After watching #BlackLivesMatter blossom among American youth, after watching Black student protest after protest — most recently at the University of Missouri and Yale University — literally sweep the nation over the last few years, we should all be finally noticing the new (really the old) Black student activist.
And I am thrilled. It’s been a long time coming.
Over the last three years, I have had the opportunity to travel around the country and talk about my first book and share the story of the Black Campus Movement from 1965 to 1972. During this national social movement, Black students and their allies at upward of a thousand historically Black and White colleges organized, demanded and protested for progressive Black universities, Black studies, Black cultural centers, Black student affairs officers, and Black faculty, staff, coaches and students — you name it students probably demanded it. The Brown v. Board of Education decision did not integrate higher education. It was the Black Campus Movement that integrated higher education.
But not all Black students powered the Black Campus Movement. A large portion of Black students — especially at colleges with large Black student enrollments — did not support the Black student unions, did not get behind the demands, did not attend the rallies, did not put themselves out there in protest, did not mind spying on the activists for administrators and cops. We forget and marginalize and individualize those apathetic Black students of yesterday, and we highlight and center and generalize those apathetic Black students of today.
So, invariably, wherever I go and speak on the Black Campus Movement, the same question is posed during the question and answer period: “Why are Black students so apathetic today?”
It is always a really difficult question for me to answer. For a long time, I was conflicted on the premise. I was conflicted on whether Black students today are indeed apathetic. The bad historian in me kept comparing today’s Black students to their predecessors in the 1960s. The seemingly logical side of me kept comparing the number of protests today to the number of protests in the 1960s.
For a long time, it made total sense to me that today’s Black student is apathetic (compared to the Afro-donning, Black power-intoning, Black student union-forming, Black studies-demanding, administration building-barricading Black student of 1969).
It is important to learn from the past. Our history is fundamentally our first lesson book. But every good historian will tell you we cannot analyze the past from the vantage point of our own time period. Every great historian will tell you we cannot make serious comparisons of change agents between different time periods. Every time period elicits its own culture. And every culture must be judged from its own cultural standpoint. Every time period — and generation of change agents — must be judged from their own standpoint. Otherwise, the time period and generation being judged usually will be denigrated by the time period and generation doing the judging. In our case, we have constantly judged the Black students of today from the standpoint or purview of the Black students of the 1960s. So of course today’s Black student seems apathetic in comparison.
But our standard of judgment has been wrong all along. The apathetic Black student of the 21st century is a tired myth we need to let rest in peace. We should not be comparing this generation of Black students to the ’60s generation. We should not be looking down upon them as we look up at those elders. When we change the conceptual nature of the premise of Black student apathy from history to the present, we change the question. Let me say that in a different manner. When we stop weighing apathy levels today from the scales of the 1960s, we will stop getting such low apathy weigh-ins from today’s Black students.
The question is no longer, “Why are Black students so apathetic today?” The questions become, “Why are Black students in the forefront of progressive racial change on their campuses today? What can Black student activists of today learn from the Black Campus Movement to grow their struggle, to produce more successes, to build on their predecessors and eradicate institutional racism once and for all?”
If we want to compare Black students to someone — to assess their apathy level on racial issues — we should compare them to other groups on college campuses. When we compare their engagement on racial issues to other groups today, suddenly, the apathetic Black student becomes the activist Black student from the University of Missouri and beyond. Suddenly, all of the Black student efforts to forge coalitions with antiracist non-Black students come to light. Suddenly, all of the Black students organizing and challenging that is not making national news — in the way it habitually did in 1968 and 1969 — comes into our purview. We are able to finally see that Black student activist who had been standing next to the apathetic Black student all along.
Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida and the author of The Black Campus Movement. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, will be published by Nation Books in April.