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Why would anyone need to read another book, however handsomely produced, about the Civil Rights Movement?
After all, hundreds of black studies courses have been established in universities around the world; the U.S. Post Office has issued stamps with the visages of heroes ranging from Malcolm X to Paul Robeson to Martin Luther King; award winning television series have been produced including “Eyes on the Prize” and “Roots.”
The answer may well lie in a CD track produced and performed by a member of the hip-hop generation who calls himself JADAKISS. The track, called “Why?” asks:
Why does a n—– always want what they can’t get?
Why Denzel have to be crooked to get an Oscar?
Why all the young n—–rs in jail?
Why is the industry designed to keep you in debt?
Why that bullet have to hit that door?
The rapper concludes that the answers lie in his location–that since they have him “in the system” he can expect nothing less.
The need for the present generation of youth of all races to understand the cyclical nature of systemic change in our democracies points to the relevance of a new book, We Shall Overcome. Written by journalist Herb Boyd, the book is accompanied by two CDs that present the sounds of the civil rights movement, narrated by actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
The book and aural discs capture in written words highlighted by moving photographs accompanied by spoken and sung words of participants in the freedom struggle the surges for access to voting booths, lunch counters, schoolroom desks and bus seats by the one group of humans designated by the Constitution as only sixty percent human.
Yet the real value of the multimedia production may lie in the heart of the listener who hears not only the passion of commitment of those who placed their bodies on the altar of service but listens to the sober organizational lessons learned and passed on to the new generations.
One learns why the upstanding character of Rosa Parks was as important as her willingness not to yield her seat in the decision of NAACP leaders to use her protest as a test case in starting the Montgomery bus boycott. The lawyers knew if she had any dirty laundry, the racist media would use it to distract from the cause.
The chasm between attempts to merge leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) with the Black Panther Party is similarly explored. The SNCC workers had much more discipline and organizational tutoring from seasoned leaders like Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King. The Black Panthers were much less seasoned and inclined to angry, thoughtless actions.
These maturing insights have much relevance for current youths who have taken the nickname “son” in addressing each other. Perhaps this paternal reference has its roots in the lack of mentoring available for them in their upbringing.
The need for constant refinement of goals is heard on the first CD when the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of the Birmingham Movement as he explains to his followers that after two days of assaults on marchers by police dogs that the police have stopped bringing out the dogs. He reminds the marchers that ‘they still have those dogs” so they can rightfully see progress.
This hunger for spiritual, intellectual, and organizational wisdom needed in these times may be satisfied in part by sharing the insights found in We Shall Overcome.
These victories and values are rendered even more critical when one considers the current youth infatuation with being “locked down” in prison as a step to claiming adulthood.
Billboards have recently sprung up in major cites promoting a new brand of pants called “State Property.” The ad shows seven young black men surrounded by what appears to be some kind of holding pen. The inference is that these young men are now wards of some type of penal institution. Why would an aware descendent of the jailed descendents of the 60’s wish to wear pants proclaiming him as “state property?”
The answer may well lie in the musings of Professor Cornell West who reflects in his latest book, Democracy Matters that the pervasive depression and disaffection of youth, the flight of so many adults into mindless escapism.the plunge into frenetic consumerism to offset our restlessness all reveal the fissures in our life.”
The billboard promoting the State Property brand of pants also encourages the viewer to spend his or her hand-earned dollars on admission to a forthcoming movie called “State Property II. This movie probably does not mention Martin Luther King or Fannie Lou Hamer or U.S. Representative John Lewis-all of who endured severe beatings while they were “state property” to allow the youth market to sit in integrated movie theatres and eat meals afterwards at any counter they desire.
Professor West hails the necessity for a questioning mind such as JADAKISS’s as the key to achieving what James Baldwin saw as a “kingdom new of making it honorable and worthy of life.” The questions that consume youth and propel them to look for mentors can be addressed by assessing the lessons of We Shall Overcome.
Author Herb Boyd will read from his book on December 16 at the Nubian Book Store in New York City at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue between 6 and 8 p.m. The reading and following question and answer session will be screened at a later date on the C Span television station.