With the recent deaths of former NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks, 85; civil rights icon Dorothy I. Height, 98; and entertainer Lena Horne, 92, I am reminded that our cultural giants are mere men and women, like the rest of us. They are ordinary people who live and die, as we all will.
Of course, the extraordinary work done by these three figures during their time on earth has added immeasurably to the lives of those whom they will never know. For this reason they will remain irreplaceable in our collective memory. And yet despite their contributions, many of us, in the wake of their passing, selfishly clamor for more of their gifts.
Following the deaths of such heroes, there are the inevitable quiet musings and debates—in churches, salons, kitchens and other safe places in our communities—about who will carry on their legacies. Who is the next Dorothy Height? Whom would you consider the modern-day Lena Horne? And during his presidential campaign, there were even those who hurriedly depicted President Barack Obama as the second coming of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But no one else will measure up to these legends, in that no one else will do what they did. And that's exactly as our leaders would have it. We do a disservice to their work to look for the same hard-fought battles, using "struggle" as a requirement for worthiness. We undermine our present-day achievements when we continually look behind us for validation. Not yet ready to let go, we seek the past in our present. In doing so, however, we miss opportunities for individual greatness in the future.
Hooks, Height and Horne led very different lives, but their pursuit of their individual goals did not make them any less central to the advancement of black America. The opportunities that they created for themselves and others in three distinct arenas prove only that possibilities are endless, and that following someone else's blueprint is misguided:
— Hooks led lunch-counter sit-ins during the 1960s. In 1965, he became the first black man to sit on the bench of a Tennessee state court since Reconstruction, and in 1972, he joined the FCC, becoming its first black member. From there, he championed civil rights within the corporate world, working to dismantle the structural discrimination that still operates in many organizations today.
— Height, matriarch of the civil rights movement, served for 40 years as president of the National Council of Negro Women and lobbied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for women's rights.
— Horne was the first black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio, specifying that she would never play a maid and thus transforming the image of black women in the movie industry.
None of them chose their paths so that they could become legendary. They became legendary because they dared to be themselves. "I don't have to be a ‘symbol' to anybody," Horne once said. "I don't have to be a ‘first' to anybody. … I'm me, and I'm like nobody else." Because these towering figures navigated within a confined space to dismantle the limitations of "blackness" within American society, today we have greater freedom to define ourselves.
The challenges confronting the current generation of African Americans are different from those that our forefathers and foremothers faced. Indeed, the very notion of a "civil rights leader" is antiquated, given the increasing number of black elected officials, an emerging black middle class, and the growing number of young black people pursuing higher education.
This doesn't mean that black people don't face struggles in this new era. There are many, including wealth but also health inequity, most notably due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the increasingly marginal status of young black men; and environmental racism, both urban and rural, which has a huge impact on African Americans but especially on our children. But the nature of these challenges requires us to harness our modern perspective and tools—with the same resolve that we so admire in our ancestors—in order to create our own successes.
What we cannot do is become so complacent in our deference to our idols that we lose the ability to see the heroic within ourselves. As President Obama has said, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."