The Oxford Dictionary defines change as to make someone or something different. It further defines improve as change for the better. Using these two verbs, allow me to apply change and improve to a brief analysis of the cultural evolution of Black America.
I believe we can identify four specific periods in our history when change occurred specifically within the Black race. The first obviously was from slavery to freedom. The second occurred during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and especially during the 1920’s. The third period is identifiable with the Civil Rights Movement. We are now witnessing the fourth period of change that began sometime in the 1980’s with the crack epidemic and the introduction of a specific genre of RAP music. Now please keep in mind to improve is change for the better. Conversely is the possibility that change may not be improvement, but could be just the reverse. Therefore, a critique of those four periods of change is only relevant if we can determine if they also improved the condition of Black people in this country.
One would be hard pressed to argue that the change from slavery to freedom was not an improvement in the condition of our ancestors. Yes, they confronted some very insurmountable odds. They understood the tremendous obstacles facing them on a daily basis during the apartheid years. Every major institution in this country lined up against them. The national, state local governments, the courts, the police and even the military set out to keep them in a subservient status. But there was something very special about those beautiful Black folk who united together against their oppressors. They never became negative but instead turned to love, prayer, and an uncanny determination to never give up, never quit, and never succumb to the evil all around them. Their spirit strength and unity became the foundation for our culture. They survived so that we might live.
The second historical period of change occurred as Blacks, three generations removed from bondage, jettisoned the old slave mentality and rejected the notion that somehow they were inferior and must always remain subservient to a race of people who assumed their superiority. This period of change can best be understood through the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Moving into the 1920’s and led by the godfather of the movement, Dr. Alain Locke, these artists made it clear in their works that a new Black consciousness had evolved. The writers, painters, poets and musicians had one common theme; they were proud of their race, believed in self-reliance and demanded their rights as American citizens. Dr. Locke expounded on this theme in his anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925. Dr. Locke recognized the damage done to the perceptions of Blacks right after Reconstruction failed and during the next fifty years. His goal, as he stated in the foreword to the anthology was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially, to register the transformation of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America.” According to Locke, the old Negro had been socially constructed as “Uncle Toms,” “aunties,” “mammies,” or “sambos.” He went on to describe the New Negro as one who operated with the dual purposes of bringing new leadership to modern America and “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.” (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, An Imprint of Facts on File, Inc New York, 2003). These artists also began to take pride in their African heritage and often argued that the “New Negro” was Pan African in outlook and determined to link Blacks in this country with people of color all over the world. This particular period of cultural change had a positive impact on Black Americans. It allowed Black artists and spokespersons to express new perceptions of the race and take pride in who they were and from where they had come. According to Aberjhani and West the New Negro phase of cultural development allowed educators at Black high schools and colleges throughout the United States during the latter half of the Twentieth Century to employ its general philosophy to motivate their students to set and achieve goals beyond what they expected. (Ibid, 234)
The third phase of change occurred with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Black Arts Movement. Activism rather than the arts dominated this period of change. The artists were complimentary to the warriors who took to the streets throughout the south and marched against apartheid. This period represented the greatest coming together of activists, writers and musicians in the history of the struggle. James Baldwin, John Killens, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Malcolm X., Kwame Ture, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the significant contributors to the cultural change in the third phase. It was an improvement within the core of the culture because it was a continuum of accentuating the beauty of our race and love we shared among ourselves as initially expressed during the Harlem Renaissance.
We are now in the fourth phase of change. It began in the 1980’s and was influenced by crack cocaine and a specific genre of RAP music, “gangsta rap,” and a specific genre of books called “street lit.” Activism became less important and race pride was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This phase has an existential theme. Nihilistic behavior runs rampant within the Black community. There seems to be more concern with the individual than the race. The expression of Black consciousness instilled into the race during the 1920’s and perpetuated throughout the next five decades lost its importance. We no longer refer to ourselves as “Brothahs” and “Sistahs” but instead as “Dawgs,” the “N” word and the “B” word. Gangs dominate our youth in urban areas and money made from the sale of crack cocaine is often glorified. Brothers selling this poison can launch successful careers that take them from the crack house to the White House. Movies like Straight Outta Compton and television dramas like Power and Empire subtly send a message that money is more important than ethics and morals. At this juncture, I will withhold assessing whether this change has improved on the quality of the culture and leave that to the reader.
Inevitably, there will be a fifth phase of cultural change. It happens in every race and every country. A major question and concern will revolve around what characteristics of the previous cultures will be adopted by future generations. Will the creators of the future phase build on the second and third phases or will they continue to build on the changes made in the past thirty years.