Rosa’s gone. Coretta’s gone. Dorothy’s gone, too. Our civil rights heroines, the rebels who dedicated their lives to Black empowerment, the legends we read about in textbooks and watched in grainy heyday footage, are aging and passing on. Our reaction is almost formulaic: the news breaks, we say what a shame it is, we reflect on their lives, they have a big homegoing, media throws together a highlight reel, then coverage wanes and we all move on. In general, the whole process takes less than two weeks. 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, a seedling ideally pops up to replace it. When one of our activists goes on to glory, whether they’re national figures or local community leaders, mentees and other folks inspired by their work have thrust their ideologies and agendas forward. Maybe remixed them a little, but they carried them on. There was real studying, 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, were radical in their own right. They were regal, diplomatic and composed, but they were fiercely outspoken with a dogged intent on changing circumstances for their children’s children’s children, all Black folks’ children and the children of other marginalized people. The passion got passed on.

Then I think we started taking those changes for granted, indulging in the work that had been done for us. We lost our spark, our thirst for change, the drive to make things better. But let’s be honest: things ain’t all that sweet. Not yet. Just because we can have swanky offices and fancy titles in a corporate world that used to shut us out and live in neighborhoods that turned every kind of legal trick to keep us on the fringes doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of battles to wage. They’re packaged differently — A&T students aren’t demanding service at a Starbucks counter, I’m sure — but they’re still plentiful.

I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved. There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment: does it affect me directly? Does it hurt anyone I know? Then it don’t really matter.

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 have an affinity for what goes on in your tiny corner of Bed-Stuy or your section of Southeast DC. Care about something, for God’s sake. 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. HIV/AIDS. Foster care. Fair trade. Animal rights. Join a treehuggers’ union and strap yourself to an exotic shrub in the rainforest. Just do something.

There are plenty of women 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. I’m not saying they don’t exist at all. Just not on the scale and magnitude that they used and need to. Heck, my friends and I need to be doing more. So please believe that I’m preaching to myself as much as I’m inciting other folks. 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. We all have a debt — Jay-Z and Beyonce included — but we can also pay it forward at the same damn time. 

Loading the player...