William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies
Particularly this last year has been extraordinary. I spoke to the Black Graduation this year. These are young people for whom the Obama thing was a given, and it wasn’t just a given once, it was a given twice. They’ve had two presidential terms with an African American president. These are also the young people who saw Trayvon [Martin], and who were—I was stunned by the verdict. I expected it, but I was stunned. They didn’t expect it. I talk with them, particularly this year, as they prepared to come to their senior year, Ferguson erupts, or Staten Island. Those verdicts came down during their senior year. There has been a resurgence in the level of activism, not just around racial justice and criminal justice, but also the young people who are organizing around sexual violence. They’re upset and they’re hurt, deeply hurt and deeply angry, and rightly so, but to me it is so beautiful.
They bring tears to my eyes, because it’s a level of activism and a willingness to put their bodies on the line that I have not seen. It’s not about nostalgia for a moment that they didn’t live in. They are living in this moment, and that’s something. Those two moments, the Obama moment and—like you said, not just what happens to you, but what you do with it—that they decided to step up and organize. Those of us who are feminists feel sometimes like, oh God, what happened? All these young women who think feminism is a dirty word. And then, boom, here they are, creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own. Their institutions are not going to tolerate sexual violence. They are not going to just take mass incarceration for granted, and this is what we should do. They can change their institution. The fact that they have to do it is disheartening. The fact that they are doing it, to me, is just extraordinary. Those are the changes I think I’ve seen in the last sixteen years. I’m just so grateful that I got to witness them, because it’s easy to become jaded. In both of those instances, you can’t become jaded.