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The current intergenerational disconnect, however, may be more severe; and it may result in more

unsettling consequences, than previous ones.  During the past thirty years, I think I have witnessed

the rise of generations of Blacks who are severely individualistic and uncommonly anti-historical.

 

 

Intergenerational Disconnect

Letter to Seneca Turner on Obama

By Floyd W Hayes, III

 February 14, 2009

 

Dear Seneca, 

I am in receipt of your last correspondence in which you ask: (1) whether the political landscape has changed since the presidential election of Barack Obama, and (2) what now is the role of Black elders in these changing times?  We live in complicated and tragic times, but this is not the first time this has occurred.  The times they are changing, but I am not sure I would characterize this transition as a “paradigm shift.”  Clearly, we are not witnesses to the arrival of a “post-racist” moment in American history!  I do think another kind of shift has been happening for nearly three decades that can help to explain some of the changes that are taking place now and that relate to the questions you have raised.

In the mid-1980s, I began to notice that younger and older Blacks no longer seemed to be talking to each other in a serious sense about life and living.  More and more my students were telling me that they and their parents hardly talked much.  One student said: “When I come into the house, my parents are leaving; and when they come in, I am leaving.”  I came to refer to this phenomenon as “intergenerational disconnect,” as I asserted at the last Black Studies Conference at Olive Harvey College in 2007 (please see the enclosed outline of my talk, entitled “Social Change, Intergenerational Disconnect, and Africana Studies: A Call for a Scholarship of Indictment in a Culture of Decadence, Disillusionment, and Death.”) 

The present intergenerational disconnect is the outcome of the post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power Eras, which declined for various external and internal complications and contradictions.  It could be argued that there were earlier moments of intergenerational disconnect.  Recall that many Blacks born near the end of the 19th century refused to tell the new generation much about slavery and its immediate aftermath.  I remember my mother’s grand aunt, Mary; she was my maternal grandmother’s aunt, and she had been born in 1869.  She used to visit us in Gary, IN, when I was very little; and she took me shopping downtown. 

My mother has told me often how she tried in vain to get Aunt Mary to talk about the family’s history; surely, Aunt Mary’s mother had to have been a slave.  But Aunt Mary refused.  She was an educated woman and a school teacher in St. Louis, MO.  And she looked pale white!  My mother and I think she was just embarrassed to discuss family history, which obviously included a white father and, thus, other white members.  My mother experienced intergenerational disconnect.  History stopped, perhaps as a result of conscious historical amnesia!  Blacks just didn’t talk much about the past.

Significantly, as a high school student in the late 1950s—I graduated in 1961—and during my first year at North Carolina Central University in 1963, I knew nothing about the early Pan-African (anti-colonial and anti-racist) struggles waged among intellectual-warriors from Africa, the Caribbean, and the USA.  I knew nothing of figures, such as Sylvester Williams, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Richard Wright.  The McCarthy Era of US fascism had effectively crushed earlier radical movements among Blacks and whites, creating an intergenerational disconnect between my generation and earlier ones. 

I didn’t begin to learn this history until about 1964, when I became conscious of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.  I also met students from Africa and the Caribbean.  By that time, I was a second-year student at NCCU, and I had begun taking courses in African and Black American history with the renowned Professor Caulbert A. Jones.  It was because of his engrossing lectures that I began to read this important history with a vengeance.  Yeah, I was a French major (and later added political science), but I read African and Black American history as if my life depended on that knowledge! 

In addition to writing formal research papers in class, I wrote 10-15 page letters home to my parents, excitedly telling them all that I was learning in Jones’ classes.  Therefore, I gradually embraced a historical perspective (with the aid of Carter G. Woodson and Du Bois) that challenged everything I previously had learned about American and Western history.  Although I had not experienced slavery or segregation, I came to embrace those historical realities as if I had.  Equally important was my reading of radical scholarship of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, C. L. R. James, Richard Wright, and Frantz Fanon. 

