Haunted by the Ghosts of the Civil Rights Era

“What Does it Mean to be Black?”

Where do I fit in? How am I supposed to be? To whom do I look for answers? Generation after generation, such fundamental questions of being human are faced by adolescents. The answers that they arrive at go far in affecting their eventual self-concept and identity. Tragically, for most black children born in the United States, race has historically commandeered the lion’s share of their answers. Its omnipresence is part of the lifeblood of our nation. To their detriment, black adolescents have had to consider race as an integral part of who they are.

Sadly, in their efforts to address questions of identity, many of today’s young black persons (and I dare say a great number of their elders) find themselves possessed. Their possessor is a ghost—an apparition of things long gone. It is a poltergeist. It steers them rearward, toward the past. There they find direction for their lives; among the remnants and ashes of the Civil Rights era. There, they sift for answers. Rather than pursuing new, fresh ways of being human, they identify with the struggles that predominated that time. Those struggles become their struggles. From that time in history black children hear bold retorts to the questions they ask: “What does it mean to be black?” “How do I interact with people who aren’t black?” “What should I expect from the world?” and “What is my place in the world?” Such questions are answered readily—although incompletely—by the political and social tenor of the 1950s and 1960s.

Orientation of Black Identity

Failing to acknowledge the boundaries of historical context, many black children look backward to Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad, Huey Newton, and a host of lesser deities for answers. For a sense of black identity, they orient themselves backward toward the hallowed past. Tragically, that same backward orientation inclines them to identify with yesterday’s racism and oppression, while rejecting today’s increased social and economic opportunities. They become delayers—girded for battle but without a clear enemy. Our children come to equate blackness with struggle. Struggle becomes central to their perception of self. In their minds one is not truly black unless struggling or downtrodden. These children forgo opportunities they perceive as antithetical to their black identity. They resist ideas that would bring them more in line with present context. They reject the reality of increased social and economic opportunity for black persons. Worse, they reject the role models of black persons who, by having embraced the American Dream, are not struggling or downtrodden.

Armed with only a cursory understanding of the past, they “Say It Loud,” without pursuing self-sufficiency and empowerment. They shout, “I Am Somebody!” while settling to be nobodies. In exchange for clearly delineated—although constricted—identities based on the past, such persons delay overtures toward more expansive but undefined futures. In the end, they estrange themselves from a future they see as white—from the very same future that their black predecessors struggled for them to have.

Misguided by the Past

Obviously, these young people are misguided. By and large, their role models— us—are little help in instructing them to look toward the future and away from the past. After all, Malcolm X and the others were our heroes, our role models. They were larger than life in an era that was larger than most. We lived with them and came to love them. We were touched by their magic and enthralled by their messages. And we want their messages—strong messages—to strike resonant chords in our offspring. We want their memories and dreams kept alive. After all, how could any of us bear to tell our children to look away from our heroes, our warriors in shining armor? Most of us cannot. So, although the world has advanced beyond many of the racial issues of yesteryear, we become saddled with young warriors who desire to emulate our fallen, outdated heroes.

The perpetuating messages of hate and past struggles continue to resonate in young people’s music today; in a sense, misleading our youth’s perception to believe we continue to live in a parallel world of civil rights unrest. Have we not, as a society, made any progress at all? Or is it simply more on trend to perpetuate the superfluous messages of anger and destruction in the brainwashing beats of today’s pop music? Many of its messages are of hate: hatred based on race, economic class, and lifestyle—or, more succinctly, hatred of all that is perceived as white. If that is true, we are denying all progress made as a result of our past leaders’ authentic struggles and proclamations of truth and change.

In my travels, I often encounter such young persons. They are usually young pups of twenty or so years of age who are a little too well versed in the “ways of white folks.” They think themselves omniscient. Surliness dominates their faces. Anger permeates their souls. As their rhetoric spews forth, I wonder how these youngsters could know so much of the 1950s and 1960s, a period well before their time. After all, young people are hardly motivated to study history. They’re much too busy trying to be cool and fit in. Yet these young warriors are seemingly quite attuned to this particular era in American history.

Identity Swayed by Color

The worst of these young pups adopt very extreme positions. They become caught up in rhetoric and hate. Taking the role of either arch-victim or arch-revolutionary, these individuals hope to rekindle an ideological fire whose embers are barely recognizable. They incorporate into their identities a hate for anything—suburbia, music, people, success—that they perceive as white. They reject white persons because they are white. According to their ravings— and sometimes lyrics—white people act conspiratorially to subjugate the bulk of black Americans.

Further, these youngsters assert that black people, as a group, will never reach equal footing with the majority of white Americans because it is “a white man’s world.” Some even identify with desperate philosophies of the past, suggesting that we separate ourselves from the white world—that we would do better collectively if left to ourselves, and that our resources, our schools, and our businesses would be best operated and patronized by and for us.

In searching for identity, these youngsters become swayed by the saliency of color. They come to believe that they are kindred philosophically, politically, and spiritually to those who look like them. They come to believe that there exist race-specific attitudes and behaviors. Skin color is so obvious a distinction that these youngsters, like other racists, seek to extend that distinctiveness beyond melanin to all aspects of humanness. Our children too easily accept the notion of color as purveyor of culture. This is particularly the case for children reared by unenlightened parents. These young persons are very much at risk for incorporating into their identities the saliency of color and thereby becoming snared and blinded by the past.

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. 

Until next time: 



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Dr. James Davison, Jr. is a licensed psychologist and university professor. He conducts a private practice in Seattle, Washington, and has appeared on
several nationally-aired programs including The Phil Donahue Show, The
Ken Hamblin Show
, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and
C-SPAN’S Book TV. Dr. Davison hails from Philadelphia, and is the author of several books – Prisoners Of Our Past, Sweet Release, and the upcoming Paid In Full – related to individuality and personal freedom for African-Americans.