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.
(Editor’s Note: C. Matthew Hawkins is a writer, historian, and a social worker, engaged in research and teaching. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)