Editor’s Note:

As TransAfrica Forum marked its thirtieth anniversary in Washington November 7, author Walter Mosley paid tribute to actress and activist Ruby Dee, who received the organization’s Pan-African Lifetime Achievement Award. His remarks are published here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

There’s a lot of talk in our community about elders. Those individuals who embody and house wisdom passed down from older, some say stronger, times. They talk about standing on the shoulders of our elders, standing in their shadows. Our youth are asked to show respect for the gray hairs and spent strength of men and women who once were witness to a time of great change and tumult.

We speak about debt and history and experience as if they were given things. We trot out the septuagenarians and octogenarians and say, “Look here! These are the trailblazers. Without them you would be lost in a forever night. You would be nothing if it wasn’t for their torches against the darkness.”

And there is no room left for discussion or, heaven forbid, disagreement. Anyone who disputes or denounces this rock-solid reality is ridiculed and driven from the room, from the shadows and from the shoulders they, supposedly, stand upon.

This because youth is always suspect, with its wide-eyed optimism and its uncontrollable passions. The arrogance of youth seems to need to have the stuffing knocked out of it. They need to be shown that they were not the first ones to stand up and shout about freedom.

We say these things. We mouth our love of elders, especially as we age and see that we are no longer supple and beautiful, hungered after and loved for our bodies. We talk about elders, but most of us are just older and old. We aged but did not achieve wisdom. We have retirement accounts but have not earned the interest or respect of those generations that languish in the aftermath of failed movements and empty promises.

It is far too easy for us to point at the past and brag and bluster and puff out our chests like we had we had something to do with it. After all, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Coretta Scott King and many, many more were children themselves when they overturned the barricades of the last vestiges of those who would have had us think they were our masters.

Most of us have just gotten older. We might have marched a little or said some prayers, but we have to remember that the movement isn’t about us. True leadership comes from the selflessness of giving, giving and when everything is gone then giving some more.

An elder speaks truth not only to followers but to peers, especially to her peers. She speaks out regardless of the fallout or the rage. She doesn’t sit easily on the throne of her adulation but gets out on the street. She acts up not wise.

The idea of an elder simply being of a certain age is a mediocrity that we cannot afford. The idea of an elder being a footstool is actually an impediment to youth. It is part of the reason we have so many of our youth languishing in prisons and self-medicating themselves into oblivion.

An elder holds out her hand to children and says, “Lead me, child. I will follow.” And in doing that she empowers and braces, moves forward side by side with people she loves and is a part of.

An elder is Ruby Dee with her crystal-clear vision and love of whimsy, her extraordinary talent and knowledge of her soul. Ruby Dee doesn’t want your bended knee or rote felicitations. She wants to stand out in the street with you or in the president’s mansion with you or down the road looking back on where you both have traveled. She is a truth-teller even when using the liar’s own words. She is a truth-teller even when her mouth is shut or the volume has been turned off. She is our elder and our sister and our daughter. She is our unborn generation and we celebrate her as we celebrate the moon: our guide through the dark, dark night.