Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The New Generation of the Young, Gifted, and Black: What Are Their Responsibilities to the Black Community?

I spent Sunday afternoon at Vanderbilt University in Nashville getting young Aaron Beaste checked in and helping him get his dormitory room all set up. In fact, that’s what I am doing in this part of the country. Young Aaron Beaste was selected to participate in a special program for talented youth at Vanderbilt, and I opted to stay close by (Memphis) until he’s done rather than dropping him off, driving back to Florida, then having to turn around and make that long drive again at the end of two weeks to retrieve him.

Anyway, Aaron Beaste and his sister Little Moni Beaste have participated in a number of programs similar to this one over the course of the last few years, and as I sat in the orientation listening to the very impressive resumes of the young people participating in this program, it dawned on me that my children are children of privilege, more specifically, colored children of privilege.

Allow me to briefly qualify my categorization of my children as “colored children of privilege.” In my categorization, I’m not attempting to claim baller status; my wife and I work two jobs most of the year and take any and all free lance assignments to afford our children such opportunities. But what I mean is African American children who gain access to prestigious institutions and special enrichment programs not available to their peers by virtue of their unique talents and gifts.

These students I see as tantamount to a modern incarnation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the talented tenth, that top ten percent of African Americans who were expected to use their unique talents and gifts as part of a program of uplift to improve the lives of all African Americans. But does this new generation of the young, gifted, and black realize or even understand this responsibility? Or better still, do they even have any responsibility toward the African American community at all?

I was perhaps part of the first generation of young, gifted, and black to directly benefit from the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up poor and black, but early on my intellectual ability afforded me opportunities not available to my peers and allowed me access to places of privilege others of my hue were shut out of. And because in our culture privilege is usually synonymous to whiteness, just like the handful of African American young people I encountered Sunday, I invariably always found myself one of the very few African Americans in the institutions and classes I became a part of.

But we understood who we were and what we were there for. We were never allowed to forget. On a daily basis, our parents and grandparents reminded us. Our aunts and uncles reminded us. The adult members of our community reminded us.

We knew that our fate was inextricably intertwined with the fate of the African American community. We knew that if we achieved any measure of success, that success would be accorded to our singular greatness. However, if we failed, our failure would serve as an indication of the intellectual inferiority inherent of the race.

So, we clung desperately to one another, urging and exhorting each other even as we discussed our plans for transforming our community and the nation.

But in that handful of African American children present on Sunday, the new generation of the young gifted and black, I didn’t see that same urgency and affinity to the African American community. While during my generation, we few African American children sought each other out, this new generation barely acknowledged the presence of the other African American students.

While we were usually found huddled together in a group, this new generation made their already small number seem even smaller and less efficacious by inserting themselves individually in the various racially diverse groups that popped up along lines of personal interest and talents as opposed to race.

And in their personal statements, they mentioned nothing of desiring to give back to their community. They simply catalogued their accomplishments in an almost braggadocios manner, and expressed their lofty goals in the Eurocentric terms of “I” as opposed to the Afrocentric terms of “WE.”

The implications are two-fold. One the one hand, maybe this new generation of young, gifted, and black have freed themselves from the onus of race. Maybe they have learned to define themselves outside the bounds of race. And this could potentially be a good thing. For a young person, the weight of carrying the full weight of a race on your back is a heavy weight to bear indeed. But if this is indeed the case, if they believe themselves truly free from the fetters of race and the concomitant exigencies thereof, I’m afraid they are deluding themselves and setting themselves up for a rude awakening.

Also, if they no longer see their connection to the African American community, a serious schism, a naked declivity, is developing, or better still continuing in its development, in the African American community. In the future, there threatens to be one narrow group of upwardly mobile African Americans and another group of society’s throw-aways perpetually mired in the muck of ignorance and poverty.

I wish young Aaron and Moni Beaste and those talented and gifted children like them all the best, but I caution them not to forget their roots, not to forget their race bacause if you do, something will invariably arise to remind you of it, and remember to reach for success not just for you or even your family, but for something much bigger than yourself.

Does the new generation of the young, gifted, and black have any responsibility toward the African American community, and if so, what is that responsibility?


Anonymous said...

I think that we, especially this generation has been assimilated to extent that we totally embraced the ideal mantra of hedonism. Along with that, that we are rugged individualist who employed our boot straps and therefor owe no one for our individual success. I attended one of the three tier one universities in Florida. While there, the behavior I saw from the best and brightest of our community was consistent with that of someone who wanted to distance themselves from black folks.

I was raised by to be, and made a very conscious decision to embrace my blackness and the obligations that entails early on. When I went off to college I naturally gravitated toward other blacks, but I did not always find the kinship I was seeking. I'm talking about kneegrows in class defaming black leaders past and present for brownie points with white peers. I can recall being the only black male in countless situations and having the black females in attendance not even make eye contact. I would often find myself thinking, “ Why is this black man/woman affecting the valley girl/surf dude voice?” Dont want to come off as being too judgmental, just my take I suppose. You never know someone's true intentions. Maybe they believed that they had to engage in those politics to get ahead.

However, I did find the familiar kinship I was seeking among my fellow Caribbean and African students. I guess it was a good experience for me in that I am the son of Caribbean parents and had always learned the culture from the perspective of older people. Once I mentioned my ancestry and origin, I was immediately taken in by these people. Due to the cultural divide present between blacks of the diaspora, these students maintained the type of progressive and supportive community necessary for their survival.

