Talking bout my generation
by Pioneer Valley Woman
I have been thinking about "my generation" lately, in the words of the Who song by that same title, a song which was popular in 1965, as I've been thinking about differences between the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and those of my generation, Generation X, born between the late 1960s and 1970s. How have I been affected by the generations of my parents and the Boomers?
I'm part of the early Generation X cohort, born in the late 1960s. Although some Boomers are the parents of people my age, for me, the Boomers were the older cousins I looked up to, who had the cool music I listened to when I was a weird, geeky, old soul in the body of a junior high girl who looked older, like a teenager.
So when my friends were all into the latest fashions and music of rap, etc., my conservative parents of the "silent generation" born between 1925 and 1945, kept me away from that. They were the sober, serious parents, English-speaking immigrants who worked hard, thought in terms of religious conservatism (as part of moral, upright living), dignity, pride and uplift. They were not going to have their daughter pick up "street" culture; instead, she was going to be hard-working, moral, industrious and successful.
So as a Caribbean American black girl living in New York City, I had on the one hand, my parents influence: Sunday school while my parents went to church and then matriculation in the church's Catholic school for junior high, because they thought that was the age when youngsters needed a firm moral foundation to carry them into high school. I had my first communion in the second grade, first confession in the 3rd (or was it the 4th?) and confirmation in the 8th grade.
Yet, I was also a child of my time. Nerdy me, I read Ms. magazine, and the writings of civil rights activists, and learned about the threats of civil rights gains being eviscerated. I listened to music of the 1950s-1970s, and had barely a clue of what my peers were into. The trend continued into high school, where I felt as though I was, or should have been, years older, I was so focused on grown-up concerns: current day events, doing well in school and what my career would be in the future.
Looking back, I don't think I missed much. I missed: the rise of misogynistic hip-hop/rap music, when the genre once seemed to include more progressive singers and songs. Remember the song "U-n-i-t-y?" Conservative moral values for me meant that I looked at what the Boomers' gave us, the Generation X'ers: hedonism which led to drug problems among so many and an AIDS epidemic. Hedonism and promiscuity, that is the dark side of my perceptions of the Boomers.
I was so nerdy, that in junior high school, I had a "library bag," which held my library card and my library books. I also had a notebook where I made note of interesting things I heard about during the week, so that I could go to the library Friday afternoons after school to look them up. I was one of those brainy young girls who loved library day at school. It was no surprise then that my first job in high school was at the same library.
By college, I was browsing in bookstores, new and used, and I was always reading the books in print--so into it, that one time, someone asked me if I worked at the bookstore I was visiting, because I knew what to look for. In graduate school years later, I once told some friends the story, and they howled. I said, look around--it was summer, and we were hanging out on campus, near the library. I said, isn't this nerd central? All the nerdy people, the geeky ones from high school, the academy is our world, where we read, write, talk to each other. Who else would spend a summer writing a dissertation?
But with respect to politics and my awareness as a young woman, feminism was an important early factor. Granted, the Boomers were behind the various gains, including those with respect to womens' reproductive freedoms, and I thought it was a very important issue, but it wasn't the sole issue for me in terms of how I defined myself and feminism, which seemed to be the opposite from many of the white feminists I knew from school back then.
I think that is common among many women from conservative moral backgrounds, they see feminism as being about abortion and being pro-choice, so they eschew the label. I held onto the label, because I saw so much value in it, a language for thinking about gender, although reproductive freedom issues were not my primary motivation. Even though I was celibate, I questioned the church's stance on birth control and I believed women should be able to become priests. It was not a far stretch then, for me to become Episcopalian as a young adult.
So I find it fascinating today that there are bloggers who are fighting misogynistic images of black women in the media, but have no awareness whatsoever of the battles which were fought decades ago by (the predominant numbers of white) dominance feminists who challenged those very practices. But again, for too long, black women have been told feminism is about white women. I guess black women are not women, then. Or perhaps, they are "too strong" to need weak white women's "feminism?" I am shaking my head here. On the other hand, though, many white feminists were racist, and too many feminists have had a litmus test of what it means to be a feminist. At least today, narrow litmus tests tend to be questioned as not recognizing the full complexities of feminist thought.
It must have been those Ms. magazines that somehow made their way into my parents' house, and my mother's example of being a powerful woman, although she never saw herself as a feminist. The stereotypes troubled her. My dad, though, thought race was all that mattered primarily, and my mom always talked about race questions too, along with the important questions of gender--how to keep her young black daughter safe. My father was old school, who thought women should be as ambitious as they wanted to be, yet not be foolish, naive, and uncritical of what might harm them: sexism and misogyny. In his view, women should still be protected notwithstanding equality. Essence and Ebony fine tuned my awareness of issues in the black community as they affected black women.
Considering long-standing debates about black male protectionism in the community, for example, as found among those who rally around Genarlow Wilson today, protectionism has not held sway with me. My parents are of a generation and culture that valued and respected personal responsibility, integrity and upright living, so if anything, the notion of protecting men who harm women is ludicrous. This is the tradition I am from.
My parents believed protecting their daughter was their highest priority, guiding me on understanding proper male behavior, to value serious, sober young men as the "real" men, not the flashy, blingy, street "thugz," and to stay away from the harmful ones. They taught me to think about who my friends were, male and female, and one of my favorite sayings from my mom was: "Friends may bring you go, but they might not bring you back." One that others might remember is: "Lie down with dogs, you might pick up fleas!"
