How we came to un-know what we once knew

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by C. Matthew Hawkins
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.”

Hawkins
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.

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