Between Baby Boomers + Russell Simmons
06-22-2007, 02:06 PM
Between Baby Boomers + Russell Simmons
Between baby boomers and Russell Simmons: Todd Steven burroughs reflects on generation gaps, black leaders, and movements - Politics & Bling Bling
The phone call started simply enough. A fellow freelancer wanted to chat about her penning of a story on the Rev. Al Sharpton's responses to post-9/11 racial profiling. The NAACP and other civil rights bodies, she argued, are nowhere to be found in the face of post-9/l1 immigrant-bashing. It seemed to be yet another example of how black leaders aren't able to move their communities to stand against the racist impacts of Bush's war on terrorism.
Our conversation morphed into a wide-ranging discussion not only about the current state of what we are still calling "black leadership," but also about our new crop of leaders and the future.
The landscape is a complex one. Half a century ago, the term "black leader" would mean a church minister and/or the local leaders at the NAACP and the National Urban League. Today, it could range as far as ousted congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia to hip-hop mogul (and future political kingmaker?) Russell Simmons. How do you select the frame when you're not sure of the size of the picture?
If the frame is traditional, then black baby boomers, the eternally radical, eternally youthful generation transformed by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, are still in charge of the black "leadership" paradigm. They made that clear at the recent "Millions For Reparations" rally. I was surprised but not disappointed that the average age of a typical speaker was 56. It was ironic seeing a generation who formed national organizations in their 20s define their "young" allies as middle-aged people either closing in on, or well in the neighborhood of, 40 years of age.
It was also ironic seeing cultural and revolutionary nationalists, Pan-Africanists, and progressives from across the country use the same tired tactic--i.e., having a public picnic in between Washington, D.C.'s monuments--that they once ridiculed in more radical times. They seem to be gathering regularly in Washington for the purpose of documenting their actions for C-SPAN and its audience. Then they have substantive, quantitative proof of their "movements." So that old chestnut of eventually sounding like your parents is painfully true.
Fifty-year-old activists are as reluctant to leave the movement stage as their 70-year-old counterparts. Why? Because unlike their white leftist (and rightist) counterparts, there is no foundation for them to go to, no real resources to give to a second generation of those wanting to keep up the fight. The (also boomer-centric) mass news media still sees these people as leaders who earned their stripes, so it's difficult for younger people to organize. There is no SNCC, no Black Panther Parry, no American Indian Movement. With the exception of the academy, baby-boomer movement prestige is not transferable to other arenas of American life. For example, no one really believes that the Rev. James T. Meeks, Jesse Jackson's handpicked successor of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, is going to be the next Jesse Jackson. And that's assuming Jackson will ever retire. Meeks, who might have a long wait, is on his own when his turn comes. This idea of replacing the post but not the role is not confined to generation: for exa mple, Bill Fletcher, a baby boomer himself, is a well-known labor leader who is now head of TransAfrica. But he's no Randall Robinson, and Fletcher is smart enough to know that. TransAfrica is known as Robinson's organization, so Fletcher has to essentially start over. The public moral mystique of the oppressed 1960s rebel for social justice can't be bequeathed to the P. Diddy generation. So those leaders must continue to use their mojo, even into AARP age.
An Identity Crisis
Meanwhile, actual young people are moving in different directions. Simmons is trying to organize his customers--I mean, his followers!--to save New York City's education budget from the ax. Not bad. But hearing Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, and L.L. Cool J talk about how education should be supported sounds more like a well-scripted public service announcement than actual engagement in struggle. And the fans of Wyclef Jean, who was briefly arrested at the education rally Simmons and Co. held earlier this year, need to learn that being a dread-locked black male who is not recognized by New York's Finest does not automatically make him a political prisoner.
