The work must be intergenerational
A key in maintaining and sustaining our movements is building autonomous, interdependent, reciprocal intergenerational relationships.
“Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
Content warning: mentions of lynching, generational trauma, death
In the midst of the already immediate and legitimate critique of how practices within our movements reinforce inaccessibility and romanticize unattainable productivity, generations are being left behind. Even in writing that statement, I cringe because language isn’t objective. It holds meaning, and the passiveness of my tone doesn’t really account for the devastating impacts that ageism has had on the liberation of all Black folks.
In writing this essay, I both intend to name and account for some of the ways that ageism has seeped into everything we do, as well as highlight what we lose when we cling to it. I also acknowledge that for many of us, considering and/or engaging in intergenerational relationships with elders feels vulnerable and potentially unsafe.
Respectability politics have primarily been strengthened by the expectations of how youth and younger folks are to engage with older people. When those expectations aren’t adhered to, youth have been physically and emotionally punished, threatened and abused as a consequence for their actions. That wielding of authority has had long term effects on younger Black lives, even when they grow up.
I also want to be clear that I do not consider every older person to be an elder. To receive the honor of an elder (for me), is to be committed to practicing compassionate, reciprocal and honest connections with all generations. Though my oldest friend turns ninety nine this year, I recognize that this is not the experience of all Black folks. And I honor those who have chosen out of these dynamics because they are too painful, too carceral or too condescending.
The West’s influence and obsession with youth, production and newness have contributed to the perception that older people in our communities are disposable. This obsession is indicative of a particular, willful individualism that lays the groundwork that makes it possible to ignore the realities Black elders have experienced. It also prevents us from drawing parallels and driving collaborative, intergenerational strategies.
The work is messy. And it needs constant examination. Especially as collective loneliness and grief sits on our bones.
The work must also be intergenerational. If we are to truly build autonomous and interdependent communities that don’t unintentionally reproduce the systems and practices we aim to dismantle, it has to be.
I spoke with five elders to get their perspective on the complicated but all too familiar moment we are in. In our conversations, they shared stories about the first time they saw someone lynched. They talked about church bombings, dead children, civil unrest and the everyday horror of seeing photos of dead Black and Brown people across town (long before body cameras).
We shared secrets, haunts, observations, parallels, fears, and joys. We laughed and listened. And in that space, we carved out opportunities to disrupt the constant and often irreparable conditions that say multiple truths can’t be held at the same time.
For the folks who are interested in what our elders are thinking right now, I offer their words:
- Nobody is listening. Youth don’t want to listen to us. There’s a heap of history you all are missing out on because you think we’re preaching. – Clint Smith of Montgomery, Alabama, 81
2. I’m not going to be here much longer and I’m okay with that, it’s how life works. But when you take the helm, don’t forget about the people who were here before you. – Betty Reid Soskin, 98, Richmond, CA
3. You have to know history, not the history they tell in books, but the communal history. There’s the history that’s been printed and the history that people have lived. That history holds more truth than what’s on paper. For instance, Rodney King was supposed to be throwing twelve police officers around, but when we finally saw the footage, he was in a fetal position like a baby getting billy clubbed. Officers struck him with batons over fifty times, yet even now they keep talking about how powerful he was, almost superhuman. This is why history is important. He was 25, on the ground, and afraid. – Warner Stafford, 75 Chino Hills, CA
4. Where I grew up, caucasians had a regular practice of throwing acid when they got mad. They threw them on cars and through windows with children in the backseat. They poured it in pools to keep us out. So when you ask me about Black Lives Matter, that is what I think about. When my family would go on vacation, we never stopped anywhere but to get gas. Some stations we didn’t even stop at, it was that bad. We kept our food in coolers. We didn’t even roll our windows down. I got heat stroke once because it was too hot in there. We had to pull over on a side road to let me out for five minutes. That’s all the time I got. Coulda died. –Sheryl Eames, 84
5. In my building, our landlord has served everyone with a three day notice. We organized to not pay our rent during the coronavirus because we couldn’t get work and now we’re at risk of eviction. Almost everyone in this building is Black or Brown and it brings me back to the times when my family was forced out of our home and into a concentration camp. This was after Pearl Harbor was bombed and all people who looked Japanese, or were considered illegal aliens, were there. I was around 11 then and I will never forget it. We never got our house back. My sister lives here too.- Wendy Chu, 86 Brooklyn, NY
Building autonomous, interdependent, reciprocal intergenerational relationships is one of the keys to maintaining and sustaining our movements. When we listen to and make space for all experiences, we counteract the extractive, obsessive, cultural disposal of all Black lives, and especially the lives of our elders.
When we ignore the historical memories of the folks who come before us, we get less grounded in our actions, practices and commitments. We also sometimes obsess over being the “first”, when our folks have been organizing and leading movements since the beginning of time. Centering intergenerational relationships in our movements and future planning, reminds us that recognizing we are all worthy is essential. We all deserve tenderness, dignity and protection.
It is in the collaborative process of revisiting memories and experiences that we get more strategic and balanced in how we move forward to actualize worlds where antiBlack violence is globally obliterated. Our elders are here now. May we all listen to one another.