In the 1980s, it seems there were vestiges of late 1960s-1970s style black nationalism which has persisted into today, about protecting the community, but which was steeped in the old arguments of the 1970s that feminism was for "white girls." Does anyone recall those posters of Malcolm X: "By Any Means Necessary?" Key aspects of the black nationalism: fighting the backlash against civil rights in the Reagan era and the wars against the community, whether it was the political conservatism of the Reagan era, or the racialized violence black men were experiencing, for example in NYC--Bernard Goetz, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach...
For those who were international in their scope, they were interested in the anti-apartheid struggle (the Reagan and Thatcher administrations were seen by many as strong supporters of the regime in South Africa). Remember "constructive engagement?" Others were concerned about what was happening in Central and South America. Remember the Contras? Ollie North? I remember young white radical types falling into this camp, of critiquing US foreign policy there.
Yet, there were elements of the misogyny creeping into black nationalism, in the early days of the thug culture we can see today. Celebrating Malcolm X seemed to become not only fighting police brutality, but celebrating senseless violence and going for one's own, no matter what the cost. Getting one's own could include using and abusing women and calling them vile names. Women sung about being all about the dollar bills. If a man had no money, forget it. Do you remember that song, "Ain't Nothing Going on But the Rent?" This type of rhetoric, on can argue, contributed to men singing about women as being gold diggers, another misogynistic term.
But did black women have the awareness then, the language with which to engage with gender, or once again, were they naive to race plus gender? I recall that some of the big issues of the 1980s and 1990s had to do with the rise of the pro-choice movement both in Operation Rescue and on the Supreme Court. White women activists were fighting it, as were various black women activists. But it seemed most black women I knew were fighting the backlash against civil rights, yet no one seemed to even notice the rise in misogyny in hip/hop.
Could we have done better, "my generation" of X'ers? Were we too busy following in the Boomer's footsteps to make a difference in this way? Were we too cynical and disaffected? Were some of us too busy keeping our heads down and trying to get ours, to be concerned? Were the conservative ones who had a different perspective afraid of being mocked because we had a different view?
Perhaps because I didn't experience the battles of the 60s and 70s over feminism, for me, in the 80s, how in the world could I not think of race plus gender? It was just a given, in my mind. I remember reading stories about women becoming addicted to drugs like crack (through their boyfriends introducing them to it) and becoming prostitutes to support their habit. I remember ordering from the local board of health reports on AIDS, so that I could learn about the epidemic. I thought of women's health as important, and I wanted to learn more. I remember reading about women landing in jail, more often than not, because of their connections to the wrong men who committed crimes and dragged them in.
I remember for a long time, almost everything I saw out there showed me that as a young black woman, I was vulnerable, including to the men on the street catcalling me and then getting angry when I didn't reply. Of course, I knew the ideal, that a loving relationships with a husband was supposed to be the goal, but getting there sure felt like a minefield! But if I started dating the "wrong" guy, everyone would blame me if I became harmed, because somehow I was responsible not only for myself, but for grown men's behavior. And reproductive freedom meant that if I got pregnant out of wedlock, it was my fault, my responsibility, not his. Domestic violence, rape--when black women were harmed by black men, I heard silence.
I was not naive about black men being natural allies under all circumstances and without reservation. People were up in arms because of allegations that young black men beat up and raped the Central Park Jogger, but there was no discussion of a black woman beaten, raped, and thrown from a building (by black men), as happened in a news story from the late 80s, around the same time as the Central Park Jogger story. Activists like Sharpton talked about how the white community did not talk about those crimes involving black women, but did they criticize black men for their violence against women? Today, one can barely hear any activists talk about the Dunbar Village case in Florida, but people went on buses to protest in Jena. Race plus gender plus class, black women can't afford not to think of these questions.
I did have my "ah-ha" moment, though, in the early 1990s, which sealed my fate in realizing that any black nationalism which did not take into account gender, was one I did not care for. I was working as an intern in the office of a black nationalist type attorney. He was a boomer, dedicated to the cause. He might have even once been a member of the Nation of Islam. He had ties some well-known nationalist types I used to read about in the news.
I remember once a conversation he had with another intern, a black man, where I was present. They were talking about the "brothers' " conversations about the community's needs. I was surprised they didn't mention black women too--didn't black women participate in conversations about community interests? My question was met with pure silence. I understood clearly. Of course, the brothers' conversations did not include women, because only nationalist men speak on behalf of the community.
So by the 1990s, I was in graduate school then, and I was on my way to becoming a full-fledged critical race feminist. Not only had I been asking questions of race and gender for a while, but I finally had the language to talk about all that was on my mind: black women and dominance theory: dominance from the greater society, dominance within the community. Nowadays, I see myself as a critical race feminist from the cultural/difference feminist side, meaning that I recognize women are equal, but different, and those differences should be respected. But I am pragmatic enough to recognize inappropriate inequality and domination when I see it.
Having that foundation in feminism and civil rights from my earliest days has been so important, in sharpening my awareness and my critical thinking skills. They are of as much importance as my faith has mattered: a firm foundation in disciplined, sober living, hard work, with an interest in uplift.It was not a far stretch for me to have gone from my earlier dorky place to where I am today. I live the life of having a "library bag" in my possession all the time. I'm dedicated to teaching, researching and writing history, and always with an emphasis on race and gender.
copyright, "Pioneer Valley Woman," Feb. 2008.
"Pioneer Valley Woman," aka "PVW," is the pseudonym of a college professor and blogger living in New England who has teaching interests in women's history. Her blog is called "Episcopalienne:" http://www.episcopalienne.blogspot.com.