While black activism struggles with itself, black politics is struggling with an identity crisis. "New" black 30-something politicians like Cory Booker, who attempted to unseat Newark, N.J. mayor Sharpe James earlier this year, don't portray themselves as "black leaders" who will use their posts to organize the black community against white supremacy. The person of color outsider-becomes-insider game is over. Young black politicians like Booker, an Ivy League suburbanite who raised a huge war chest outside of the working-class, poor black city he tried to lead, are clearly insiders. They have no Afros to cut off, no dashikis to discard. They want to transcend the boundaries they read about in their history books. They can and will, but probably at the spiritual expense--the continued disillusionment--of people of color who do and will comprise the working poor of those cities. Those people, who once danced in the streets in cities across the nation when "their" mayor was elected for the first time, are becomi ng as alienated from politics as they are disillusioned with "revolution."
What Happened to Collective Struggle?
The big problem: There is no single issue or condition that unifies the post-fill-in-the-blank generation. No Vietnam War draft. No "Whites Only" signs. No internment camps--yet. The only thing agreed upon is that people of color (and poor whites) are oppressed. The civil liberties crackdown that has accompanied the so-called "war on terrorism" has produced ripples of concern, not waves of horror. Why? Because most young Americans are not dying to run out into the streets, dye their T-shirts, and shout obscenities about "the system" into a megaphone; they're at home enjoying Nintendo. Or working on their business plan. Or learning about themselves and their personal relationships via Oprah or Dr. Phil Rightly or wrongly, they believe they have more productive activities in which to engage.
The hard-won freedom to explore one's own individual destiny has trumped the idea of collective struggle for collective benefit. Irony begets irony in post-modern America, since it was that very struggle that expanded individual freedom. For example, Fletcher told journalist Herb Boyd in an interview for the book Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century that today's students are not conscious of the history of union organizing. "They seem to feel that unions were important during an earlier period, but not anymore... I think they are also picking up that this notion of collective struggle and action is a thing of the past. That might have been good in the previous decades, but now, they seem to feel, it's about making money, and the only way you can have an impact on future Black America is by setting up a business."
So, in this individualistic culture, it's not so much "unity without uniformity" (the slogan of the famous National Black Political Convention of 1972) as it is "unity without unity."
A Vision of Change
I remember saying at the end of the phone call to my friend, "Look, I don't know how we should proceed." Neither did she. Neither does anyone else. We sit on the shoulders of many, but don't know what to make of the view.
I only understand what I remember my fallen hero, Gil Scott-Heron, once said in the spoken-word prologue of his song "Delta Man": "Since change is inevitable, we should direct the change instead of just going through the change." Revolution, then, Scott-Heron theorizes, is to be embraced. "Don't be afraid of revolution/Ain't nothing but change/And change is sure 'nuff bound to come. "Discovering and defining our revolution--finding and claiming the space that's right for our vision of change and actually changing--may be as great a challenge as faced by the Young Lords, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, or the leaders of the American Indian Movement those long decades ago.
Generations are products of different political conditions. We can't and shouldn't look at things the same way activists saw them in 1968. The whole world is not watching because its now tuned to MTV. Technology and marketing have replaced the day-to-day aspects of living as members of neighborhoods and communities. Capitalism--the main force for the creation of culture in the United States in 2002--has ensured that life is centered on the individual, not the collective.
The Black Power generation found its truths for its time. But neither holding onto those truths nor the individualism of the hip-hop generation is going to effectively combat white supremacy, militarism, and capitalistic excess.
I think it was James Baldwin who said there will come a time when we will need to become more than we are now. When that happens, we will use all of the creativity, physical resources, energy, and history at our disposal to make the changes we want. We need not try to bring that time about; it will choose us when it is ready, and leave us when it is done. The change will create power, which will, in turn, create change. Let us quietly continue to work--and live--while listening for that whisper in the wind, for that next cycle to begin.
Todd Steven Burroughs is a contributor to Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century. He is working on a biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Todd Steven Burroughs, "Between Baby Boomers and Russell Simmons." Todd is a freelance writer based in HyattsviLle, MD. He is a contributor to Race And Resistance. He is working on a journalistic biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Color Lines Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group
User(s) browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)