It was on Saturday, June 6 that my heart dropped. I had just come home from my socially distanced spin-class at Cycle Gang in College Park. I had not opened Facebook, turned on my television, or even checked messages. I had no idea that the realistic gravity of international protests had come crashing down with brutal force on the city I call I home.
Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man, had been killed by Atlanta Police officers.
I watched with rising trepidation as the facts of case unfolded. I watched with sadness and deep pain as the video of him being shot was shown over and over. It became painfully obvious that even in America’s black Mecca, policing practice was not only a major problem, but a deadly one.
It is at times like these, I seek solace in words. As an essayist and English teacher, I have a collection of favorite writings that I go to when seeking comfort.
It was in the essay, “No Racial Barrier Left to Break,” that Khalil Gibran Muhammad reflected on what the Obama presidency means for America’s push toward true racial equality. Muhammad states that “It’s clear that black leadership, in itself, isn’t enough to transform the country. So we must confront the end of an era and the dawn of a new one. We now live in a post-assimilation America.”
No essay in my collection rings as true as Muhammad’s during this turbulent, yet progressive time. He was so accurate in his depiction of our current reality that it is scary.
It is now, not quite four years after President Obama left office, that we see the true leaders of post-assimilation America ascend. And those leaders are our children.
Throughout this nation and the world, young people are leading a sweeping movement aimed at police reform, ensuring justice against police brutality, and dismantling systemic racism. These efforts are abundant within our city and are also being led by our children.
Atlanta Public Schools (APS) students like Royce Mann are raising their voices through advocacy. A 2020 graduate of Grady High School, Mann is no novice to activism. His 2016 poem, “White Boy Privilege” became a viral sensation and sparked international debate. He is also legislative director for March for Our Lives Georgia. In a rousing opinion piece published by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mann advocates for not only changing the name of his high school, Henry W. Grady, but also for placing such figures in their “proper historical context, one of remembrance but not reverence.” Mann is using his voice to foster change.
Atlanta Public Schools students like Sarah Williams, 2019 graduate of Booker T. Washington High, are raising their voices through protesting. Williams, and many students like her, are involved in the numerous protests happening around our city. APS clusters, namely the Washington Cluster lead by alumni lie Williams and the North Atlanta Cluster, organized by school leaders, planned student and employee participation in peaceful demonstrations aimed at spreading awareness and authentic civic engagement. Williams is using her voice to influence others.
Atlanta Public Schools students like Cole Bickerstaff are raising their voices through social media. Bickerstaff, a 2020 graduate of North Atlanta High School, has amassed a following of almost 100K on the wildly popular Tik Tok app with more than 4.3 million likes. While many Gen Zers use the app to dance and imitate Kardashians, Cole is using his account for both humor and activism. Bickerstaff is using his voice to spread awareness.
Our children are raising their voices on behalf of us all. As I see the leadership displayed by young activist like Mann, Williams, and Bickerstaff, I cannot help but return to Muhammad’s essay. For me, the most profound claim by Muhammad is that “We must recognize that institutions are far more powerful than individuals, no matter how many people of color can be counted in leadership. Structural racism is immune to identity politics. That Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch became attorneys general, for example, was the starting point for the possibility of federal criminal justice reform — not the reform itself.”
While this statement summarizes the long, hard fight ahead of us all as we aim to dissect, dismantle, and destroy systemic racism, individuals like Mann, Williams, and Bickerstaff prove that individuals are powerful too, and have an essential role to play in the battles to come.