Jay Z’s characterization of Obama’s global visibility offers a contrasting perspective. “Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America, is enough.” What this sentiment ignores is the vital connection between individual achievement and collective action that animated black freedom struggles. As a 43-year-old black New Yorker, this makes Shawn Carter an outlier from his own generation, which came of age amid bruising protests for racial justice in the 1980s, an atmosphere that produced a local activist named Al Sharpton and the national presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson.
However, much has changed in the post civil rights era. Whereas a generation of famous black athletes (Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown) and entertainers (Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye) used their prodigious talents to call attention to racism and Jim Crow, their 21st-century counterparts are loath to risk their current and future earning power on anything that smacks of controversy.
Trayvon Martin’s stunning death, and the subsequent Zimmerman trial, interrupted this status quo, drawing a diverse range of support from LeBron James, Jay Z and Beyoncé, who rightfully compared Trayvon’s death to Emmett Till’s.
Belafonte is understandably frustrated, disappointed and angry at this current crop of high-profile entertainers’ unwillingness to risk more for the black community. Yet his public criticism of Jay Z, however justified in his mind, brings us no closer to the generational rapprochement that is required to pass the baton from the civil rights generation to the iPhone generation.
Young people, whether Jay Z’s generation or millennials, want a dialogue, not a monologue. They enjoy conversation and not being lectured to. If Belafonte ever does get that sit-down with Jay and Bey, hopefully he can start by praising their enormous collective talent and accomplishments, while noting that, at least in his era, their counterparts achieved even greater heights by joining in a movement for human rights and racial justice that tried nothing less than to redeem America’s soul.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.