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How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity
By Ytasha L. Womack
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Ytasha L. Womack
All rights reserved.
THE GENERATION GAP
THE YOUNG BLACK PROFESSIONAL
My dad doesn't think I have a job.
He's never said this, of course. He reads my stories on people he's never heard of in the Gen X and Y mags he wouldn't be reading without my byline. He's been to the movie premieres in chic places he wouldn't normally attend packed with the ghosts of futures present, aka the "invisibles" — the array of professional and artist types of color he's heard about via word of mouth, à la my word of mouth. The ones he's heard are moving into Chicago's old "low end," now Bronzeville, turning crack houses into quarter-mil condos.
These invisibles do things in the even more invisible world known as the Internet, where they find news that's not on the nightly six o'clock broadcast or in the paper. Where they send little messages called e-mails and texts, galvanizing more of our ilk to bond over issues that could easily be discussed in a phone conversation.
My dad doesn't believe in the Internet. Nor is he an advocate of cell phones, preferring to bag a bunch of quarters for those rare pay phones that have survived the cell phone takeover. Since computers haven't gone the way of the eight-track, he's resigned himself to be forever "old school."
My dad's an interesting guy. Born and raised in a small town in Texas, he is proud to be an old-school grad of Prairie View A&M. He was baptized in civil rights and wears the looming crown of justice, a ten-gallon cowboy hat that signals "I'm taking names and kicking butt" or "black cowboys live" or "I'm a federal investigator with the United States of America." He's a political news junkie and horse rider. Reads the Sun-Times and Jet. He's got a storehouse of collectibles from his heroes: a poster of boxing's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; a picture of himself with Muhammad Ali; Jesse Jackson for president buttons; and, more recently, a Barack Obama T-shirt my brother gave him for Father's Day.
As for hip-hop, to him it's a foreign aberration where kids twist their fingers in funny ways and spit indiscernible words to beats that resemble a train wreck in some space-age effort to highjack the real music that should be on the radio: James Brown, Otis Redding, and maybe a little Aretha.
As a kid during the house music versus rap war in Chicago, I asked Dad which of the roaring new school sounds he preferred. "That's like asking would I rather be shot or stabbed," he replied with a smile. The only rap song I remember him liking when I was growing up was "I Go to Work" by Kool Moe Dee, for obvious reasons.
A stickler for tradition, Dad usually meets me on a Sunday around the same time at the same restaurant. We changed restaurants only recently because his favorite place — a lonely, black-owned soul food diner across the street from the Regal Theater on Seventy-Ninth Street with no sign, never more than two customers, and a jukebox full of blues bootlegs — closed unexpectedly. So now we meet at a Hyde Park sports bar with a couple of pool tables and a bowling alley. We meet at one of two tables, one indoor, the other outdoor. Nevertheless, you can see his Clint Eastwood strut a mile away, and when we meet for lunch I always get a kick out of his perspective on life.
I should have known change was on the horizon when he made an unexpected comment about rapper 50 Cent. "I think he's finally starting to understand more about manhood," he remarked. I did a double take. Was my father talking about a rapper? My sister, who had joined us on this day, and I looked at one another. "Tell us more, Dad." And he went on about boys turning into men, understanding what's important in life. He made some analogy about young buffaloes and old buffaloes.
He retired recently. Now that Obama is president, impossible is possible. Hell has frozen over, so to speak, and thanks to my taking him around to a few of my own haunts, he's content that the world's not going to hell in a handbasket and that it is officially safe for him to retire. He can tuck the six-shooter away. There are apparently others who can now take the reins, he remarked, after recognizing that there were people in my demographic who were doing things with their lives, even if it didn't make a heap of sense.
While my dad would joke that he didn't have anything to say to anyone under fifty at his job and prided himself on being the youngest member of his all-black service organization, he was never opposed to progress. Opposed to technology, perhaps, but never progress. He was highly disappointed in peers of his generation who made disparaging remarks about Obama (before it became totally uncool to do so). "If you can't get excited about this," he said of Obama's presidential bid, "you can't get excited about anything."
