Activist young people I encounter usually wax nostalgic about the heroic efforts of folks in the 1960s and 1970s to change America for the better. “How did you do the things you did back then?” yearns for a time when heroism seemed easier, or at least more possible. Many young people think the enemies of progress and change–though always powerful–were easily discerned. And that there must have been less division among the forces fighting for change.
Stop and look around you. Today is not so different from yesterday. As disturbing as the prospect of ascendant fascism in America is, remember that there have always been fascists in America, most times with their hatred and bile trained on the same people they’re targeting now. A part of the fascist impulse has always been about subjugating nonwhite peoples and controlling the minds and bodies of women. It incorporated homophobia, ensuring that men could not love men and women could not love women. And let us not forget that the first attempted genocide on this continent rested on the idea of wiping out entire populations of Native Americans.
But despite the forces arrayed against us, we never stopped fighting. We fought to recover our histories. With a tear in one eye and fire in the other, we endured, and we fought. Sometimes with armed struggles, but most often with just our bodies, our determination, and our spirit. We were the mirror that reflected the true face of America to both our adversaries and our friends.
We did not have Black Studies, Queer Studies, Critical Race Theory, or Womanist/Feminist Studies in the 1700s–they weren’t even a twinkle in our ancestors’ eyes. Yet even without them, we escaped, thousands of us, enough to require the passage of Fugitive Slave laws. Had just a few of us gotten away those laws wouldn’t have been necessary. We were a torrent and a threat.
As imperfect a vehicle as the Civil War was, we put our shoulders to that grindstone too. And we tried to rescue America from fascists after it ended. We lost that battle, mostly because other Americans believed it was okay for fascism to be directed at former slaves and, as DuBois would put it, the “darker races.” Or women. So we once again turned to escape, streaming out of the South seeking anonymity, if not refuge. By the time we were ready to launch the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, we had amassed 350 years of thought and experience about what was required to struggle for freedom. That freedom-seeking culture was the foundation for the creation of Black Studies.
So young people: This is your moment. Remember that we are the people whose legacy and tradition embraced human equality. Time for folks in Florida, Virginia, and elsewhere to re-establish Saturday schools and Teach-Ins. Time for parents to make sure their kids show up. Time for “allies” to find out how to help.
Like Haki Madhubuti once said: “All that’s good and accomplished in the world takes work.”
We need your work now, big time.