Last December, I spent the holiday with family in Washington, D.C. It was a blessing to have been able to squeeze in a day at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. The experience was amazing, and will remain sketched on my heart until the day it stops beating.
Roaming through the various rooms, we were awed by the stirring, epic history of souls unbroken by relentless degradation and suffering during slavery. At some point we made our way to more recent accounts of the lives of African-Americans—the 1960s and 1970s. When I was very young, in the early ’70s, I wore a Free Angela Davis button on whatever I was wearing. I also sported a serious Afro. During this time, the complexity of race was so acute. Angela Davis, referred to as “militant” back then, was a part of that intense narrative.
While absorbing the richness of the photographs that depicted an elaborate human stain on America, I shared with my cousin, Kim, “When I was a kid, people said I looked like Angela Davis.” Taking in the eloquent photographs which depicted the life-altering moments of the 1960s and 1970s, and a once highly visible photograph of Angela Davis among them, my cousin said, “I can see the resemblance.”
A few days ago, while rummaging through belongings so as to donate unused stuff to charity, I came across old photographs from a time following my “serious Afro” phase. And earlier today, over coffee I shared some of the photographs with a friend. I told her that my cousin said that I “resembled” Angela Davis. My friend said, “Yeah, you do favor Angela.”
At some point the subject of Angela Davis being a fugitive from justice, and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, was discussed. Although it didn’t look that way at the time, America was finding its way to hope and promise, despite the fact that this was a generation marred by hatred and violence. But King was slain in Memphis; and no sooner than the country could catch its breath, presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was likewise assassinated in L.A. months later. Hope and promise looked bleak. By the time I was wearing my Free Angela Davis button, the Black Panthers were high-profile, and race relations couldn’t be more divisive. Such times dominated the 6:00 o’clock news.
Later that same evening, after talking about Angela and the country during that timeframe, I attempted to put into perspective that time in my life–when I proudly wore a Free Angela Davis button, and an Afro throughout high-school. What statement was I making? What did I genuinely feel? Was I merely going with the flow of that time, because it was cool to come across radical? On what level did I understand? Because at that age we are naturally naïve. It’s not something we admit to at the time, but when we are challenged to write a letter to our younger self, offering advice in hindsight, can we see how we’ve changed; that we’ve evolved.
Older, wiser, I search for understanding now. I’ve attempted to clarify in my own mind when I began to choose not to follow the mainstream of any kind of ephemeral I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-taking-it-anymore ranting like Peter Finch in Network, a film from the 1970s. Where was I when that discerning moment occurred and I owned my voice and honored that call? When did we get so obnoxiously loud? It gets noisier, and that makes me tone-deaf and I am unable to make rhyme or reason of the contradicting messages.
There’s a conspicuous difference between the Civil Rights Movement and whatever movement we’re creating today. There was a noble calling; a human struggle at work during the age of Civil Rights. Even if I didn’t “get it” in its full context, or I didn’t have a keen sense of the urgent stance, I knew what was happening in my youth mattered. Admittedly, I was too young to believe in the causes of the 1960s; at least not in an empirical way. The ancestral oppression and inequality which has permeated throughout American culture is what provoked someone like Angela.
I hear a lot of anger out there, and my intention is not to snub the passion. My distrust comes from the collective conscience that fuels the indignation. It’s not that it sounds superficial. It simply lacks the at-any-cost feeling. It’s more 21st-century, in which we take on a cause for the moment so we can tweet about it, or whatever. We wear various floral-colored bracelets and ribbons on our lapel, because it displays our “behind it” conviction. This isn’t to suggest that by wearing paraphernalia that supports a cause in any way trivializes that cause.
Following the downturn, the Occupy Wall Streeters camped out in front of Federal buildings–defiant, determined. The protests started out with countless supporters across the States. And they stuck it out. Many went to jail. Some are still hanging in there. While there was passion in the early stages of the Occupy Wall Street cause, it didn’t rise to the level of Angela.
Those putting their face on more recent causes have an attention-grabbing feel to them; not that they would risk life and limb for. That drive comes across more so as wanting to display a mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it-anymore attitude because it sounds good when we send it out into the social networking Universe (and there’s enough out there to be mad as hell about, so I get it).
The causes of the 21st century are more causes du jour, and the supporters of those causes will follow that cause for as long as it’s trending. In between the Real Causes are transient ones–to make a point, not to initiate change. This is the major plot behind causes: Change. There are far too many designer causes in recent times, and they have been framed inside of a fleeting historical moment.
We need more Angelas!