“Make Yours a Happy Home” in 2017

On New Year’s Eve I happened to be driving from Austin Texas back to San Antonio, when a disc jockey on Soul Town 49, Sirius XM Radio (I couldn’t live in San Antonio without XM radio) played one of my favorite songs from the past. My spirits were lifted as I heard the melodic voice of the great Gladys Knight, sang “Make Yours a Happy Home.” Most of you probably know the song comes straight out of the 1975 movie, Claudine, starring Dianne Carroll and James Earl Jones and the musical score was written by Curtis Mayfield. The title to that song is rather simplistic but has profound meaning for all of us. It not only refers to our personal family life, but to the larger community of this country and the world. When we think of the United States as one home with many disparate races, people of different religions and sexual orientations, then it becomes quite clear that we have a gigantic task to try to make our home a happy one.

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Looking back over our history, the years of discontent, anger and turbulence far outweigh the happy ones. This home is always in turmoil and the last year is a perfect example. We just witnessed one of the most contentious political elections in our over two hundred-year-history. As a family with various and differing viewpoints, the presidential race reached deep into the gutter, where congeniality and a decent decorum were lost on both sides of the political spectrum. Much of this dissension is fueled by the age old weakness of racism, a sickness that has plagued this country since its inception.

statue-of-liberty-cryingWith the election of President Barack Obama, we had our best opportunity to actually move forward into a post racial society. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead the animosity against Black Americans increased. In his farewell address the President alluded to this problem when he exclaimed, “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard working white middle class and undeserving minorities.”  That anger also manifests against religious groups, our LBGT community, our neighbors south of the border, and for the first time in our history a certain segment of the population insisted on a wall to divide the countries. I imagine the Statue of Liberty must be shedding a few tears, for the democracy she once represented. The home that she watched over for over a century is in turmoil. King’s dream has actually become Malcolm X’s nightmare.

The United States has always welcomed most racial groups of the world, as well as most religions, people with various sexual preferences, and various cultures to its shores. That makes this country one of the greatest experiments in civilized history. Never before have so many different men, women and children lived under one roof and had to make theirs a happy home. As this country prepares to turn over the power to a man whose success was built on feeding our differences and not what we have in common, the next four years may test this experiment in ways that none of us have ever known. We may become a much more dysfunctional family, during this president’s tenure.

What is just as depressing to this writer is the savagery that has plagued my community. The fact that police all over this country have decided to use our young for target practice is bad enough, but it becomes even a greater crisis when our young do the same to each other. Seven hundred black men, women and children murdered in Chicago, surely tells us that ours is not a happy home.

The major question that confronts all of us is whether we can endure, and will this experiment in civilization ultimately be successful. Given the history of the world, we are still a very young country; the new kids on the block. But we have a tendency to stick our chest out at the rest of the world and brag about our great political and economic system. That claim may be rather premature. Given the direction in which we seem to be going, the future looks rather dismal and we may not survive the test of time.

However, hope is the one universal principal that most writers must possess. In order to create good literature, the writer must look beyond the world as it is and write about a world that can be much better for all the inhabitants. If we would adapt that principle, then maybe our condition can change and even survive the next four years, free of any additional turmoil than what we have faced for the past year. And just maybe this experiment in history will endure, and sometime in the future we can sing along with Gladys Knight to “Make Yours a Happy Home.”

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Change

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Music to Remember

The other night while making some editing changes to the manuscript of the life story about George “Iceman” Gervin, I tuned into Sirius XM Radio, Channel 49 Soul Town. The channel specializes in “back in the day sounds” from the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as I tuned in Curtis Mayfield’s smooth sounds, “Prettier than all the world. And I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of being in love with you,” flowed from the speakers. The station was playing his hit song from the album, The Anthology: 1961-1977. Those two decades were very magnificent years with some magical music for and about Black America. I remember them well. It was a time when you had Curtis Mayfield paying respect to our beautiful Black sisters with love songs like “Talking About My Baby,” and “Only You Babe,” as well as some socially relevant songs like “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” We’re A Winner,” and “Move on Up.” Curtis was in good company with artists like Otis Redding, “Show a Little Tenderness,” Jerry Butler, “For Your Tender Love,” Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” and “Too busy thinking about my baby, I ain’t got time for nothing else.” We had the soft and pleasant voice of Aretha Franklin, “Say A Little Prayer,” and “Respect;’ Gladys Knight, “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Neither One of Us;” and of course the all time classic Etta James, “At Last,” to name only a few. There were also iconic groups like the Temptations, “Just My Imagination;” the Four Tops, “When She Was My Girl;” and the Supremes, “Come See About Me,” and “Back In My Arms Again.” These were the artists of the 1960’s and 70’s, and they gave us absolutely gorgeous songs with magnificent words of love and hope.

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These artists also brought us something else that is very difficult to describe and capture in words, without the sounds of melodic voices to back it up. They brought us the essence of what it is to be Black in America. And most important, it belonged to just us. You could go from one house to the next and hear the same sounds coming from them all; and that was a unifying factor. When Curtis sang, “People get ready, there’s a train coming,” we understood what he was telling us and we all knew about that train. When he sang, “If you had a choice of colors, which one would you chose my brothers,” his message was clear; we must get over the problem of skin color because it was only a superficial way to measure the value of a person. And then there was Bobby Womack’s, “That’s the way I fell about cha,” and we all related to that feeling. Gladys Knight touched deep within us all when she told us to, “Make Yours A Happy Home.” The artists and songs I mention here are only the tip of the iceberg of the fabulous artists that provided us with great music during an outstanding twenty-year period in our history.

My frustration as a writer is my desire to give the written word the same kind of soothing power that we got from our music. My goal is to deliver the message in words, as those artists did in song. Good writing and good music are synonymous. If they both reach their intended goal, then the listener and the reader feel much better about themselves and the people around them. Good writing and good music are about love and not hate. They are about peace and not violence. They allow the dreamer to dream of better times and a better world. They are not corrupting, vicious and ugly. They do not tear down, but build up. Good music and good writing are universal in that they will still be relevant decades from now. And most important, good music and good writing will tell our progeny about the kind of people we were in the beginning of the Twenty-first Century.

The question is how do we come up with a method to determine the quality of the works that represent us as a people? Allow me to suggest that we need only look back to our past, in those glorious days of the 60’s and 70’s; and if we establish an icon such as Curtis Mayfield as our standard bearer by which to measure our greatest qualitative achievements in music, then we can never go wrong.