A New Generation of Black Leaders Is Stepping Up

Marcia Davis has written an interesting profile of Black politics in the post-Obama era. Here is how she summarizes what this new generation of players is all about:

This is what the post-Obama era of black electoral politics looks like — and it is taking shape largely outside the daily headlines in Washington. Across the country, a wave of black candidates, strategists and grass-roots activists are making bold moves. This new cohort of black politicians is fiercely progressive and isn’t asking anyone’s permission to make their case before voters. By and large, they don’t come from privilege, with deep-pocketed donors at the ready or with their own millions to finance a run. It’s their humble beginnings, many say, that help them connect with voters, and not solely black ones. But they don’t duck race, either, opting for authenticity rather than kid gloves: Alongside their impatience with an ever-widening wealth gap and the shrinking of opportunity for all Americans, they are unapologetic about insisting on police accountability or rejecting a glorified history of the Confederacy.

The word that stands out to me in her description is “authentic” because I suspect that is key, just as it’s always been with young people.

But just as Davis describes a “new cohort of black politicians,” I am reminded of something Matt Bai wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign. His conclusions were a bit distorted, but he also described a new generation of black politicians that at the time included people like Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

For black Americans born in the 20th century, the chasms of experience that separate one generation from the next— those who came of age before the movement, those who lived it, those who came along after — have always been hard to traverse. Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.” In any community shadowed by oppression, pride and bitterness can be hard to untangle.

Those tears were the subject of one of the most beautiful pieces I read about Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The author is Rev. Gordon Stewart, who marched with King in Chicago and experienced race riots in Illinois and Wisconsin.

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they’re about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy… and hope… that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation’s shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they’re also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison — the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger — the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief…It is the joy and hope of a new generation that’s able to take us where my generation cannot — free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

Almost everyone with any sense knew that the election of Barack Obama wasn’t the signal that we were living in a post-racial America. But I’m not sure Rev. Stewart could have envisioned the backlash that would await the next generation of black leaders a decade later in the form of Donald Trump and his white nationalist friends.

We’re still at risk of losing America and grudges continue to pile up. The days of sore feet and scars are still with us. When a black person angrily tells you that they’re sick and tired of this shit, that’s why.

However, we have a new generation that is boldly stepping up and not asking anyone for permission to lead. One political party finds that threatening and is doing everything they can to stop them. Will the other one welcome this new generation of black leaders with open arms and say, “How can we help?”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.