Post-Soul NationThe Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant, and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans (Previously Known as Bl
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2005 Nelson George
All right reserved.ISBN: 0143034472
Chapter OneIntroduction: Affirmative Actions
For centuries the word "soul" was (pardon the pun) solely employed by religious leaders and philosophers to describe man's spiritual core. The soul could be cursed to eternal damnation. The soul could rise up to heavenly salvation. God and the Devil have sparred over the soul of man since before the very devout Bible was written. The soul has always been that region of consciousness that truly defined us, not the temple of flesh we walk around in. To this day the soul is, in popular consciousness, associated with one's spiritual dimensions, as the ubiquitous best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books testified to at the turn of the century.
It was no coincidence then that those black singers of the '60s began describing the popular music as "soul music," since its musical base (rhythm, melody, vocal arrangement) all harked back to the sounds heard in the Christian churches that nurtured them. Though the subject matter of soul music was secular-usually love, lust, and loss-soul was descended from gospel, and when performed by a queen like Aretha Franklin, the music possessed the devotional intensity of a Sunday sermon.
From this simple linguistic transfer came a wider use of the word. As the sixties progressed, soul signaled not simply a style of pop music but the entire heritage and culture of blacks (or Negroes or colored or Afro-Americans, depending on the year and context). We became "soul sistas" and "soul brothers" who dined on "soul food," exchanged "soul shakes," celebrated with "soul claps" as "soul children" marching for "soul power" while listening to "soul brother number one," James Brown. This social use of soul quickly became commodified, resulting in soul magazines, soul barbershops, soul hair-care products, and an enduring TV show called Soul Train. Motown records founder Berry Gordy, never a man to miss a trick, even copyrighted the word and released records on the Soul label.
References to the '60s soul still pop up in music videos, commercials, and movies with great regularity. But they usually just skim the commercial surface of an era that for the black community had depth, substance, and edge. The sixties weren't about fried chicken-those ten years were the apex of the struggle of blacks for full citizenship-a battle that began the day President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but that took on a new urgency after World War II. That's when Americans of many hues (and too many foreign observers for the government's comfort) began pointing out the hypocrisy of a nation that battled Nazi hate but practiced institutionalized racism.
With a biblical ferver born of a desire to bring this country's everyday reality in line with our Constitution's soaring rhetoric, the civil rights movement remade America. Through legislation and marching, moral suasion and bloodshed, from 1946 into the 1970s, official barriers were smashed with the legislative and moral apex of the sixties.
I was a child during the '60s and I remember that "We Shall Overcome" energy with great affection. For me this historic period was absolutely about soul in its deepest spiritual meaning. It was about faith in the human capacity for change and a palpable optimism about the future. It's not necessary to recite the huge list of accomplishments of that epoch to say that period was witness to dramatic concrete action and a sense of commitment that defined the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and thousands of others. And that hard, visionary work was all about soul.
The term "post-soul" defines the twisting, troubling, turmoil-filled, and often terrific years since the mid-seventies when black America moved into a new phase of its history. Post-soul is my shorthand to describe a time when America attempted to absorb the victories, failures, and ambiguities that resulted from the soul years. The post-soul years have witnessed an unprecedented acceptance of black people in the public life of America. As political figures, advertising images, pop stars, coworkers, and classmates, the descendants of African slaves have made their presence felt and, to a remarkable degree considering this country's brutal history, been accepted as citizens, if not always as equals.
Unfortunately, all that progress has not been as beneficial to the black masses as was anticipated in the '60s. The achievements of role models have not necessarily had a tangible impact on the realities of persistent poverty, poor education, and lingering, deep-seated social discrimination. A determined conservative backlash against the government's role in altering social conditions, heretofore repressed class tensions within the black community, widespread drug use, and a debilitating cynicism that runs counter to the spirit of the soul years are just some of the elements that make the post-soul years often seem a muddle.
