Editorial Comments Connecting our Modern World to 1988
2016. CNN has posted an article that there have been worse years for celebrity deaths, but I think they are failing to understand this 2016 issue in the way that they failed to understand the 2016 election. The emotional outpouring, the memes, and the “Thanks 2016” posts may have less to do with celebrity death , and more to do with Generation X's angst. We all sit at the doorway to 2017. I have to come to grips with the fact that this next year will be the year I, as the caboose of Generation X, will be turning 40. My skin has spots it never had before, my hair is beginning to reflect the bathroom light from increasing silver strands, my eyes are a duller shade of brown, and I am running out of time to ever have the ability to grow a full beard. Somedays, I have to stare at myself in the mirror for a long time until I see the truth of what the decades have done to me. I am graying, and for a member of a generation that prided itself on eternal, snarky youth, that is hard to digest. I have 3 kids, all born in this new century. I teach high school history to a group of students who are 2 generations removed from my own, with my last born in the 20th Century class about to graduate. I teach a “History of the 1980's” class and run a blog about 1988 because it is ancient history to the young people in front of me that cannot fathom a world without internet access and cell phones.
I was born in 1977, the end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennials. I grew up in a world of expensive VCR's that you had to rent, Saturday Morning cartoon blocks, and Ronald Reagan. I remember where I was sitting in 3rd grade when the Challenger exploded, and being broken by the series finale of “Family Ties”. Some studies say I could be a millennial. I look at the Millennials and their reliance on cooperative work, organic products, and hipster radiance and I don't feel like I belong to them. I was too old to grow up on Nickelodeon's child programming, instead being forged by its earlier, subversive, Canadian Nickelodeon syndication like "You Can't Do That on Television". I have defined memories of where I was at during the first airing of the "Thriller" video, and the fear I felt of a Soviet invasion after watching promos for "Amerika". I am a member of Generation X, and my heart has been ripped out in 2016.
I read a comment on Facebook the other day that questioned why we should care so much that someone like Carrie Fisher, with her drug problems, and her fatalistic behavior, had died. They asked the same question about George Michael and Prince. Each weekend there are countless deaths around the nation and the world; protesters, civilians, cops, military, children. I have spent the last few days struggling with that very important question. "Why did I well up with tears in the Missouri History Museum in St Louis when I overheard someone say that Carrie Fisher had passed on?" Part of the reason, is that I happened to be standing in front of a display case of 1970's toys ( a saddening fact that already had me emotional, seeing the toys I played with in countless 1970's church and bowling alley nurseries behind glass) that contained the original Princess Leia figure. I had just been explaining to my 7 year old daughter why the white paint on Leia, Luke, and the Storm Trooper had faded to brown. "We all get a little faded as we turn 40", I joked. Then, within that same minute, the real Princess Leia was gone.
I had met Ms. Fisher once at Indianapolis Comic Con, took a picture with her, celebrated the glitter head print she left on my nephew's shirt, and yelled how much I loved her as she walked away after her speech. "I love you too", she yelled back. That was my one meeting with the actual Carrie Fisher. We never had lunch together, or called each other to see what we were doing next weekend. Carrie never sent me cards when I was sick, and I was certainly not someone she called for advice on all of the wonderful movies that she helped write through her long and amazing career. So, why do I weep for her and feel so broken? Why do I long for one more moment and just one more film from Gene Wilder or Abe Vigoda? Why do I need to hear David Bowie or Prince again? Why did I need to drive to Kentucky to stand at the fresh grave of Muhammad Ali ? I have known tangible people that have died this year; fathers of friends, daughters of friends. These deaths were tragic for my friends. These were men, women, and children who were ripped from their families; people that I met, ate meals with, and shared memories with. Believe me when I tell you that I grieved for my friends. Yet, here I was in a museum feeling an intense level of grief for Carrie Fisher. Why? Is it silly? Is it pathetic? I have come to the conclusion, that these celebrities were our time keepers, and their deaths signify a mass awakening of Generation X to our mortality.
Hear me out on this dear readers. X has been and always will be a generation who was by-and- large ignored by the larger society. We are one of the smallest generations born in the last century. I once heard someone say that this may be due to the fact that we are the first generation born during the advent of the birth control pill and legalized abortion. We are smashed between the revolutionary Baby Boomers and the boundary pushing Millennials. We were born into a world where strong leaders who symbolized hope were being assassinated and our parents witnessed friends going off to fight and die in Vietnam. Our parents could not shield us from the realities that the Soviet Union was closing in and the global economy was in a freefall. The condition of the world of the 60's and 70's was not ripe for the hope and optimism of having babies. The economy being the way it was, both parents went to work and brand new cable TV’s were at our disposal without limits. Divorce rates rose, single parent households became a regular touchstone of our lives. Our generation was to be the guinea pig in the world that was left to us by the Baby Boomers. We would be the first generation to grow up in a post segregation world, and the last generation to live in a world dominated by 3 channels of television. We grew up in an era that saw the first push for consumer and workplace safety. This transition was probably most felt by us as the last generation to grow up with steel playground equipment and the ability to ride in cars without seatbelts. We have been called a cynical generation and a latchkey generation. More than our Baby Boomer parents,or maybe because of our baby boomer parents, we were raised on television and mass media on a scale that was unprecedented in American history. We were the first 24/7 mass media consumers.
