By: Joah Spearman, July 12, 2011
I was on the phone with someone who, like me, has a substantial amount of experience reading about and working with self-described Black leaders. I’m going to be very specific about who I’m talking about.
For starters, I’m not talking about our President and First Lady. They’re actually being attacked by, what I’m going to call, racially conservative Black leaders. Cornel West called Barack Obama a “black mascot” and Tavis Smiley bitched about the President being unable to attend his “State of the Black Union” event and offering Michelle’s speaking services instead. They are conservative in that they believe they own the definition of what it means to be “Black in America”. Silly.
But I digress…the older Black leaders I’m really talking about aren’t even people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. No, they’re both actually famous and, in West’s case, have contributed tremendously to the discourse (not always positive, but that’s another topic) of Blacks in America for years upon years.
The people I’m talking about are in their mid-to-late 40s, 50s and 60s and they’re not famous, they haven’t created Black wealth or been significant contributors to large discussions about Blacks in America. Actually, they’re the exact opposite. They’re not famous, because they have focused on agendas so narrow that no one should pay attention to them. They’re not creating Black wealth (though some of them are themselves rich) because they don’t seem to understand economic development policies that focus on generating sustainable wealth instead of generating temporary favoritism. And they’re not significant contributors to the discourse about Blacks in America because they are so off-base in what they believe is happening or should be happening and so narrow-minded in who they’re working with or what they’re working on, that they just go in circles.
As a result, much of Black discussion in America has gone in circles. And the efforts of far too many Black-centric organizations has followed suit. Round and round and round they go. Literally, for at least the last decade, maybe two.
Meanwhile, us young Black people watch and wonder: “will you ever move over and let us do our thing?”
Historical tidbit: Dr. King was 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and just a few years later with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded. Malcolm X was in his late 20s and early 30s when he led the creation of several Nation of Islam posts in some of America’s major Northeast cities. Stokely Carmichael was 26 when he took over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, taking over from John Lewis who led the organization when he was 23 years old. James Farmer, one of the less-heralded Civil Rights leaders, was just 21 when he was invited to meet with President Roosevelt. Ella Baker, a leading female voice in the Movement, was actually the old member of the leadership tree having started as NAACP’s director of branches at the ripe age of 39.
So why in the hell do some of today’s Black leaders in their late 40s, 50s and 60-somethings fancy themselves our generation’s Dr. Kings, Malcolm Xs and Ella Bakers? When in fact King and others were our age when they were leading the Movement! We haven’t had a young Black leader in three decades! Why? Because these older people won’t let one in! They think that since Jay-Z and Kanye West are famous, they’ve allowed the younger generation to have a voice when – as pointed out in Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save America – this hip-hop voice is not nearly what is needed.
And don’t give me that lip about “we were a part of the Movement” stuff as if to get some five-star general level of respect from us. How were you a part of the Movement? By being the first-generation of beneficiaries from it? By being the Blacks first-allowed to go to college and fully enter Corporate America only to have to be the first person to become the VP of something and graduate from a non-historically Black college or university for once?
If you’re 65 today that means you were 19 when Malcolm X died and 22 when King died. Very formative years indeed, but to continue harping on that time as if you didn’t end up taking some job in Corporate America (or pitching against it) in order to ascend to the upper middle class in some management role is truly malicious. Especially since many of you end up raising your children with the biggest silver spoons ever seen by Blacks in America, quite literally hurting the poor Black people you say you’re about helping by creating an “us” vs. “them” reality in Black neighborhoods and schools until – like other races – we created segregated schools for ourselves in cities like Atlanta.
If you’re 45 to 60 years old, I really don’t buy your need to continue harping back on things like institutional racism as if you didn’t live in a day and time when Blacks experienced less racism than ever before in America. I really hate hearing people in Austin talk about this like it’s some type of cross they’re bearing from the 1760s. I know things are still bad and police brutality still happens, hatred is still spewed and jobs are still hard to come by for Black men who are poorly educated as young boys and poorly treated in prisons as young men and poorly considered in society thereafter. I know far too well.
