In African culture, there are few social currencies more valuable than respect for your elders.
Chinua Achebe, one of Nigeria and Africa’s most prolific writers has a quote that says, “When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of the words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.”
But what happens when elder activists, like the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, disagree with new school activists on how to bring about social change for the present and for the future?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement resonates with many young activists, who like the unstructured, social-media aligned, grassroot approach to change. Older people, however, and particularly those who came up as the country formally desegregated during the 1960s, often harshly critique the new movement.
If you know the history of the peaceful non-violent proponents of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, they were met with racial hatred as well as those whose movement believed that violence would be necessary for revolution. Don’t be fooled.
Disrespecting those who paved the way for you is not wise. Without an understanding of what your elders did and didn’t — what they achieved and where they failed — you may be overlooking a way to help your cause.
Especially in the context of the American system, we know that there have been improvements to policy, to the way people interact in the public — to overt racism. But we also know that racism is in the very fabric of the culture of the country, and how this racism is manifested has transformed through the times.
What does this mean for young people? We may not have to use “The Colored Bathroom,” but we know racism still manifests itself in how we interact with the police, whether we are called back for a job because of our names and how much we earn in that job. We know it still exists because we are victims of racism.
Some things we experience, police brutality for example, and even some of the consequences of institutional racism, transcend time. But our lives are also very much different from that of the first civil rights movement.
Maybe we don’t need hard and fast leaders who emerge through their ability to unite the masses and spark change. Maybe we need to do the work of activism both online, in the streets, in our homes, with our friends and at our jobs. Maybe we don’t always see what our elders see because it doesn’t always apply to us.
This generation continues to do what works for their time, because they are the ones that are now in charge of creating the sort of society they want to live in. But one thing that seems to transcend generations, and indeed I got this from a tweet that supports Black Lives Matter is this: “We need long-term revolutionaries, not short-term radicals.”