These are challenging times:
● The “coming out of the closet” of white nationalists in the United States and the world
● The unrelenting impact of climate change on our communities
● Growing economic inequality here and abroad.
In these circumstances it’s easy to become cynical and hopeless. As our academic scholars continue to provide the critical analysis and quantitative proof of all of these crises, where do we turn for hope? The future is created in the present and the actions we take in the present are better informed by a clear understanding of yesterday’s perspectives. These historical perspectives should be grounded in looking at examples of agency, in other words people who took action to create the future they wanted to see even in the face of violent and seemingly insurmountable oppression.
Let us not forget the memories and stories in our families of our uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers and grandparents that possessed the personal strength to stand up for their beliefs and lived their lives in service forged by love for their family, community and world. These stories are the best hope we have of reigniting agency in our own lives, families and communities. Out of the African American experience there are many heroins and heros that fit this description. Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Mari Evans and Angela Davis are some examples of bold and courageous leadership across time and space.
Ida B. Wells is an underrepresented historical figure whose activity as a journalist in the 1890s (130 years ago) can inform us in the present on how to create the future. Following Reconstruction and the withdrawal of northern troops, lynching was used to terrorize African Americans and enforce Jim Crow apartheid. In 1892, three African American men who had opened a grocery store in Memphis were lynched for taking away business from the white-owned store in the same neighborhood. This inspired Ida B. Wells to make a personal commitment to highlight the atrocities of lynching. She spent two months traveling around the the South to gather information on other lynchings and published articles that brought national attention to the issue. In 1893, she was forced to leave Memphis when her office was raided by a mob and her equipment destroyed. She continued her writing and work from New York and abroad. Her life and work amounts to more than I can do justice here. You can watch a documentary about her here: The Legendary Ida B Wells
“Things are changing now, too. Our adults haven’t been wiped out by a plague so they’re still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back. But things have changed a lot, and they’ll change more. Things are always changing. This is just one of the big jumps instead of the little step-by-step changes that are easier to take. People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.” –“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler. Butler is a well-known Black female science fiction writer and is considered one of the leading voices in the the Afrofuturism movement. Afrofuturism is a movement of art, culture and literature that seeks to explore dilemmas faced by Black people and theorize possible futures. Her work, “The Parable of the Sower,” the first of the Earthseed Trilogy, written in 1993, uncannily depicts the present moment in time in which a zealot elected president vows to make America great again (read a New Yorker article about the book).
Imhotep Adisa is the executive director and cofounder of the Kheprw Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering youth and building community wealth in Indianapolis.