Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant, and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans (Previously Known as Blacks and Before That Negroes)by Nelson George
One of the foremost chroniclers of the contemporary black experience offers an undeluded perspective on the 1980s. Here are crack, AIDS, and the Reagan rollback of the major advances of the civil rights movement. But Nelson George also shows how black performers, athletes, and activists made increasing inroads into the mainstream. This fast-paced, chronological retrospective profiles personalities from Bill Cosby to Louis Farrakhan and explores such flashpoints as the first rap single and the infamous Willie Horton ad campaign.
On the web: http://www.nelsongeorge.com/
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Introduction: Affirmative Actions
For centuries the word ìsoulî was (pardon the pun) solely employed by religious leaders and philosophers to describe manís spiritual core. The soul could be cursed to eternal damnation. The soul could rise up to heavenly salvation. God and the Devil have sparred over the soul of man since before the very devout Bible was written. The soul has always been that region of consciousness that truly defined us, not the temple of flesh we walk around in. To this day the soul is, in popular consciousness, associated with oneís spiritual dimensions, as the ubiquitous best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books testified to at the turn of the century.
It was no coincidence then that those black singers of the í60s began describing the popular music as ìsoul music,î since its musical base (rhythm, melody, vocal arrangement) all harked back to the sounds heard in the Christian churches that nurtured them. Though the subject matter of soul music was secularóusually love, lust, and lossósoul was descended from gospel, and when performed by a queen like Aretha Franklin, the music possessed the devotional intensity of a Sunday sermon.
From this simple linguistic transfer came a wider use of the word. As the sixties progressed, soul signaled not simply a style of pop music but the entire heritage and culture of blacks (or Negroes or colored or Afro-Americans, depending on the year and context). We became ìsoul sistasî and ìsoul brothersî who dined on ìsoul food,î exchanged ìsoul shakes,î celebrated with ìsoulclapsî as ìsoul childrenî marching for ìsoul powerî while listening to ìsoul brother number one,î James Brown. This social use of soul quickly became commodified, resulting in soul magazines, soul barbershops, soul hair-care products, and an enduring TV show called Soul Train. Motown records founder Berry Gordy, never a man to miss a trick, even copyrighted the word and released records on the Soul label.
References to the í60s soul still pop up in music videos, commercials, and movies with great regularity. But they usually just skim the commercial surface of an era that for the black community had depth, substance, and edge. The sixties werenít about fried chickenóthose ten years were the apex of the struggle of blacks for full citizenshipóa battle that began the day President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but that took on a new urgency after World War II. Thatís when Americans of many hues (and too many foreign observers for the governmentís comfort) began pointing out the hypocrisy of a nation that battled Nazi hate but practiced institutionalized racism.
With a biblical ferver born of a desire to bring this countryís everyday reality in line with our Constitutionís soaring rhetoric, the civil rights movement remade America. Through legislation and marching, moral suasion and bloodshed, from 1946 into the 1970s, official barriers were smashed with the legislative and moral apex of the sixties.
I was a child during the í60s and I remember that ìWe Shall Overcomeî energy with great affection. For me this historic period was absolutely about soul in its deepest spiritual meaning. It was about faith in the human capacity for change and a palpable optimism about the future. Itís not necessary to recite the huge list of accomplishments of that epoch to say that period was witness to dramatic concrete action and a sense of commitment that defined the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and thousands of others. And that hard, visionary work was all about soul.
The term ìpost-soulî defines the twisting, troubling, turmoil-filled, and often terrific years since the mid-seventies when black America moved into a new phase of its history. Post-soul is my shorthand to describe a time when America attempted to absorb the victories, failures, and ambiguities that resulted from the soul years. The post-soul years have witnessed an unprecedented acceptance of black people in the public life of America. As political figures, advertising images, pop stars, coworkers, and classmates, the descendants of African slaves have made their presence felt and, to a remarkable degree considering this countryís brutal history, been accepted as citizens, if not always as equals.
