Discovering the Possibilities: A Study of African American Youth Resistance and Activism

By Ellis-Williams, Antoinette | Educational Foundations, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Discovering the Possibilities: A Study of African American Youth Resistance and Activism


Ellis-Williams, Antoinette, Educational Foundations


Theoretical Framework

This article builds on the work of youth development psychologists, social movements, critical class-race theory, and group theory. Arguably, youth have historically responded to external forces in part due to their sense of self worth and value. But their internal notion of possibilities and self worth is not the primary or sole force in moving youth to action. Rather, it is the relationship to the larger systemic elements (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, nationality) that have created a climate of resistance (Ginwright, Cammarota, & Noguera, 2005).

Historically, youth have participated in resistance movements throughout the world, from Tianmen Square, Native American Youth Movements, Anti-Apartheid Movements, and Anti-War movements, to name a few. This has been especially true for the African American community throughout time, particularly during the 1960s. Reverend Dr. Moses William Howard, Senior Pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, on Sunday, September 3, 2006, in his sermon entitled "Race" further asserts an example of the global impact of the African American liberation movement when in 1912 South Africa looked to the N.A.A.C.P. as a model for its own liberation movement. Additionally, "We Shall Overcome" has become the rallying song for freedom movements throughout the world. Black activism, Howard notes, was not about sit-ins or boycotts, these were the methods for the broader vision of redemption: "discovering human possibilities." The movement was about the "courage to live free" (1) to imagine the "what ifs." What if we had access to jobs, education, decent housing and the right to vote? The questions often asked by many participants of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements are, "What has happened to the voice of Black youth in the democratic process? Where are today's liberation fighters for freedom and justice?"

There is a nostalgic, even romantic remembrance, of an era filled with youth led boycotts, sit-ins, walk outs and protests in the 1950s-1970s. The issues of poverty, racism, war, and sexism were taken up by young people. The African American community celebrated youth activism in schools, churches and civic organizations. Youth were on the forefront, fighting for social justice. However, today while the issues of poverty, racism, war, and sexism have not disappeared from the national, state, or local arenas, Black youth are seemingly silent when we compare their level of activism to their counterparts from the 1960s. Has young people's place in the democratic process simply become obsolete? Have youth today abandoned their political rite of passage? Do resistance movements and redemption take on different forms for today's African American youth? Have our youth stoped imagining possibilities? Or, have we overcome?

This article will attempt to answer some of these question by placing African American youth activism in its present-day context. These new forms of activism will in some ways deviate from previous strategies utilized by youth but provide a fresh approach to resistance and activism in relationship to discovering their possibilities.

James Baldwin in Contact (1984) said:

   One thing you always have to keep in mind is how little you can
   take for granted. When one talks about the sixties, for example,
   one tends to assume that everyone knows what you're talking about,
   but, in fact, many of them were hardly born yet when the sixties
   were going on. That means you have to rethink everything as if it
   happened in ancient Rome or Greece. (2)

Baldwin's caution rightfully places the burden on the educators, community leaders and elders in ensuring that youth know their history and its meaning in present-day democratic struggles.

There are several factors that must be examined as we consider African American youth resistance. Shawn Ginwright in "Toward a Politics of Relevance: Race, Resistance and African American Youth Activism" gives a poignant picture of the operating variables for our consideration when analyzing African American youth activism. …

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