up and it provided me a level of access into certain worlds my Black peers didn’t always have. My sister and I attended Montessori school as children and went to private school for most of our adolescence. My access to education and free travel benefits lifted me over many of the hurdles that others with my skin tone might face and showed me the vastness of the world outside of my family, community, and school; however, it also led to me not being able to relate to some of my Black peers who grew up differently.
Being Black means you need to learn to gracefully code-switch. You live between two worlds--two cultures that pull you equally in different directions. Whiteness is mainly associated with positive attributes. If you assimilate and perform your Blackness in an inauthentic way that is less threatening to white people, you can gain limited societal access. You learn to speak different vernaculars and how to carry yourself in various settings. This, however, can also become a social issue when interacting with your peers who may experience Blackness differently. During the acts that you are forced to perform to appease both white society and your Black peers, you lose sight of what it means to authentically be yourself. When you navigate white spaces, you are ‘too Black’ and when you are in Black spaces, you are perceived as ‘too white’. In reality, the Black eccentric lives in a different world altogether. They look at expression as a playground and their nonconformity becomes a political act; a statement to the world that they will not conform despite the known consequences of being Black and free.
“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
-Zora Neale Hurston (Hurston, 1928)
When Black elders scoff at our divergence from a conventional path, where does this leave Black eccentrics? Our parents and grandparents witnessed and experienced unspeakable injustices and many of them used conformity as a tool of survival. You are to avoid living the stereotype but must also avoid making waves and drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. Black eccentrics may find themselves struggling to unapologetically accept their creative lifestyle choices when facing the crossroad of survival and free expression. We find ways to carve out places to authentically exist. Sometimes we find them in artistic circles, or within the subcultures we will inevitably be drawn to in an effort to find community. Within those tiny safe spaces, we find like-minded folk that do not have to understand us to accept our uniqueness.
Labeling yourself using any term can have harmful consequences. The word “eccentric” carries a lot of implications. There are types of mental illnesses and negative personality profiles where eccentricity is a sign of divergence from healthy norms which can provoke a fear response in people who view eccentrics with prejudice. Some people are bothered by eccentrics, and label them as egotistical attention-seekers. From that perspective, eccentricity is performative and contrived. It is a flailing attempt at being different for show. While that may be true for some, most eccentrics would say the opposite. They garnish attention for naturally being themselves whether it is intentional or not. For the natural eccentric, behaving in ways to appease others is a fruitless effort that would eventually lead to identity or mental health issues. Acting like someone you are not is not healthy for anyone; but it would be even more detrimental to an eccentric, as it goes against the nature of their base personality.
In his Youtube video Being Eccentric, former NBA coach Ron Ekker looks at eccentricity as a mental characteristic that doesn’t always have to do with how someone physically looks. He challenges the notion that how you look defines eccentricity:
...the NBA is the most conservative group you’d ever want to be around...that may sound funny when you see them on TV, but really they don’t change. They don’t want to change much at all. And the players are worse...if you go against what has been done in the NBA for years and years, you have almost violent resistance--even though those same players stick things in their nose, grow beards, change the color of their hair…[they present as] really modern, but the truth is, that’s more for attention than it is to show that they’re different...I think you have to be somewhat eccentric. That doesn’t mean you have to be wild about it. But you have to be bold enough and fearless enough to do what you think is right.” (Ekker, 2014)
Ekker postulates that eccentricity is largely a matter of how you approach creative problem-solving and innovation rather than outward appearance. What we can draw from his argument is that it takes bravery to circumvent conformity and that is where you will achieve greatness. Ekker’s perspective makes us examine what eccentricity truly is. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines eccentric as: “a person of unconventional and slightly strange views or behavior.” (Merriam-Webster, 2020) This means that eccentricity is about a divergence from what is ordinary or expected. You don’t have to wear garish outfits to be eccentric (although many eccentrics could possibly be identified by their choice to wear unconventional clothing). Eccentricity only calls for thinking and behaving in ways that are unexpected or different, which doesn’t have to be alarmingly bizarre. Some of the most famous eccentrics in history are those who were great innovators like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Nikola Tesla. Innovation only happens when we do something different than we have done it before, which comes naturally to the eccentric. So why are some accepted and lauded for their genius while others are accused of overcompensating for attention or labeled crazy? It seems that fame and economics influence how readily we accept unconventional thinking and behavior.