Unfortunately, all that progress has not been as beneficial to the black masses as was anticipated in the í60s. The achievements of role models have not necessarily had a tangible impact on the realities of persistent poverty, poor education, and lingering, deep-seated social discrimination. A determined conservative backlash against the governmentís role in altering social conditions, heretofore repressed class tensions within the black community, widespread drug use, and a debilitating cynicism that runs counter to the spirit of the soul years are just some of the elements that make the post-soul years often seem a muddle.
Documenting the post-soul era is not about chronicling the straight line of a social movement, but collecting disparate fragments that form not a linear story, but a collage. Several trendsó some direct reactions to the soul years, others revolutions that could not have been anticipatedó drive this tangled narrative. An unprecedented number of black officials were elected in this period, men and women who were then challenged both to improve the raceís well-being and to serve the needs of their other (presumably white) constituents. The post-soul period witnessed the ascendance, via high-visibility government appointments and jobs in media, of black conservatives who challenged the traditional views of black politics and values. The era fostered the creativity, desperation, and rage of the poor, communicated to the larger world through inspired artistry and destructive behavior, both on a scale never seen before; revealed the potency of black female writers and public intellectuals in the discourse of race and sex, and the often bitter backlash against these women from black men of many classes; and revived older notions of black nationalism and street protest as well as a critique of integration that encourages interest in African culture and non-Christian religions.
By decadeís end ìblackî itself, as the verbal identification of race, would be, if not replaced, at least challenged or reinterpreted by the introduction of a new phrase. In fact the definition of blackness would be in play in the í80s, with terms like ìbuppie,î ìb-boy,î ìBAP,î ìunderclass,î ìwomanist,î and ìAfrocentricityî entering the lexicon. Some of these terms were sepia-tinted versions of white reality; others slang terms and academic inventions that captured new identities.
One of the safe assumptions of Post-Soul Nation is that the inventions, phenomena, and fads evolving out of the black community eventually shape the lives of nonblack Americans. That was true to a great degree during the civil rights movement in politics, law, and music. But in the more fully desegregated í80s, American society accepted this interplay without the same overt resistance, and, not surprisingly, the impact of black culture was magnified.
That said, Post-Soul Nation is not a simple slice of racially blind í80s nostalgia. There will be some í80s themes and events missing for those addicted to Behind the Music or the History Channel. Thereíll be no Rubikís Cube, no Members Only jackets, and as little of Mr. T as I can manage. Sorry. It is a very select vision of ten years (give or take twelve months) that emphasizes the achievement and dysfunction of people who suddenly decided it would be cool to be called African Americans.
Post-Soul Nation flows directly out of my life. The eighties were the first decade of my adulthood, and I lived through it with that mix of self-discovery and enthusiasm characteristic of oneís twenties. Coming of age in the í80s made my peers and me extraordinarily lucky. The doors to opportunity in the United States opened wider than they ever had for black people. We accepted jobs our parents wouldnít have been offered. We probably made more money in that decade than entire black generations did in their lifetime. But were we í80s black folk better people? Were we stronger, braver, more courageous? I donít believe so. I believe we were often well trained and absolutely quite fortunate.
We were also greedy, self-dramatizing, and still stifled by racismís weapons: overcrowded, shabby schools and indifferent teachers; policing that could be either brutal or nonexistent, and was too often both; wretched, red-lined housing and putrid public services. Profoundly, despite our access and success, despite the possibilities integration offered, a cynical, isolationist attitude emerged in the populace, as if we were simultaneously under- and overwhelmed by this new America, a duality that would define us.
And then there was movie cowboy Ronald Reagan and the horse he rode in onó neoconservatismóthat defined the national mood. His assumption of the presidency in 1980 was partially due to a backlash against black advancement that had been stirring throughout Jimmy Carterís troubled four-year term. Reading articles from the late í70s one finds there was a sense among many black leaders that President Reagan would be no worse for blacks than the Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter. A few prominent black leaders even endorsed the neo-con icon. To say these men were shortsighted is like arriving at the revelation that rapping involves rhymes.
