Rosa’s gone. Coretta’s gone. Now the venerable Dr. Dorothy Height is gone too. Our heroines of the Civil Rights Movement, the movers and shakers of black empowerment, the legendary ones we read about in our history class textbooks and watch in fuzzy black and white footage from decades ago, are passing on fast. And, our reaction is almost formulaic: the news goes out over the radio and internet, we give a moment of silence and mourn, we say what a shame it is, we reflect on their lives, the impact they had on our community and the world at large, they lie in state somewhere, we stand in long lines to pay our respects, media puts together some documentary-style clips before coverage wanes and we all move on. In general, the whole process takes less than two weeks. That’d be okay, considering life is for the living and all of those women who led active, fulfilling lives would want each and every one of us to do the same. But the work they struggled and sacrificed for is still unfinished. So who’s going to step up to carry on the legacy?
When a blade of grass gets uprooted, another seedling ideally pops up to replace it. When one of our activists goes on to glory, be they national figures or leaders on a local level, our community has pressed forward by having mentees and underlings ready to take their ideologies and agendas like a passed baton and run ahead in the race. There was real studying, a genuine sitting underfoot to grasp not only the issues at hand but methods on how to best reach out to the people to convey their message. All of these ladies—the knowns and unknowns, the Dorothy Heights standing at the podiums and the Mother Forsythes anonymously lining the pews—were radical in their own ways, especially as women in the church, which has been historically and habitually dominated by the overbearing boisterousness of male glory hogs. (You think Rev. Enter Public Figure Name Here came up with his concepts and organized his civil disobedience on his own? Pfft. Puh-lease.) They were regal, diplomatic and composed, but they were fiercely outspoken with a dogged, in-your-face intent on changing circumstances for their children, their children’s children’s children and other Black folks’ children. That passion got passed from the 40s to the 50s to the 60s to the 70s.
Then us 80s and 90s babies came along and got lazy.
Riding the coattails of the changes laid out for us, we take for granted liberties that stem from times that seem—to some of us, anyway—like dusty, way-back-in-the-day memories when in reality, it’s only been 50 odd years since we’ve been able to sit next to a white student in school if we want to, not to mention plop down on any seat on the train, hail any cab, blow money at whichever ole’ restaurant we want to patronize and shop at every and any store our hearts desire (and we all know how much black women love to shop, so thank God we’re unrestricted). Civil rights won, Black Power instilled, Reaganomics and trickle down theories survived, so our generation really hasn’t had to fight any fight. Not a legal one, anyway. There are heavily publicized cases of racially motivated injustice, absolutely, too many over the last ten or twenty years to list accurately. But that was the norm for our foremothers and fathers who fought the struggle, just a day in the life while they were executing routine stuff like buying groceries, getting home and having a peaceful night’s rest. Lynching was real. Disrespect was real. Harassment was real. Threats and acts of physical violence for the smallest perceived offenses or attempts at bucking the system were real.
But they absorbed that for us and changed the way society operates. And I repeat: blatant racism still exists, and not just in the back woods of Kentucky or Alabama. We all know that, even if we don’t want to admit that there are just as many rednecks dressed in suits and ties in midtown Manhattan as there are in Hock and Spit Jablip, Tennessee. It’s a mindset that doesn’t need a noose to lynch our folks physically—it’s a social, economic and professional chokehold in play. Racism is not only institutionalized, it’s crossed multicultural boundaries so that now, Mr. Asian Man and Ms. Indian Woman can and do openly discriminate against black people, as well. If any of these conditions upset us 20- and 30-somethings, though, I sure can’t tell. There’s been a sweeping, ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and really addressing pertinent issues in our community. There who read, write and publish Clutch, and ladies who volunteer for, evangelize and perpetuate the same rabble-rousing agenda that our grandmothers and mothers in activism did decades ago. They exist. They care. They do the work. You probably have some in your community because they pop up on the news from time to time and are the face of making things right in the modern day.
But for the most part, our generation is polluted with 1) armchair revolutionaries who complain about the injustices of every kind of –ism but sit on their post-secondary-educated, multi-degreed rear ends, have riveting debates and conversations but do nothing else or, most popularly, 2) the hip-hop brainwashed self-proclaimed diva who can list the reality show rundown but hasn’t picked up a newspaper or read a meaningful piece of literature since she graduated from high school. Things get hard outside the comfort of easy superficiality. When talk turns from handbag designers and new releases of subpar rap music, they get quiet. Say something about history or current events or new legislation or political agendas and a hush falls over the crowd. Those are the women I’m talking about. And those are the women who disappoint our legacy.
In 2010, there is still a litany of concerns and issues our people face on a local, national and global level—in Harlem, in Atlanta, in Canada, in Jamaica and Haiti, in Botswana—everywhere. There are too many people freeloading off of the work our predecessors did—and many died for—without observing the laws of retribution to make it even easier for somebody else. I don’t care if you just care about what goes on in your tiny corner of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn or your section of South Side Chicago. Just care about something, for God’s sake. And not just about the latest episode of “Real Housewives” or the new season of “Tiny and Toya.” I’m not saying become an armband -wearing, statistic-spouting militant. You’ll be by yourself quicker than a Bible beater at happy hour because nothing kills a party like a downer with a debate always on her lips. If getting involved with civil rights to guarantee a level playing and living field for black folks doesn’t move you, get involved with women’s issues. Human trafficking. Ending poverty and homelessness. Foster care. International affairs. Animal rights. Join a treehuggers’ union and strap yourself to an exotic shrub in the rainforest. Shoot, help single mothers because we need all the help we can get. Just do something.
Women in churches need to do more. Women in neighborhoods need to do more. Women getting their degrees, women raising a next generation of children, women in positions of power, women with extra time on their hands, even women with packed schedules. Hell, my friends and I need to be doing more. (I can’t wait to see their faces when they read that part.) I’ve recently signed up for more volunteer activities in the community because I want to be a catalyst for change, particularly with young girls. If you have a talent, contribute it to a cause. If all you can do is sort papers and make copies, be the best darn paper sorter and copier you can be for your movement.
I know everyone doesn’t subscribe to the concept of heaven and the afterlife, but humor me please: when I go on to meet my Maker, I’m not just going to have to answer for my decisions and shortcomings. I’m going to have to stand eye-to-eye with my ancestors—my grandmother, Dr. Height, Mrs. King, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman—the whole lot. And when I do, I want to be able to smile proudly and confidently that I, too, contributed to the legacy of my people. I wasn’t black just for the sake of being black. I was a proud black woman who stood up for things I believed in, who worked to make my household to my neighborhood to my community to my city and hell, maybe even the country or world, an easier place for my daughter and her future kids to thrive in. Wouldn’t you want to do something like that too?