Young People and Activism, MLK and CeCe McDonald.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today is the day of patting ourselves on the back, telling ourselves what a good job we did at ending racism. Er, I mean, what a great job MLK did. It’s a day of white people either getting super-duper racist or superficially racially sensitive. Some white people are doing what I’m trying to not horribly fail at right now, and try to be good allies to people of color by letting all of our other white people know that no, the job isn’t done and there is still work to do. I mention that I am trying to not horribly fail, because as a white person I don’t have that same lived experience to write from and as a result, I get things wrong sometimes. I want to actively anticipate and be ready to gracefully accept when I, despite my best efforts, get things wrong instead of closing my eyes and digging my heels in.
This is true for every article I write on, but I mention it specifically now because the article that inspired this one is about how so many of us are very wrong. In this instance, we’re wrong about who MLK was. If you have the short amount of time needed to read that article, do it. It is fantastically enlightening even to those of us who feel we know about these issues. Should you be unable to read it, though, the gist is that MLK cannot be summed up in a speech and a march. MLK ended an era of terrorism towards black people. He did more than fight for laws, he ignited the spirits of black people.
MLK was not the only person fighting to end this era, or the only activist lighting fires of righteousness in underprivileged people. There were many student activists fighting as well. I find, however, that young people are not just a part of the fight, but the core of it. Today I find the same thing to be true. Unfortunately, I see this youth activism discouraged or downplayed quite often. I want to encourage it.
There is something special about young rebellion. I’ve felt it so many times. I know that some aspects of my life don’t gel with my parents’ ideals, and I know that sometimes society finds the kind of person I am, that many of my friends and allies are, to be lesser than them. Quite frankly, I stopped caring.
I know the response. The response is to say that I’m ignorant, that I think I know everything, that when I am older I will calm down and drop out of this phase. I will become normal, conservative, conformist. I don’t believe this is based in fact. I believe it to be based, whether intentionally or not, in fear. Because if us queer kids, or atheist kids, or feminist or what-have-you kids running around don’t stop with our rebellious behaviors and nonconformist attitudes, then someday we’ll stop being kids. We’ll start being queer, feminist, atheist adults. We will be the ones who make the rules, who run the politics and makes the laws, and unless we can be convinced that we have to stop being the people we are, we’re going to end up making ourselves a world that is radically different than the one we were born in.
That would be fantastic. The only problem is that there is such an effort to quell young people, to scare them and force them into acting right by the time they grow up. I understand it, too. Even now I blog under a name that doesn’t connect to my meatspace identity, because I know full well that it could hurt my ability to get a job or go to the best college. Some people risk that, and despite my pseudonymous blogging I do as well, but I can’t in good conscience tell every kid to throw out their chances of doing what they want in life for political activism.
But I can tell kids to be kids while they still have the chance, while their actions are still defensible as just a phase or kids being kids. Because in my opinion, kids have the same fire within them that MLK had to fight to reinstate within disenfranchised black people. That fire is invaluable. It drives us not to waffle between what pleases others the best, but to hold steadfast to our opinions and if we use that properly, to fight for them. It drives us to do the “typical kid” things of defying our parents, or upsetting authority, but if those actions can be utilized to create a better world, then we have to utilize it.
What is that fire for, though? It differs from person to person. Though MLK made great strides for people of color, we still have many disenfranchised people living in this world. Some people are horrified by the evils of poverty, some want to combat sexism that is still entrenched in our culture, some want to continue MLK’s fight in the journey for full equality for people of color.
My anger and my rebellion burns for everyone, but there is a personal battle I fight for queer people. There was a time of widespread terrorism for black people in the American South that MLK fought to end, but terror still reigns for trans* people, particularly women of color or those who are poor. Trans women can be killed and blamed for their deaths in obituaries that refer to them as men. They can fight for their lives and be put in a men’s prison for manslaughter, in a country that doesn’t charge a man who kills a black child in cold blood. CeCe McDonald should never have been charged, but her time in prison, like the time spent in prison by any anonymous freedom rider to MLK’s stay in Birmingham jail, will not be in vain.
I don’t want to claim that CeCe was being a radical activist in her brave act of going to the store while trans, but I do want to insist that anyone who is out there who is afraid to be openly radical, afraid to be openly themselves, do so. Have the bravery that MLK inspired in people to take the risk that you might upset your parents, end up in jail, end up fighting for your life, or end up dead. Have the pride to sing songs of freedom while you take that risk. People criticize young people as feeling like they are invincible, but I do not think that is true. I think we have a sense of bravery and self-righteousness that may be dangerous, but that is also invaluable when we put it towards making the world better.
So young people who may be reading this, let yourself be brave. Let what MLK did for black activists inspire you, let CeCe’s time in prison anger you and encourage you to go out and be radical. Try to be the next Jessica Ahlquist, knowing that even if you fail you will still have made a difference.
And don’t let anything that anyone says about young people stop you.
Featured Image courtesy of Wimena Kane on Flickr