Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Generation Lost?: A Final Word on Black History Month 2011

When Dr. Carter G. Woodson started black history week in 1926, his intention was to emphasize the accomplishments of African American people in order to create an identity for a people that, at the time, had none. He taught that in order for black people to ever reach a point of overcoming the tragic effects of the Willie Lynch massacre, they had to feel the same sense of pride and dignity other races feel, which gives them the ability to create a positive environment for themselves and their families. To know one’s history is to have the tools necessary to ensure a successful future. A cliché I know, yet the generations of children that are being educated in American schools are not interested in learning about the history that gives them their place in society. Their place in society is dictated by the trash they see on television and the music they submerge their minds in, which teaches them how to know the streets, but not much more.

Dr. King discussed the concept of a people who could not be expected to assimilate into a system to which they feel no connection. He knew that if black folks did not develop a sense of self that eventually the rage associated with being isolated from society would spill into civil unrest.

There is, and has been for some time, a serious psychological assault against the minds of our youth in general, but against black youth in particular. The attack is being administered using many tools, most recognizably the sounds of Waka Flaka or 50 Cent, who offer little in the areas of social responsibility or any sort of consciousness. These artists are shaping the perceptions of a huge portion of the black youth in this country and are shaping the black history that our great grandchildren will enjoy.


Last week the Urban Politico had the privilege of attending AT&T’s 28 Days of Black History Month event at Howard University hosted by rapper Common. The purpose of the event was to acknowledge black history makers in today's society in hopes that they might inspire not only the youth but society as a whole, to celebrate and embrace the history and accomplishments of African American people.

The keynote speaker this year was Tai Beauchamp, a media industry veteran and social entrepreneur who represents the positive black history makers who do exist but who are often overshadowed by the negative images which are intentionally placed at the forefront. Ms. Beauchamp told her story of surviving in a white male dominated industry and eventually becoming the youngest woman to accomplish what she has done in her field. Her inspiring story is the kind of information that could go a long way in helping to shape better perceptions of black people and teaching the youth how to think outside of the box when planning out their dreams. Too often young blacks get caught up in the fantasy they see on television and in music videos and can only imagine a viable life for themselves by pursuing one of three areas; entertainment, sports or crime.     Ms. Beauchamp's story is an example of the kind of history that we should be making as a whole. These kinds of positive images should be the status quo, not the exception.

The Urban Politico had an opportunity to speak with Ms. Beauchamp.  We asked for her thoughts on how to usher in a new era of encouragement for our youth in order to support the kind of media (magazines, novels, music etc.) which will promote positive, moral enforcement. We wanted to know how our youth could be encouraged to shy away from media that may be more The Urban Politico popular but is also responsible for creating or perpetuating negative perceptions of black youth and their environment. Here is what she had to say:

"We're already close to losing an entire generation. This stuff has to start at home. We cannot rely totally on the media to raise our children. The community as whole needs to become more engaged and begin to take more of an interest in the future of our children."

AT&T was smart enough to reach out to a rapper like Common to be the face of this year's 28 Days of Black History Month event. There were other, more popular, mainstream hip-hop artists who could have ensured a bigger turnout and given AT&T much more street credit, but by choosing to associate with a rapper like Common, the company proved that they are, in fact, serious about helping reshape the image of black folks by giving the youth a role model that they can actual follow, whose words inspire and motivate, not discourage or push hate.

Common's love for black people was so apparent in his words, his demeanor and his interaction with those around him. His presence created an atmosphere of peace and promoted exactly the kind of vibe that the event intended. The crowd was filled mostly with young Howard women and a handful of stand up young men. They were all eager to hear what Common had to say. If I had to give one critique of what I saw that day, I would say that the attendees of the event did not necessarily appreciate or understand the importance of what Ms. Beauchamp had to say and how her words and story could resonate in their own lives. Their only interest was waiting for Common to make his stage appearance.

There is a serious disconnect between the youth of this generation and anything that does not fit into the narrow box of "cool" that is currently in place. As I sat in the auditorium of Howard witnessing the event take place, it was clear that the message AT&T had attempted to relay had become lost in the hype surrounding the presence of Common, who was the only representative of what the young audience could relate to aside from DJ Whoo Kid, whom they clearly had no knowledge of. Had Common not been the host of this event, I am sure that the attendance would have been cut in half.
Is Black History month still relevant in the era of illiterate hip-hop? One wonders.

At 31 years old I am not so far removed from the ills of childhood, yet have no quarrels in admitting how much differently this generation is from my own.  My “generation” is also a product of the hip-hop movement. Our generation had its issues, but 90% of the cats I grew up with, whether from the projects or not, had college aspirations, even if those aspirations only included attending a community college. Their outward appearance was marketable, even if the skill set was not. Today, kids are tattooing their eyes before they are even young enough to work, making them unprepared for a workforce that is already set up to ignore them. The lack of self-pride stemming from the absence of self-knowledge is a huge reason for this. Nevertheless Common's presence was a huge reason for the number of individuals who showed up to support the event. Most of those attending were Howard students, even though the event was publicized and opened to the public.

We were very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to speak with Common about his role in this event, the importance of black history month and AT&T's goals for the 28 Days of Black History Month, here is some of what he had to say:

"I feel very honored and inspired that AT&T took the initiative to say hey, we want to acknowledge not only the forerunners who paved the way, but the people right now, today that have proven themselves to  be history makers and that they have something to say to our generations. I think it's a great thing because not only are we celebrating that this is black history month, but we're saying hey, we want to make history ourselves."

Also attending was Jeff Johnson from BET's Rap City The Basement. Jeff had been a part of AT&T's black history month festivities in the past, but was there to show support for the program. Jeff represents the kind of role models from within the hip-hop movement who have an interest in uplifting black people, despite the unpopularity of the task. We got discuss with him briefly the need for the black community to take more control of the media content that will ultimately dominate the market. Jeff discussed the demise of television as we know it and the need for conscious, talented individuals to create and circulate good, positive content.

"Today it's not about weather or not you have a big name, it's about weather or not you have something relevant to say."

Jeff Johnson

Black History makers seem few and far between these days when you consider the kind of history that will benefit generations to come. The history that is currently being made and eventually taught to our great grand-children is not very solid outside of the election of Obama. It is frightening to think that black history is at risk of fading into the distance, yet evidence of it occurring is all around us. More big corporations need to step up to the plate like AT&T and become companies that give something back to its customers by taking an interest in the lives of the people. To say that hip-hop, because of its strong influence, needs to be more responsible with content would be beating a dead horse. Since we know that won't happen, we have to rely on the artists who care about our people and don't just want to exploit them. We must make them the artists that we put our support behind, the artists who we invite to our political fundraisers and bring to the table after election time as well. We can make hip-hop more positive, just like we can keep black history more relevant, regardless of how receptive our children are to it, but we must first admit that there is something terribly wrong. Black history will be what we say it is and now is the time to speak up!
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