It’s a tough time to be a teenager, and not just for the normal reasons that have always made it so. The cost of college is rising precipitously even as the youth workforce continues to be pummeled by the recession; locally and nationwide, curfews and gang injunctions are becoming increasingly common responses to a “youth crime” problem that may or may not even really exist; and the war on drugs continues to claim as its victims a disarming number of urban young people.
It’s an easy moment to be cynical — about the future, about the efficacy of activism in an increasingly stratified nation, about young peoples’ capacity to effect change in a world that insists they’re increasingly plugged in, tuned out, and generally troubled. But Andreana Clay is not particularly interested in pessimism, and neither is her new book, The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism, and Post -Civil Rights Politics. “I wanted to write a book that didn’t have a tone of hopelessness,” she said. “I was so moved by the things that people did and the things they shared with me, and I wanted people to feel the same sense of hopefulness that I do.” Clay, a sociologist by training and a professor at San Francisco State, does this by chronicling two-plus years of participant observation with two Oakland nonprofits, both of which work mostly or exclusively with young people. The idea, Clay said, was to draw out not just the challenges facing urban youth today, but also the ways young people are rising to meet them.
“I hope this book sort of challenges how we think about activism and social movements and activist identity,” she said. “The general thesis of the book is that there’s this sort of tightly bound definition of activism.” That’s especially true in the Bay Area, given what Clay calls in the book “the burden of the Sixties,” where old-school social movements are part of our political DNA. “Our understanding of [activism] is very rooted in the past, and doesn’t usually include young people,” she said. There’s a way in which being an agent of social change requires a certain degree of sociopolitical capital: It takes time and money to be able to skip work (or school) to show up at a demonstration, and it requires confidence in the process and in oneself to speak up in the first place — all things that tend to be a struggle for teenagers, particularly those of ethnic or sexual minorities. “We don’t think of [activism] in ways that are really accessible to teenagers,” Clay said, “because teenagers are so disenfranchised.”
But Clay, who discusses The Hip-Hop Generation at the Oakland Public Library Main Branch (125 14th St., Oakland) on Thursday, September 20, argues that teenagers are active, even if they “don’t think of what they do as activism.” They’re volunteering, they’re writing slam poetry about their experiences, they’re showing up and trying their damndest to be heard. And that’s what Clay chronicled in her book. So in one sense, the work is as much a call to arms as it is an academic study, equal parts manual and challenge. “This is about the way we think of young black men and young Latina women, the way we watch what teenagers do on the street and in school — it’s fighting back against that, and fighting against apathy.” 5:30 p.m., free. OaklandLibrary.org