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For New Pittsburgh Courier
I recently saw a video of clip of John Lennon being interviewed in 1969. The interviewer asked him, “What will the ’70s be like?” Lennon answered him with typical late-60s naivete and optimism, “Oh, it’s going to be wonderful. In the ’60s we have been through racism, and wars, and sexism, and destruction of the environment — we’ve been through all that and we’ve learned from it, and you can’t un-know what you now know.”
C. MATTHEW HAWKINS
As a youngster on city streets back in the 1970s, I thought that was true. It seemed to me, at that time, that everyone was focused on raising the “level of awareness” and “the consciousness” of the community.
Everywhere I turned there was an older “big-brother” type who was willing to pull me aside and school me about politics, economics and history. The older baby boomers seemed to be the one generation that was the most determined to make self-awareness and community-building a priority, and to pass their experiences and lessons on to future generations for posterity.
I couldn’t walk down Homewood Ave., in Pittsburgh, without someone pulling me aside and handing me a newspaper, such as The Black Panther, Muhammad Speaks, or The Daily World. These were newspapers that I read along with more conventional papers such as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Pittsburgh Press, The New York Times, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When community activists gave me newspapers on the street they gave them to me for free because they knew I didn’t have any money. They told me they were investing in my mind. They were planting seeds that they expected to bear fruit once I got older. They encouraged reading and thought. Although they were each trying to sell me on their particular “party line” and social and political dogma, they inadvertently gave me tools that I could use to contrast and compare perspectives.
It seemed, at that time, that African American communities had turned a corner; and it seemed the same was true in other communities because of the widespread disillusion with the War in Indochina. People seemed to have learned that it wasn’t a good idea to fight wars where the United States was not directly threatened, and where we were told that we were saving people from themselves. It seemed we had learned to question the purity of our government’s motives when they sent young people off to die in places where it was unclear how the “enemy” could be a threat to America.
But much of what we thought we had learned in those days was un-learned by the 1980s. Back in the 70s many of my friends and I felt good about the fact that, unlike our parents’ generation, we were proud of our African ancestry and we wanted to know everything we could possibly learn about the continent of Africa. We were proud of our American identity, but we were also no longer ashamed of Africa.
By the mid-1980s, however, people were saying they didn’t want to be called “African American”. They made it clear that they were black, and that there was nothing about them at all that could be called “African” — sounding much like the generation that preceded them.
By the 1970s, even James Brown, who became a musical icon through his rhythmic footwork, his soulful scream, and his straightened hair, was forced to wear a “natural” if he wanted to keep with the times. The 70s was a time of newly discovered self-confidence and even the “Godfather of Soul” would not be given a pass for embracing symbolism from an earlier era, when anything that was distinctively black was considered inferior.
We seemed to have reached a watershed where Black people would never go back to the implied self-hatred in the phrase “good hair” when people were actually talking about straight hair.
But by the 1980s, those same proud and “socially-conscious” Black people started rockin’ Jerry curls. James Brown started wearing one too, and nobody even seemed to have noticed this symbolic leap backward. Once again you could insult someone just by talking about their dark skin, which had become, at least on the surface of things, a badge of honor back in the 70s.
But the thing that I found most confusing, in the transition from the 70s to the 90s, was the de-politicization of the Black community. In the 70s, my friends and I saw education as a means of social and political liberation, and we were as likely to embrace schooling as a means to rebel against White supremacists, who had made it clear that they didn’t want us to go to school, as we were to rebel against schooling itself as being just another form of “mental slavery”. Our perspective on schooling was characterized by ambivalence — but both sides of that ambivalence arose because we had a highly politicized sense of the meaning of education.
This ambivalence toward schooling became so pronounced, and perhaps absurd, that upon meeting Maya Angelou one day I told her that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to college because I didn’t want to be “used.” Angelou looked at me in disbelief and said, “Well, it is better to be ‘used’ than to be useless.”
By the 90s I hardly heard anyone refer to schooling as a means of liberation. Most young black males I talked with during that time saw formal education as little more than job training, at best. More typically schooling had become merely a process of credentialing. The notion of college students engaging in grassroots community organizing, a fairly common idea as late as the 1980s, seemed to almost disappear altogether by the 1990s, until it re-emerged as “community service,” which was used to pad resumes and graduate school applications in hopes that it would give the applicant a competitive advantage.
Not too long ago I pressed a baby-boomer, who had been active in community organizing and social movements back in the 60s and 70s, on what had happened and why it was that grassroots movements for social change were so much weaker; and how it was that the political discourse in African American communities in particular — and in American communities in general — had become so shallow, replaced by obsessions that were driven by consumerism and commercial culture.
We were sitting, at the time, in his living room, surrounded by memorabilia on the walls from the 60s and 70s, and by shelves full of vinyl R& B and Jazz records that were in pristine condition. The former community activist looked at me and said, “Mortgages happened. Putting children through college happened. Car payments happened. That’s what happened, my brother.”
Later, I related this story to a friend of mine who is in his 20s. His father had been active in Black nationalist movements during the 60s and 70s. We sat in a greasy spoon diner on a rainy afternoon as he gave his assessment of things, “The community was flooded with drugs, like crack cocaine, and that wiped everything out.”
We spent the better part of the afternoon reminiscing about what things were like in working class Black communities during the 70s and 80s. I told him what I saw and experienced first hand, and he told me about the stories his father had told him.
The conversation turned to the problem of how too many young people today don’t even seem to have a rudimentary sense of history and of current events. We noted that, at least until the mid-90s, even if you didn’t follow the news, the lyrics in rap songs kept you reasonably informed. Back in the 90s we used to refer to rap music as being our “CNN”. Today, hip hop has been taken over by commercial empires and one is hard-pressed to find popular audio clips about anything more than “shaking your booty”.
As we swapped our war stories I was transported back to an earlier period in my life, when I was sitting in a barber shop and the music on the radio was playing James Brown’s “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing,” and Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going on?“
My father and the barber bantered back and forth, swapping their own war stories about the economy and the state of police and community relations. Much of what they said went over my head, but — in broad outline — themes seemed to emerge: that the current economic policies were crushing working people; that it was hard for small minority-owned businesses to survive; that it was getting harder and harder to hold a family together; that “those boys” were coming home from Vietnam strung out on drugs and their minds were really “messed up”.
Veterans from WWII and Korea were saying that Vietnam was different, and that something was happening to those boys that the government wasn’t telling us about.
I remember thinking, as I was listening to these older men talking, that I was getting to hear what adults talk about. I was getting the inside story. I remember thinking that they were passing on their experiences to me.
As my mind returned to that rainy afternoon in the diner, it struck me that this was what my friend and I were now doing. We were sitting in the diner swapping war stories. What is life like for you? How are we gonna make it? What do you think is happening to the community around us?
The difference between the conversation, in my father’s day, and what we were doing on that rainy afternoon, was that in my father’s day this was much more common. Today barber shops have widescreen TVs, and everyone seems to be plugged into their MP3 players. We seem so networked, and yet we are so fragmented.
As my mind flashed back to the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s voice I began to appreciate the words in his song. As his lyrics entered into the chorus he sang, “Talk to me, so you can see what’s going on.”
It sounds ironic to say, in this high-tech digital age of social networking, but one of the advantages my father’s generation had over the generations that followed them was that my father’s generation could still talk to each other and see what was going on.
The disappearance of the ability to tell stories, to share stories, and to have conversations about things that matter may explain how it has come to pass that we have actually managed to “un-know” what we had once known, back in the 1970s.
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