In April, civil rights activist Dorothy Height passed away, and many mourned the loss of the pioneering activist, but also pondered the legacy that she and her contemporaries had left in their wake.
In light of Ms. Height’s sizable achievements, many have questioned whether the current generation has abandoned the goals and concerns of the Civil Rights Movement. Numerous discussions arose during Barack Obama’s historic campaign for the presidency, which placed his political strategies in contrast to the Civil Rights leaders who came before him.
Not so fast.
This overemphasis on a generational divide is based on logic that fails partly because-to put it plainly-it compares apples to oranges.
The logic goes something like this: take any freedom fighter from the 1960s and 1970s and weigh him or her against your average teenager and what do you get? Circular logic that tends to (gasp!) reinforce the original premise that today’s youth are apolitical and apathetic. On the contrary, I argue that it might be better to focus our attention on how young people today negotiate their world, in its postmodern, postindustrial complexity, and look back throughout black American history for similar examples. It might be more fruitful, for instance, to think about today’s youth in relation to the arts movement and cultural production of prior generations.
|“Many have questioned whether the current generation has abandoned the goals and concerns of the Civil Rights Movement.”|
The realm of cultural expression has always been a fruitful site, social and political discourse, particularly for groups of people traditionally excluded from institutions of political power. During the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Romare Bearden used their various works to assert their own conceptions of identity in the face of shifting social and political change. In the world of film, directors like Oscar Micheaux in the 1920s and 1930s and Spencer Williams in the 1940s produced and directed films that presented the American experience from a black point of view. They often focused on issues that specifically addressed the black community such as passing for white, religion, and geographic migration.
In the 1960s, at the same time that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organizing sit-ins and freedom rides, the Black Arts Movement was producing some of the era’s most brilliant politicized artists such as Leroi Jones and Ishamel Reed. Nor should we forget that even popular artists such as soulful crooner Marvin Gaye occasionally infused his repertoire with social commentary pieces like his 1971 song “Mercy Mercy Me.” And, the legendary 1972 Wattstax concert and subsequent documentary not only commemorated the 1965 Watts riots, but also offered thoughtful insights on the interconnectedness of politics, identity, and popular culture.
Some might argue that contemporary black popular culture has lost its social efficacy due to increased commercialization. While it is certainly true that not all filmmakers, music artists, and popular writers explicitly tackle issues of social and political importance in their work (then again, when has that ever been the case?) there is by no means a dearth of meaning or relevance in today’s cultural products. Hip-hop has demonstrated an engagement across social and political spheres since becoming first a national then global phenomenon in the early 1980s. Rapper Roxanne Shante not only responded to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” with her popular song “Roxanne’s Revenge,” but also articulated her own black, female voice that challenged sexism and misogyny. Public Enemy combined crowd-pleasing entertainment with hard-hitting social commentary in songs like “Fight the Power” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” On television, comedian/actor Dave Chappelle regularly addressed racial, social, and economic issues on his short-lived but immensely popular variety program Chappelle’s Show, using humor as a vehicle to deliver pointed observations and commentary on everything from use of the ‘N-word’ to the disparity between blacks’ and whites’ treatment by law enforcement.
And, one has only to do a quick tour of YouTube to see today’s youth capitalizing on technological accessibility to voice their opinions on everything from the media scrutiny of Britney Spears to the racist imagery applied to President Barack Obama. And, of course, these developments have had a concrete impact on the world of “real” politics as well. Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign, for example, relied heavily on the mobilization of college-age individuals and young professionals and utilized new technologies such as Facebook to communicate information and coordinate outreach efforts.
As technologies develop and young people continue to seek out myriad sites in which to express their desires and concerns, we should be careful to avoid dismissing these efforts because they do not line up neatly with our preconceptions of what “activism” looks like. By asserting that today’s generation has abandoned the principles of civil rights, we ignore the ways that today’s youth navigate their social and political environments in a number of complex ways. And finally, in positioning today’s and yesterday’s youth as antithetical to each other, we overlook the commonalities that connect not only youth, but marginalized people across time and place.