By refusing to share the pain of our experiences with race in America, older blacks have failed the younger generation.
It is a truth that I have long struggled with, but one I can no longer ignore.
If even one black millennial believes voting is irrelevant, they don’t know our history. If any young black person believes racism cannot be defeated, they don’t know our history. If a single one of our youth says blacks have no power, they don’t know our history, they don’t understand our present, and they have no clear view of our future.
This is not the white man’s fault. It’s ours.
Our elders have spent too much time trying to outrun our past. Or worse, they’ve been taught to ignore it. As a result, the libraries of Timbuktu are erased by slavery’s forced illiteracy. The wealth of Mansa Musa is hidden beneath the sharecropper’s poverty. Warrior queens such as Yaa Asantewaa are buried beneath Western misogyny.
But even if slave traders and their confederates tried to erase Africa’s glory from our memories, we have history on these shores. It is a history that is in turns beautiful and hideous. It is brutal and difficult to look upon. And yet, if we love our children, it is a history we must share.
Why wouldn’t we tell the story of a people who arrived on these shores in shackles, and now spend over $1 trillion dollars a year? Why wouldn’t we tell the story of a people who were forced to live in the poorest conditions and thrived despite that reality? Why wouldn’t we tell the story of a people who overcame despite government policies designed to exclude black veterans from the GI Bill, or black domestic workers from Social Security? Why wouldn’t we tell the story of a people who advanced from slavery to the White House?
I think we’re ashamed of the things that happened on the way to our triumph, and that shame has kept us emotionally bound. Unfortunately, when shame keeps a father from telling his story to his son, or stops a grandmother from sharing her anguish with her granddaughter, the lessons of history are lost. And our children are left unprepared.
If our grandparents had shared the horrors of Jim Crow, and the desperation with which blacks sought the vote as a weapon against it, no black millennial could ever feel justified in saying their vote doesn’t matter.
If we knew that blacks voted in the South, and hours later, their bodies were found dangling from the end of the lynching rope, we would understand that we must fight against voter suppression.
If we knew that our fight for freedom was bloody before it was peaceful, perhaps our young people would know that the path to liberty is not straight. Rather, it winds through the woods where an armed Harriet Tubman led groups of enslaved people to freedom. It lumbers through the fields of Southampton County, Va., where Nat Turner staged a bloody revolt.
And even Martin Luther King Jr., the nonviolent leader of the 1960s, was more than a docile man on grainy black and white footage. No, King was an organizer, a freedom fighter, an agitator, a rabble-rouser. He actively worked on economic equality, agitated for the end of the Vietnam War, called out white liberals who told him to wait for freedom, met with presidents and pressured lawmakers. And he did it all as a young man – not some old man who had nothing but a dream.
Our young people need to know who they are, and their black elders need to tell them.
We must tell them of our personal failures, share with them our societal battles and warn them that while history may sometimes be an arc, it is more often a circle. In other words, the same history we lived tends to reemerge. But if we don’t tell our children the truth about it, they can never be prepared for what’s coming.
If we truly love our children, we must do more than express it through material things. More than they need $100 sneakers and the latest iPhones, more than they need expensive clothing or expensive hairstyles, they need the truth.
We don’t protect our children from racism by hiding our own experiences. In fact we leave them vulnerable by doing so.
If we expect our children to do better than we did, we have to tell them what we did. We have to disclose what we experienced. We have to show them how we overcame.
Only then can black children truly know what is in front of them. They have to first be sure of who they are.