I recently taught history to a group of Harlem’s best and brightest teens. They are kids from all walks of life. Some are outgoing and energetic. Others are shy and reserved. All of them are leaning forward, toward a brighter future, leaving the past behind.
These young people are very much like you.
Their optimism punctuates their sense of the world. They imagine themselves joining the ranks of the professional and entrepreneurial classes. They want to be change agents. They know that ambition plus hard work equals success. They exude the kind of confidence that makes them stand out from the crowd. They keep their chins up, shoulders back and pants buckled.
Their story is your story and mine. Before I reached double digits, I was “clean and articulate,” using confidence, charm and personality to peddle greeting cards and candy door-to-door in my apartment building. On the street, I offered to pump gas for motorists, and I solicited tips for pushing grocery carts from the store to the parking lot. My first real job began at a computer store when I was 12, where I was the Doogie Howser, M.D., of first-generation PC sales. This was 30 years ago in 1984, the year the Apple Macintosh came on the scene. I sold so many computers that I became a store manager in high school. By the time I graduated I wanted to be, according to my senior yearbook caption, “CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
Failure was never an option. I was a post-civil rights baby and a child of the Reagan revolution. With the so-called end of racism, deregulated markets and trickle-down economics, my generation was taught to get paid and never look back. Black history made victims, not victors. We were told to keep our eyes on the prize of the American dream. Anyone who did not achieve it had only herself to blame. Rosa and Martin had already paved the way.
But this was a lie wrapped in the enduring myth of American Exceptionalism. The deceit is that every generation does better than the next—always a little less racism and a little more opportunity. Or as President Obama said at last spring’s Morehouse commencement, “[T]here’s no longer any room for excuses … you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured.”
History suggests otherwise. Because we were taught to ignore the past, we were less prepared to protect our gains and defend our cultural heritage. You have been taught the same, and now your generation faces a crisis of inequality not seen in three quarters of a century.
Yet you have a choice, just like I did when I realized that the war on drugs, mass incarceration and legalized racial profiling, like stop and frisk, had begun under my generation’s watch.
I chose to get a doctorate in history and become “CEO” of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the nation’s oldest and most important cultural institutions. I chose to define success by how I could help and educate others. I chose to see history as a tool of empowerment and to use the past as the best guide to understanding and overcoming the challenges of our time.
As I taught my Harlem students at the Schomburg, know yesterday to understand today and to make a better tomorrow.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America. He is also a 2013 The Root 100 honoree.