In 1995, British psychologist Dr. David Weeks conducted his study Eccentrics: a Study of Sanity and Strangeness which examined the personalities and behaviors of 1000 British eccentrics to identify what, if any, were their key traits.
According to well-known psychologist Dr. David Weeks, there are approximately fourteen different human characteristics that can help to distinguish between what is deemed a normal person and one that is deemed as an eccentric person...Further, he went on to say that individuals that are having a mental type of illness ‘suffer’ from their behavior, but eccentric people are usually rather happy people.
There are also other usually common characteristic traits used in describing the nature of these eccentric people. They show compassion most often, are usually geniuses & are intelligent people, they are preoccupied with a certain purpose in their lives, & are very analytical. However, some eccentrics are notorious for being very quirky, bizarre, cranky, erratic, and displaying weird behavior.
Signs of an eccentric people are evident from many things like their dressing style, peculiar tastes, their speech, or an offbeat way of thinking. Though it’s not abnormal, there is also a definite deviation in their conduct from that of the general cultural or [societal norms].” (Characteristics of Eccentric People, 2020)
Our society appreciates and praises creative and odd people if they are famous, but when you’re not affluent or popular, words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ are used in substitution. Accolades for the creative brilliance that we see in Elon Musk, David Bowie, or Prince cannot be afforded to the everyday eccentric. In her TED Talk Weird is Beautiful, Avijah Scarbrough tells a captivating story about her eccentric mother and her journey to accept and appreciate her mother’s unique mind. (Scarbrough, 2019) She spoke candidly about her difficulties trying to figure out her mother’s unorthodox behaviors and expressions. Scarbrough asks:
“Well...what if we can encourage and embrace weirdness in people? We seem to do this if the people are rich and famous celebrities--like the ‘Steve Jobs’ and the ‘Lady Gagas’ who are weird. We think their weirdness is brilliant. But what if we could do this earlier in life for the rest of? What if we can feel vulnerable enough to be our true self and to pursue our interests, no matter how out of the ordinary?” (Scarbrough, 2019)
Scarbrough shares anecdotes about her mother’s unconventional behaviors, like having a picnic in the middle of the sidewalk or bursting out in spontaneous dance sessions to the dismay and confusion of the people around her. She was often pulled to the side by well-meaning neighbors who questioned her mother’s sanity and mental health. One example of this was when neighbors noticed that her mother was picking fruit from her neighbor’s trees and confronted Scarbrough in a plea for her to get her mother help. She explained to the neighbors that the reason her mother was picking fruit from the neighbor’s tree was that her trees had been cut down. Scarbrough’s mother used an unconventional system of hanging large bed sheets under her trees to trap falling fruit. Due to complaints from the neighbors, her mother’s fruit trees were forcefully cut down without her permission by the city. Scarbrough told the neighbors that maybe her mother wouldn’t have been picking fruit if they hadn’t cut her trees down. Her mother’s unconventional device to keep fruit from falling and rotting on the ground was misinterpreted by the neighbors as strange and aesthetically unappealing. The result was not only were her trees cut down, she was also being judged for picking fruit by the same neighbors who caused her trees to be cut down in the first place. Scarbrough suggests that if you see an old woman picking fruit from a random tree, why not bring her fruit as a neighborly gesture? (Scarbrough, 2019)
She goes on to give a deeper explanation regarding her mother’s background:
My mom was a professional ballet dancer in the National Ballet of Iran during the time of the Shah--then the Islamic Revolution happened and it became illegal for women to dance. She had to abandon her life and her career [to] escape Iran, and fled here to the United States. She broke free of the box imposed on her by the Islamic regime and then here in America others, including her own daughter, tried to put her inside of another box of ‘normal and acceptable’ behavior.” (Scarbrough, 2019)
I was so enthralled by Scarbrough’s candor and deep reflection on the ways that she failed to see the beauty in her mother’s unique perspective, I contacted her to see if we could talk about eccentricity. To my surprise, she quickly wrote me back and enthusiastically answered all my questions. In my research, I noticed a pattern of eccentrics facing adversity, which resulted in them choosing to live life on their own terms.
