If the word “millennial” evokes an apolitical smartphone-addicted brat who wastes money on avocado toast, you’ve probably not read much about the realities of being a young black person who came of age in the 1990s. In It Was All A Dream: A New Generation Confronts The Broken Promise to Black America, journalist Reniqua Allen, an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute, interviews dozens of millennials from California to Mississippi who are working in professional fields or unemployed and incarcerated. They are Republicans; LGBTQ; HIV-positive; first-generation Nigerian-Americans; suffering from PTSD; comedians in Hollywood; MIT graduates working in technology; and much more. “There’s no one way to be a black millennial,” Allen says. “That’s the thing young black people have constantly been searching for.”
But that’s about the only good news the book offers. The promise of previous generations the title alludes to was overall equality—economic, social, and cultural—but it hasn’t happened. By all traditional measures of American success, blacks still lag far behind whites.
Homeownership hasn’t changed since 1950—and the majority of black millennials rent because they can’t afford to own, even when they move south, as many have done in what’s been called a reverse migration. The wealth gap has only widened in some segments of the black population, not narrowed. Political engagement is high but racial divisions remain. Suicide and depression came up frequently in her interviews.
“There’s been a lot of superficial progress” for blacks, Allen says. “But when you really look at the power structure and who is controlling the world, it is not us.” Allen met many black Americans working hard to get ahead but not succeeding “because there are real structural impediments. Young black people don’t feel like they have the freedom to do the things they want to do. We still don’t have the wealth. I met so many people I saw trying their hardest to get ahead and not being able to…because there are real structural impediments. Young black people don’t feel like they have the freedom to do the things they want to do.” It Was All A Dream evokes the opening lines of Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” ultimately as a subtle indictment; Allen shows us that the worlds in which black millennials are barely making it are hardly dreamlike. In this way, It Was All A Dream is a necessary—if challenging—story of rejection and resilience.
“I think being young and black in America is a joy and it’s heavy and it’s hard,” Allen adds. “We’re expected to succeed and thrive in a society that tells us we’re garbage and we’re not worth it. The fact that we’re persisting is incredible. It’s amazing that we’re still daring to dream.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator living in New York City.