A new generation of African Americans are defining what it means to be black in the 21st century.
by Marcus Hill
I stared at it every day trying to figure out who these people were. I was only five and had no idea who these four black guys were in this photo.
My mom had a picture hanging by the kitchen with a gold frame and a slightly black canvas with four faces in the picture: one at 12 o’clock, one at three, one at six and one at nine. I finally decided to ask her who these four guys were. Were they friends of the family, family or co-workers?
“That’s a picture of (clockwise) Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and Marcus Garvey,” she explained. Once she said Elijah Muhammad, I tuned out. “Oh, I knew I knew him. He’s related to Muhammad Ali, right?”
I knew who Ali was because my dad watched boxing a lot when I was a kid and schooled me every chance he could. As you should know, however, Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad are not related. At age five, though, it made perfect sense. I have made multitudes of progress the last 18 years. At one time, my race was making progress toward bettering itself.
It wasn’t long ago black people took something known as “the paper bag test.” If you were lighter than the bag, admission to affluent schools was certain. If not, test givers shipped you to the black schools. Sounds farfetched, but unfortunately it was true. This “test” wasn’t used just for schools; any place with a “Whites Only” sign and you were hit with a pop quiz that required no studying.
“Jim Crow laws didn’t give blacks a chance,” said Dr. Locksley Edmondson, Professor in Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. “Black people were incarcerated much more than others. And everything was against their favor.”
We were fighting for a future in the United States but a lunch bag dictated how far that road went. Attire, behavior and education didn’t determine our spot in society. My mother constantly voiced frustration of how intolerable it was to live in that era. She had no choice but to stomach any bigotry thrown her direction.
My mother and father—like most other blacks growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s—earned every bit of respect a black person could during those times. No matter how much they went through, they persevered to show they were stronger than what society threw at them. Black people everywhere were under a microscope, and the media dissected every decision made by us. Anything done in front of a camera might harm the black power movement and cause a possible setback with our progress.
“I think TV helped the Civil Rights movement expose the way blacks were being treated,” Edmondson said. “It showed what blacks experienced and it helped to somewhat change that treatment.”
Edmondson stressed the importance the media had on the rise of blacks and our issues during the Civil Rights movement. Tommie Smith and John Carlos displayed that impact with their gesture at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Both were black Olympic sprinters competing for the United States during abysmal times for their race. Both Olympians made a silent, but loud, statement when they raised their fists with a black glove representing “Black Power” at the medal ceremony.
Their protest against segregation on such a platform caused Smith and Carlos to face serious troubles with the International Olympic Committee as well as in the U.S. Although no words were spoken at the podium, the message was loud. Smith and Carlos’ simple gesture was crucial in black history. It not only provided an important moment for our culture, it showed that to get a point across, you have to stick your neck out there.
“Black entertainers made a critical impact with American culture,” Edmondson said. “Many of them participated in the civil rights movement. That work made a big impact on the culture.”
The hard work of important historical figures is lost among most of today’s black youth. The need to protest for equal rights decreased dramatically. The opportunity for blacks to gain educational fairness in America exists in nearly every state and province. Blacks, Hispanics and the various cultures in the U.S. can enter just about any store with no racial issues. Now that the gazelle has no lion to elude, many believe the fight is over. The strive for equality, however, is a fight that is never truly finished.
My generation lulled long ago on this endless conflict. Swag is more important than education. A pair of $160 shoes is more significant than saving for a future. For some it comes from a sense of entitlement. For others it’s a lack of understanding the bigotry and societal issues we faced to get what we have now.
That, along with misinterpreted messages from the media, gave too many young blacks the impression that they’re entitled to $100,000 jobs out of college without making a name for themselves. Hearing musicians talk about how much money they’ve made at a young age paints an asinine picture for the listener.
What’s skewed, skipped and sometimes overlooked is the relentless perseverance that went into the level of fame achieved. Restless nights, years of frustrations and patience go into an album, movie or even a single to reach perfection. Sometimes years go into notching a role for a movie or TV show. The image for some in young Black America is that we can buy status rather than earn it.
The image portrayed by rappers and Hollywood—expensive wardrobes, pricey houses, flashy cars or being icy—has tarnished and nearly devastated the image our elders fought for decades ago. Martin Luther King did not march and preach for the N-Word to taint every-day conversation. It is a word that is used, however, like its meaning is harmless. Self-image has become more important than our overall image as a race.
Many shows we watch, too many YouTube videos and so many “ratchet” or ghetto fights involve us in the most ignorant and ridiculous situations. Decades of trying to achieve equality in America were seemingly falling into place. The work and patience of our elders started benefiting our futures in the corporate world and for educational purposes. We unfortunately became infatuated with obtaining temporary status rather than long-term achievements. Our culture was something you could obtain rather than who you were.
At some point being black stopped being a race and became a rank. Something bought with attire or based off behavior. Something anyone could achieve if they spoke a certain way or went through the same hardships that are typical of our culture. Having run-ins with the law is almost a gateway to that status of being black. Those troubles diminish our successes.
We’re in the news more often for crimes, and other legal issues than for a breakthrough in corporate America. Entrepreneurs such as Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Beyoncé (among a few others) reached high statuses in the corporate world and showed our youth that an affluent background is no longer a correlation to becoming successful in America. Their work proved that you could be from the ghetto, in a gang or sell drugs and still spurn your past with persistence and dedication to your craft. So why is that message falling on deaf ears with kids in my generation?
Perhaps by the glorified images portrayed to all of America displaying us in expensive chains and clothing? Or for the lyrics spewing through our headphones? Wherever the discrepancy lies, we need to establish a sense of pride and self-respect we once displayed. Our culture needs to show that we have more than swag to offer the world.
It wasn’t long ago that we strove for excellence, marched, fought, and protested for the right of equality in the United States. Today, if it’s not for a new pair of Jordans, you won’t catch us outside for days at a time. Dedication to our race needs to return. Respect for whom and what we are needs to return. So many people in our race expect respect and opportunities without truly working for either.
Success in the corporate world rather than working just to make money needs to become an expectation—not a pipedream. Money isn’t always the key to an escape or a better future when you don’t have the necessary tools and knowledge to put it to good use. The younger generation of blacks have to reinvest in the areas other than our outfits or the best pair of shoes or an expensive new trend in black America. We have to invest in the areas our ancestors fought so hard and gave so much to give to us—the right to be educated, the right to be represented, the right to assemble, the right to live free from fear of oppression.
When we as a new generation of blacks do that, we’ll finally have answered the troubling issues of our race and will be back on track to a prominent role in America.