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Giving serious thought to critical issues

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The Souls Of Black Folk: The Tension Between The Civil Rights And Hip-Hop Generations

For some time now, there has been much discussion and debate within the Black community regarding the direction of Blacks in America. One of the most interesting and high-profile conflict is the one that took place between Harry Belafonte and Jay-Z.

Belafonte, when asked by a reporter last year about people of color in Hollywood, he answered by saying: "They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. ... And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you're talking. I really think he is black."

Jay-Z, never at a loss for words, retorted that he was "offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama's is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You're the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone."

These disparate views of these past and current legends explain, in part, the challenges in leadership in the Black community.

Gap or chasm?

The Black generation gap is a difficult actuality that has become increasingly evident. At times it appears to be an all-out cultural war. This gap can be seen in the differences the younger generation has with older Blacks when it comes to leadership, goals and values. Older Blacks often complain of younger Blacks' viewpoint on social values, clothing, hair, music, lifestyle, family, race and career. Meanwhile, young

Blacks often see their parents' views as old-fashioned or obsolete and say they feel misunderstood by their elders who lecture more than listen. They are also tired of the current Black leadership, which often talks about civil rights victories and a past that they feel is irrelevant in today's world.

Christopher Tyson attempts to tackle this dynamic in his essay "Exploring The Generation Gap: And Its Implications on African-American Consciousness." In it he asserts that hip-hop is ideologically suspended between the hip-hop generation and the civil rights generation, which fundamentally leads to an inability to develop Black political power, economic organization, and overall race consciousness" (although, there are some who assert that in the early years of hip-hop, there were elements from the Black Power Movement - seen in groups such as Afrikka Bambaata).

Tyson goes on to say that because of the civil rights generation's rejection of hip-hop in its early development, they "forfeited the opportunity to mold the activist potential in the new culture" - therefore leaving this ideological vacuum or generation gap that is present in hip-hop music and the younger generation. Furthermore, this disconnect between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation thwarted the ability of Afro-centric and politically and socially conscious rap groups such as Public Enemy, De La Soul, Arrested Development, X-Clan, A Tribe Called Qwest to sustain the long-term success and influence that their music and message merited.

Low expectations and disregard

This writer believes that both the civil rights and hip-hop generation needs to acknowledge the errors that have caused this rift. The older generation, for example, has engaged in dangerous attitudes that have hindered their ability to influence the younger generation, namely, low expectations and empty praise.

Many young people at times have been the beneficiaries of low expectations. In some circles it appears that Black leadership has associated avoiding prison or drugs as a mark of excellence. Although successfully avoiding the snares of drugs, gangs and crime is positive and commendable, there's a need to begin instilling in the minds of the younger generation that this should be standard behavior. Honest and fair dialogue with the younger generation will go a long way in bridging the generation gap.

 Empty and vain praise for sub-par efforts and endeavors is to no one's advantage. It prevents the recipient from achieving their full and intended potential and leads to a false sense of accomplishment. It also makes any person who honestly critiques their work seem like either a lunatic or naysayer. That which is gained cheaply, is lightly esteemed.

Disregard, envy and disrespect: this is the opposite extreme to low expectations and empty praise. It appears, at times, that the older generation has declared war on its younger counterparts. Perhaps it is the frustrations of the older and/or civil rights generation that prompts this, for lack of a better word, enmity. Frustration about, what appears to be, the failure of the hip-hop generation to live up to the perceived promise that was available to them after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

This disappointment, however, has often manifested itself in the form of utter disregard and disrespect for anything that is achieved by the younger generation. Instead of validating the portion of their accomplishments that has real value and caringly offering their wisdom and insight to address the aspects with which they have concerns, the older generation, at times, condemns or disregards their young foils' achievements out of hand.

Envy may also play a part in this on-going antagonism between the two generations. The $100 and $200 million contracts of young Black athletes, the exorbitant record deals of Black men and women barely out of their teens, has the potential of rubbing more than a few Black elders the wrong way - especially those who have toiled long and hard doing "serious" work in the Black community.

The older generation believes that the younger is lacking in polish, eloquence and dedication, and yet it is they who now, by and large, command the spotlight. This reality has created an rivalry between the two that has not allowed the young to benefit from the experience of the experienced.

Hypocrisy, mixed-messages and double-standards: No other saying has generated more generational conflict than the tried and true: "Do as I say and not as I do" - and this holds true in the Black community as well. The leadership of the civil rights generation, of late, has decried the excesses, indulgences and self-gratifying lifestyles of hip-hop and the current hip-hop generation.

The tricked-out rides, the fat platinum and gold chains and the diamond and gold studded dentistry have increasingly come under fire. Nevertheless, what is being said about the corporate kick-backs, the governmental pay-offs and under-the-table money that is being channeled through the coffers and pockets of certain Black elected officials, politicians and religious leaders? Save a select few publications, not much.

