This week, when I read Barbara Reynolds column on her challenges with the Black Lives Matter Movement in the Washington Post (read here) I was deeply disappointed. Here was someone who is a respected leader and a member of the clergy, intelligent, articulate…someone who embodies all of the respectability of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s coming across like just another whiny baby boomer. But I cannot and do not wish to get into a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of her argument. I am not qualified. I am the cusp generation…Generation X…we were the product of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and are the parents of the Millennials driving #BlackLivesMatter. We cannot claim a place of leadership in either space, yet we are deeply impacted by both.
Today’s activists are working from a point of enfranchised disenfranchisement and that is a direct result of both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and my generation actively reaping the rewards of that struggle. Arguably, an enormous benefit that my generation received from struggle of our parents and older siblings, was “respectability” which came from a few key sources. Schools were systematically and aggressively de-segregated, not just in the South but in places where the practice was more insidious like Boston and San Diego. Affirmative action was in high gear whether some of us received the direct benefit of it or not, and for the first time, college admissions teams were asking questions about “diversity” in their school populations; the Ivy League started admitting women and people of color in significant numbers. That education led to greater visibility and so we also witnessed the power roles in media go from entirely white and male to including the regular faces of Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Bryant Gumble, Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Jayne Pauley. Mini-series like Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and television programs like The Jeffersons, Dynasty (and even Good Times) changed the visibility of black history and black life. Magazines like Black Enterprise, Essence and Ebony were staples of newsstands, not just in black neighborhoods like they had been in the 50’s and 60’s and we even saw the desegregation of white fashion…thank you Beverly Johnson. By the time 1985 rolled around, when the oldest of those folks who currently claim the moniker “young adult” were just being born, we were already used to the “Huxtables,” Will Smith both Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston was at the top of what was once considered the white “pop” charts, echoing the achievements of her aunt Dionne Warwick back in the 1960’s but on a scale unprecedented by any previous artist. Colin Powell was poised to become the first head of the military (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) paving the way for back to back black Secretaries of State in the 2000s. Basically, today’s young civil rights leaders have not known a time when blacks didn’t have what appears to be access to education, high ranking jobs and “respectability.”
But that is where the communication seems to break down. Barbara Reynolds and others can’t seem to get past this word, and this is a sentiment I’ve heard from several older folks who talk about hair and sagging pants and profanity. But honestly, these are exactly the things they fought for. The church-going-white-lace-socks-and-mary-janes respectability image worked extremely well to say in the 1950’s and 60’s that once and for all, blacks are not animals. The strength of the black church over the years not only sustained and supported community, but it said to white America “we have souls.” These two questions, not being animals and having souls, were actually arguments that were frequently levied against blacks in the post Civil War era and throughout the early 20th century. The US military was segregated through WWII not because of some kind of unspecific dislike of blacks or a feeling that blacks were incapable of warfare, but rather because of more specific over arching sense that blacks could not be trusted. There are shades of this evident when looking at the events that unfolded in Britain in 1942 (see article here) The greatest achievement that Barbara Reynolds points to is respectability, but I say the greatest achievement is the buy in to American culture that the respectability gained for blacks.
This is the disconnect. Today’s youth and young adults cannot find jobs (see some stats here ) If they attend college, they emerge carrying more debt into the start of their adult lives than many of their parents incurred buying their first homes…something many black young adults may never be able to do. They have a broader language of music and media interaction than the old guard can even conceive of and because of technology, they are internationally aware without ever having set foot out of the US. They not only know about black history, but the history of African countries, Asian countries. Middle Eastern Islam, Buddhism and other non-Judeo Christian religion is not a mystery to them and yes, some of them are Atheists and “nones.” Many of them place greater importance on the right to their gender identities and sexuality than they do their concepts of God. In short, today’s youth have taken the “respectability” of an earlier generation and turned it into fully developed lives and cultures lived without fear of certain kinds of oppression. The work of the 1960’s worked on one level; we “overcame” the question of being people. Today’s black youth feel fully enfranchised in what it means to be completely human in the United States. This is what the Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement says. It is unapologetic and expansive in its inclusivity.
So why are blacks being killed at random by overly zealous police?
Oh right…because even though we figured out the whole “respectability” thing, even though we got the education, the job, the visibility; even though black culture has become “main stream” through Hip-Hop, Rap and slam poetry; even though in some respects “we have overcome”… even though we are human and have souls, white centered US culture says…black lives don’t matter. With all the respectability in the world, black is not white and white is the context for US culture. THIS is what I believe the Black Lives Matter movement is resisting. It is a movement of resistance against contexts that are constructed for white success and safety only; a movement of resistance against cis-gendered, heteronormativity as the starting point. It is an invitation to everyone to benefit from fixing one of the most polarized cultural relationships in our nation’s history and create a new baseline. It is a movement of resistance from within the system that the Civil Rights folks of the 60’s fought to open the door to. Well guess what Rev. Reynolds, we got in. The ranch house in the suburbs belongs to us. And my generation tried living with that old flocked wallpaper and the shag carpet but the young folks who we’ve passed it on to, have decided to renovate…actually, to tear the damned thing down altogether and build something new. You fought for them to have the right to do this and unless you don’t believe in what you were fighting for, if instead you were fighting for them to remain as “respectable” non-threatening, non-violent negroes, it might be best to stay out of the spotlight…close enough to be supportive when asked…but let them drive the wrecking ball.
Finally, I would like to remind our elders of a highly ironic part of this whole “Old Civil Rights/New Civil Rights” conversation, as someone who is neither old enough to claim a place in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s and who is too old to claim a place of leadership in #BlackLivesMatter. On April 4, 1968 a gunshot rang out that many people believe brought to a close the great hope of the 1960’s movement. But it is very clear to me that the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the end. Instead, it was a beginning. His assassination was proof that black respectability, even as clergy, could be trumped by the context of angry whiteness. In that context, his life didn’t matter. Before Trayvon Martin, MLK was the first death in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.