Documenting the post-soul era is not about chronicling the straight line of a social movement, but collecting disparate fragments that form not a linear story, but a collage. Several trends-some direct reactions to the soul years, others revolutions that could not have been anticipated-drive this tangled narrative. An unprecedented number of black officials were elected in this period, men and women who were then challenged both to improve the race's well-being and to serve the needs of their other (presumably white) constituents. The post-soul period witnessed the ascendance, via high-visibility government appointments and jobs in media, of black conservatives who challenged the traditional views of black politics and values. The era fostered the creativity, desperation, and rage of the poor, communicated to the larger world through inspired artistry and destructive behavior, both on a scale never seen before; revealed the potency of black female writers and public intellectuals in the discourse of race and sex, and the often bitter backlash against these women from black men of many classes; and revived older notions of black nationalism and street protest as well as a critique of integration that encourages interest in African culture and non-Christian religions.
By decade's end "black" itself, as the verbal identification of race, would be, if not replaced, at least challenged or reinterpreted by the introduction of a new phrase. In fact the definition of blackness would be in play in the '80s, with terms like "buppie," "b-boy," "BAP," "underclass," "womanist," and "Afrocentricity" entering the lexicon. Some of these terms were sepia-tinted versions of white reality; others slang terms and academic inventions that captured new identities.
One of the safe assumptions of Post-Soul Nation is that the inventions, phenomena, and fads evolving out of the black community eventually shape the lives of nonblack Americans. That was true to a great degree during the civil rights movement in politics, law, and music. But in the more fully desegregated '80s, American society accepted this interplay without the same overt resistance, and, not surprisingly, the impact of black culture was magnified.
That said, Post-Soul Nation is not a simple slice of racially blind '80s nostalgia. There will be some '80s themes and events missing for those addicted to Behind the Music or the History Channel. There'll be no Rubik's Cube, no Members Only jackets, and as little of Mr. T as I can manage. Sorry. It is a very select vision of ten years (give or take twelve months) that emphasizes the achievement and dysfunction of people who suddenly decided it would be cool to be called African Americans.
Post-Soul Nation flows directly out of my life. The eighties were the first decade of my adulthood, and I lived through it with that mix of self-discovery and enthusiasm characteristic of one's twenties. Coming of age in the '80s made my peers and me extraordinarily lucky. The doors to opportunity in the United States opened wider than they ever had for black people. We accepted jobs our parents wouldn't have been offered. We probably made more money in that decade than entire black generations did in their lifetime. But were we '80s black folk better people? Were we stronger, braver, more courageous? I don't believe so. I believe we were often well trained and absolutely quite fortunate.
We were also greedy, self-dramatizing, and still stifled by racism's weapons: overcrowded, shabby schools and indifferent teachers; policing that could be either brutal or nonexistent, and was too often both; wretched, red-lined housing and putrid public services. Profoundly, despite our access and success, despite the possibilities integration offered, a cynical, isolationist attitude emerged in the populace, as if we were simultaneously under- and overwhelmed by this new America, a duality that would define us.
And then there was movie cowboy Ronald Reagan and the horse he rode in on-neoconservatism-that defined the national mood. His assumption of the presidency in 1980 was partially due to a backlash against black advancement that had been stirring throughout Jimmy Carter's troubled four-year term. Reading articles from the late '70s one finds there was a sense among many black leaders that President Reagan would be no worse for blacks than the Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter. A few prominent black leaders even endorsed the neo-con icon. To say these men were shortsighted is like arriving at the revelation that rapping involves rhymes.
