I grew up in an era when anytime a Black person’s rights were violated we knew who would stand up and speak against the injustice. We knew we would hear from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Mrs. Dorothy Height, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, or any number of artists (e.g. Harry Belafonte) or states people (Adam Clayton Powell). But today, I am not sure who truly represents our civil rights. I know if some of the traditional folks–Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, or Julian Bond–attempt to speak up some Whites consider them “race pimps” and Black young folks consider them irrelevant. Who then has the authority to speak for Black folks? Where are our civil rights leaders?
Perhaps because of the widespread use of electronic technologies (cell phone cameras, computers) and social media we now believe everyone can speak for themselves and everyone is a journalist, pundit, or spokesperson. Perhaps because our airways are saturated with “reality shows” we don’t find mundane issues like civil rights all that interesting. Or maybe because some of us have financial security, impressive careers, and the distance of class, we don’t seem as invested in civil rights as generations in the 50s and 60s.
Today’s “civil rights leader” is as likely to be an Ivy League university professor or a television commentator as a full time activist. To be sure there are some people who continue to lead the charge against injustice. For instance, Rev. William Barber of North Carolina regularly leads Moral Mondays–acts of civil disobedience at the state capitol building. But, he does not yet have the name recognition of activist of the past.
Civil rights is not nearly as “sexy” today as it once was and I think I know why. At the height of the civil rights movement the leaders of the time galvanized our youth. I know because I was one of those kids attending rallies, protests, and marches. I was reading everything I could about our struggle–papers, books, poetry–and our music reflected where we were. We listened to Curtis Mayfield (“Keep on pushing”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”), Sam Cooke (“A Change is Gonna Come”) and James Brown (“Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”). The youth were the foot soldiers of the movement.
Today, despite being pushed to the margins of social movements, our youth are engaged in some of the most exciting cultural production the world has ever seen. Everything about hip hop culture says protest, revolution, and counter culture. Here I am not talking about the wildly commercial forms that emphasize misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the glorification of drugs and money. No, I am talking about the cutting edge music of Jasiri X, Immortal Technique, Intikana, and Kendrick Lamar that draws on the traditions of KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Talib Kweli. The music of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah pushed the role and power of women to the forefront of the industry. However, in today’s civil rights discourse, our youth are not a part of the movement.
Perhaps we cannot decide on civil rights leaders because the real leaders are not in front of us…they are (in the generation) behind us! What do you think?
Stay Black & Smart!