Generation gaps don't begin with the advent of hip-hop. I ran across a quote from a literary great who took serious issue with the "new generations of erudite drunkards" in the 1400s. My mom, a Chicago-born daughter of the 1960s and social advocate who spent all of her professional career in educational administration, frequently talks of her own father, a classically trained musician whose world went topsy-turvy with the onslaught of civil rights and the Black Power movement. He couldn't get past the Afros, the brazen pride in the naturally tight curls he'd been taught should be straightened with Murray's grease. He couldn't stand them, she said. Nor was my grandfather a fan of the blues or its rock and rhythm-and-blues derivatives. "It's too repetitive," he'd say. "All that ooh, baby, baby, ooh, baby, baby. How many times is he going to say it?" He wouldn't let my mom march with King when he came to Chicago. King, in his mind, was a young, eloquent rabble-rouser kicking dust on their northern, middle-class convictions. "To think, today, King has a holiday. My father wouldn't know how to take that," Mom said, laughing. But even he knew times were changing. He was fascinated by humans' foray into space. As for earthly matters, my mother convinced him to go against the notorious political machine and vote for comic/activist Dick Gregory for mayor. In 1968, my grandfather passed away, a decision, my mom often says, that he made because the world flip to come was too radical for him. On the other hand, her mom, a Mississippi-born beauty and daughter of self-sufficient landowners, was all for this new world. As fashions and conventions turned the corner over the next few decades, so did my grandmother. Change was a part of life, she reasoned. She passed away before the turn of the next century.
When you're taught to give back, it's usually recommended that you start by working with an organization that served as your rock during childhood. After college I became reaffiliated with one organization in particular — the one that had the greatest impact on my character development. As often happens in childhood, I took for granted the values instilled in me there, and I didn't realize how rare these nuggets of inspiration were and how much I valued the lessons I'd learned until I entered the real world. For the sake of my own growth, I continued my affiliation with the organization and when asked would volunteer and do workshops for kids. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call this organization the Institution. The Institution, like many longstanding black organizations, was founded by one of those battle-worn geniuses whose model for success survived racism, political games, and the changing of the guards. The Institution was a pioneer in an area in which few had tread and had been bucking the system miles ahead of the curve for so long that ideologies it implemented in the 1970s were just hitting the mainstream post-2K. But half a century after its creation, for some reason no one could fully explain, the Institution was unusually heavy with longtime members and light on both new and younger recruits. Nearly three-quarters of its members were over fifty-five. A handful of seasoned members warned the heedless few that the Institution was approaching a crisis if it didn't do something immediately. Hoping to make a difference, a few twenty- and thirtysomethings who aimed to boost the young adult membership launched a good-natured auxiliary group I'll call the Firm. The Firm's mission was to create programs for the Gen X and Gen Y demo, to keep this group enthusiastic about the Institution's mission, and to support this crew of invisibles as they took on larger responsibilities within the organization. I was recruited to join the Firm. It got off to a good start. It comprised a group of professionals, most with bachelor's and postgraduate degrees — a round table including some down-to-earth physicians, engineers, artists, real estate agents, educators, and students. After a few feel-good social events got the group excited, the membership decided to create a series of workshops to attract new members to the Firm and to service the Institution at large. Well-written, fully financed proposals with all the i's dotted and t's crossed were created and proudly presented to the Institution. None of them were approved.
The problem: the proposals were too good, the Firm's membership was too eager, and the Institute's leadership frowned upon these new faces whose knowledge and vigor challenged their sedentary conventions. The Firm's talent and goodwill drew a line in the sand. Who the hell do these kids think they are? stormed the Institute leaders.
So instead of approving anything, the Institution hit the Firm with a list of requirements, a few hoops to jump through if they wanted to be fully recognized as, well, adults. A little miffed, the Firm members nonetheless agreed, completed the required "course work" so they'd be taken seriously, and began cultivating new proposals. The organization needed, among other things, more community outreach, marketing, relevant programs, and revenue streams, and proposal after proposal created events and programs to address all of these. After some serious campaigning a few proposals saw the light of day, but it soon became obvious that the Institution's leadership and its dire plea for new blood was all talk. The key leadership had no interest in the Firm's mission. They didn't want any smart, educated, energetic young people with a bag full of new-wave ideas and notions of helping or being future leaders. Stop writing proposals and go stuff some envelopes.
