To Pick Up a Crown and Wear It

President Barack Obama just delivered his farewell address and I’ve found myself in a pensive mood. He painted a picture, with rather broad brush strokes, of an America that re-affirms its commitment to inclusivity of thought, creed, and experience in the years to come. That illustration was the depiction of American freedom and democracy, entities far larger than the sum of the parts that created them. To those ideals do we owe our existences as we perceive them to be.

Every few months I’m struck with the rigidity of that truth — that I am not the protagonist of reality, and that there are forces at work, much greater than myself, to which I’m indebted. I was struck again with that realization tonight.

I texted my best friend and began to debrief like I always do after any minor or major qualm, observation, or simple thought. I spewed my train of thought at her, verbalizing any and every question I believed deserved deep consideration and an eventual response. To what or whom else was I indebted? How was I meant to repay that debt?

My mom and I do not often see eye to eye during political or social debate, but she is wise beyond measure. Her words frequently come to mind during any one of my “big think” moments, and tonight was no exception. She has many a time paraphrased words she heard Oprah Winfrey say on her talk show years ago, and here I will attempt to paraphrase them again: “After all our ancestors went through, who are you not to succeed.”

Growing up a black woman in the United States was not always an easy task, and was fraught with small social lessons from my parents meant to edify and strengthen me. The most striking always being that I had to work twice as hard to be considered just as good as many of my peers. Though never explicitly expressed to me, I received that message loud and clear via my parents’ expectations.

I do understand the necessity of the message and its origins, but I think that it, as well as the Oprah Winfrey paraphrase, places an unnecessary burden on myself, other black millennials, and black people from ages past. The sacrifices made by my ancestors on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, in the fields of South Carolina, and in streets warped by Jim Crow can not, in any way, be understated. They were immeasurable and I absolutely realize that I owe my opportunities, constitutional rights, and personal freedoms to their mere survival, let alone their fight. Even so, I would contend that my whole life is not meant to be spent paying back the price paid for my freedom — a freedom which should have never needed to be bought, but was mine and theirs by virtue of our humanity. I think to spend a life as such a debtor would mean to be marred by the guilt and cowed by the weight of their sacrifice. This would ultimately be a disservice to those same ancestors’ sacrifices and hopes for future generations.

Though we should recognize and appreciate the past, I do not think that we are meant to wallow in its tragedy. I do feel obligated to live a life worthy of the nameless and faceless men and women in my genealogy and to speak power to their existences, but I feel even more obligated to live that life simply for myself. James Baldwin put it wisely, that my “crown has already been bought and paid for.” Centuries of men and women already paid for my crown with their blood and bone, it is now simply my job to wear it and live the most fulfilling life that I can. For those who could not, but especially for myself.

I do believe that, in a way, we have all always existed. I would say that I was first born out of the hopes and prayers for freedom and new, restored life in southern slave cabins. Though conceived from past hope, I am to mature and grow into the future. That is how I pay my debt, by fulfilling my life’s hopes with my crown securely fastened. In that way I believe I become the living testament of my forefathers’ journeys, the manifestation of their hopes, and the ultimate prize for their sacrifice.