By Jalen Nash
Despite the turmoil and conflicts we face, as we step into a new year, an argument can be made that we’re on the verge of another Black Renaissance.
Black Americans, particularly millennials or younger, have grown up in a world much different from our predecessors. Whether it’s our increased access to technology, our progress in academic and career fields, or the unwavering expectation of equal treatment, the past twenty years have set the foundation for a transformative future for Black Americans.
Opportunities, particularly as they relate to educational attainment, media representation, and political capital, have dramatically increased within the last twenty years, providing younger generations with a sense of opportunity and hope that our parents could not have imagined for themselves.
While many of our schools remain subpar, the past twenty years have seen a boom in both high school and college graduation rates for Black Americans. At the start of this decade, of those in the labor force, only 20.5% of Black Americans had a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 12.4% had not attained a high school degree. Going into 2020, this percentage of college graduates has risen to 31.2%, while the percentage of those without a high school degree has sliced in half to 6.4%.
This increase accounts for thousands of more graduates than existed at the turn of the century. And while Black graduates still face undue discrimination and biases, their increased levels of educational attainment have tangibly led to greater economic security, better career opportunities, and more explicit paths to building generational wealth.
Outside of the more immediate effects, increased attainment across the board will pay future dividends in everything from schooling, to household income, and family structures. Higher educational attainment empowers people to pursue passion-fulfilling careers or entrepreneurial ventures, paths which directly lead to higher personal fulfillment, household income, and communal wealth.
Correlating to our increasing educational attainment has come the (relatively) increased representation in politics, business, and other “high impact” fields. A 2019 survey of 234 companies in the S&P 500 found that 63% of the diversity professionals had been appointed or promoted to their roles during the past three years. While too many of these hires follow controversial events and the presence of more Black faces in the room do not guarantee pro-Black outcomes, having more people in these rooms has given us the long-awaited “seat at the table.”
But this is not enough.
As freshman Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley recently said, “This is the time to shake that table. ... We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” As a Black leader who strongly advocates for her people, Pressley understands the responsibility that comes with her role.
When bolstered with legitimate authority and resources, Black people in decision-making positions have been able to make tangible changes on our behalf. Still, too often, their voices are silenced or treated as mere tokens of “progress.” Real change will require a genuine paradigm shift towards authentic representation. These changes will likely be expedited through the voices of leaders like Pressley.
Examples like these speak to the importance of representation. Representation is not only having “a seat at the table” but having the means to choose the materials which built it and the conversations had while sitting there.
Outside of politics or business, recent years have shown a noticeable expansion of diverse representation within the media (at least in front of the camera). While the number of Black faces empowered behind the scenes remains low, the rise of influential producers like Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, and Ava Duvernay has made a tremendous impact.
Just last year, pioneering director/producer/actor Tyler Perry celebrated the grand opening of his newest venture, Tyler Perry Studios. Upon its opening, this studio became one of the largest film production studios in the US, and established Perry as the first African-American to own a major film production studio.
As media has become so pervasive in our everyday lives, the effect of genuinely meaningful representation cannot be understated. The past few years have seen the beginning of what some are calling a “renaissance” of Black creative content. One which does not present the Black experience in its standard, monolithic view, but which intends to showcase the diversity within our cultures and backgrounds.
Speaking on the shows she grew up watching, producer/actor Issa Rae noticed feeling like “these shows are so funny, but where are the Black people at? Why is the humor so segregated?” She continued, saying, “the representation we had on screen, especially for Black women, was primarily on reality television.” While this critique is still valid today, with the work of Rae and her contemporaries, children from younger generations will grow up seeing themselves on their laptops or televisions.
This will have an exponential impact on the development of future Black creatives.
Our rising prosperity has afforded an experience to younger generations vastly different from their predecessors. Children growing up today can see themselves reflected in ways unimaginable to their parents. Aspiring Black leaders can look to people like Congresswoman Pressley for guidance, aspiring creatives can look to pioneers like Jordan Peele, while aspiring professionals can study the paths of trailblazers like Sean Combs or Sean Carter.
“You cannot be what you cannot see” is a common idiom regarding the concept of representation. In this new decade, let us iterate this phrase, modifying it to instead say, “You can be what is shown to you.” Stories of Black achievement are all around us, becoming more commonplace each day. While remaining rooted in our history and traditions, it must be our new collective mission, not only to achieve personal success but to share stories that inspire and uplift younger generations. We must cultivate a new Black experience, not defined by struggle or resilience, but prosperity and hope.
The 1920's Harlem Renaissance arose at a time, much like this one—where Black people faced a unique blend of discrimination, fear, hope, and opportunity. The conditions of this era allowed art, creativity, and self-expression to thrive. Pioneers like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Zora Neale Hurston rose to prominence, creating art, music, and ideas that continue to shape our consciousness today.
One century later, we stand at a parallel. While governments and corporate leaders set out to create fear and persecute us, the increasing access to opportunities has given us clear reasons to hope.
The 2000s have made the unachievable seem much more achievable, a trend that will only continue.
Entering this new era allows us to build on this past, to redefine ourselves.
Let us define this decade as “The Second Black Renaissance.”