Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Generations of Captivity

Ghanaian kids pray at a Baha'i children's class, 2006. Children in prayer touches my heart like nothing else.

This past summer I spent a great deal of time reading about the history of the enslavement of Africans in North America. One of the amazing books that I read was by Ira Berlin called Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. Berlin chose to approach this historical treatise by organizing it into a series of "generations" of blacks who experienced slavery and its aftermath. This included the "charter generations", the "plantation generations", the "revolutionary generations", the "migration generations" and the "freedom generations". This in part inspired me to write about what I consider the other "greatest generation", those born in the immediate aftermath of emancipation. A piece in the Boston Globe seemed to harmonize with this overall generational theme, discussing apparent conflicts between the Civil Rights and Hip-Hop generations:

Nas announced in October that he would use a certain racial slur as the title of his 10th CD, which will be released in February - Black History Month. The news came a few months after the NAACP had shown its disapproval of the word by holding a mock funeral for it during its convention in Detroit.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and representatives of the NAACP quickly criticized Nas's decision. In response, Nas told MTV News, "If Cornel West was making an album called [racial slur], they would know he's got something intellectual to say. To think I'm gonna say something that's not intellectual is calling me a [slur], and to be called a [slur] by Jesse Jackson and the NAACP is counterproductive, counterrevolutionary."

Tension between the hip-hop and civil rights generations has been brewing since C. Delores Tucker began complaining about the content of rap lyrics in the 1990s. Lately these clashes have become more frequent. Some members of the younger generation criticize older leaders such as Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton for demonizing hip-hop and focusing on the use of the racial slur rather than addressing social ills, such as black-on-black crime or high dropout rates. The other side is represented by such people as actor and activist Bill Cosby, who in his 2007 book "Come On People" blamed the crisis in the poor black community on "the gangsta rap industry and their white enablers."

Recently, six local representatives of these opposing generations sat down at the Globe's request to discuss what's driving a wedge between them. During a three-hour conversation, they moved beyond the surface issues of acceptable words and the influence of hip-hop music to explore the changes in society that have brought the black community to its current state. They discussed the impact of a materialistic society, the effect of the urban public-education system on youths, and the lack of a common sociopolitical goal within the community. (Read the whole thing here)

My first thought is that it is interesting that debate regarding the use of the word "nigger" by some blacks would be framed by the author of this piece or anyone else as a "generational conflict". It may very well be that younger people are more comfortable with the use of this word in reference to each other but this implies that critical thought regarding this issue is only present among older blacks. I know many young blacks who see "nigger" as a problematic word. It's a similar issue with the debate regarding the lyrics in some rap music and the commercialization of black youth culture. There are plenty of young blacks who speak out about the corrosive nature of some of these songs as well as an industry that exploits them for profit, including Hip-Hop artists themselves. Critical reflection regarding the power for good and evil of both music specifically and language in general is less a generational issue than a spiritual issue:

"We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high; make it not, therefore, as wings to self and passion. Truly, We are loath to see you numbered with the foolish."
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 38)

The Universal House of Justice, the International Governing Council of the Baha'i Faith offers this observation:

"Bahá'u'lláh has extended the scope and deepened the meaning of self-expression. In His elevation of art and of work performed in the service of humanity to acts of worship can be discerned enormous prospects for a new birth of expression in the civilization anticipated by His World Order. The significance of this principle, now so greatly amplified by the Lord of the Age, cannot be doubted; but it is in its ramifications in speech that keen understanding is urgently needed. From a Bahá'í point of view, the exercise of freedom of speech must necessarily be disciplined by a profound appreciation of both the positive and negative dimensions of freedom, on the one hand, and of speech, on the other. Bahá'u'lláh warns us that "the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison". "Material fire consumeth the body," He says in elaborating the point, "whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century." In tracing the framework of free speech, He again advises "moderation". "Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation", He states, adding, "As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.""
(The Universal House of Justice, 1988 Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 7)

What I believe may be a significant factor in the apparent differences between the views and experiences of the Civil Rights and post-Civil rights generations (I prefer post-Civil rights to "hip-hop" as it locates us historically and socially rather than culturally) is the increase in the degree of materialism influencing the lives of black Americans in general. I have mentioned in the past that a limited view of the Civil Rights agenda was that it was about removing legal obstacles to the participation of blacks in a materialistic and consumer driven social order rather than "an organic change in the structure" of that order. If this view is correct then the challenges facing the post-Civil Rights generation represent the ironic fruits of a struggle for a larger piece of a defective and declining social order, an order largely organized around an ideology (materialism) that is just as dehumanizing as white supremacy. The pervasive and destructive influence of materialism, I believe is the greatest test facing the post-Civil Rights generation and must be confronted with systematic, collective action. Everything else, including the issues of music and language are symptoms of this deeper problem:

"Indeed the chief reason for the evils now rampant in society is the lack of spirituality. The materialistic civilization of our age has so much absorbed the energy and interest of mankind that people in general do no longer feel the necessity of raising themselves above the forces and conditions of their daily material existence. There is not sufficient demand for things that we call spiritual to differentiate them from the needs and requirements of our physical existence. The universal crisis affecting mankind is, therefore, essentially spiritual in its causes. The spirit of the age, taken on the whole, is irreligious. Man's outlook on life is too crude and materialistic to enable him to elevate himself into the higher realms of the spirit."
(Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 86)