Bothered by the overwhelmingly negative images of African Americans in the news, movies, and books, poet Langston Hughes penned the essay “The Need for Heroes” for a 1941 issue of The Crisis.
He took note of the growing erasure of Black heroes, such as icons Denmark Vessey and Mary McLeod Bethune to the not-so-well-known, like Sam Solomon, who in 1939 led the first African Americans to vote in Miami, and Roscoe Dunjee, who in 1915 started the Black Dispatch newspaper in Oklahoma City to challenge and expose racism and violent attacks on the community.
Hughes believed heroes like these would never make the news. “Why bother with the [news] at all?,” wrote Hughes. “Look around you for the living heroes who are your neighbors — who may or may not always speak perfect English, but who are courageous, straightforward, strong…and whose words and thoughts gather up what is in our own hearts and say it clearly and plainly sitting quietly in a chair in front of you.”
I remembered Hughes’ words as I began to read all the articles and tributes celebrating the life and legacy of Nipsey Hussle. I was saddened that I didn’t know more about Nipsey, his story, and all of his accomplishments before his passing.
From major national news outlets to local dailies, I’ve seen stories of the “everyday hero” featured all the time. For example, a high school principal who installed washing machines so his students wouldn’t miss school because of dirty clothes; a nurse that adopted a baby who had been in the hospital for over a year without any visitors; and a chef who left his Michelin-rated restaurant to try and add some flavor to school lunches in New York.
These are all heroic efforts, to be sure, but so were Nipsey’s. Why are so many of us just learning about his heroics?
My mother used to always say, “Give me my flowers while I live.” I view her words a little differently now.
Nipsey’s transformative work in community development, entrepreneurship, economic empowerment and, efforts to end gang violence will be recorded in the Congressional Record, but all of this comes posthumously.
Celebrating our heroes does as much for us as it does them. Most who put in work to improve our communities (using whatever resources they have), don’t do it for flowers, applause, or any other recognition. However, is it too much to ask of ourselves to let them know they are seen and valued?
“We have a need for heroes,” wrote Hughes, “[heroes] that will encourage and inspire our youth…to move and stir them to be forthright, strong, clear-thinking, and unafraid.”
I believe we have just that kind of hero all around us. Nipsey Hussle may not have ever described himself as a hero, but his mission to transform the community that he both loved and lived in was heroic.
Let his sudden loss remind us to honor the Nipseys right here in our own neighborhoods, schools, churches, recreation centers, community organizations, sororities, and fraternities. If we look, they are there.
We will find them doing the important work Nipsey embodied in life and death, “more faith and less fear…talking about dreams. Better to do it and let it be seen, cause then it’s clear.”