Aspiration and Hope
African American protest has always been focused, among other things, on the future and on hopes for meaningful change. The book Story of the Negro [Figure 1], written in 1948 by Arna Bontemps, covers events in black history that are commonly overlooked, from slavery onwards, but especially in the United States education system. Bontemps ends the book looking to the future and what can be done in the fight for equality. He calls for "awakening" and "black power" to support and encourage the fight for equality.
As we have been uncovering different forms of protest, we've encountered stories of courage and conviction in the face of grave opposition. James Baldwin, one of our keystone cultural figures, began his 1963 book The Fire Next Time [Figure 2] with a letter to his nephew in recognition of what his nephew and namesake, James, must endure as a black boy and man in America. But the letter is also full of love and hope, telling his nephew that he has the power to help effect change and "make America what America must become." This sentiment is echoed in Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 bestseller Between the World and Me [Figure 3], another book addressed to a young man, this time Coates's son. Coates talks about racism, especially its physical, mental, and emotional impact on black bodies. Like Baldwin, Coates ends by asking his son to continue to struggle for those who came before and will come after him, even in the face of incredible odds.
This inter-generational guidance is a running theme in the literature of protest. In the children’s book Amazing Grace [Figure 4], Grace is a little girl auditioning for the role of Peter Pan; her classmate Raj insists she can't play the part because she's a girl and another classmate Natalie says Grace can't because she's black. Grace's mother and grandmother reassure Grace that she "can be anything you want" and show her a black woman in a ballet of Romeo and Juliet. Protest comes in the form of inspiration here, as Grace can see the ballerina as a role model; Grace is encouraged to change the hearts and minds of her classmates.
We have also seen how children can take a much more active role in traditional protest as well. A Birmingham Children’s March protester, now grown, recounts a brief conversation with a very young, fellow jailed protester [Figure 5], who, when asked why he was there, only replied, "Teetom." He could not pronounce "Freedom," but he knew what it was that he was protesting for.
However young they were when they began, child protesters grow up, and are called to action again and again. At Bowling Green State University, institutional and grassroots efforts to incorporate black students helped encourage them in their roles as students and leaders. Pat Ross was a participant in the BGSU Student Development Program. She credited the program with helping her navigate her way to college and providing her with resources to graduate and find a job. This portrait and her words of encouragement [Figure 6] were featured in a Student Development Program recruitment brochure. While public recognition was not reliable or constant, this kind of celebration is necessary in the process of change. In 1978, the Obsidian staff was granted office space on campus [Figure 7]. The newspaper celebrates this achievement by printing the staff's names, along with a group picture and their belief that "Now, more than ever, all the people must be together."