My mother was born in 1950 in segregated Mississippi. The first time she met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she was at home after church in the late ’50s when he visited my grandmother and her young family. My grandmother was a respected schoolteacher, and a lot of those civil rights leaders understood that getting in good with the teachers was a good way to connect with the young people.
My mother has a living memory of events I’ve only read about. Periodically, she will read my columns and tell me that I got something wrong about our history—not the facts of it but the sense of it. I write in faded tones about what she experienced in vibrant color.
My father was part of the committee that wrote the national platforms for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the late ’60s. He started a Black-owned newspaper covering Harlem. Later he was the first Black person elected to the legislature in New York’s Suffolk County. He died a couple of years ago.
The death of John Lewis on July 17 is a national example of what many Black people my age are experiencing personally or will experience soon: the death of living memory. The greatest Black generation, the generation of heroes and heroines who fought fascism and oppression here on American soil, is passing on. The loss of a national icon like Lewis is devastating, but every day we lose somebody—somebody who integrated a school or boycotted a bus line or broke down a barrier younger people don’t even know existed.
As these elders die and become ancestors, I wonder if my generation is ready to become the new elders. I think of my Black generation in far more expansive ways than the terms “boomer,” “Gen X,” and “millennial,” which speak primarily to white cultural moments. My generation is the one that benefited from but did not have to fight for the Civil Rights Act. We lived through the dismantling of legal discrimination but were also alive to witness the Reagan-era counterattack against such gains. My generation has had to spend just as much time defending rights that were won by our parents as it has fighting for an expansion of social justice for our children.
My generation will likely die in a less just world than the one we were born into. While I doubt our world will devolve into the full horrors of the pre-civil-rights days—Lewis’s legacy is secure and victorious—on all of the big fights, from segregation to voting rights, people my age have seen more losses than gains.
And so I wonder if we are ready to tend the flames of justice and equality our parents lit. I wonder if we, who have spent so much time in a defensive crouch, can be good guides along the road to the mountaintop.
My panic at being handed the baton is tempered by looking at the community of Black excellence that is already here and more visible than ever. The next generation of Black leaders and thinkers and elders is with us, and it is leading. The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II teaches a clinic on moral clarity every time he opens his mouth. Anytime I wonder what James Baldwin would have said about a current issue, I need only look to what Nikole Hannah-Jones is saying right now. I don’t need to pull out a Ouija board to ask Thurgood Marshall how to fight for legal equality, because Sherrilyn Ifill has an e-mail address. And while I have to share him with white people, Barack Hussein Obama is a Black elder 400 years in the making.
One area in which my generation has surpassed our parents is in recognizing women so that they can lead from the front. Black women have always been leaders in the civil rights movement, but they have not always been honored as such. My generation has done at least somewhat better than all the previous ones (a low bar) at not standing in their way. From Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi to Patrisse Cullors and so many others, women are defining the terms of social justice for this generation. The movement is finally removing impediments so that all available warriors can be their full selves in this fight.
Still, when it comes to visionary leadership and righteous impatience, my generation has nothing on the next group up. The violence and oppression of the Jim Crow era forged the greatest generation, and right now the brutality and bigotry of the Trump era are forging a whole generation of superheroes on our streets and in our classrooms.
Young people today have the energy and vitality my parents once did. They are unwilling to accept injustice, whether it comes from the police, the media, or the fossil fuel titans destroying the earth. They’re building multiethnic, intersectional coalitions, and they will soon have the votes to reshape this country in whatever ways they deem necessary. They don’t remember what the world was like in 1945—or even 1985—and thus are unencumbered by it. The future is theirs, and they have leaders who are ready to seize it.
My generation, most likely, is merely an interstitial one, existing between two great social justice movements. Our job is maybe not to coach the young people but to cut up some orange slices and cheer them on as they take the field. And maybe, when they ask us, we can do what all elders do: Tell stories. I do not have a lived experience of the civil rights era. But I have stayed up way past my bedtime listening to those who do. Other people collect recipes from their mothers; I collect stories. So I can’t tell you how to make her potato salad, but I can tell you that Brown v. Board of Education didn’t do squat to help a Black woman check out a book from a library in the South. It will be my job to tell her grandchildren about that when they learn about the case in school.
So much is lost when our heroes pass away. It is now on my generation to remember.