Today marks the moment in my society that I am officially considered a man. This marks the day that I can buy alcohol (even though I don’t drink), rent a car (from off brand companies like “rent-a-wreck”) and go to clubs in Chicago (regardless if I would rather just chill at home with my partner). After 21 years I can only ask myself: Have I done enough?
Fred Hampton was already leading a movement only miles away from where I live. The Greensboro Four had already fought against systems of oppression in the civil rights movement. Anne Moody had courageously sat through a mob of angry racists. Elizabeth Eckford helped to desegregate schools in Arkansas. And they all did this before the age of 21.
I think I am risking the line of pretension by comparing myself to these great activists, however, this is not my intention. But as the day of my birth does not allow me to escape from the symbolism attached to the age of twenty one, I am forced to reflect on where I am in life, where I have come from, and what I have accomplished.
One thing that I cannot deny is statistics. I can never forget that more than half of the black men that I went to high school with did not graduate. I can never be blind to the fact that if statistics are correct, I would have a better chance of being in jail right now than being a student on track to get his masters degree. I cannot deny that when I was born there was a better chance of me beating a woman than becoming a black male feminist. Unfortunately, Statistics continue to be a symbol of how it is not enough for me to be the exception. My life is not a symbol of hope. It is a narrative of how luck and potential cannot be the only recipe for the success of communities that have a story similar to mine. These are stories that echo neighborhoods without libraries and classrooms without resources.
I cannot enjoy this twenty first birthday, not when my success is only a message that defeats the odds of statistics that say I should be dead. I sacrifice celebration and stand in silence for all the birthdays of men who could not live to say they are black, young, and twenty-one. This birthday is for those who live in cycles of poverty. This birthday is for the hope that a next generation of activists will rise up and start economic and social rights movements. I hate to be the person who talks about the world’s problems every time people find a reason to celebrate, but I cannot bring myself to receive any “Happy Birthdays” when so many people in the world do not experience the privilege that I have somehow stumbled upon. So regardless if I am 21, 31, or 91. I can only work to never forget where I have come from and my obligation to the communities who have brought me to where I am today.