By the time they were my age my dad had taken a job with the city of Buffalo and my mom with a local bank, they were married with two children, had two cars and had already bought their first home. By comparison, right now I am renting an apartment that’s too expensive to be so small and require me to walk up four flights of stairs (but is in a really great Harlem location and has a washer and dryer in the unit, amen), and I’ve been single with little to no prospects for longer than I’m willing to admit in public, and I either walk or rely on the subway, buses and Uber to get me wherever I need to go – but I also brunch frequently, have way too many clothes, and I make it a point to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year.
So what’s the difference? My parents were toddlers as the Jim Crow era came to an end and teenagers when MLK prophesied of his trip to the mountaintop. They are from a generation where the sting of segregation and institutionalized racism still permeated every aspect of their lives. I, on the other hand, came into this world in the late ‘80s when all the hard work of prior generations was beginning to show some impact. Also, by that time my parents were established in their careers and, although not wealthy in any sense of the word, were comfortable in the life they had built. I had the privilege and pleasure of growing up in the house my father built with his own hands in a middle class neighborhood, went to a magnet high school that was ranked #4 in the nation at the time, and at the age of 20 I saw a Black family move into the White House. And although I was (and continue to be) very aware of the struggles of being Black and a woman in this country, I was never made to feel inhibited by those labels. As my favorite author once said, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all” (Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me).
Don’t misunderstand, my parents had strong role models as they grew up and they truly believed that they could do anything that they set their mind to, but they were also taught that they’d have to work twice as hard just to get half as much. They put themselves through college, and because they had big responsibilities at relatively young ages they weren’t able to take advantage of what they would call the more lavish lifestyle choices I’ve made for myself. My father was 1 of only 3 Black students in his class at Cornell and my mother ultimately had to switch to night school so she could balance her time working and raising young children. Further, they were raised in a time where the Black “family unit” was an important symbol – it represented stability, civility and, in some ways, protection. As a result, their focus at my age was doing whatever they had to do in order to build a strong foundation for their family and to give their children the best opportunities for survival. My primary focus at this point in my life, however, is simply building a strong me…
My generation seems, more than any before us, to have moved away from our parents and our hometowns without looking back, and we are instead taking up residence in some of the busiest metropolitan centers of the world. We stand ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us as we figure out what exactly we want our lives to ultimately look like – even taking destiny into our own hands at times to create the opportunities we want without concern for how we might be perceived by others. There are many of us who are indeed buying homes, getting married and settling into the stereotypical “adult life”, but it seems like most late-twenty-somethings these days are still weighing their options, thinking 3 moves ahead before deciding when and where to put down roots. Even those who maybe never left their hometowns remain hesitant to simply accept the lives their parents had because they can’t seem to shake an internal yearning for more. We are still exploring ourselves emotionally, creatively, financially, religiously, and professionally. We are unapologetically selfish and resolved to immerse ourselves in any and every single thing that we so desire without any feeling of shame, remorse or inadequacy.
We, Black and Brown Millennials, have the audacity to throw on blinders as we consider that job promotion, career move or new business idea such that the issues of whether we want to be in a serious relationship, get married or have kids become secondary (and sometimes tertiary) concerns. We are too busy dropping a few thousand on that trip to Phuket or Dubai to think about if it’s the right time to own rather than rent our homes. We aren’t spending time researching which are the best school districts to live in because we are researching best brunch spots instead. Some may call it naïveté or recklessness, but I choose to see it as the freedom to find my happiness. And not my happiness as a “Black woman,” but rather my happiness as Marissa Coleman.
And while my maternal clock does often cause me to compare my life to what my parents had at this same age, what I’ve realized is that I have something my parents didn’t: the luxury of time and the autonomy it fosters. Today, people are living longer and having kids later in life so I can take this time to leisurely weigh career goals, travel prospects and ideal proximity to family and friends. I don’t have any major responsibilities or external pressures influencing what I do with my life or when I should do it, and that’s a freedom that I am now learning to appreciate.
So although I envy what my parents had and continue to have (they’ve been married for 42 years, talk about pressure!), I really wouldn’t change a single aspect of my life so far. I’ve been blessed with opportunities that my parents and grandparents prayed I’d one day have, and I am going to do everything in my power not to let their sacrifices be in vain. Besides, they love being able to come visit me in “the big city”, and they view it as their opportunity to try restaurants they’ve seen on TV, visit the Schomburg and shop for vintage furniture in Brooklyn. Between NYC and visiting my brothers in Atlanta, they now have places to go and things to do. And my brothers have already given them grandchildren so they seem content to let me be for now…