I did this reading independent of any course assignments.  This is the kind of existential experience and intellectual strategy that led me into the late-1960s and that has remained with me to the present.  Moreover, all my adult life, I have had older friends (like you and Thais) who have taken time to school me about their own experiences, knowledge, and ways of knowing the world. I suspect that this was a conscious and personal effort to bridge a possible intergenerational gap.  We were generations who knew the value of past and present connections.

Significantly, even though past intergenerational fissures occurred, younger generational members tried to read about or in some other way gain and maintain some knowledge about previous historical eras so that they could pass their knowledge on to the next generations.  Many older folks studied as much as they could in order to forestall absolute historical amnesia.  Think of figures like J. A. Rogers, Leo Hansberry, Dr. Ben, John G. Jackson, Chancellor Williams, John Henrik Clarke, and even the late book dealer Alfred Ligon in Los Angeles.  And there was Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal!  These and other historians preserved knowledge of the past for many in my adult generation.  They were the people I read from the late 1960s to the present.

The current intergenerational disconnect, however, may be more severe; and it may result in more unsettling consequences, than previous ones.  During the past thirty years, I think I have witnessed the rise of generations of Blacks who are severely individualistic and uncommonly anti-historical.  I first noticed the development of this contemporary intergenerational gap while I at San Diego State University in the mid-1980s.  Students would tell me that they hardly ever spent time talking with their parents about life and living.  This was the Age of Reagan; radical (and not so radical) social movements of the late-1960s had been crushed.  Unlimited greed and unvarnished anti-Black racism, crass individualism and cultural meanness, and mounting anti-intellectualism and professionalism, became the order of the day. 

This was the period of forced business acquisitions and mergers, as the gangster Reagan regime allowed corporate capitalism to go after mega-profits.  It was in this context that parents, even Black parents, sought not a wealth in knowledge but a wealth in money.  So busy were they in search of this enterprise that they avoided or neglected their children.  These parents had little interest in anti-racist struggle; they failed to pass on to the next generation any knowledge or commitment to collective Black struggle for liberation.  Increasingly, younger generations grew up with little or no knowledge of the past.  Never having experienced segregation, and too young to remember radical social movements of the 1960s, Blacks born in the 1980s and early 1990s constitute a new generation that is historically rudderless and lost in turbulent seas of America’s failing and decadent empire. 

I refer to this new generation as “personalist” and “presentist.”   Their knowledge and ways of knowing are personal, so focused are they on the self.  And because they are so young, they view the present as superior to the past or even the future.  This is a here-and-now generation!  There is much indifference in this generation, even to learning.  Today’s university students read substantially less than students of previous generations.  Is this also a result of advanced technologies?  But everything is contextual.  Absentee parents left this younger generation “dispossessed.”  Indeed, the last 20 years have given rise to a situation in which younger and older folks scarcely talk with each other about life and living.

Significantly, contemporary parent-child relationships seem to be producing students whose value systems are reflective of their parents’ acquisitive and indifferent orientation.  I find fewer and fewer students to be intellectually inquisitive.  Most of them read only what they are assigned, and many read only a portion of those assignments.  Many of my students generally do not write well.  They all want “good” grades, but they seem unwilling to put in the hard work necessary to earn those grades.  Intellectually indifferent, many members of new generations even are disconnected from the struggle for knowledge or quality education. 

When I speak of putting maximum effort in their scholarship, students often look at me like I were from outer space!  Over the last 10 years, this reality has become particularly evident.  Most of my students know little about earlier Black liberation struggles.  The know little about the history of Africa, the Caribbean, or Black America. Moreover, they seem to possess neither the will nor the commitment to engage in collective struggle.  Indeed, so many are individually conflict-avoidant, much like President Obama appears to be.  But even he has studied Black history well, as a reading of his books will indicate. 

It is against this background that one can look at the present social and political transition and the role of elders as the Obama administration seeks to manage American and global affairs.  There is no paradigm shift in terms of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, yet.  There is some movement on the part of young whites and Blacks, both of whom may be experiencing a good bit of historical amnesia.  This kind of amnesia also can alter the role of Black elders, especially those who are the parents of today’s younger generations.  The intergenerational disconnect of which I speak may very well be resulting in shifting the ground beneath the feet of Black elders.  Historical amnesia prevents the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of elders’ traditional roles.  Who has schooled the younger generations about the conventional roles of elders?   In many respects, the phenomenon of intergenerational disconnect has eclipsed those roles.  So, one might ask what role Obama might play in the lives of this new generation.  Will he inspire this new generation, directly or indirectly, to recapture the value of historical knowledge for the purpose of redesigning the future of Black people around the world?

