I was born and raised in Detroit — counted among the huge cohort of Baby Boomers — when the Motown sound dominated our lives, providing songs whose lyrics affirmed our unique attributes that distinguished us from those who just a few generations ago had owned us as their property: skin color that ranged from ebony to caramel or cream; rhythmic gaits that we accentuated with the syncopated swinging of our arms; heads of hair thick like a lion’s mane; lips full and sensual; and a history of which we were immensely proud.
As we’re often prone to use revisionist history when describing the past, I cannot in good conscience look back at the ’60s and ’70s and describe them as “the good old days.” But kids were encouraged and allowed to be kids. There was no rush to move out, to have sex, to run the streets — to play grownup. Because we understood that once we crossed certain lines, ventured into unfamiliar territory, that we would be held accountable for our actions.
Maybe that’s what disturbs me the most about the world today, in general, and Black youth in particular — their propensity for blaming everyone but themselves for the situations in which they land and how often those who are older and allegedly wiser (that’s parents) feigning ignorance about the unwise, if not illegal activities which their children seem to have embraced.
Reports of shootouts, drive-bys and deadly incidents of retaliation dominate the media so often that we’ve grown accustomed to them. It’s almost tantamount to scenes from the Wild, Wild, West. Except in these new versions, the victims tend to be innocent bystanders.
We like to brag about how far we’ve come as a nation, as humans, as Black folk. But I fear that the Black community which I remember from my youth has taken monumental steps backward.
While watching a film recently directed and produced by Tim Reid, “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored,” I was reminded of the many obstacles which Blacks confronted each day during the era of Jim Crow.
And yet, as Maya Angelou reminds us, “and still we rise.” Or at least, we once rose.
My parents, then called Colored, were faced with the reality that to be “Colored” not only defined their race but also pointed to the limitations and boundaries that society both demanded and enforced — legally or illegally
Doors, buses, trains, water fountains, public buildings with signs marked White or Colored only reminded my parents and my parents’ parents that equality was only a concept — an idea whose time had not come for all Americans.
As I grew old enough to understand how invisible chains still held us in bondage, we were no longer called Colored. Somewhere along the way we became known as Negroes. But some things remained the same. We were denied the right to vote, we were denied access to state and private colleges and universities, we were denied access to homes or apartments in certain neighborhoods. We were denied admission in hotels and restaurants as we traveled along the highways from the North to the South.
And yet, we were a people who loved one another fiercely. We lived in safe but segregated neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs, shopped in segregated business communities, worshipped in segregated churches, temples and mosques. I guess those weren’t the good old days in many respects. Still, when we came together to shake off the dirt of the world, to cleanse ourselves of shame and anger which we endured due to racism, we celebrated.
As for disputes, they were settled quickly and simply — a few blows, jabs and swings — or perhaps a game of the dozens where wordsmiths would spit out cleverly constructed phrases amidst a cacophony of put-downs, insults or mean-spirited metaphors — all forgotten and forgiven by the next day. Youth dreamed of reaching adulthood, learning a craft, starting a family, reaching a little higher than their ancestors, growing old.
But in our so-called evolution, we’ve forgotten what it means to live as if Black lives really matter. We talk a good game but our actions show how little we care about others or ourselves.
And so, we live in a paradox in a world where we demand that others treat us in ways that confirm their belief that Black lives matter. Meanwhile, more and more Blacks — more and more young Blacks — show by their actions that Black Lives Matter is nothing more than a slogan, a tagline for a poster or a hashtag for social media.
I want to go back to the days of being Colored or Negro. I want to return to the years of my youth to a time before we were Black — a time when Black lives mattered to Blacks.