Last week in New York, universities and colleges celebrated their graduating class of 2024. The past couple of months have been tumultuous for many students and academic staff on campuses across the US. The recent protests, and this season of graduation, have made me think more generally about how we walk alongside the next generation, those who find themselves on the cusp of a new season of their adult lives.

I imagine that many graduating students will remember the older adults who supported them as they learnt to strengthen their own ideas, and chose to apply their own agency in a variety of ways. I can look back on my own life, when I was in my late teens and very early twenties, and still recall the adults whose words or actions guided me in some way. They ranged from a professor to a friend’s mother to a director supervisor at an early job I had right out of college.

At that stage of my life, more than any other, I looked up to certain older adults around me and their opinions and guidance mattered. I think we all have some responsibility to offer our support and interest to the next generation.

The 1907 painting “Leaving Home”, by American painter William Gilbert Gaul, shows a crowded family scene in the front room of a house. Gaul’s painting evokes complicated feelings for me because it’s a portrayal of a boy being sent off to war — in this case, the American civil war, and on the side of the pro-slavery Confederacy.

The youth, who looks barely out of his teens, is wearing a Confederate uniform and stands clasping the hands of an older man, most likely his father. In the middle of the canvas, a white woman sits on a rocking chair crying into a handkerchief, consoled by two younger white women, probably her daughters. There are two Black servants, presumably enslaved people, standing in the background, their hands clasped perfunctorily at their stomachs. Household pets are present, and a stable hand who looks close in age to the soldier keeps a horse ready for departure.

A painting of a young man in Confederate army uniform clasps the hands of an older man, watched by Black servants and white women who look distraught
‘Leaving Home’ (1907) by American painter William Gilbert Gaul © Alamy

Regardless of my feelings about the socio-historical context of the painting, I find it to be a compelling portrayal of the different values, beliefs and stances that can shape a younger generation’s entry into the world. The young Black boy with the horse, just behind the soldier, points to the different lives that are made possible — or impossible — for different segments of youth.

Partly because of the cultural and political realities of the day, the adults in the room all play a central role in shaping the futures of both boys, albeit with different outcomes. There is a portrait of a military man on the wall, which seems to celebrate the nobility of war. And there is a newspaper on the floor, drawing the connection between what happens in that home and what happens in the wider world. It is a reminder that the next generation does not think or act from within a vacuum. We, the generations before them, are in many ways accountable for some of how they interpret the world and their role in it.

As I considered how we journey alongside the next generation, I came across a 19th-century painting of Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage. It shows Joan before her shortlived military career, dressed humbly and standing in an untamed garden. Her eyes seem glazed over as she looks out towards something we cannot see, her right arm outstretched before her. Behind her is a small house, and three apparitions float in the air on the left side of the canvas, presumably the Archangel Michael, St Margaret and St Catherine, of whom Joan is said to have had visions. The archangel points a lance out towards Joan, and of the two female saints, one clasps her hands together and the other buries her face in her hands as if weeping.

History tells us that Joan of Arc believed she was divinely guided to do what she did: to fight in service of France, her country. We can read how her story ends. But what moves me about this painting is that we witness her in the process of discerning her next steps, of negotiating what she perceives as a calling. And even though some people around her may have questioned the validity of her narrative, there were others who honoured and supported her. I am not debating the reality of her visions or the morality of her cause; I am focusing here on the fact that certain adults in her life must have respected her agency and sense of selfhood.

This makes me think about the ways we do, or do not, make room to listen to the ideas of young people, and their thoughts on how they imagine their role in the larger world. So often, I think from our good intentions, we steer young people towards what we imagine is best for them, based not on their own desires and reflection but on our own hopes. This is understandable, but I am not sure it is always what’s best. I think part of the initiation into adulthood involves making mistakes, sometimes big ones, and learning from them. And part of being an adult is also learning to listen to, trust and honour your own voice. Something I think very few of us are truly taught in our upbringings.

I love the 2024 painting “Human Castle” by contemporary artist Wonder Buhle Mbambo. In the middle of a beautiful, lush landscape a totem of people all join together to hold up a single child. From the hairstyle, we assume it is a young girl, and in her raised arm she holds a light, what looks to me like a star on a stick. I imagine her as the future, bearing the hopes of those who have come before her and who are lifting her up.

A semi-surreal painting of a pyramid of people all dressed the same holding up a single child at the very top
‘Human Castle’ (2024) by Wonder Buhle Mbambo © Tatenda Chidora

Everyone in the painting is dressed alike, and I want to imagine that this speaks to some sense of their being equal in value as humans and similar in their shared desire to support the next generation. I love how the human castle that begins with a large mass of people tapers until it’s just the child.

If we have succeeded in any way in our lives, it is in some part due to the fact that we all were raised or lifted up symbolically by the strengths, achievements and encouragements of those who came before us, be they ancestors, immediate family, friends, strangers or a community of multiple individuals, some of whom we may not be aware of.

Mbambo’s painting brings to life that old proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Aren’t we all part of the local and global village responsible in our various and unique ways in raising the young people stepping forth, out and hopefully up?

Email Enuma at or follow her on X @EnumaOkoro

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