Black millennials are challenging everyone to “miss them”

To anyone who obstructs true black equity, “miss me” is both a challenge and a dismissal: we will do this, and we will do this without you if need be.

Ziyaad Bhorat
7 August 2016
Black millennials march in Minneapolis. Wikimedia/Tony Webster. Some rights reserved.

Black millennials march in Minneapolis. Wikimedia/Tony Webster. Some rights reserved.I must have seen the phrase and Twitter hashtag #MissMe more than a dozen times before I found out what it meant.

It sounded cute and curt — a knock-out response by those who seem to have mentally checked-out of an argument in the underbelly of online public commentary. “Miss me with your BS,” I read a couple of times in particular. It always came up in heated discussions about race and black identity. It felt important. And so I unexpectedly came across black millennials’ powerful challenge to the status quo, one not to be ignored.

Miss Me With Your Equality” titles Arielle Newton’s striking response to the US Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder. Justices in the case split 5-4 to strike down core provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain states to obtain advance federal approval for any changes to their election laws. At the time many, including president Obama, expressed disappointment that this effectively opened the door for states to enact laws that could indirectly disenfranchise black voters. But Newton’s was a different voice with a stronger message.

For these black millennials, equality is empty and inferior to equity.

Newton is editor-in-chief of Black Millennials – an online publication geared towards “cultural empowerment for black 20somethings”. Her voice is one that is increasingly representative of contemporary young, black individuals who are fed up with the way they continue to be marginalised in society. It is not just the colour of their skin that shapes the challenge, but the way things like gender, sexuality and class intersect blackness.

For these black millennials, equality is empty and inferior to equity – a true dismantling of the institutions that keep black individuals from realising the full potential of their rights. To anyone or anything that obstructs the aim to achieve true equity, “miss me” is both a challenge and a dismissal: we will do this, and we will do this without you if need be.

The origins of “miss me” are not clear, but the phrase very likely has roots in the US civil rights movement. “If You Miss Me At The Back Of The Bus” was a 1963 single recorded by Peter Seeger and written by Carver Neblett. It was a response to the attempts to segregate a public swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois around that time. The first verse references the actions of Rosa Parks, the celebrated civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give up her place to white passengers on a segregated bus:

If you miss me from the back of the bus

And you can’t find me nowhere

Come on over to the front of the bus

I’ll be riding up there

Implicit in this civil rights anthem is the challenge taken up by black millennials like Arielle Newton — namely that they will no longer take the backseat in the fight for black equity.

Globally, many others have embraced “miss me” as a popular principle of black public engagement. These include Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African leader of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Oxford last year. A Rhodes Scholar himself, Qwabe’s campaign to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford is part of his larger commitment to decolonizing Rhodes’ legacy by disrupting the spaces that continue to celebrate the colonialist figure.

Similarly, others have used “miss me” to express their outrage with white privilege and the forces that sustain it. “Zoe Saldana can miss me” goes some of the more acerbic responses to the actress' recent reductive comments on gender and race around the time it was announced she would be cast as Nina Simone in a biopic about the iconic musician.

“Miss me” goes further than other principles of black public engagement. Mere black representation at the highest levels is not enough; the politics of coercion and co-option are resisted. By implication even black women like Zoe Saldana are considered problematic if they represent or manifest the underlying mechanisms that tend to suppress equity for black identities. These mechanisms include white privilege, white mimicry, colour-blindness, language and political or professional patronage.

The new black consciousness refuses to be tempted by the carrots of co-option. 
The new black consciousness refuses to be tempted by the carrots of co-option: to lose its black identity in the systems that perpetuate white privilege. Instead it fights to create a space for this black identity to prosper independently.

Some may consider this approach of black identity politics as being inflammatory and divisive. Indeed, the likes of Ntokozo Qwabe have come under persistent criticism. However, at the core of “miss me” is the real failure of governments and institutions to make good on the promises made to civil rights movements. Even as there is an attempt to erase the injustices of the past, it cannot erase the legacies left on blackness today.

“Miss me” is therefore an ironic wake-up call to all of us. It challenges us to participate in breaking down the often-disguised systems that continue to oppress black bodies. It is a gathering call that must not be missed.

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