Black activism today: more personal, subtle
Seattle Times staff reporter
As America celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, some black activists, educators and writers are questioning whether younger generations are carrying forward his legacy, whether black activism is still alive.
A changing of the guard should have occurred as children of the civil-rights movement came of age in the 1980s and '90s. Did it happen?
Younger blacks say activism today is simply not as obvious. But many people who lived through the '60s maintain that young African Americans have failed to take up the causes championed by King and other leaders.
"We thought that once the laws were changed, hearts and minds would change, so we didn't need to be vigilant anymore," said Germaine Covington, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. "People were waiting."
Covington blames her generation for not transferring the passion and ideals of the civil-rights movement when those hopes didn't bear fruit right away.
"I think we grew up and didn't tell our kids about (the movement)," she said. "When I look at young people in Seattle, I really see the potential that's stunted. They don't even know that obstacles are being put in front of them. They don't even understand institutional racism."
King County Councilman Larry Gossett remembers visiting a class at the University of Washington to talk about his days on the front lines of Seattle's black student civil-rights movement.
He and other activists took over UW President Charles Odegaard's office in 1968 to demand recruitment and retention programs for black students. He remembers those times as "the heyday of the black cultural revolution." It was also the year King was assassinated.
A generation later, Gossett was stunned at the way black students in the audience viewed that legacy.
"I was shocked that some students said they felt bad about the educational opportunities they had, and about the fact that white kids in particular saw them differently because of those opportunities," Gossett said. "I was aghast at that, because I was one of the students in 1968 who risked life and limb and freedom in order for the university to start those programs." But African Americans born just after the '60s heyday say black activism is alive — it's just not the same.
"We as a young generation haven't taken up civil rights because we see it as only part of the pie," says Seattle hip-hop artist Adonis Williams, whose stage name is Blahzey.
While the dominant black music form, hip hop, often lacks political and social vitality, it would be false to say blacks as individuals have lost touch, he said.
Williams argues that the important issues today have to do with economic improvement. He sees a growing awareness and desire among young blacks to seek reparations for slavery, for example.
It's also not true that younger blacks have forgotten the contributions of their parents and grandparents, said Longview novelist Tananarive Due. The author's latest book is "Freedom in the Family," a memoir written by her and her mom, former student activist Patricia Stephens Due, that details how the movement affected two generations in one family.
Tananarive Due, who was born in Florida in 1966, views the "black" struggle differently from some in her mother's generation largely because the conditions of her life are so much better. But she still considers her parents "icons" for the changes they helped make.
"There's a sense more than anything of triumph," Due said recently.
For a lot of younger blacks, civil rights has evolved into more of a personal fight, argues University of Washington assistant drama professor Venus Opal Reese.
"I see the revolution still going on," said Reese, a theater artist who uses hip hop and history to bring her drama classes to life. "It's there, but it doesn't look the same because we're not doing bus boycotts. That's not the only way to have activism."
You can practice activism by refusing to wear clothing that conforms to mainstream standards, Reese said. You can practice it by becoming a professor.
"I'm a black woman with a second master's and a Ph.D. from Stanford University who is able to design her own courses," she notes. As an educator, she can influence minds. "It's not so much about keeping up a legacy of protest.
"I'm much more interested in the process of becoming, not overcoming," Reese said. "If we're always overcoming, we'll never arrive."
A large-scale movement, complete with marches, speeches and '60s-style fervor, may not be the appropriate way to tackle racism that today is "so stealthy you have to squint to see it," Due said.
She believes today's racism is akin to an "invisible gas." It's difficult to pinpoint where race factors into problems such as unemployment, the plague of drugs in inner cities, police brutality, high incarceration rates among black men and the education gap between blacks and whites. So it's harder to rally troops, especially across racial and generational lines.
"In the past, we had one clear, defining goal," said Stephanie Ellis-Smith, director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. "At this point, racism is more subtle and nuanced."
The recent election of outspoken 40-year-old activist Carl Mack as president of the Seattle NAACP — over 72-year-old incumbent Oscar Eason — raised questions about whether Mack's often-fiery public remarks suit the complexity of issues facing blacks in the city. Others see him as an energizing force.
Regardless of who's chosen to lead the charge, Ellis-Smith believes collective efforts are tougher because the community itself is more diverse politically, culturally and geographically. One person may not be able to wield the kind of influence that King gained in the '60s.
Social changes the past 30 years, both good and bad, place younger blacks in a strange position. On one hand, it seems there's a lack of momentum in addressing the community's ills. But it could be that people are taking time to reap the benefits of the '60s civil-rights movement. That may not be all bad, some say.
Aaron Dixon was once head of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and he recalls that by the 1970s, the shift away from group activism was already beginning.
"There was this expression, 'I'm just doing my thing,' " Dixon said. "The dominant culture promoted the individual and the push for individual success, which didn't include community and activism. A lot of those values got left behind."
Nevertheless, he said, "When the doors finally opened, you can't blame people for rushing in and wanting to be a part of something they had been kept away from."
Williams, the rapper, spent his teens on the tough streets of Chicago. At 30, he owns a half-million-dollar home in Kirkland and is building a recording studio there. But Williams continues to explore political and social problems through his music, bucking the trend he sees in mainstream hip hop.
Times are different for younger African Americans, but there's still a need to speak out, he said.
"Now, I can put on my jersey and my hip-hop gear and I'm treated like a millionaire when I walk into a store," said Williams, who left home at 13 and never finished school. "But I remember wearing those same clothes and being asked to leave."
Still, something's missing, said Charles Rolland, a former deputy under Norm Rice, Seattle's first black mayor.
"There is a whole movement toward economic prosperity (among individual blacks), but we haven't learned how to do that as a group," Rolland said. "The test of that is how it benefits us as a community."
No one knows where the shifts in the black community are leading, but Rolland, for one, looks forward to what's next. Rolland, who grew up poor in Chicago, has a 26-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 22 and 14. The daughter is serving in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and speaks three languages.
"Where's she's going with this, I have no idea," Rolland said. "Who knows how this relates to the future of the race, but in our family we've given our children the consciousness to understand who they are, their place in the world — and their responsibilities."
Tyrone Beason: (206) 464-2251 or email@example.com.