Have I Wasted the Civil Rights Legacy?

On the eve of the March on Washington, a writer asks if she's made the most of hard-fought victories.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — I have a friend, a good friend, with whom I share an affliction. He, too, comes from a good family that has done many great things in the face of dire situations, which he and I would learn about only in books. We read about the “Whites Only” bathrooms, lunch counters, the inferior schooling and poverty, things we would never experience firsthand or know, thanks to the hard work of those who came before us.

And yet, neither of us felt good about ourselves. He, a graduate student at a prestigious university, and I, a writer, were both battling a form of guilt — a survivor’s guilt, or what could be better explained as “successor’s guilt.” Meaning, we were the heirs of a revolution, and this was the best we could do?

We were staring into the abyss and blinking profusely, partially immobilized with fear. We would be the first generation in our families not to do better than our parents, thanks to our own well-meaning, but at times faulty judgment and careers crippled by “the perpetual, slow-moving recession” black people have been in since 2009.

Both of us had chosen to do exactly what we wanted in life, assuming that we would, naturally, do great things. And I’m sure, if you asked our mothers, they’d say they were proud of us, but a mother’s unconditional love brings little solace. After all, the obstacles of segregation and abject poverty were successfully removed from our lives, thanks to our parents and those who fought and died for us. We had to do better.

And yet, we had not.

This month we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, an iconic moment in civil rights history. As I reflect on what my parents and grandparents witnessed, I wonder if my generation can live up to its potential. Or, more personally, will I live up to my potential, standing on the shoulders of those who came before me?

Like my friend, I was raised on “the movement.” I was taught my history. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Dick Gregory’s memoir, Nigger, when I was 12. I watched and read and learned so much about the movement that my father once joked that if I kept watching the documentary Eyes on the Prize, it was going to turn me into a militant.

It didn’t. But it did make me self-aware.

My father was only 21 years old when the March on Washington took place. My mother, who had yet to meet my dad, was 19. My parents, like a lot of black people, were not directly involved in the movement. They weren’t activists. They were among the people for whom others were fighting and dying.

And perhaps out of their own ambition, as well as a desire to take advantage of opportunities long denied to their parents and grandparents, both did not let the work of the civil rights movement go in vain. In my father’s more than 30-year career in the aerospace industry, he said he went into every raise negotiation with the mindset that this raise wasn’t just for him or the wife and daughters he was supporting, but that he was owed raises for the money his parents never made, for the promises unfulfilled for generations, for the dreams deferred.

I do not have the same impetus as I drift through life. There is no need to fight my father’s or my mother’s war, since they both won on their own. Instead, I have been a wanderer searching for myself in the written word. This, if you ask my parents, was by design.

“Don’t feel bad about it,” said the woman who was born in a shack and now lives in a home that she and her husband built on their own. “Feel good. I wish I could have had your childhood.”