I asked Scarbrough if she believed the adversity her mother faced led her to embrace her eccentricity and she said:
Yes, I believe my mother's adversities helped her embrace her eccentricity. She went through so much hell escaping her war-torn and oppressive country, that once she found freedom, nothing was stopping her from unapologetically being herself and letting “it all hang out”. In Iran she may have been punished for being who she is, but here in America, a few dirty looks from the old lady next door wasn’t going to stop her doing whatever she wanted.” (Scarbrough, 2020)
I asked Scarbrough why she thinks eccentrics may elicit a fear response in others and what wanted the world to know about her mother’s story. She asserted:
People fear eccentrics because they don’t understand them. It's hard-wired deep in our DNA to fear things that are different because they may present a threat to our survival. Learning about people who are different is the antidote to this...I want the world to know that people like my mother have suffered. They are vulnerable and they are human. Please show kindness and compassion. If people want to do something that makes their soul feel joy, if they’re not hurting someone, then why judge them? She may be weird, but she’s still my mama.” (Scarbrough, 2020)
Scarbrough’s openness in confronting her own bias against her mother’s free-spirited ways made me think about ways I have imposed this same judgment against myself as I found my way to living authentically and unapologetically. I remember being severely bullied in middle school for being Black, overweight, and having crooked teeth. I am a sensitive person and those judgments stuck with me for years. I’ll never forget the day when I entered the cafeteria and a group of boys and one of my teachers taunted me by loudly calling me “queen of the crooked tooth club”. They had a hand gesture they made up of two fingers overlapping, which they would hold up in front of me to symbolize the way my two front teeth overlapped each other. It was one thing for the boys to do it. It was another thing for a teacher to participate in the incineration of my self-esteem. I begged my parents for braces, which they gave me as a present for my fifteenth birthday. I decided at that moment that I would try harder to embrace the ways of my peers and find ways to become conventionally attractive, which failed miserably.
Looking back on my pictures causes me deep embarrassment that I still feel at 39. I still used to smile in pictures, despite my tooth protruding out of its place. Now I rarely smile showing my teeth after years of conditioning myself not to. Asking me to smile on demand is likely the fastest way to anger or offend me. People assigned female at birth are expected to smile and perform acts of femininity on demand. I reject those types of gender performances; they are ways that society polices the behavior of femmes and queers who defy gender norms. We must aspire to be pretty with straight teeth, straight hair, and light skin; smiling upon request becomes a way for people to police our femininity and physically judge us based on antiquated beauty norms that don’t embrace Blackness or crooked teeth.
Although I was truly inspired by the accounts of eccentrics in the documentaries I watched, I still hadn’t found much information on Black eccentrics. The lack of focused studies led me back to the reason I wrote about this topic in the first place. With notable Black eccentrics that have shifted our culture with their creations and perspectives like George Clinton, Erykah Badu, Prince, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Jaden and Willow Smith, and Nina Simone (to name a few)--why was there a lack of information regarding Black eccentrics specifically? I started to wonder if Blackness, like economic status, changes the way we look at eccentricity. I follow the hashtag #alternativeblackgirl and the Afropunk festival has been going strong for years now, so I know modern Black eccentrics exist; however, I don’t think that Black people define their unique ways and expressions with that word. Creativity is an inherent part of Black culture and it seems that Black artists and weirdos don’t feel the need to assume that label. In my frustration, I put the keywords “Black creatives” into the search engine instead and the results were very different. This showed me that Black folks may view and label creative or odd behaviors and people in a different way than their white peers.
