This silly little story keeps popping into my head. It must have been at the height of the Sixties—1968, maybe. My aunt was reminiscing about the past. Reaching for a story to impress me with the sacrifices of the Great Depression, she said that she’d walked to work all week to save carfare so she could afford to buy a pair of stockings for the weekend.
I remember the look on her face when—exuding a cloud of patchouli—I brushed the long hair out of my eyes, adjusted the armful of bangles I habitually wore, shrugged and said, “Who needs stockings?”
The moment’s mutual incomprehension now seems to say a great deal. Back then, I was passionately part of a social change movement high on possibility. On the day I mocked my aunt’s tale of saving up for stockings, my friends and I felt certain that all of the social expectations and relationships encapsulated in her story were artifacts of the past, about to be blown away like so much chaff. As it turned out, we were only partly right. Today, many of the cultural changes we then embraced are already here or in the process of becoming. But in terms of power relations, of the control and distribution of wealth, of the growth of the military-industrial complex and Incarceration Nation, our hopes were greatly inflated and greatly premature.
My aunt and her generation wanted gratitude (or at least respect) for the hardships they’d endured and the benefits that accrued to their children. My immigrant forebears frequently repeated their tales of escaping the Cossacks, hard voyages in steerage, overcrowded tenements. Now I can cast my imagination into the past, fishing from the stream of time some semblance of the awe they then wanted me to feel. It took much courage to leave everything behind and venture into an entirely unknown world. And yet my failure to display adequate gratitude at the time was not so much a personal shortcoming as a generational characteristic, one I hear new immigrant parents complain of today.
The stockings story popped into my mind because I’ve been thinking about the generation gap. A day or so ago, I wrote a blog for the Center for Digital Storytelling (StoryCenter). As you will read, StoryCenter is planning a series of free workshops inspired by the 50th anniversary of civil rights milestones, the first being the 1963 March on Washington, site of the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of StoryCenter’s All Together Now initiative, the idea is to surface and share stories by those old enough to have taken part in the various liberation movements of the period and those much younger, who have their own stories to tell of standing for civil and human rights. Watch the StoryCenter site for information on where and when you can take part.
Stories like this could be amazing. Imagine bridges between past and future that people on both sides can cross. Or they could be opportunities for serial dissatisfaction, in which each generation wants something the other is not providing. I have faith in the people at StoryCenter, their skill in opening hearts and minds and giving nuance its rightful place, so I know they’ll do a great job. My question has more to do with the larger phenomenon of intergenerational understanding. What I find myself asking is whether both sides can open their eyes and ears to the other.
I was talking to a somewhat younger activist about the 50th Anniversary March planned for the 24th of this month. My activist friend said that back in ’63, leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin devised a timely strategy to create change. As I wrote in the StoryCenter blog, nearly all of the March’s focal demands could be enacted by Congress or the executive branch with new laws, regulations, and orders—and nearly all were. It’s good to celebrate, my friend said, but how is this new march a coherent tool for change? People don’t want to make demands that criticize or embarrass the first sitting Black President. The spine of the march is honoring a legacy. “Where is the aspiration?” my friend asked, reminding me that Julian Bond and John Lewis were teenagers in 1963. “Where are the young leaders?”
Reading about the 1963 March, one learns that the six civil rights leaders who represented the coalition behind the march varied in degrees of militancy and tactics. Portions of the intended talk by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were excised as too militant. James Baldwin was prevented from reading his speech because (it is said) he could not be trusted to stay on script and his passionate rhetoric was seen as imflammatory by more conservative leaders. There were no women speakers, and Bayard Rustin, as always, was expected to keep his sexual orientation and politics to himself. So many of the same anxieties about calling out or embarrassing those in power and the same gap between generations helped to shape that day as they do our own.
But there are aspirations, just different ones. Musician Talib Kweli went to Florida recently to stand with the Dream Defenders, young people who have occupied Governor Rick Scott’s office for a month to press for a special legislative session to enact Trayvon’s law and other essential reforms. On MSNBC, Kweli underscored my friend’s point about aspirations, referencing Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew:
He said ‘We’re not here protesting. I want people to be clear about that with Dream Defenders, we’re not here protesting, not here demonstrating, not trying to retry George Zimmerman or get in a time machine and go back in the past. This is about a movement forward.’ They have The Trayvon Martin Act that they came up with to support what the NAACP and Trayvon Martin’s family is doing with Trayvon’s Law, and it’s about trying to push forward that legislation. When i see young people putting their bodies and their lives on the line to do that, I feel it’s my obligation not just as an artist but human being, as a man, to support this.
From what I can see, this movement is about cherry-picking the best and the things that worked from every movement and adding it to this movement. And I think that they’ve taken some of the greatest lessons from Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. That was all students who started (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and all that. It’s definitely great to see the students taking up the tradition of other students.
Always something to learn if you stay open.
Talk about intergenerational: here’s Ruby Dee on Def Jam Poetry, rhyming about Tupac Shakur.