Though told in a third-person narrative voice, Post-Soul Nation is in many ways autobiographical because the bookís broad themes are the broad themes of my life. In January 1980, I was an unemployed freelance writer living with my mother and pregnant sister in a two- story row house in one of Brooklynís most tattered neighborhoods. At the end of 1989, I was a newspaper columnist, noted music critic, and author living in a spacious brownstone in an arty Brooklyn area. My new bathroom was bigger than my old bedroom. The engine for improving my life in the í80s was the accelerated growth of black pop culture. The first actual disposable income I ever had derived from the royalties generated by a quickie Michael Jackson biography written breathlessly in the summer of 1983. I invested part of the proceeds from that endeavor in Spike Leeís film, Sheís Gotta Have It, my first involvement with the entrepreneurial side of culture. Between my writings and minor business ventures during the years 1980 to 1989, I benefited greatly from the access the post-soul era afforded.
But the trends that defined my life werenít only from the plus side of life. My family was scarred by the crack addiction of an immediate family member, which led to petty crime, awful lies, and a legacy of distrust and suspicion that my family still wrestles with. Hand in hand with drug addiction came an HIV infection to that same family member, visiting another í80s plague on our house. My family has survived all of that and, in many ways, is stronger than it has been in years. But the pain was real and will always linger with us.
To me, Charles Dickensís enduring phraseóit was the best of times and it was the worst of timesófits the í80s to a tee. All who lived through that decade were shaped by its lived joy and pain like a Frankie Beverly song. You donít know who Frankie Beverly is? Itís an í80s thing.
The year 1979 is the prologue, where we witness a few choice events whose impact spills over into the upcoming decade. A presidential election gets under way beneath the cloud of crisisó fifty-nine Americans being held hostage in Tehran after the fall of Iranís pro-American shah. An Islamic revolution has overthrown the old oligarchy and the Iranian people rightfully accuse America of supporting a corrupt, oil-rich tyrant. What no one in America realizes, except a few scholars, observant reporters, and closemouthed government operatives, is that the bitterness that spews forth from enraged Iranians is the second big sign (the first being the 1973ñ74 oil embargo) that the political cold war is giving way to a hot religious one and that God-fearing America is to a lot of non-Westerners the great Satan.
In the American streets, where people wonder how a small Middle Eastern country can successfully disrespect us, there is a new drug epidemic. Phencyclidine (PCP, a.k.a. angel dust) is a test-tube drug that becomes popular as a kind of ghetto LSD, sending its users into a disorienting hallucinogenic state. The gray flaky substance is sprinkled either on regular cigarettes or marijuana cigarettes and then smoked. In addition to seeing weird, dreamy visions, dust smokers sometimes gain enough strength and aggression that it takes four or five policemen to subdue them. The hospital wards of big cities are dotted with ìdustyî crazed, wild-eyed men and women who have to be restrained and injected with Thorazine, a cure that both calms victims down and often fries their brains. Whatís scary is that by the mid-í80s, angel dust will be to crack what herpes is to AIDS.
At our starting point, black culture is in the mainstreamóto a degree. There are blacks in sitcoms and on local news. Several major cities have black mayors and desegregation is public policy in all fifty states. We are coming into a new era; Afros and dashikis can still be seen, but fades and baggy pants are on the rise.
American Mavericks, a festival of independent feature-length films, begins at an East Village theater in Manhattan. Among the young auteurs in the festival is Martin Brest with Hot Tomorrows, a film he writes and directs about the afterlifeóvery different from the movie that will make his reputation a few years later, Beverly Hills Cop.
