In the age of Barack Obama, nothing seems out of reach. Up from slavery and into the White House, so the narrative goes.
But while we have come a long way, there are still far too many African Americans in prison, unemployed and disconnected from the larger society. For these reasons, the time is always right to think about the overall condition of our people. Even as we celebrate our shining stars, a glimmer of hope must remain for the rest of the race.
In talking with a friend whose life path is similar to mine, we recounted stories of rising to the tops of our communities, receiving awards and solidifying our roles as the crème de la crème, “special ones” or tokens of our race. This is not to say that our hard work and scholastic prowess should not be recognized. But in retrospect, it sometimes felt as if our achievements were being used as Band-Aids for a community that was suffering. We “special ones” were doing just fine, but it seemed as if our society was playing out DuBois’ talented tenth theory. We have an obligation to stop the bleeding ourselves by first acknowledging that a few Band-Aids will not serve as a cure-all for a larger endemic. We also must not allow the larger society to pat itself on the back for the successes of the black community. By demanding the same excellence of ourselves as our ancestors demanded of us, there will be no more room for society to catch favorite child syndrome.
We as a people should be demanding excellence and see it as a rallying cry. I’m aware of those who tirelessly preach the “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” sermon, pointing to their own success as a model. How soon do they forget that many people have not even the boots, let alone the bootstraps to grab for the pulling?
I am a strong believer in Ralph Ellison’s notion of self-reliance, but this exorbitant naiveté is an affront to those who work hard every single day to combat the utter hopelessness that has consumed their lives. It provides fodder for those who believe social safety nets are simply a cozy home for the poor and lazy.
Indeed, I am suggesting that we take a lesson from the greats of the past by settting lofty goals and working tirelessly to reach them. We must try to be change makers like them.
We must inspire our peers and the next generation to dream big and strive for excellence not so they may be better off than their parents, although they can; not so they may be on equal footing with every other race, although they should, but because instilling a culture of excellence is beneficial for everyone.
Both groups of change makers past and present deserve recognition. Had it not been for the writings of James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, there would be little foundation for Bell Hooks and Brent Staples to stand on today. Perhaps Hughes and Baldwin attribute their insights to being colored by Frederick Douglass or Jupiter Hammon who came before them?
In what context could we judge the great scientists and academicians of our time like Dr. Benjamin Carson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Cornel West without first recognizing the work of George Washington Carver, Carter G. Woodson, and W.E.B DuBois? And it goes without saying the crown jewel of black achievement to date, the presidency of Barack Obama has such monumental cultural significance due in large part to the struggles that were endured by of political and civil rights activists of the past.
We’ve come a long way in a hard fought battle for equality in this country, and it feels good to honor our past heroes as we look to the future. Black America has a strong history of striving towards excellence, and we must continue that tradition in order to move forward as a people. But it’s not about being able to write as prolifically as James Baldwin or as intelligently as Eugene Robinson.
It’s not about being able to articulate a point as effortlessly as Melissa Harris-Perry, or being able to speak as eloquently as Sojourner Truth. It’s about being thankful for those models, and getting out there and trying it for yourself. We all have a responsibility to be the change we wish to see in this world. We can be this change and we must be this change. This much we owe to the next generation.
Stacey Walker has worked in politics and the nonprofit sector for nearly a decade. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. where he works for a private family foundation. Follow him on Twitter @SWalker06.