Have I Wasted the Civil Rights Legacy?

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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."

And yet, I didn't feel good. Successor's guilt wouldn't let me. I felt as if I and, by some extension, the suburban-raised end of my generation were "soft." Our parents and grandparents had gone through so much more, and here I needed anti-depressants and mood stabilizers to get through my days.


"We're wasting it," my friend-in-guilt would tell me over the phone as we talked about gun violence or the various celebrations of ignorance passing as entertainment. "We wasted it all."

But were we really mad at reality television or gangbangers? We, after all, said, "we," by extension adding ourselves to those who had "wasted" this opportunity given to us.


We were standing on the shoulders of giants and slipping off, falling into uncertainty.

Today there are many successful black figures. There are athletes and entertainers and Oprah and the president of the United States. But underneath those who did make it, there are the multitudes who did not. And what becomes of them? What does it mean?


I asked my father a stupid question once. I asked him if I had been a disappointment. He told me that if I thought he thought I was a disappointment, that wasn't coming from him. That there wasn't anyone in the family who felt that way. That it was me putting unnecessary expectations on myself, when my father's only dream for me was happiness.

My friend-in-guilt also turned to his family with similar statements and was told to stop comparing himself to his grandfather and great-grandfather. It was killing him, for one, to do so, and second, he was told it wasn't a contest.


Our parents, to the contrary of our perceived decadence and weakness, explained to us that love doesn't work that way. That they and those before them had fought hard so their children could have what they and so many others had not had.

A choice.

Our parents explained that they'd built a sturdy foundation for us. And that if we fell, they would pick us up again. Because a parent's love and a movement's dream is a love and a movement unconditional, a hope unconditional for a better future. And successor's guilt or not, we were part of this, and we were told to not be ashamed. Our today was someone else's dream; the only way we could squander it would be if we refused to live it. If we opted for shame and despair over hope and ambition.


So my friend-in-guilt and I are really trying to accept that, to accept slipping and then climbing back on. Let's hope this time we stay there.

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine. 


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