But for you to pretend that you are the new incarnation of Black leadership in America when so little has been done on your watch in the last decade or two is pathetic. Actually, tell me exactly what it is that you’ve done in the last decade other than sit back in your cushy “association of” and “commissioner/chairman” jobs and meet with the same damn people week after week, month after month doing the same damn things, hosting the same damn events and complaining about the same damn federal/state/local policies that only people in real leadership roles and power can address.
Going round and round and round. Harping on the same issues. Coming up with the same bland ideas and events. Doing the most mundane fundraisers. Sending the most uninspiring emails. And reaching out to young people with about as much innovation as the General Motors Truck division brings to an alternative energy conference.
Move out of the way. If you need us to kiss the ring, us being young Black people, in order for you to pass on by then fine. (Please don’t let these long-standing organizations die out with your generation.) We’ll kiss the ring if you don’t also require we anoint you all chairman/chairwoman emeritus status too because we need some other people to serve in that role. Like mid-to-late 30-somethings.
Yes, I’m being an ageist. I would apologize if I wasn’t so spot on based on far too many conversations with friends of mine in Austin, Houston, D.C., New York and other American cities. These are friends who work in business, entertainment, finance, law, politics, technology…they went to good schools thanks to the work of King and others and they are ascended to higher heights in their professions thanks to the roads your generation paved. Yes, I admit that. You fought the good fight for us. These are friends who’ve worked on Obama’s campaign and work in Congress, they lead young professionals groups across the country (only some of them solely focused on Blacks) and they have bright, albeit untested, ideas about what we should be doing right now.
The only problem with right now is that you’re in the way talking about back then. You have absolutely no clue about right now. This is wholesale and generalized and exceptions certainly exist. I know that Cory Booker is in his 40s now and he’s amazing. Google’s chief counsel David Drummond is in his 40s and is largely unknown, but significant. But those few are the exceptions. So stop acting like the energetic, educated, inspired, innovative young Black person attending your meetings is the exception and needs to “pay our dues”. People like Johnica Reed, Jam Donaldson and Coltrane Curtis know more about what’s going on in Black America than your average NAACP chapter president, that’s for sure.
The honest truth is that the older you all get, and the more stuck in your ways you continue to be, the fewer dues paying members you’re going to have if you keep this up. So, no, I won’t pay those dues. Not until you acknowledge what we’ve been trying to tell you for years. Keep this up and you’ll be the generation that negated much of the unseen but good work that King and others did because more than lead the Movement and serve as positive forces of change, they were icons.
Icons to Black leadership. Young Black leadership. Young Black leadership that didn’t wait around for dues to be paid. As for me, I’m not waiting around. You can believe that I am going to bum rush your door and tell you to hand over the keys or else.
Yeah, it may be the house you’ve lived in for years, but you definitely did not build it (King’s generation did) and you definitely aren’t in a position to renovate it (my generation is). Especially not with that attitude toward the most important Black constituency in America: young professionals.
We have money. We have white, Hispanic and Asian friends. We’re educated, well traveled, well dressed, well read and well versed on our Civil Rights history. We know how to use computers and we’re savvy with social media. We can command six-figure salaries and start businesses if we want to. We can talk Jay-Z and foreign policy in the same dialogue. We can do many things for Blacks in America because unlike many of you, we actually understand the positive impact Obamas have been in the White House. So much so that our votes are based on policies and not on race alone. Truth to power.
You need to come to terms with the fact that we can’t pay be the generation that pays the majority of the mortgage for Black people in America if we’re also going to be told that the title to the house will not be ours for another decade or two.
Let’s see how long you can make those payments without us.
(Editor’s note: I went to college with this guy. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but we knew each other. Maybe it’s a bit ageist, but no one else is going to publish this sort of writing so I’d like to here your thoughts?)