“I self, lord and master, shall bring disaster to evil factors, demonic chapters shall be captured by kings.” When Guru (of the legendary rap duo, Gangstarr) opened the song “Above the Clouds” with these words, he sparked a soul-rattling meditation on the power of self-image and its impact in reshaping the world. A decade earlier, their song “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” transformed a young man’s imagination, inspiring him to use the energy from the music to shape programs and organizations that would inspire others. Many people find their discipline through diet, exercise, or prayer. Hip hop as an art can channel all paths to achievement. Ultimately, that student’s choice – my choice – was the combination of activism, scholarship, and digital media.
At a college fair, a student bragged to his friends that he was going to a school where there were no minorities. He didn’t say ‘minorities.’ He used slurs for Latinos and African Americans that sparked chuckles from his audience. I was then, and remain today, a child of farmers. A verbal or physical confrontation with this student would only work to my disadvantage in that context. Instead, I learned about his chosen university – one of the most prominent Catholic institutions in the United States. After winning a full academic scholarship to attend, I confronted constant harassment, discrimination, and a few death threats in the early 1990s. The goal was always to break down the institutional barriers that kept students of color outside of the institution or cowed if they managed to enroll. The best an unprecedented coalition of student leaders could do was the fundamental redesign of the student government and the creation of the nation’s first “strategic plan for cultural diversity” in higher education. Over the next decade, a larger, research institution became my home for graduate study. After a group of activists attended the Million Man March, we returned and founded a magazine dedicated to multicultural activism. Over the next four years, it reached more than 250,000 readers and shaped a series of commitments to regional economic justice that included thousands of full university scholarships and dozens of partnerships between local government and private capital to create jobs and companies throughout the region. One of the more successful organizations was the First Suburbs project. Based in two small, suburban towns, it grew to include more than 1,000,000 members and became the model for ongoing partnerships between the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. By combining the lessons of institutional action taught by Dean Alvin Clay with the uncompromising historical integrity of Professor Maghan Keita, my standards for activist achievement made the pursuit of universal equality relentless.
Timetables, benchmarks, and assessments are not the tools that scholars prefer, however. Traditions of detachment and objectivity collided with my experiences about performance and accountability. Unlike a medical doctor, attorney, or other highly skilled professionals (even other scientists and social scientists), historians embrace a distance from the dramatic twists and turns of daily life. Balancing the urbane and the austere is one of the first tests many graduate students in history must often pass. Yet the urgency of activism was the passion that drove me to persevere in this environment. The life of Olivia Stuard Henry – the first woman ordained to pastor an African Methodist Episcopal church – showed me the risks of a meteoric rise and the resilience to withstand the inevitable pitfalls. Meeting dynamic historians like Robin D.G. Kelley in the course of organizing a conference titled “Afric’s Sons with Banner Red” illustrated different paths to use undiscovered knowledge in service to the historic mission of human liberty. I could no longer limit my writing to afrofuturist fiction like “Communion” or activist manuals like “The Ebon Flame.” For the next decade, I gathered hidden primary sources to document the lives of black working families whose communities had inspired the later civil rights work of Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The tragic transformation of black migrant workers’ lives as their dreams were realized and shattered simultaneously in the process of a global service economy’s emergence became the subject of my most recent two books, “The Path to Freedom” and “Suburban Erasure.” Worst of all, the criminalization of citizen activism, especially in the name of racial justice, at the end of the twentieth century required a fundamental reconsideration of both tactics and strategy.
In that moment, I returned to my first skills. Before research, before activism, before teaching, I was a computer programmer. Simple designs on early Apple machines consumed hours of my days in the 1980s. Zork and Bard’s Tale served as early inspirations, giving way to Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Killer Instinct in later years. These techniques were essential to both the activist work and the research agenda, but never at the forefront of either. Activists feared the ways governments could monitor electronic transmissions. Rightly so, as the police catalogued and documented communications prior to protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings and the 2000 Republican National Convention. Historians, well, tend to prefer bound leather and parchment. 2006 marked a turning point where the struggle for LGBTQ equality began to gain national support just as elementary social media like MySpace gave way to Facebook, then Twitter, and now Instagram. Digital media provided endless opportunities to provide new content and context. It remains a greater revolution than manufacturing, literacy, or science. Where previous revolutions relied on static categories to create knowledge and greater organization, digital media destabilizes simplicity. It is not the scale of big data that threatens the conglomerate society that emerged from the Cold War – it is its dynamism. Where I created groups like “Champions Palace” or “Race and Suburbs” for thematic discussions at the start of the twenty-first century, social media offers outlets like @worldprofessor or “The Holy Bible: Dignity & Divinity” that constantly change and challenge both creators and audiences to reimagine the worlds they share.
In this intersectional, vibrating string theory of multiverses, the people who recognize the limits of mastery, humbling themselves to the realities of collaborative human accomplishment, will build the institutions that will shape future achievement. Popular movies like “Transcendence” and “Lucy” grapple with the most profound questions of becoming human in ways inspired by earlier works like “Dark City” and “The Matrix.” This patient, adaptive world manifested in the election of Barack Obama. It has begun a generational process of redefining life, liberty, and property through the crucible of the Great Recession. The remnants of the racist Massive Resistance Movement cling to relevance through fear of their cousins in ISIS or Al Qaeda. A global renaissance has begun – a Massive Acceptance Movement.
I remember how alone I felt – designing games no one else would play; writing university policies no one would read; researching forgotten people destroyed by economics. Still, somehow, I never doubted that infinite skills created miracles. I never imagined I might experience that promise beyond any limitation. I never imagined the legions of voices who shared some part of this knowledge and who now arise from Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, McKinney, and Charleston.
I will never forget this moment of social change.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (ICMG_International Center for Metropolitan Growth) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com). For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (firstname.lastname@example.org).