Harry Belafonte pictured with civil rights legends Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

Civil rights legends Harry Belafonte, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

It's not hard to understand why some Blacks in America today long for the icons of the past.  The readily available images of “vintage Blackness” have allowed so many of us to be blessed with the sight of Harry Belafonte, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s brotherhood, Eartha Kitt’s uncompromising fierceness, and young SNCC activists fearlessness as they stared defiantly into a segregationist’s camera. Hair and suits finely pressed, Black cool and resistance made real in the photographic image. The consumption of such images of undeniably, unabashedly Black glamor is in many ways an act of Black self-recognition, a declaration something like, “We’ve always been this fly, and we’ve always known it.” Black power as aesthetic, self love as revolution.

When I gaze at these elegant Black bodies, frozen in black and white, I cannot help but experience an aching desire to have been there in the thick of an important period in Black artistic production and struggle. The distance between my historical F.O.M.O. and a real belief that we have seen the last of grand Black men and women is small, so I understand when some look at the photographs of these previous versions of ourselves and lament how far we’ve fallen from grace.

The recent deaths of representative figures of this era of supposed Black nobility -- Ruby Dee, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, and Nelson Mandela -- have predictably invited unfavorable comparisons between “us” now and then (the memes say it all). A sense of grief over a fading era of visible, Pan-African, unbought and unbossed Black activism accompanies the loss of these luminaries. Grief turns into condemnation when we who are living are accused of being unworthy recipients of the legacy of Black struggle. Black people in the 21st Century are cowards, the argument goes, sacrificing radical politics for the enjoyment of the few pleasures that we are afforded in a White supremacist society. The public spat between a then 86-year-old Belafonte and Jay Z last year was reduced to this intergenerational conflict: the arrogant young son who thinks his "presence is charity”and the esteemed elder asking the son to do more, be more. 

When we look at our current state of Black activism through the lens of that dispute, then the argument is a seductive one. Who can look at that popular 1991 photograph of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing—no, getting down—over the ground that holds Langston Hughes’ remains and not feel a sense of gratitude at having been allowed to experience even a little of the magnificence of these people? Perhaps it is this sense of awe that prompts some to turn back to everyone else with an accusatory finger, asking, “Why can’t we look like that today?” (Oh, right. It’s because too many of us sag our pants and wear weaves).

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Of course, what is ironic in the use of elder Black radicals to chastise contemporary culture is that much of their work and thinking was driven by a refusal to look nostalgically at a glorious Black past. So many of the 20th century Black thinkers that some now use to condemn the state of contemporary Black politics rejected the idea that the past held any one solution for Black collective struggle. Instead, what motivated them was the urgency of grappling with the present. For instance, even as he and others thought about the way that African traditions shaped African-American culture, Baraka insisted that the blues were liberatory because they were grounded in an expression of lived, ongoing Black struggle. While many of his contemporaries were stuck on tales of royal African lineages and civilizations, (suggesting that Black folks are continually transfixed by images of a noble past) Baraka explained that the point of Black American cultural expression wasn’t “Back to Africa” but “Stay and Fight!”

Some seem to have interpreted “staying and fighting” as replicating the struggles of the past. And so we all fall short when we are unable to reproduce the marches and boycotts captured in the images we revere.

Instead, we should train our eyes to see the new forms of Black resistance emerging in the 21st century. Many of these movements, occurring in multiple places (both on and offline) rest on complicating presumed alliances and forms of authority. They are fragmented, organizing around race, sexuality, gender and class, and take shape in ways that draw on and also transform the models of the past.

The Dream Defenders, a youth-driven social justice movement mobilized after the murder of Trayvon Martin, invoke the legacy of civil rights struggle without being limited by notions of what respectable black protest ought to look like. For the Dream Defenders, Black protest does not require suits and ties, nor does it require the polite marginalization of female voices. Instead, they intend to win by being insistently coalitional, linking not only the fates of women and men, but Black and brown citizens.

Similarly, queer people of color activists are busy envisioning and making possible a world in which “old” Black issues, such as prison reform and police harassment, cannot be divorced from questions of gender and sexuality. Tellingly, the most visible mainstream figure in this movement, the actress Laverne Cox, rejects the idea that she is the figurehead, asserting that she is not a role model to be worshipped but “a possibility model.” Cox’s cultural ascendance suggests that the old idea of The Race Man no longer holds any currency, and thank goodness for that. Instead of depending on great men to save us, queer activism invites us to question narrow conceptions of gender and sexuality that leave so many Black bodies in harm’s way.

Then there is the revolution of the mind that often takes place on Twitter.  What’s been dismissed by some as “Hashtag Activism,” is actually an online movement of internationally trending topics, often started by women of color, that change or drive the mainstream media narratives surrounding many previously erased and ignored issues of concern to the Black community and other people of color allies.  Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen (decrying both the erasure of and attacks on women of color by White feminists), Feminista Jones and @BlackGirlDanger’s #YouOkSis campaign (raising awareness of men’s street harassment and providing a solution to help harassed women) and Jamilah Lemieux’s #BlackPowerIsforBlackMen (exposing Black male misogyny against Black women) are powerful examples of Black community activism in the digital age.

There is certainly power in knowing the richness of Black history throughout the Diaspora, that subjection is not our natural state and that even in the midst of personal and institutionalized suffering, genius and creativity could not be stifled. The icons of the past remind us that Black brilliance runs in our veins; they have left us a great legacy. But they did not fight their battles so that we would then be trapped in their images. Instead, we should accept Belafonte's challenge and, in our own ways,  build upon the inheritance he and so many others left for us,and leave something new for the next generation. For those who keep looking to the past and asking “Why don’t we look like that anymore?” We must answer, “Because we can look like so many other as yet undefined things.”