Though told in a third-person narrative voice, ost-Soul Nation is in many ways autobiographical because the book's broad themes are the broad themes of my life. In January 1980, I was an unemployed freelance writer living with my mother and pregnant sister in a two-story row house in one of Brooklyn's most tattered neighborhoods. At the end of 1989, I was a newspaper columnist, noted music critic, and author living in a spacious brownstone in an arty Brooklyn area. My new bathroom was bigger than my old bedroom. The engine for improving my life in the '80s was the accelerated growth of black pop culture. The first actual disposable income I ever had derived from the royalties generated by a quickie Michael Jackson biography written breathlessly in the summer of 1983. I invested part of the proceeds from that endeavor in Spike Lee's film, She's Gotta Have It, my first involvement with the entrepreneurial side of culture. Between my writings and minor business ventures during the years 1980 to 1989, I benefited greatly from the access the post-soul era afforded.
But the trends that defined my life weren't only from the plus side of life. My family was scarred by the crack addiction of an immediate family member, which led to petty crime, awful lies, and a legacy of distrust and suspicion that my family still wrestles with. Hand in hand with drug addiction came an HIV infection to that same family member, visiting another '80s plague on our house. My family has survived all of that and, in many ways, is stronger than it has been in years. But the pain was real and will always linger with us.
To me, Charles Dickens's enduring phrase-it was the best of times and it was the worst of times-fits the '80s to a tee. All who lived through that decade were shaped by its lived joy and pain like a Frankie Beverly song. You don't know who Frankie Beverly is? It's an '80s thing.
The year 1979 is the prologue, where we witness a few choice events whose impact spills over into the upcoming decade. A presidential election gets under way beneath the cloud of crisis-fifty-nine Americans being held hostage in Tehran after the fall of Iran's pro-American shah. An Islamic revolution has overthrown the old oligarchy and the Iranian people rightfully accuse America of supporting a corrupt, oil-rich tyrant. What no one in America realizes, except a few scholars, observant reporters, and closemouthed government operatives, is that the bitterness that spews forth from enraged Iranians is the second big sign (the first being the 1973-74 oil embargo) that the political cold war is giving way to a hot religious one and that God-fearing America is to a lot of non-Westerners the great Satan.
In the American streets, where people wonder how a small Middle Eastern country can successfully disrespect us, there is a new drug epidemic. Phencyclidine (PCP, a.k.a. angel dust) is a test-tube drug that becomes popular as a kind of ghetto LSD, sending its users into a disorienting hallucinogenic state. The gray flaky substance is sprinkled either on regular cigarettes or marijuana cigarettes and then smoked. In addition to seeing weird, dreamy visions, dust smokers sometimes gain enough strength and aggression that it takes four or five policemen to subdue them. The hospital wards of big cities are dotted with "dusty" crazed, wild-eyed men and women who have to be restrained and injected with Thorazine, a cure that both calms victims down and often fries their brains. What's scary is that by the mid-'80s, angel dust will be to crack what herpes is to AIDS.
At our starting point, black culture is in the mainstream-to a degree. There are blacks in sitcoms and on local news. Several major cities have black mayors and desegregation is public policy in all fifty states. We are coming into a new era; Afros and dashikis can still be seen, but fades and baggy pants are on the rise.
American Mavericks, a festival of independent feature-length films, begins at an East Village theater in Manhattan. Among the young auteurs in the festival is Martin Brest with Hot Tomorrows, a film he writes and directs about the afterlife-very different from the movie that will make his reputation a few years later, Beverly Hills Cop.
The one black film in the festival is an hour-long documentary called Streetcorner Stories, made by Yale graduate Warrington Hudlin, which focuses on a group of men who congregate on a New Haven, Connecticut, street corner mornings before work. Using the popular cinema veriti style with no narrator, Streetcorner Stories captures the rhythms and rituals of black working-class life by the careful accumulation of detail. Hudlin opens with a quote from Ralph Ellison about the "tragic comic" quality of the blues, which Hudlin, a product of the tough Midwestern working class of East St. Louis, uses as a template for this gritty film.
Hudlin, who lives in Harlem, is part of a community of black independent filmmakers on both coasts who've been toiling throughout the '70s, mostly ignored by Hollywood and mainstream (white and black) media. Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song in 1971 was the last independent black film to get a significant commercial release and a large audience.