The Relevance of Our Elderly Generation

In a recent exchange of emails with a group of younger people in the San Antonio area, I offered my critique of what NWA represented to our culture. One of the recipients of the email retorted with the following critique of me. “Gee Professor Williams, that’s really easy for you to pick on NWA movie. Just like a lot of things you are totally out of step with what is going on with society. That’s why today’s generation no longer wants to listen to your generation.” I struggled with that rather acerbic attack of me, I guess because I am part of the older generation. But then I took a little time to analyze his statement.  I tried to figure out, what we did wrong that the younger generation no longer wants to listen to us. Here is what I discovered.

My generation was the first to really attack segregation in the South. It was my generation that sat down at lunch counters and refused to leave until they were served. They were spat upon, kicked, physically attacked and called every indecent name you can imagine. It was my generation that got on buses, and rode into the South or if they already lived there, joined those coming from the North in order to integrate bus lines and bus stations. They were kicked, physically attacked and called every indecent name you can imagine. It was my generation, i.e., Robert Moses who challenged the registrars in the South who failed to allow Blacks to vote. It was my generation, i.e., John Lewis who attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in a protest against the unconstitutional failure to allow Blacks to vote. It was my generation that organized campus protests throughout the entire country in an attempt to get universities to offer Black Studies. It was my generation that stood up and proclaimed their right to a just and fair treatment when such a statement could cause them serious bodily harm and even death.


The other part of my detractor’s statement was that “we are totally out of touch with what is going on in society today.” I thought about that statement and assumed he meant that with the young people’s assertion, “Black Lives Matter,” somehow my generation and generations before me never understood that concept. If that is what my detractor was implying, then he really hasn’t read his own history; because if you look back through time you would know that black lives have always mattered. David Walker wrote his Walker’s Appeal in 1829, because Black Lives Matter; Nat Turner began a rebellion in 1831, because Black Lives Matter; Harriett Tubman risked her life going into the South and brought her people out of bondage, because Black Lives Matter; Frederick Douglass spoke on the hypocrisy of the Fourth of July Celebrations back in 1852, because Black Lives Matter; Martin DeLaney, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, A. Phillip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer and many more all challenged an apartheid system, because Black Lives Matter. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many others were murdered, because Black Lives Matter, and thousands of Black Americans marched and fought in the trenches against an oppressive and abusive social and economic system in this country for years, because BLACK LIVES MATTER.


I have nothing but admiration for the young people who are now continuing the work began by others, long before any of them were around. Our history is a continuum from one generation to the next. So therefore, what has happened in the past is relevant to what is occurring now. For any one group of people to make the charge that any generation, as far back as when our ancestors were brought here in chains, is irrelevant to our cause is destructive to what we all want to accomplish.

In the Chinese culture, the elderly are venerated, respected and listened to for worldly advice by their young, and the Chinese culture has survived since 1200 B.C., or even earlier. There must be something right about their culture of respect for their sages, and maybe some of those who don’t believe in the relevance of the saying, “with age comes wisdom,” could learn a valuable lesson from the Chinese.


5 thoughts on “The Relevance of Our Elderly Generation

    1. Richard Gambitta

      I agree with Mr. Johnson. Good piece. Now you have two old timers that agree with you– haha. And remember, I lived in China for over a year as a Fulbright Scholar. You are right on the word reverence. The Chinese revere wisdom, and residing in the old, they see wisdom of many varieties for many reasons. You have shown your wisdom today, Fred, for which you should be respected for sure, and the wisdom seen, revered and learned from.

  1. Satia Marshall Orange

    Dear Fred,
    I am, for one, noting, regretting that we often go to other cultures for validation or even inspiration for what should matter in our own African in America culture. China maybe. Africa yes. In countries of color, especially on the African continent, but also in the Caribbean, in Mexico, in South America, Brown and Black-skinned folks not only raise but keep our elders in high esteem, value their wisdom, and to date, still seek their counsel.

    Your response to those young people, perhaps your students, was strong and certainly warranted. I believe they listen to the lyrics of their generation, and in some cases, hover over the writings from ours, but miss the connections between the writers and their brilliant activism towards this, today’s future. Those folks took life-changing actions that these young folks obviously have not considered, or don’t value. I’ve heard “I’m tired of hearing about Martin Luther King, and Malcolm, etc. That was then, this is now.”
    Yet while on these streets these young people have the opportunity to walk because of what many in our generation contributed, and they too often don’t respect that. With the distressing, frightening street realities, this generation seems to be still basing their rhetoric on what they read/heard in school, instead of for themselves reading, researching the truths that tell our truths, their truths.

    Although we can take much of the responsibility for not effectively communicating these connections to them well enough, there’s even responsibility that can be laid with OUR parents’ generation for less-than-effective communication of that history and the impact on their lives. Yet we
    too were/are caught up, even lost in this highly-advanced, quickly-evolving tech world of today’s society, in which our young people move more smoothly.

    At the same time, if this generation does their homework, reads the voluminous documentation of the lives, struggles, perspectives, experiences, confrontations, still with accomplishments, and roadmaps left by their own foremothers abd forefathers and take their counsel from our generation, they’ll be following the tracks and rememberances embodied by our griots, their griots, and see the historical continuum in the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement.

    Finally, as I’ve fine a dozen times this week, I recommend reading Ta-Henisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which takes them to realities about us that they may not want to hear. But speaks painful TRUTHS, and may answer some of their complaints and fears. Respectfully….

  2. Chris Pittard

    His comment may have to do more with your criticism of various facets of pop culture in the African-American community, like NWA, rather than social issues of which all of us can agree are historically based and still relevant.

  3. Then he should have directed his comments at my criticism of pop culture, which I am not convinced I do. I believe there is a distinct difference between pop culture and “gangsta rap.” Instead he suggested that because of my position on NWA a group that personified “gangsta rap,” my generation is no longer relevant. We have history behind us that says we are now and always will be relevant to the plight and struggle of our people.

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