My thirty-fifth birthday is right around the corner. At this point in my life, I consider myself to be a very aware individual about the systems that have controlled and oppressed myself and those like me, in ways that have guided us into many undesired pathways of life.
I escaped. Hard work, determination, making sensible choices and creating relationships with people who think along the same lines as I allowed me to be where I am today, living a comfortable life with privilege. There are times when I get frustrated about why it took me this long to get here when I could have been here ten years ago.
That frustration boils over into rage because I know the answer.
Sadly, it is a very predictable narrative that many people of color can be plugged into a nearly universal puzzle of depression; single parent household, no father, no reliable adult mentor, no resources, no outlets for stressors, and forced to become an adult too soon.
Who are the leaders of my generation? There are plenty people I can name such as Dr. Cornel West, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Reverend Jesse Jackson. I did not have the luxury to grow up where these men were; I only saw them on television speaking on atrocities and using words that I could not understand growing up.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson was the most visible figure on television because of his accolades in international activism, as well as his runs for president in the late 80s. He was born during the Jim Crow era and became a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., continuing that legacy even today with many notable organizations such as Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition.
Everyone has at least heard of the name Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton, for most people today, has been seen as an activist of convenience. He has become more of a controversial television personality over time and many people, including myself, feel he has lost the connection with the people he represents. He is known to be the first at the scene of any major injustice that the media is focusing on but never one to put himself on the battlefield itself. He has become a mouthpiece that my generation rarely listens to.
Often misunderstood is the work of the Minister Louis Farrakhan. The leader of the religious group the Nation of Islam–an American created denomination of Islam–has worked hard to restore the relationship between the Nation of Islam and America. Despite his alleged controversial political tactics he has constantly been a voice against the systematic oppression that plagues this nation.
Dr. Cornel West may be the least known of these men, but in my opinion, he is the only one that actually has his ear to the street. Dr. West is a philosopher, academic, activist, and author who speaks about the intersectionality of race, gender and class in America. You can often find him leading a rally against any form of oppression, as well as traveling the country presenting at schools and on television laying out truth for all to hear.
All of these men were born thirty to forty years before me. They have seen change come and are watching the young black men of my generation backpedal like the walking dead into the New Jim Crow. Can you name any black leaders around the age of thirty-five that are nationally known?
It is easy to say, the modern day athlete. Most athletes are not socially aware, many of them are victims of getting money too fast and other than the small circle they bring with them, they lose touch with the community. They are also under the contract of the 1% who specify how they should act. You can throw out a few celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Common, Mos Def or, if you are really reaching, perhaps Kanye West. Can you name someone who does not make millions of dollars?
Digging deep into the Internet and accepting the shame I felt for not having a clue about who these people are, I found a few. Dr. John J. Jackson, an education advocate, Harvard Law alum and former national education director for the NAACP; Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, NC and potential gubnertorial candidate for the state of North Carolina; and Kamala Harris, Attorney General California, who is the first female, African-American and Asian-American California attorney general.
It is obvious that we need to place more spotlight on young black leaders who are actually making change right now, young black leaders who can show us how to pull our peers up out of the quicksand that makes us stagnant and slowly suffocates our youth.
I will be thirty-five soon and I am barely out of the muck. Maybe it is time for men and women like me to shoulder some of the load by becoming the leaders that I cannot find.
Talib DiNero Williams is a graduate of The Evergreen State College and currently works for Gateways for Incarcerated Youth. He lives in Olympia, WA and when not advocating for equality in access to education for all youth, he spends his free time playing softball.