Now, I have written in general terms, looking at trends, developments, and contradictions. Nothing is absolute.  But these elements may suggest future challenges to Black people in the USA.  Will post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power generations think that anti-Black racism is over in America and give up a concern for and commitment to the struggle for Black liberation?  Can or will elders and younger generations find common ground and begin to bridge the communicative disconnect?  Can they learn to value each other; can they learn to listen to each other; can they learn from each?

Sincerely,

Floyd
 
Floyd W. Hayes, III, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science
Coordinator of Programs and Undergraduate Studies
Center for Africana Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
Greenhouse 107 / 3400 N. Charles Street / Baltimore, MD 21218
Phone: 410-516-7659 / FAX: 410-516-7312 / fwhayes3@jhu.edu
http://web.jhu.edu/africana/index.html

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Response

Floyd, thanks ever so much for sharing your work and thoughts with us. I quite agree that these cultural transmissions can be cyclical. One might say that these cultural transmissions of poverty result from the high rate of illiteracy in our communities, even Colin Powell spoke recently of the 50 per cent rate of school drop out.
 
You spoke of the lack of reading and study within our communities: teachers in working class high schools complain much about it, as well. But they themselves are not scholars, writers, and readers. Their emphasis is on individual career rather than community struggle. Then the accounting standards for public school education emphasize test taking as the least common denominator.
 
After more than a hundred years we have yet to develop, like the Jews, a culture of literacy and interpretation. Our emphasis is on performance and cultural aspects of poverty, namely, gangsterism and stylization. How we break this present cycle of the cultural of poverty, since the 90s, is beyond me.
 
I hope the Obama Era will start a new beginning, a new cycle, a new drive for literacy and thoughtfulness among black youth. $100 billion has been pressed into the stimulus bill for education. I am certain that resolving some of the difficulties of urban poverty, different from just being poor, is tied to this problem of valuing learning.Rudy

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Dear friends,

The percentage of urban blacks who value learning is very small, to be sure. Regardless of ethnicity, many of us poor working class folk who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s faced a cultural divisiveness imposed on us by middle and higher classes.

    For example, because I was a factory worker's kid, I was not supposed to sit first chair clarinet. The son of a school Principal was supposed to sit in that chair and win all the challenges. The challenge system was blind and I won all of them, which angered the professional caste. I also faced opposition from my family, who rather wanted me to play football and win an Oklahoma University athletic scholarship. The men all thought I was a "sissy." Then, as now, for a youth growing up in the violent culture of football, war mongering and the John Wayne or gangster or styling cultures of masculinity we have discussed before, one has to be stronger than strong. I was and triumphed as did many others across the nation. That should not be in the so-called "land of the free."

    I preached about some February born changers of history in church today: Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, and Darwin.

Very different personalities to be sure, ranging from fierce, determined struggler to self-educated, outgoing, extroverted attorney to the quiet, shy, careful, scholarly son of well off English people. Their sheer variety reminded me of a training game NASA uses for astronauts.

    The so-called NASA game has participants imagine they are stranded on the Moon. They have a list of 14 steps listed in random order. When properly and precisely ordered, the 14 steps will enable them to get off the Moon and come home. The groups dominated by one or two loud mouthed people never get off the Moon. The groups where everyone gets to speak up and matters to everyone else usually make the right list and get off the Moon and back to Earth.

    I believe in this kind of process. If black urban education leaders come together  with the parents and youth they teach and really speak to and hear each other and value everyone in the group, then maybe, just maybe, we can "get off the Moon" of illiteracy and the culture of self-destruction and "come home" to a culture of valuing really valuable learning. Maybe. Ralph

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posted 15 February 2009

 

 

 

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