The younger generation is not completely ignorant of this glaring contradiction and double-standard. Further, the vast majority of the Black middle and upper-class - peaking in the mid 80's to early 90's - appears to have been worshipping at the altar of the god called materialism. When fulfillment is consistently and largely portrayed in terms of possessions; wealth and status, should we be all that surprised by the bling mentality that has taken hold of this existing younger generation?


What the Hip-Hop Generation must answer for 

The younger generation has a few issues that they too must come to terms with. Chief among these concerns are: rejection of the older generation's values without sufficient replacements. The hip-hop generation has had much to say about the civil rights generation's perceived "selling out" of the Black community. They also speak of the older generation being out of touch and out of step with the times.

While some of their assertions may have merit, it is all too easy to make certain judgments from a position that was secured for them primarily by the very generation that they are now being critical of. Also, it is rather ironic that the economic boon of the hip-hop artist has not really helped to answer the economic inequities within the hip-hop generation itself.

If there are some in the older generation who have indeed "sold-out," then there are many in the younger generation who never "bought-in." In other words, they have never made a real investment in the Black community. They have never made any meaningful sacrifices. Their beliefs have never cost them anything because they have operated, by and large, without a clear set of convictions.

To have no beliefs (or superficial ones) is not a satisfactory alternative to what is believed to be out-dated ones. Yet, by not believing in anything it absolves the non-believer of any responsibility or accountability - without which we have no real hope of unity or identity. 5 x 5 = 25 does not cease to be true just because it's an "old" idea. There are standards that are timeless, and there are values that have no expiration date.

We must address the general lack of critical thought: In teaching Philosophy to college-aged young people, this writer must admit that their inability to think critically never ceases to amaze. Nonetheless, their capacity to learn how is what keeps the hope of a better day alive. To be sure, there exists a deficit in critical thought amongst our younger generation. By this I do not mean they are stupid or dumb, but rather unaware.

Critical thought requires being able to make certain connections and draw certain parallels. Without an understanding of the past, without a clearly defined foundation from which to reason, the current hip-hop generation is largely incapable of making these needed connections and parallels. That understanding of the past and that foundation could be provided by the older generation that they seem to be constantly at odds with.

This scarcity in critical thought also prevents the young from having the wherewithal to properly assess where certain actions might lead. In other words, they are left without an appropriate understanding of the concept of "consequences." Racism is real; discrimination is real; accidents, twists of fate, circumstances beyond our control are very real also.

The actions that the younger generation usually views as punitive, disciplinary or unfair, however, has more to do with consequences than anything else - consequences that could have been avoided if they were more adept at critical thinking.

Another Inter-Generational Point of Contention

Defining "doing me" as disrespectful, misogynistic, hedonistic or violent: In our recent history, there have been very few things more destructive to the younger generation that the "that's just the way I am" or "I'm doing me" posture.

Ultimately this argument is used when justifying some negative behavior - granted, the "I'm doing me" has been used by people of immense integrity when defending their position on particular issues. Certain attributes are intrinsically a part of who we are, while other characteristics are the result of conscious choices that we have made.

The devaluing of relationships; the glorification of lifestyles and behaviors that denigrate, rather than uplift the Black community as a whole, is not a matter of "doing me" or being true to who one is fundamentally. It ultimately comes down to who we have chosen to be and what reality we have elected to live in.

These slogans and phrases have been translated into the justification for all manner of hedonism, misogyny and violence. It is because of the previously mentioned "values vacuum" that such actualities exist. It is because of the afore-mentioned lack of critical thinking that a generation has not been able to acquire the skills that empower them to choose and develop the qualities that enable them to become who they are "supposed" to be, instead of relying on the weak and careless security blanket of: "that's just the way I am."

Cowardice, indifference and ignorance are all realities, but they are chosen realities and they most assuredly are not the only realities. How then does "doing me" come to mean some of the ugliest and most shameful characteristics in the human experience? Why is it that aspirations of peace, honor, excellence and beauty are not viewed as "doing me" or "being true to the game?"


In his song African Dream, rap artist Talib Kweli once opined: "These cats drink champagne to toast death and pain like slaves on a ship talking bout who got the flyest chains." The generation gap within the Black community has nurtured this flawed understanding of reality by many in the younger generation.

This writer does indeed realize that there are scores of individuals in both the older and younger generations who have been pro-active in trying to bridge this generation gap. I further realize that not every person in the older or younger generation engages in the attitudes and behaviors detailed above. Nevertheless, if common ground is to be established, then the things that are obstacles and hindrances to those efforts must be earnestly considered.    
2:09 pm est          Comments

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