The situation was totally bizarre. The Institution countered the Firm's success by banning it from promoting itself either internally or externally. If Firm members did anything as a group outside of the Institution, they could not use the Institution's name or that of the auxiliary itself. Even when a few events were approved, the Institution usurped all major decisions by claiming that the members were "too young" and "didn't know what they were doing" and undermined the events' success by pulling budgets, axing promotion, and targeting Firm members for exile. Yes, I said exile. Hurt by this widespread rejection from the people they had grown up admiring, many in the Firm just left. They would "serve" elsewhere or wouldn't serve at all. But the greater calamity was that the Firm was merely trying to help. Not a single soul in that group had any grand dreams of storming the Institution and assuming leadership. Their lives were busy enough without running a multimillion-dollar service organization as a latter-day side hustle. But eventually the Institution's fanatical resistance compelled many in the Firm to aim for leadership. The remaining Firm diehards aimed to prove that Firm members were in fact intelligent people with valuable talents that could turn the Institution around if the leaders took off their stuck-on stupid hats and listened. And that morphed into wanting to save the Institution itself, because the members' behavior and "let's rid ourselves of these willful youth" antics undermined not just the Firm but the lifeline of the Institution itself. The diehard Firm members became vigilant, countering efforts of annihilation — yes, I said annihilation — with some minor victories that went unacknowledged. Battle axe in hand, some of these vigilantes wound up chopping their way up the ladder, moving into other auxiliaries, and taking on larger leadership roles. But no matter how high they rose or what roles they took on, disillusionment was inevitable.
And nearly all at various points seriously considered leaving and forming a new Institution run by none other than the Firm members themselves.
In the Institution's defense, there were many innovative old-schoolers who advocated for the Firm. They weren't very loud about it, preoccupied with their own battles, but they outnumbered the core leadership and tried in their quiet way to support us. One such event was a panel held by one of the auxiliaries. Leaders rounded up a few articulate Gen Xers with nothing in common other than their loose affiliation with the Institution and a few framed diplomas and asked us to talk about how we came to exist. They looked at us like we were talking pandas, their mouths agape as they tried to ask well-intentioned questions that were as disparate as east and west. Always one to advocate for clarity, I just asked the audience point-blank, "What issues do you have with young adults? What is it you don't like about us?" They were quiet at first. But the hands came up slowly.
"We don't like the way you dress," one fiftyish woman uttered quietly. Mind you, everyone on the panel was suited up. But the audience echoed her disdain. If I were to find the common denominator for all their concerns, it centered around this fact that they just didn't like the way we dressed. Those saggy, baggy jeans with the tightie whities and boxers playing peek-a-boo were just the tip of the iceberg. We, as in all young black people, dressed entirely too casual at work. We wore sandals when we should wear closed-toed shoes. Some of us didn't wear pantyhose at all, just our bare legs and a pair of pumps, they said. Too many women wore suit jackets that hugged their curves instead hiding their waist, or sundresses. Some even wore tops with no sleeves! Young men sported buttonups and refused to tuck them into their pants. And sometimes they wore suit jackets with creaseless jeans. And what's up, they asked, with wearing white in the winter? One young panelist appalled by the superficial nature of it all finally quipped, "It's not like everyone over forty is well dressed. Some of y'all are tacky, too." But his outrage fell on deaf ears. The audience continued its rant. A few people copped to the fact that they at one time wore bellbottoms and micro-minis. Then the discussion morphed into an audience agreement that how young people dressed was secondary to the reality that we have a level of freedom about the way we dress that some were puzzled by and others were jealous of but all found very discomfiting to their way of life. This fashion obsession as the focal point of our intergenerational conversation was, by my standards, very weird. I think the other panelists and I silently agreed to a code of silence on the matter.
But this fight-for-change thing took on new dimensions as the Institution's peril reached civil war levels. What were we fighting for? became the philosophical question of the day. Soon, the Firm members who remained wound up fighting less for the validity of the
Firm than for the Institution's mission itself. Death wasn't going to come, as some had predicted, solely because of the absence of young members but rather because of what young members symbolize — change and innovation, which can come from people of all ages and backgrounds. The key Institution leaders, in their attempts to thwart innovation and protect their own fiefdoms, left a nice little vortex for a group of pirates — some power-hungry, extremist baby boomers who didn't give a flying fig about the Institution's mission and I think had a chip or two on their shoulders against the great generation. The great generation didn't give up its power fast enough, these boomers reasoned, and now you have these over-eager Gen X and Yers with their dastardly Internet thinking — they're going to slip in and take my piece of the pie, like that Obama guy. We'll show them, they said. Dollar bills danced in their eyes as they bear-hugged the Institution's prestige and treasure. Cash was king, and the pirates were uniformly aligned: the Institution should become a circus. Yes, a circus.
Those members of the Firm who were left and weren't battle-weary joined their once quiet but now vocal baby boomer and great generation supporters and became part of la Résistance de Circus. Even some of the Johnny-come-lately leadership joined la Résistance de Circus, but I couldn't help thinking that all of this could have been avoided. Because it could have been avoided. Enter la Fiasco.
Excerpted from Post Black by Ytasha L. Womack. Copyright © 2010 Ytasha L. Womack. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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