Some of us feel that it has, even though our forebears tell us it wasn’t meant to be a competition.
I have a good friend with whom I share an affliction. He, too, comes from a good family that has done many great things in the face of dire situations — which he and I would learn about only in books. We read about the “Whites Only” bathrooms and lunch counters, the inferior schooling and the poverty, things we would never experience, thanks to the hard work of those who came before us.
And yet, neither of us felt good about ourselves. He, a graduate student at a prestigious university, and I, a writer, were both battling a form of guilt — a survivor’s guilt, or what could be better explained as “successor’s guilt.”
We were the heirs of a revolution, and this was the best we could do?
We would be the first generation in our families not to do better than our parents, thanks to our own well-meaning but at times faulty judgment, and to careers crippled by the perpetual, slow-moving recession black people have been in since 2009.
Both of us had chosen to do exactly what we wanted in life, assuming that we would naturally do great things. And I’m sure if you asked our mothers, they’d say they were proud of us. But a mother’s unconditional love brings little solace. After all, the obstacles of segregation and abject poverty were removed from our lives, thanks to our parents and those who fought and died for us. We had to do better.
And yet, we had not.
This month we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, an iconic moment in civil-rights history. I wonder if my generation can live up to its potential. Or, more personally, will I live up to my potential, standing on the shoulders of those who came before me?
Like my friend, I was raised on “the movement.” I was taught my history. I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Dick Gregory’s memoir, “Nigger,” when I was 12. I watched and read and learned so much about the movement that my father once joked that if I kept watching the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” it was going to turn me into a militant.
It didn’t. But it did make me self-aware.
My father was only 21 when the March on Washington took place. My mother was 19. My parents, like a lot of black people, were not activists. They were among the people for whom others were fighting and dying.
And perhaps out of a desire to take advantage of opportunities long denied to their parents and grandparents, both did not let the work of the civil-rights movement go in vain. In my father’s more than 30-year career in the aerospace industry, he said he went into every raise negotiation with the mind-set that this raise wasn’t just for him or the wife and daughters he was supporting, but that he was owed raises for the money his parents never made, for the promises unfulfilled for generations, for the dreams deferred.
I do not have the same impetus as I drift through life. There is no need to fight my father’s or my mother’s war; they both won on their own. I have been a wanderer searching for myself in the written word. This, if you ask my parents, was by design.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” said the woman who was born in a shack and now lives in a home that she and her husband built on their own. “Feel good. I wish I could have had your childhood.”
I didn’t feel good. I felt as if I and, by some extension, the suburban-raised end of my generation were “soft.” Our parents and grandparents had gone through so much, and here I needed antidepressants and mood stabilizers to get through my days.
“We’re wasting it,” my friend-in-guilt would tell me over the phone as we talked about gun violence or the various celebrations of ignorance passing as entertainment. “We wasted it all.”
But were we really mad at reality television or gangbangers? We, after all, said, “we,” by extension adding ourselves to those who had “wasted” this opportunity given to us.
We were standing on the shoulders of giants and slipping off.
Today there are many successful black figures. There are athletes and entertainers and Oprah and the president of the United States. But underneath those who did make it, there are the multitudes who did not. What becomes of them? What does it mean?
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.