I Did Not Ask You to Pass The Baton to Me

One rainy spring evening I was in line with my friend Tori outside the Baltimore Museum of Art waiting to get in to see Ta-nehisi Coates. I broached the topic of the backlash he has received from public intellectuals particularly from Dr. Cornel West. Tori remarked about how there are those like Dr. West who think they have the right to give and withhold the mantle to those who are coming up behind them. I not only vehemently agreed, but I reflected on what I have witnessed in my own life as an artist.

There were certain elder artists and community leaders in Baltimore who were under the impression that they held that proverbial mantle, and that everyone needed to pass through them to be on the city’s stage so to speak. It was disturbing to see how they would uplift some, and downplay others whom they deemed to fit or not. It became a political scene, not a true and authentic interplay between older and new generations. It was sickening, and I distanced myself from it.

I was groomed to believe that you were supposed to get your validation from the elders, the nod so to speak. They were the ones who determined who was the next in line to lead, receive the accolades, and so on. At a time when I was desperate to receive validation from anyone with any kind of position of power, this seemed plausible to me.

But as I discovered more about myself and the world, I realized that 1) no one could tell my story and do my art like me and 2) no one should ever have power over me to decide whether I got my just due in this world.

When it comes to black folks that has been one huge bone of contention. Everyone was fighting over who was going to be the one after Dr. King was assassinated – Jesse Jackson and all those cats, and for a second, Jesse was the one. Then it was Al Sharpton. All the while, there were young progressive cats out there who wasn’t about the old line, and wasn’t interested in being in company with their contemporaries. They did their own thing.

Now we’re in the first quarter of the 21st century, and still the game is being played. There are those in the black intelligentsia, the black elite, the black bourgeoisie, the black intellectual class, who believe they are the keepers of the game, and anyone in the new generation coming up must come through them, most kneel at their feet to receive the crown.

Well guess what? The young cats don’t give a fuck about the crown, and they don’t need it. The age of the anointed black leaders are gone. This is the time of collective movements, of pioneers doing their own thing, of intentional communities, and interdependent movements. There is a black renaissance, and it does not come out of the black church, the black establishment, the black elite, the NAACP, or the SCLC. It comes out of social media, Afropunk, Black Lives Matter, video game and simulation culture like BLERD Con, social entrepreneurship, independent labels and brands, and DIY culture.  These are folks like Donald Glover, Janelle Monae, Ava Duvernay, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar–cats who blaze their own trail, and though they have high respect for those that came before them, are not kneeling at anyone’s altar.

There are not asking for the seat at the table, nor are they bringing a folding chair. They are making their own tables, and inviting everyone to it.

I also believe there is room for everyone, that everyone’s voice is valid and valuable. Who the hell am I to say what works for us and what doesn’t? I don’t understand bell hook’s criticism of Beyoncé, and Cornel West’s criticism of Ta-nehisi Coates. Is it about hating, jealousy, that they aren’t being consulted with, not having been afforded the chance to say yay or ne? Both Beyoncé and Coates come from strong family backgrounds, who gave them the foundation and strength they needed to go out and battle and become successful in their own right. They were taught to give validation to self, and not to be exploited and used like so many other unfortunate artists who didn’t have such foundation. So no, they don’t need the black intellectual class. They have their own audiences, people who grow with them wherever they go in their artistic and literary careers, who grasp their skill and intentionality. They are not asking or waiting. They are paving their own paths, questioning and exploring, immersed in their own journeys, and sharing their insights and epiphanies along the way. That’s what true artistry and humanity is about.

I recognize, appreciate, and admire the dues that our predecessors have paid to get to where they are in life. They are pioneers, and have made incredibly groundbreaking contributions to our culture. However, they should be placed in the proper framework and context, and never should be deified. That is where we constantly go wrong. We should stop iconizing, and making messiahs out of living breathing Homo sapiens who live in a finite nature. Ever. They are bound by the same physical laws as everyone else. And though they have assiduously studied and mastered their disciplines, and have produced work that have been transformational, they should never be given a rule, a gate, or a scepter by which to anoint anyone.

Ron Kipling Williams