Black History And Politics: Young Leader Reflects On How Far We’ve Come

Photo: (Getty Images)

23-year-old NYU grad, Sara Haile-Mariam, is the former Communications & Outreach Associate of Campus Progress, where she ran Vote Again 2010. Sara has been featured on NPR, CNN, CSPAN and MSNBC for her work. In recognition of Black History Month, today she shares her reflections on politics as it relates to Black American progress. Read her thoughts…

Two years ago, shortly after the election of our nation’s first black President, Jay-Z rapped the following, lyrically capturing the significance of what we just witnessed:

“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run /Barack Obama ran so all our children could fly. / So Imma my spread my wings you can meet me in the sky.”

Yet, while Barack Obama ran, and won, I can’t confidently claim that our children are actually in a position to fly.

After his election, I wrote that despite the rush to claim the realization of Dr. King’s dream, “complacency is what we have to fear, it’s what this generation must fight.” Since then I’ve come to realize that complacency isn’t in fact the issue.

Everybody wants to meet Hov in the sky. It’s just not that simple.

We exist in a state of tension. Yes, the stories of those who “sat, walked and ran,” give us reason to spread our wings, but the reasons to just walk away sometimes feel equally overwhelming. Unemployment among young black youth remains steadfast at slightly more than 30 percent, educational disparities persist and we continue to watch as innocent young people fall victim to violence in their communities.

As we reflect on the state of our generation, in the context of Black History Month, how do we reconcile both ends of the spectrum? On the one hand, there’s a black President; on the other, the glacial pace of progress has left many of us feeling disillusioned and those directly affected feeling left behind.

Ultimately, this brings us back to the operative word in Jay-Z’s verse, “could.” The potential to take flight is not owed to us, or to future generations. The circumstances that frustrate and affect us are ours to impact in line with what Civil Rights icon Julian Bond said in a 1993 rally:

“If you perceive that I have a torch that represents power and you want it you shouldn’t be asking for it. You should be snatching it.”

Across the country there are young black leaders like Erica Williams, deputy director of Project 2050; Biko Baker, executive director of The League of Young Voters; Decker Ngongang, vice president of programs for; and organizer, writer and activist Charlene Carruthers who are doing just that. I asked them all about the state of our generation and they each found solace in the same thing: in us. They trust what’s possible when we become proactive.

Look, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge often feeling completely frustrated by our political process…but I have to imagine that the sentiment is nothing new. Politics has always been a frustrating enterprise, and while it’s tempting to want to dismiss the process, in truth, it’s the participants that define real power. When we show up, whether it’s in America or Egypt, we shock the world.

To that end, if we keep showing up, it’s only a matter of time before we fly.

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