Does age matter in black social movements?

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This writer believes that age inclusion is a necessary component in the struggle for collective liberation

It is undeniable that age, like other demographic variables, shapes our personal experiences and our social interactions in the world. However, there are differences in How? ‘Or’ What, when and Why age has an influence. Many discussions and studies that examine age and ageism have miserably explored how age, when intersected with ethnic, racial, and class variables, creates unconventional outcomes.

Protesters marching down the street holding signs during the March on Washington, 1963 | Credit: Library of Congress

I have previously written about the unique circumstances that shape the lives of black people in the United States over their lifetime, such as state-sanctioned killings, mass incarceration, and the disproportionate burden of certain chronic diseases. The all-consuming racialization of black life and its subsequent oppression has made basic survival for some, and social mobility for others, trump age-related suppression.

Countless black children in America, whether around 1920 or 2022, have known the fear and terror of racial violence and repression.

This is not to say that ageism does not exist among black people; it certainly is. The point being made is that age insecurity may not exist in the same way, or to the same extent, for blacks as it does for whites.

One reason for this may be the prevalence of intergenerational black families. According to a 2018 AARP national survey, Black grandparents are often instrumental in their families and are more likely to be primary caregivers than the general population. Author Nefertiti Austin postulates that “family care, care by a relative or grand-families, living and loving in community are a strength of the black community” and research in this area confirms this assertion.

Modern Struggles for Racial Justice

The transatlantic slave trade that scattered Africans all over the world impacted all slaves, regardless of age. Children suddenly found themselves without parents, and spouses were abruptly separated from their partners. Survival requires collective cooperation in which everyone, regardless of age, has a role to play.

Perhaps this legacy of collective oppression and collective responsibility has shaped modern struggles for racial justice, in which youth and elders make fundamental contributions.

Jeanne Theoharis writes in her book “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks“, that as a child, Rosa Parks sat at the feet of her armed grandfather as he watched their home at night for a racist attack. Countless black children in America, whether circa 1920 or 2022, have experienced fear and terror of racial violence and repression, so it is no surprise that over a century of black youth activism has been documented.

Although the mainstream media in the United States centered black activists on the middle to late age spectrum, the average age of members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was 19 years old. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which served as the main avenue of the civil rights movement for black students, was led primarily by precocious youth.

Aging political prisoners

Age also emerges as an important variable in advocacy for the release of aging political prisoners. A political prisoner can be defined as a person incarcerated on charges related to resisting oppression and repression by the state and vigilantes. Many political prisoners were members of revolutionary organizations targeted and monitored by the United States government. Reflecting racial disparities in the general prison population in the United States, political prisoners are also disproportionately Black, Indigenous, or Latinx.

The oldest political prisoner in the United States is Ruchell Magee, who is 82 and has been behind bars for 58 years. Other long-term political prisoners in the United States include Soundiata Acoli (47 years in prison), Mumia Abu-Jamal (39 years in prison) and Mutulu Shakur (33 years in prison), among several others.

eight of nine Move 9 members who were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 30 years to life in 1978 were released, but the longest incarcerated of the Move 9, chuck delbert, died just 5 months after his release. He was 74 years old and had spent 42 years in prison.

Given this information, one could argue that prisons serve as seniors’ residences for aging black political dissidents. That is, if black political dissidents manage to reach old age. If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had chosen to align themselves with the status quo and live a quieter life, they might have lived past 39. Instead, they willingly and knowingly sacrificed the option of a potentially longer life to express their principled beliefs in black dignity and justice.

Why age is relevant

According to Greg Carr from Howard University, All our attempts at intergenerational dialogue are disrupted and interrupted by a social structure that is absolutely committed to preventing this from happening.”

Through cultural socialization in childhood, we learn respect, authority and power through the prism of age. Formal laws and policies provide parameters for sexual and social relationships based on age. Therefore, age is expected to be relevant in most if not all social spaces, black, white or otherwise.

Black-led social movements are not free from age-related stereotypes and age-influenced class differences that lead to tension and disagreement.

Before Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat in December 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had done so in March of that year. At Jeanne Theoharis biography of rosa parks, she quotes civil rights lawyer Fred Gray saying that Claudette Colvin “gave us all the moral courage to do what we did,” in reference to launching a year-long Montgomery bus boycott. a year. However, due to the fact that Colvin was considered by local black leaders to be “too young” and “spirited”, Rosa Parks was chosen as the more appropriate emblem.

Black-led social movements are not free from age-related stereotypes and age-influenced class differences that lead to tension and disagreement. Nevertheless, I maintain that age does not tend to take precedence in these spaces. While cultural indoctrination and perceptions of belonging may lead to the predominance of middle-aged activists joining particular organizations (i.e. Black Lives Matter), this has not led to homogeneity. of age in black social movements. In these spaces, young activists often show reverence and deference to elders who hold historical memory and experiences that greatly inform contemporary struggles.

Black activists simply cannot afford to weaponize age when confronted with more mainstream concerns such as the preservation of life. Ageism not only deprives social movements of critical contributions, it is also fundamentally antithetical to justice. We should not see age inclusion as an accommodation or an obligation, but rather as a necessary component in the struggle for collective liberation.

Evelyne Reynolds is an associate professor of sociology at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and co-founder of the Champaign-Urbana chapter of the Black Lives Matter Network. Read more
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