The one black film in the festival is an hour-long documentary called Streetcorner Stories, made by Yale graduate Warrington Hudlin, which focuses on a group of men who congregate on a New Haven, Connecticut, street corner mornings before work. Using the popular cinema veritÈ style with no narrator, Streetcorner Stories captures the rhythms and rituals of black working- class life by the careful accumulation of detail. Hudlin opens with a quote from Ralph Ellison about the ìtragic comicî quality of the blues, which Hudlin, a product of the tough Midwestern working class of East St. Louis, uses as a template for this gritty film.
Hudlin, who lives in Harlem, is part of a community of black independent filmmakers on both coasts whoíve been toiling throughout the í70s, mostly ignored by Hollywood and mainstream (white and black) media. Melvin Van Peeblesís Sweet Sweetbackís BaadAsssss Song in 1971 was the last independent black film to get a significant commercial release and a large audience. Independent black filmmakers like Hudlin fund their films via grants from art organizations or family, or they make them at film schools they attend or teach at. Seen mostly at festivals or museums, the modest films rarely have stars, usually have very strong political or social themes, and never have an advertising budget, which is why popular black newspapers and magazines like Ebony give them token coverage. One of the recurring topics in the panel discussions of the Mavericks festival is how non-Hollywood black cinema can gain more exposure.
Jamaa Fanakaís movie Penitentiary is a whacked-out jailhouse version of Rocky, and sex symbol Leon Issac Kennedy is quite engaging as Too Sweet, the reluctant hero. Fanaka is a product of the serious Los Angeles school of black indie filmmaking but has his own warped world view. As a student at UCLA he became notorious for a short about a brother whose penis was so long it could be used to strangle his enemies. Penitentiary is a product of the same surreal mind- set and becomes a B-movie hit that spawns two sequels. Though unheralded by critics, Fanaka and Kennedy create the first black movie franchise of the decade.
The Black Scholar, an important journal of black intellectual thought, dedicates the May/June issue to ìThe Black Sexism Debate.î The issue is inspired by an angry review in the March/April issue by Robert Staples of Michelle Wallaceís book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Staplesís essay was called ìThe Myth of Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists.î
Wallaceís book, published early in 1979, had been hailed by white feminists as a landmark look at male chauvinism in the black nationalist movement, placing black women under a double burden of white racism and black machismo. Ms. Magazine had featured the young author on its cover. Black men, still smarting from their damning portrayal in Ntozake Shangeís Broadway hit, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a few years before, viciously attacked Wallace. The Village Voiceís Stanley Crouch was typical, writing that whites in the media were ìpromoting a gaggle of black female writers who pay lip service to the womanís movement while supplying us with new stereotypes of black men and women.î This issue of The Black Scholar boasts an impressive list of contributors: Ron Karenga, Askia TourÈ, Harry Edwards, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Robert Staples, Ntozake Shange, Alvin Poussaint, Kalamu ya Salaam, Julianne Malveaux, and others.
Reflecting on this debate five years later in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life, Calvin Hernton observed, ìit was clear that the men were the ones who were angry....The men claimed that the women had fallen prey to white feminist propaganda. They said that black women, like white women, had been duped into turning against their men. The most truculent assertion was that the writings of black women were ëdivisiveí to the cohesion of the black community.î
The cries of ìDisco sucks!î ring out across the land. Just a year after the massive pop cultural impact of the movie and soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, a severe backlash against this musical-cultural movement is under way. Rock fans have always hated discoís self-conscious attempt at sophistication and faddish touch dancing. Others find its blending of the black, Latino, and gay club world frightening, upsetting, even dangerous.
At the dawn of the new decade, ìdiscoî is still muttered by many as if a curse word, but the dance music scene it catalyzes will thrive and splinter into several dance genres driven by the DJs who would, as tastemakers and music makers, turn using turntables into a creative act.
