“I See Freedom Over My Head”: Meditations on Toni Morrison, the Civil Rights Movement, Youth Activism, and the Blarney Blowout

 Last night, I had the rare honor of being in an audience before three legends of African American art and culture. Toni Morrison, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Sonia Sanchez participated in a dialogue at my local university last night, on the topic of black women in the arts. These artists–a Nobel-prizewinning author and arguably the most important American writer of the twentieth century, a distinguished scholar and singer, and a poet and political activists–moved me to tears, to a crazy joy, to the pain and power of a certain heartbreak.

These women’s stories reminded me of the struggles that people in our nation (and beyond) have endured–and continue to endure–in the name of freedom. They reminded me of what it means to be human, to be part of a community, to live and breathe and labor on behalf of one’s people, one’s survival, one’s very salvation.

And I juxtapose this with the events that surrounded the university two days before, that of hordes of drunk students at an event known locally as the “Blarney Blowout”, an alcohol-fueled, Irish-tinged festivities which thousands of undergraduate students and their compatriots participated in, and which resulted in dozens of arrests. And the irony is not lost on me: the leaders of the civil rights movement, the activists and freedom fighters, the poets and the singers and the ideologues and the radicals were the same age as the young people who are creating mayhem in my streets.

What makes me angry, furious, even, is that these young people have no awareness of the extent of their privilege as college students, predominantly white, mostly middle class, untethered to struggles beyond their quests for public drunkenness.

Now, there is no doubt in my mind: college students are empowered to have a good time, and in this case, as obnoxious and belligerent as these young people’s behavior was, the police responded with undue and excessive force. This is never okay.

But I have a difficult time reconciling young people’s need to have fun with the global realities that are before us. The privilege that goes along with engaging in wanton acts of public drunkenness en masse, the entitlement that accompanies “rioting” in the streets at midday over one’s right to wear green and drink before noon, the gumption that is requires for young people to behave so obliviously, so foolishly, and so selfishly, over nothing, boggles my mind.

You are all a lost generation, Gertrude Stein is reported to have told Hemingway of the rising English language literati in Paris in the 1920s. And indeed, the notion that a given generation is “lost”, relative to the wisdom of the last, is so deeply vested in our culture as to be beyond cliche.

And I think on the majority of today’s youth culture, and I wonder. Perhaps I hold my younger brothers and sisters to an erroneous standard: it is always a vocal and dedicated minority who work to effect social change. And there are no shortage of young activists in the U.S. today who are thusly engaged.

But I think on Toni Morrison, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sonia Sanchez, and I am reminded: people died for the privileges these students so carelessly disregard, people fought and struggled and risked threats large and small for the freedom these young people bandy about like it’s meaningless. People–activists and scholars, the young people of the civil rights era–put their educations and their prospects and their very lives on the line–and these young people are engaging in wanton public drunkenness as a way to cut loose in ostensible celebration of their Irish heritage. The Irish, too, fought and struggled, historically, in their own land, for the freedom to exist and practice their religion and speak truth to power. The Irish, too, are in possession of a beautiful literary culture and artistic tradition and a complex political history on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s almost like a revolution, one of my students told me after class yesterday, speaking of the so-called blowout.

But there is no revolution so weak and fatiguable as the one before me. I do not necessarily expect my younger brothers and sisters to engage in acts of political protest or civil disobedience or mass action in favor of the rights of the disenfranchised, in the interests of social justice, in demonstration of a commitment to a cause, however large or small. Nor do I suggest that college students should not be allowed to “have fun”, or that the institution needs to impede on student-generated attempts at enjoying themselves in anticipation of New England spring. But to behave in a manner at once so egregious and so self-absorbed, so disconnected from the broader world, so deeply repellent, is not only an embarrassment, it is also frankly dangerous.

For the freedom fighters of two generations ago, freedom was something they could see, taste, almost touch–just beyond the distance, in the words of the folk song–over their heads. For many of my younger sisters and brothers, the vision of freedom, of what it means and what it requires and what it counts for–is nowhere in the line of vision; it is not something we might imagine, it is nothing we can see. Instead, it is merely over our heads.

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