My generation is often accused of not knowing our history. This sets up a number of problems. 1) It presupposes history as a good launching point for present action. 2) It implies that there is a clear and neat history that we should be learning. And 3) it sends the blame in the wrong direction.
In actuality, it is not that we don’t know our history, but rather we know what we are taught in our schools. And therefore, we know our history about as well as the rest of America. That is the real problem. Black millennials need to know our history better than America does.
As an example, the legacy of Dr. King presents us with America’s history deficiency. His legacy has become institutionalized. And because his legacy has become institutionalized, it is necessary that his memory be somewhat ahistorical and unbalanced. Because in all honesty, most institutions of this country should have very little cause to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King.
But it is not enough to continually unearth the truer legacy of Dr. King’s radical potential. As a member of the millennial generation, I am living in the reality that is but a shadow of Dr. King’s real dream. And so the real job of Black millennials is not to learn “history,” but to figure out whose history we have learned, whose history we haven’t learned, and then figure out what to do with that history.
For Black millennials, all history needs to do is give us proof that change can happen. But first we need to get to the bottom of things, learn for ourselves, read for ourselves, and share knowledge with one another, so that we can avoid the whitewashing of history. America works to dilute history. So we need to dig back to find out what our history really is. We need to learn that it was not just Black, but full of queer people, women, and trans* people. Folks who had abilities and folks who had disabilities. It was cross-cultural. It was violent and nonviolent. It was not full of just leaders but builders and thinkers and lovers. It was not made of binaries, but intersections. Our history was not neat, but messy. And most certainly our history is not over.
But once we get a little closer to the truth, we need to use our history as a litmus test to evaluate the exigencies of the present. Once you find out about the progresses Dr. King made, you realize how many of them were undone and continue to be undone. Once you realize who was left out of history, you begin to realize which communities need our love today. You begin to wonder what exactly we are celebrating? And then, because you have no answer, you begin to act.
So yes, Black millennials have to know our history better than America does. But we need to realize that history meets the needs of the inquirer. Rather than languishing in the past, we have to realize that we already have everything we need to enact real progress. We need not look too much further than ourselves, and figure out what we can do.
Let us not forget that the Dream Defenders were cut from the 50th Anniversary Commemoration for the March on Washington. Which means we live in a reality where the inheritors of Dr. King’s Dream don’t even get the chance to talk about how the dream turned out. Which says to me that we don’t need to look back for too long, all we need to do is look around.