No, we don't honor our responsibilities towards our community. Responsibility is associated with progressing and struggle as well duty and dare I say: honor. In the minds of so many of us, teens, 20 and 30 somethings, there is no struggle. We were raised among very decent white folks and at worst, whites who would silently “tolerate” us. White folks will allow you live, shop and even work with them—in limited numbers. We have a black president and prominent black millionaires. Where is the struggle? Behind you. Your people, the people left behind that you should be working and advocating for.

Anonymous said...


1.) Always remember: "Noblesse oblige"

2.) Assert your manhood by and through the virtues of hard work, education, honesty and kindness.

3.) Help, but do not enable.

4.) Continue the oral tradition by seeking out your elders and sharing their wisdom.

5.) Patronize African American businesses.

6. Although I did not attended an HBCU I support them. Imagine what our institutions would be if all of the members the so called black intelligentsia cut a $10 check on a monthly basis.

7.) Support black businesses. This support can be primarily financial, but writing an anonymous letter outlining your dissatisfaction with a service or product so that the proprietor can improve, is also supportive.

Lyn Marie said...

The double edge sword of integration is the idea of being part of the general American society. “One day we will be judge on the content of our character not by the color of our skin. This ideal is repeated every MLK Day. (One of the only Black Americas mentioned in many classroom across the U.S. Don’t get me started on that one!) Now we have the other side of that sword, a generation that believes it. Because they believe it they see no reason to now connect themselves to a community that may not have embraced their music or hobbies, especially if those interests are considered “white”.

I personally believe all children have a responsibility to their communities, no matter where they come from. It builds character to be involved in things outside of you, a greater good.
However in a country where a GOP activist can say that the escaped gorillas in South Carolina are probably Michelle Obama’s ancestors and another Republican Senate aide can show a picture of all of the presidents and Black out the picture of Barack showing only white eyes you can see we have a long way to go.

As a Biracial person (Black and White) that appears racially ambiguous I can tell you these kinds of comments go on more frequently than people would like to admit.
The improvement of our community should be the obligation of all of us, not just the young.

Anonymous said...

"However in a country where a GOP activist can say that the escaped gorillas in South Carolina are probably Michelle Obama’s ancestors and another Republican Senate aide can show a picture of all of the presidents and Black out the picture of Barack showing only white eyes you can see we have a long way to go."

Great post. I dont know where we are headed as a people. I believe that we should be headed toward self-determination. White approval is unattainable given our country's racial mores.

Max Reddick said...

I think as the African American community gets more and more fragmented, our children, especially those living in the suburbs and attending mostly white institutions, are identifying less and less with the black community

My kids have made a distinction between themselves and those negroes they see acting a fool. They still see themselves as African Americans but set themselves apart from the foolishness. But I've attempted to explain to them, no matter how far they go, they will still be held accountable for the foolishness by virtue of a shared race.

uglyblackjohn said...

This is a hard question to answer.

I have a neighbor whose son is in prison for 75 years because he had to keep his street-cred.
The family is pretty well off and sent all their kids to private schools and universities. But the kid felt a need to run back to the 'hood and be "down".

But I also have some kids in my neighborhood who hate anything to do with Balckness.
There has to be a balance somewhere.

Issa Rae said...

"My kids have made a distinction between themselves and those negroes they see acting a fool. They still see themselves as African Americans but set themselves apart from the foolishness."

I can definitely relate to your kids mentality. As a 24-year-old, I don't know if I qualify as "black youth," but I still can identify with the mentality of your kids. I definitely feel a responsibility toward the African-American community, but at the same token, I want African-Americans to take responsibility for themselves.

Back in college, I went through a militant era (has any black college student NOT?) where I felt as if it was my sole duty in life to uplift the black race, in any way that I can. But now, I'm SO tired of race politics. I'm tired of hearing about STUPID "black" antics, and I kind of wish color lines would disappear altogether.

I think the responsibility is to encourage black people to take responsibility for their own actions AND to ENCOURAGE and SHAPE our youth to be the best they can be.

Max Reddick said...

@ uglyblackjohn

I believe a lot of it has to do with the definition of blackness. Blackness is always defined and conceptualized as something negative. So kids think, if I am to be true to myself, I must be negative.

@ Issa Rae

Personal responsibility--that's one I haven't heard in a while. If everyone would just be responsible for themselves, that would improve our community 100%. But it seems now that everyone just wants to point the finger of blame. But when you always blame someone else for your shortcomings, you give up your power to whatever person or thing you blame.

uglyblackjohn said...

@ Max - But it's not just the kids.
Many adults also buy into this idea and pass it along to their grandchildren, who pass it along to their grandchildren...
I think this is why doing well is sometimes frowned upon.
It's as though the higher one rises on the social pyramid the lower one becomes on the racial scale.

Max Reddick said...

I agree blackjohn. One thing I have noticed when working with children from the 'hood, there seems to be some notion that success is synonymous with luck. Or that if someone has achieved any measure of success that didn't come from rapping or music or sports, that they somehow had to sellout to achieve that success.

Furthermore, we need to redefine how we define success. To some, it is an all or nothing enterprise. It's "Get Rich or Die Trying." What about just being comfortable? What about just being able to provide a nice safe comfortable place to live for your family, a dependable auto (with air), and being able to provide the requisite educational experiences?

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