New Jersey independent label Sugarhill Records releases Rapperís Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang, the first commercially successful expression of the rapping style thatís been popular in New York area parks and clubs for several years. Though it will evolve and, eventually, revolutionize world music, Rapperís Delight is at this point essentially just another approach to dance music. The groove the three performers talk over in rhymeóa.k.a. rapóis culled from one of the last great disco anthems, Chicís ìGood Times.î
Closer to the disco tradition is the scene at the West Villageís Paradise Garage. Led by the visionary black gay DJ Larry Levan, the Garage becomes the most devout temple in a city that is the dance music mecca. Voted the best club with the best sound system in í79 and í80 at the Billboard Disco Convention, the Garage attracts a rabid, multisexual, multiracial throng every weekend. Because of its prominence in dance culture and the varied taste of Levan, the Paradise Garage is the spawning ground for a wide variety of dance music styles.
Halfway across the country, Frankie Knuckles, a black gay DJ from New York and intimate of Levan, spins at a club called the Warehouse in Chicago, where a huge crowd gathers on the weekends at a three-story factory on the cityís west side. At the Warehouse dancing is known as ìjackingî and the music, because of the clubís name, is dubbed ìhouse.î Initially, the music played at the Warehouse is not very different from what dancers at New Yorkís Paradise Garage might hearóPhilly International dance hits, Euro-disco, and funk. But as the Chicago scene expands, drawing in more straights and musicians, ìhouseî takes on a distinctive identity.
Michael Jacksonís Off the Wall, produced by the former jazz and movie arranger Quincy Jones, sells several million copies, becoming the biggest-selling album by a male vocalist ever, establishing the former child star as an adult artist. Jackson, at the time of this albumís release, is still remembered by most of America as the cute lead singer of Motownís bubblegum group, the Jackson 5. Michael and his four older brothers enjoyed a string of number-one hits at the beginning of the í70s (ìABC,î ìThe Love You Save,î ìI Want You Back,î ìIíll Be Thereî), the last gasp of the production line that made Motown ìthe sound of young America.î
Despite having enjoyed some solo hits, Michael struggled through adolescence as he searched for a grown-up identity (both on vinyl and off). The trick that underlies Off the Wall is how deftly veteran producer Quincy Jones matures the singer without losing his youthful quality. The dance jams are brilliant disco (ìDonít Stop íTil You Get Enough,î ìWorking Day and Nightî); the mid-tempo tracks sexy (ìRock with Youî); and the ballads (ìSheís Out of My Life,î ìI Canít Help Itî) heartfelt. Vocally, Off the Wall is a tour de force that brings Jackson back to fans whoíd grown up with the Jackson 5 and wins him the allegiance of a new generation.
Jackson appears in promotional videos for two songs, ìDonít Stopî and ìRock with You,î that are typical of the timeóMichael singing and dancing alone before a cheesy blue-screened backdrop. The videos play on a few variety shows and fringe-time music programs, but basically they have no impact on record sales in the United States. They receive most of their play in the United Kingdom, where ìpromos,î a.k.a. videos, had been commonplace since the í60s. As Michael goes back to work with his brothers on a Jackson 5 album, many wonder if Off the Wall will prove the peak of his solo career. After all, Jackson seems too old to play Peter Pan much longer.
The Feminist Press publishes I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by novelist Alice Walker, which brings obscure author- folklorist Zora Neale Hurston to national attention. Walker situates Hurston in the cosmology of black letters as the black female writer, the touchstone and artistic role model for all to follow. Hurston was a contemporary of and collaborator with Langston Hughes. Her work was regarded with disdain by the first black literary superstar, Richard Wright, and many of her books had been out of print for years. The attention given by Walker and other female writers to Hurston heralds a new prominence for black women writers and inspires many to use Hurstonís work as an artistic template. Her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, would soon be reissued and enter the canon of great black (and feminist) (and American) novels.
Two of the most popular sitcoms of the í80s debutóBenson, starring Robert Guillaume on ABC, and Different Strokes, with Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on NBC.