On Instagram, I performed a search using the hashtag #blackeccentric which only yielded six results--two of which were of a woman named La Veda Davis. Her clothing was artful and organic, yet strangely calculated. She donned a pair of oversized rhinestone sunglasses, a headwrap, a bold red lip, and sculptural jewelry that showed rare levels of creativity, class, and sophistication. I continued to her page and there’s no wonder why she has nearly 12,000 followers. Her clear skin, bold sense of style, and brazen choices in creative expression takes you by surprise and gives her a sense of agelessness. She captivates you by effortlessly changing from one bold style to the next. She doesn’t fit into any of the conventions assigned to a Black woman who is 55 years old. She strikes you as the type of person who is self-defining and in control of their narrative. I nervously wrote Davis and requested an interview with her regarding her views on Black eccentricity. She generously allowed me an hour from her busy schedule to help a poor student’s seemingly futile efforts in finding the elusive ‘Black eccentric’.
During our interview, she wore a colorful green silky top and her wrists were covered with ostentatious jewelry made out of wire and chunky crystals (which she made herself) and she stated, “There’s nothing about me that’s subtle.” (Davis 2020) Her fingers were decorated with oversized rings and her hair was cropped short and worn naturally. Her style is wildly rebellious. Davis told me that she had never thought of herself as an eccentric before I approached her for this project, however, she embraced the word with a sense of dignity and pride. Davis was born and raised in Miami but now lives in New York with roommates. Her social circle is made of people with different skin colors from all walks of life. She values direct communication and avoids sweeping generalizations about others. She was an only child and has one son. Like Scarbrough, Davis’s son was put off from time to time about his mother’s unconventional fashion choices. After speaking with her, I realized Davis has most of the character traits that Weeks had attributed to eccentrics such as being an only child, having several hobbies she engages in, a creative aptitude, and a lack of concern about being accepted or worried about the opinions of others. (Weeks and James, 1996)
She struggled to find her way to self-acceptance and attributes maturity for her grounded perspective. She stated, “We have to stop listening to narratives that have nothing to do with us.” (Davis 2020) She spoke of the burdens society places on women to fit certain arbitrary roles and how “we’re saying no more”. (Davis 2020) She is an advocate for therapy and states she had pivotal moments after healing past trauma. She also warned me of internalizing the opinions of others by telling me, “Those things are not even yours.” (Davis 2020) Davis is the eccentric hip Black auntie that I needed but didn’t realize it until I met her. She gave me advice on how to move forward on my journey of letting go of the past. When I stated concerns about expressing myself too freely and wanting to avoid the “angry Black femme” stereotype, Davis stated, "Don’t apologize for being angry. Stop being concerned with tropes. Be what you want that day. No one questions when a white woman wants to be angry.”(Davis 2020)
This project taught me more about myself than I could have ever expected. Scarbrough spoke about acceptance of others while Davis spoke about acceptance of yourself and not worrying about what others have to say about you. You must accept yourself, then extend that grace to others by allowing them the freedom, without hasty judgment, to celebrate life as they see fit as long as they are not hurting anyone. Both women taught me to be more open minded about myself and others. I learned that Black creatives may define themselves differently, or live outside of the stale definitions of the word eccentric. Some, like Davis and I, are dusting it off and embracing it. Black creatives are launching into a new era of Afro-futurism led by our eccentric aunties; one that leaves room for weird Black children and the ones that grew up and never lost their imaginations.
References: 1. Henry David Thoreau Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from BrainyQuote.com Web site:
2. Hurston, Z., 1928. How It Feels To Be Colored Me. World Tomorrow. 3. In: Merriam-Webster. 2020. Definition of Eccentric. [online] Available at:
<https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eccentric> [Accessed 15 September 2020].
4. Future Libraries. 2020. Characteristics Of Eccentric People. [online] Available at: <https://futurelibraries.net/characteristics-of-eccentric-people> [Accessed 15 September 2020]. 5. Scarbrough, A., 2019. Weird Is Beautiful. [online] Weird is Beautiful - From Embarrassed to Embracing the Eccentric | Avijah Scarbrough | TEDxUCIrvine. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OLzBwC_7Dk> [Accessed 18 September 2020]. 6. Ekker, R., 2014. Being Eccentric. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmvkHSmoRlU&t=616s> [Accessed 18 September 2020].
7. Weeks, D. and James, J., 1996. Eccentrics. New York: Kodansha International. 8. Scarbrough, A., 2020. On Eccentricity.
9. Davis, L., 2020. On Black Eccentricity.