By Julianne Malveaux
When a colleague dropped the line, “You can’t hashtag your way to freedom,” I loved it! I laughed out loud, and promised that I’d not borrow the line, but steal it because I was so enamored of it. I’ve used it quite a few times since then, and gotten my share of grins and guffaws. So I used it again and again, always getting the same reaction.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Frenchie Davis, 35, the Howard University alumna who burst onto the music scene with her 2003 turn on “American Idol,” took me to school by telling me she thought my remark was “condescending.” I didn’t mean to be condescending, just to make the point that there is a difference between tweeting and fighting for change. Hashtags are not votes. Even if a million people hashtagged #bringbackourgirls, the hundreds of Nigerian young women abducted by Boko Haram are still missing.
Frenchie Davis thought my glib remark dismissed a form of communication that young people find effective, a form of communication that raises their awareness. She is right to point out that electronic and social media is far more consequential today than it was just a decade ago, and that her generation relies on social media more heavily than it does traditional media. While many people of my Baby Boomer generation use electronic media, we are not as immersed in it as younger folks are.
Reality check. The median age of the African American recorded in the 2000 Census was 30.4, compared to the national mean of 34.4. As of 2013, the mean age of U.S. born Blacks was 29, compared to a national mean of 37. That means the average African American is closer in age to Frenchie Davis than to to me.
Members of that generation – too often disdained by their elders for their work ethic, commitment to civil rights, or style of dress – are the ones who will propel the Civil Rights Movement into the future. So Sister Frenchie was right to call me on my snarly/funny remark about hashtagging to freedom. If the hashtag takes you to a conversation, and that takes you to action, then the hashtag may be a step in the right direction.
My conversation with Frenchie Davis took place when I moderated a panel on “Race, Justice, and Change,” as part of the Washington, D.C. Emancipation Day commemoration. By way of background, the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 paid the owners of 3,100 slaves $300 each to emancipate them; for the past decade D.C. commemorates this day with an official holiday.
The other panelists, Malik Yoba, Doug E. Fresh, and Mali Music, are, like Davis, socially and politically active artists, who are also concerned with ways to increase involvement in civil rights matters. Mali Music, 27, was the youngest member of the panel. His comments about young Black male alienation offered an important perspective in a conversation structured to address voting, policing, and organizing. I’d not heard of the Grammy Award nominee before, which perhaps reveals the generational silo I occupy.
I’m uncomfortable in my silo. Uncomfortable with how easy it is to join a conversation about generational differences without embracing generational similarities. “Back in the day,” a phrase I probably should use much less, many of our radio shows or stations were called “The Drum,” after the drumbeat form of communication. Hashtag can rightly be seen as another word for drum. And getting out of my silo, it’s important that drummers (or hashtaggers) both teach and learn.
How do we get young people involved in the Civil Rights Movement? Many already are involved – check them out at #Blacklivesmatter. More than conversation, this communication has galvanized tens of thousands to stay focused on continued police violence and the attacks on Black life. The hashtag has connected people planning marches and protests. That’s involvement.
Are we insisting that young people be involved in the movement as we know it? New organizations and movements are emerging, and some younger folks won’t embrace or engage in organizations they consider irrelevant. Has anyone marketed the contemporary Civil Rights Movement to younger African Americans? Do we feel that we need to? Do we expect people to show up (where?) and roll their sleeves up, task undefined?
How do we get young people involved? Ask them. Sit back and listen, really listen, to their reply. And understand that there are some, not so young, who may also need a nudge to get involved.
I am energized, enlightened, and privileged when I am pushed out of my silo. I am grateful to Frenchie Davis, Malik Yoba, Mali Music and Doug E. Fresh for helping me connect the drums with the hashtags. The generational conversation is engaging, frustrating, and effervescent. It is an essential part of our movement for social and economic justices, and its many definitions and experiences.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington-based writer and economist. She can be reached at www.juliannemalveaux.com.