There was a television in the corner of the living room in the house where I grew up. It was surrounded by rows and rows of books that decorated the shelves adjacent to the screen. I vividly remember a boxed set of PBS video cassettes that stood out amid all of those book spines. An image of silhouetted figures marching arm in arm was splayed across the collection’s cover; Eyes on the Prize, the title read. The cassettes made up a six-part series that detailed the entire civil rights movement, and they seemed to play on an endless loop in my home. They introduced me to the endurance and resolve of my culture, and the stoicism of the civil rights movement has always been omnipresent in my home.
In the third grade, my teacher showed my class a Martin Luther King Jr. television special and I, at age 9, was moved to tears. A year later I dressed up as King for a “History Day” presentation for class — complete with a raggedy suit, fresh haircut, and a mustache drawn on with eyeliner — and recited the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Perhaps the most important influence of all was my dad. My father — like so many fathers are to their children — is my hero. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1940 to Elizabeth Burnett, a woman who had grown up working on a plantation in South Carolina at the turn of the century. At the age of 8, my father’s mother made him march into a “whites only” swimming pool, despite the hail of rocks, tomatoes, and balled-up newspapers he endured while doing so. In high school, he was stopped by police officers on a weekly basis, usually while he was running home after working the graveyard shift at a burger joint. After my father, the running back of the football team, took a white girl to his homecoming dance, the offensive line refused to block for him during the next game. While spending time in Los Angeles during the race riots of the ’60s, my dad was pulled over and soon found himself against a cop car with the barrel of a gun to his head.
The coldest thing I’ve ever had next to my temple is an iPhone in December. I’ve watched the scars on my father’s face become wrinkles while my hands remain unnervingly clean. He was a warrior and, along with my mother, sculpted and delivered a better life for my brother and me. My father’s first 30 years of life were an exhibition of sacrifice, while my first 20 have been spent benefiting from his resolve.
Now I live in Canada and am witnessing the destruction of racial empathy and understanding in the United States from afar. To be young and black in 2016 is to see unarmed African-Americans killed by the very police officers sworn to protect them. I see citizens wondering how they’ll survive in a nation in which the president-elect is normalizing bigotry and catalyzing hate. Social media timelines are so rife with reports of vitriol that we forget to be appalled.
Short of buying a plane ticket and a drawing a protest sign, I don’t know what I can do. I grew up spending hours in front of the TV watching people of color ripped apart by dogs and attacked with hoses in the streets. I found heroes in images of similar individuals sitting at lunch counters. I know that I can’t just donate, can’t just write about it, can’t just comment on it. Activism requires action, movement, sacrifice.
I feel I can no longer passively live as a beneficiary of my dad’s work. Still, I also wonder and worry that sacrificing my own comfort would devalue the work of my father, who gave me the prosperity with which I grapple. I worry that my hubris, my ability to choose to dive headlong into a life of activism out of desire rather than personal need, trivializes the realities my dad experienced.
But above all, I worry that if I do nothing, my father’s work will be lost. My father fought, protested, and endured violence and persecution to create a better life for me, and yet, 50 years later, I’m still compelled to fight the same fight, despite having the privileges for which he fought and gifted to me through his activism. Before every basketball game I played, I wrote the initials of the man who said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” on my sock, and now I see an environment in need of this kind of thought and action — the same that this man and my father have both demonstrated.
Between the benefits provided and the convictions inspired by my dad, he’s given me a middle ground, a platform on which I can stand. While I don’t yet know how to sacrifice myself in the same way that he did, I can embrace my prosperity and extend that platform in order to give others a place to stand. His actions benefited me, but their impact shouldn’t end with my security — they should flow through me, like light through a prism, to allow others to act and create in the hopes of remedying this racial divide.
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