Benson, which debuts on the thirteenth, is a semi-dignified throwback to the age of movies and early sitcoms that featured the wise black servant. This show claims to subvert that tired concept by making the servant a male butler who works for (and usually outwits) a sitting governor. Guillaume is a solid comic actor who does his best to bring some class to what, in lesser hands, would be an all-out coon show. As it is, Benson runs for nearly seven seasons. By the last season Benson has risen from butler to lieutenant governor, the result a symbolic olive branch held out by its producers to its many black critics that should have been snapped in two. To its apologists Benson is a positive look at black servitude, the same people who think Margaret Mitchellís Gone with the Wind presents a positive view of black women.
Lacking the grace that Guillaume brought to Benson is the sad Different Strokes, the tale of a rich white widower and his two adopted black sons, which is first broadcast on September third. Todd Bridges plays a normal teenager, but the focus of the show is Gary Coleman, who many suspect is a midget but who is actually just a very irritating little boy. Coleman, with his toothy grin and ìLucyî-like antics, becomes a huge star during the showís eight-year run. He is the latest in a long line of caricatured black males who find success in American entertainment (Jimmie Walkerís ìJ.J.î on Good Times is his immediate predecessor).
The longevity of both Benson and Different Strokes (and the addition of Webster in 1983, another show about a black child being raised by white parents) speaks to Hollywoodís comfort with stereotypes. Half the decade will be over before the black sitcom formulas that spawn these series are overhauled by a Philadelphia-born comedian who opens the í80s doing Jell-O commercials.
Dudley Moore stars in the midlife crisis comedy 10 that introduces the white world to cornrows. Bo Derek, a twenty-two-year-old blonde with a frankly bodacious body, runs in slow motion on a beach, undresses, and beds the nerdy protagonist. Posters of Derek in a swimsuit adorn barbershops and car repair shops worldwide.
For black people, the sight of this Caucasian in long cornrows with decorative shells at their tips is a shock. The cornrow, an American adaptation of an African style, was a hairstyle intended to flaunt black pride. White women everywhere (albeit briefly) go to hair salons to get that ìBo Derek look.î
A black cultural phenomenon is adopted by a white sponsor and spreads across the countryóan old story in America. But in the í80s it all goes faster; there are more black faces in the mass media, and whites are freer to admit they like to borrow.
Marion Barry takes office as mayor of Washington, D.C. The fiery leader had been a civil rights organizer in the South during the í60s and then evolved into a radical, dashiki-wearing nationalist in the í70s. During both incarnations Barry showed a charismatic flair for speaking forcefully for blacks. This is a man who would not be grateful for federal government handouts or accommodating to white liberals (at least in public). Because D.C. is the nationís capital, much goes on in the District that the mayor has no control over. But in his campaign, Barry makes it clear that what he can control, heíll control with gusto.
Yvonne Scruggs, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, would later tell Barry biographer Jonetta Rose Barras that views of the mayor and his team on power were very different from those of the first generation of black politicians elected in the í60s: ìNobody gave them [Barry and his people] anything. They started out clawing and scratching. The style they developed was more confrontational, less ameliorative, more driven by quid pro quo than compromise. People like Marion Barry understood that the only way they got power was being in your face and making it clear there would be consequences if you didnít help them.î
Unlike the previous wave of black mayors, such as Clevelandís Carl Stokes or Newarkís Ken Gibson, who sought to accommodate the cityís eroding but moneyed base of white voters, Barryís assertive national rhetoric has more in common with another relatively new chocolate city mayor, the curmudgeonly Coleman Young of Detroit.
Tom Wolfe had popularized the phrase ìMau-Mauing the Flak Catchersî to describe how black militants used threats of boycotts and rioting to appropriate power from white gatekeepers during the big-city turmoil of the late í60s. Barry had been the kind of loud, trash-talking advocate for the black agenda the journalist was referring to. Now, as mayor of D.C., Barry is the gatekeeper.
Meet the Author
Nelson George is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. He has written for Playboy, Billboard, Esquire, the Village Voice, Essence, and many other national magazines, as well as writing and producing television programs and feature films.
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