My Youth is a Narrative: A Letter to Black Elders

This is my way of affirming my position in society as a black millennial woman irrespective of the way I, and my generation, are perceived by our black elders. I am not one to bite my tongue no matter who I am talking to, that is not my nature. However, it is my nature to be honest. I consider it a testament to my character that I not only speak my truth, but do so without wavering. 

This is a letter to black elders. My youth is a narrative and a blueprint. 

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of blindly respecting my elders, mainly because I am shown so little in return. It is a cultural principle in the black community to respect your elders without question, without critique, and without exception. It is how we’ve managed to take care of each other for so long. It is a sign of respect and honor to abide by the guidelines set forth by those that came before us without question because of their sacrifice, their trials and tribulations. We, the youth, have no right to question them, we have no right to critique them, that is the basis of their argument. I call bullshit.

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I have always been a defiant person so this has never set well with me. Now, at almost 27 years old navigating my young black womanhood, living in a predominately white city, working with white people, navigating imposter syndrome, covert racism, overt sexism, and the like I find it both harmful and angering when older generations tell me to pipe down because they think I’m not old enough to understand the thralls of society. I’m confused with this ever present trend of knocking the youth down a few pegs, humbling us, and silencing us. I question the sincerity and intent of older generations who take this approach. What is your goal? I cannot consciously allow myself to be docile in the face of my elders in the name of respect. I will never respect anyone that much. Furthermore, that’s not respect and it’s not honor, it’s will-breaking and dehumanizing. I cannot apologize for what you may have experienced. There’s nothing I can do to make up for the oppressive society that you were subjected to, just as you cannot apologize to the generations before you.

However, I am sorry that you weren’t given the space to question those before you. Maybe if you had, you’d be more sympathetic.

I am sorry that your will was so broken that it caused you to try and break the will of those after you. What happened to you was wrong, and what you’re doing to me and my generation is wrong too. There is room for both of those conversations to occur concurrently. But it is not enough to have these conversations if your actions won’t change. If the intent isn’t to engage honestly, support, and to listen and not be heard, then please do not waste our time. I’m asking this out of respect for myself and my peers, not you. I watch my baby sister, who is 10 years younger than me, question the world around her. I see her curiosity and I answer her questions or I guide her so that she can answer them herself. I would never open a door of communication for her and then dismiss her concerns because of her age. She is a child, and I would never disrespect her like that and I, an adult, will not tolerate that level of disrespect either. I don’t care who or how old you are. It is quite astonishing that at your big age, with all of your wisdom, and lived experiences, you haven’t learned much of anything from those before you.

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If history has taught us nothing, it’s taught us that the narrative of the youth is the blueprint of progression.

To ignore that is to ignore our resilient nature and the progress that we have made as a people. It also alienates the youth from being actively engaged in a society that we will be responsible for shaping and leading. How can you champion the youth as the future, and then be so callous towards us because we do not operate the way you would like for us to? Why are our attempts always met with opposition for no other reason than the fact that we are young? Is that not symbolic of you, the older generation, that you may have fostered an environment that kept us in a perpetual state of ignorance by refusing to answer our questions? I’m curious to know how you justify dismissing a group of people that have watched you, silently and eagerly, because you held tightly onto the trope that questioning or fundamentally disagreeing with older people is disrespectful.

How do you justify denying us our right to dissent in our formative years and then turn around and shame us for trying to figure it out on our own now that we’re adults?

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You cannot have it both ways.

As I said, these conversations can exist concurrently, but it is not fair to us, as we are now adults, to have to curtail our narratives because of our age. Much like activists of the past, our youth is our narrative, we have nothing to lose and so much to gain, we don’t deserve to be shot down anymore than you did when you were our age. I will not insult your intelligence or waste my time by going on a tirade of how you may have felt when your parents and grandparents treated you the way you treat us.

You know how it felt, you don’t care because you wish for us to suffer as you have suffered.

There is no other logical explanation for your insensitive disposition regarding our discontent towards society. Basing it on our age is an easy way out. If we can’t do as you have done, if we don’t fundamentally agree with your methods, if we can’t prove to you that our discontent is legitimate, then we don’t deserve the right to challenge the societal norms that you had to live under. I am intentionally glossing over how people often romanticize the past without being critical of the present or considering the possibilities of the future. There’s nothing wrong with being nostalgic, it can bring comfort in troubling times, but that’s not what y’all are doing. Y’all are using the past as a barometer of discontent worthiness. It’s not only unfair but it’s counterproductive. Why should we spend our time proving to you and society why our take is valid? We are not challenging falsehoods, we are challenging our realities, we are protesting the results of our lived experiences. Taking the time to explain that to you–our family/mentors, our community, our inspiration–is disheartening.

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At its core, the black community is communal. 

We family different than any other race. We bond differently than any other race. We have a unique relationship and the core of it is based on our youth. As a community we have always done what needed to be done so that our youth can have more options than those before them. How then, do we as a community, justify the need to curtail inquisitiveness because our protests are filled with trap music instead of gospel music? How do we justify imposing respectability politics on our own? Because we’re young? God, I hope not, because I see great things coming from my peers. I see great things coming from myself. I firmly believe that there is a difference between teaching and imposing your will. My hope for our community is that older generations understand the importance of the former and recognize their imposition.

Youth is fleeting, we are growing older and there will be yet another group of young and persistent Black youths to pick up the baton when we lay it down. We owe them more than what we have been subjected to, they deserve to have the full backing of the black community, their inquisitiveness need not be obliterated, but encouraged. I want them to feel comfortable asking why, I want them to understand that anytime they are told not to question something then it should be questioned even more. As much as I want more for them, I have to first start with wanting more for myself.

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I would never aim to be intentionally disrespectful, because my gratitude towards older generations will never waver…but neither will my truth. I am not asking for understanding or respect, I am simply stating the reality of what I, and my fellow black millennials are faced with: Older generations dismissing us because of our age. Instead of policing our tone, curtailing our narrative, and forcing respectability politics on us, support our movements, encourage our progressive principles, and recognize our presence. Yes, we are young, we may be inexperienced, and we are still figuring things out, but we are also valid, determined, and encouraged. Don’t allow your nostalgia to hinder our progress. The narrative of our youth is a blueprint for a progressive society, believe it or not, we are just as invested as you to move the needle forward for our community. Rally behind us, instead of hurrying to silence us.

“You are young, gifted, and Black. We must begin to tell our young. There’s a world waiting for you. Yours is the quest that’s just begun.” – James Weldon Johnson

 

Signed,

A young Black millennial woman.