I know that today, technology is everywhere and studies have shown that my modern Generation Z students have a 7 second attention span from their constant media diets. However, members of Generation X were initiated into the idea that you could program news, music, entertainment, and sports on a constant rotation. Yes, we spent an abundance of time outside playing the games of the previous generations, but when we came back inside the choices were endless. We were the generation that played the first home video games and who could watch movies that used to only show in theaters, over and over and over on our VHS devices. The music that had once been accessible only in record stores and on the radio( if you were willing to wait for your favorite song) was now pumping out of MTV all day. We had computers and portable walkmans. Our toys were sold to us through cartoons, Scholastic book orders, lunch boxes, breakfast cereals, albums, greeting cards, and every imaginable means of grabbing our attention for the next big thing. I am talking about He-Man, GI Joe, Thundercats, Pound Puppies, Cabbage Patch Kids, and the a long list of synergy products.
I would argue that our biggest contribution to mass culture was our willingness to absorb every aspect of what was being thrown at us. We were willing to gobble it up, and the producers were willing to sell it to us on every last product vehicle they could. Look at the marketing of ET that even included the infamous Atari game( which sits in my classroom display case next to Pac-Man to show the ying and yang of the early gaming industry). We embraced all of the good stuff and much of the bad stuff. We were searching for identity in a brand new world that had thrown off the old traditions and identities. We were a rudderless generation that drifted from The Brady Bunch to Kiss to the A-Team and Pee Wee Herman. In the absence of structure in the world, while the adults searched for themselves in cults, and New Right/ New Left politics, we found structure and value in John Hughes films and New Wave music. How often do members of our generation get together and carry on entire conversations in movie lines from Airplane and Blazing Saddles? The Reagan boom of the 80’s turned our anti-capitalist baby boomer parents into rabid consumers and investors. Those parents bestowed the gift of independence on those of us who would become helicopter parents, and a steady stream of pop cultural access.
The reality of why these deaths have been so hard on us may be in the fact that we are the last generation to share a unified vision of mass culture. Today’s kids have a million different choices of options to keep them entertained. They have their own tastes and their own favorite youtube stars. Social Media has made them independent consumers, critics, directors, photographers, and program directors. We are splintered. Our generation listened to the music we were given, watched the television programs that were available complete with commercials, and reenacted the movies that everyone was watching. Is there anyway Back to the Future would last in the theaters for 4 months today? The things we knew about the world came from homogenized news programs on the 3 networks which in turn fed our parent’s discussions of the economy, global events, and politics. We lived in a world of common conversations about what happened on TV last night and what video to watch on MTV. In a world where the grown ups were not talking about AIDS, we were learning about the virus from episodes of “Mr Belvedere”. We all played with the same toys and took advice from the same TV dads. These characters took on a life of their own in our minds, as we invited them into our homes. The stories they told were stories that could help us relate to our friends at school and help us feel like we belonged to a bigger culture in a world that was rapidly changing. These icons were the glue that held a fractured society together. Despite our differences on issues like Apartheid and Affirmative Action, we could all talk about Michael Jackson. Despite the fear of nuclear winter, we could all find comfort in the commonality of The Cosby Show. These pieces of culture were larger than life. They were our Greek legends, stories and images we would pass down to our kids. How many times have my kids rolled their eyes after yet another Christmas viewing of “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas”?
The warning signs have always been there, alerting us to the day when these childhood heroes and legends would no longer be with us. However, those signs came in small tremors that would register with us as tragic chips in our wall of immortality. MTV stopped playing wall to wall music and Mike Brady died from AIDS related complications. When we would lose amazing talents like River Phoenix or Jim Henson or Kurt Cobain or John Hughes or Corey Haim or Robin Williams, we would feel the loss and a devastating sting, but ultimately our pop culture was too big to fail. The changes and the losses came in small, absorbable, uncomfortable bites. Hollywood remakes our movies, radio stations play our music in decade blocks, our styles are coming back into fashion. Generation X was lightning in a bottle for a Reaganomic economy, and the world keeps trying to recapture it. We have been living under the hubris of our “electric youth” (Thank you Debbie Gibson). As long as our culture survived, we survived and we never had to age. We have been allowed to live in our childhood forever thanks to reboots of shows like Full House. Magazines bring casts back together, vinyl is in stores, bands reform and go on never- ending tours, Kevin Bacon got his own iconic game. Generation X may be small, but we have been validated time and time again each time someone reaches into the barrel and pulls out a gem from our day to reproduce.
That brings us to the painfulness of 2016. This year, one by one, the chips became cracks, and the cracks became the destruction of the foundations of our stability. Our Dr Huxtable is being accused of rape and our Dr Seaver has left the earth. Our Willy Wonka is gone and our Charlotte will never spin her magical web again. Our Goblin King, our purple clad Prince, and our George Michael all left us without any more songs. Even the fantastic actors we barely saw have passed on and taken R2 D2 and ALF. The list is seemingly endless; Muhammad Ali, Abe Vigoda, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Leonard Cohen…...Generation X has never had a real communal awakening to our mortality. Our generation lived in a time of fear of war, but very little actual war that demanded sacrifice of our treasure and our lives. This is not to say that there are countless Gen X lives that have been sacrificed on battlefields throughout the Middle East and the world, but war on the homefront was not as noticeable for our generation the way it was for the Baby Boomers in Vietnam and the generations before them in World Wars. We are witnessing en mass, the way we witnessed Rocky IV and the fall of Nixon en mass, our aging happening right before our eyes and happening in a massive giant wave. Our parents our getting sick and passing away, we are parents and grandparents ourselves, and we are facing the front end of our generation being a decade away from retirement.
The MTV generation has never really had to face the kind of death reality that the world has been filled with since the beginning of time. We have seen terrorist attacks and space shuttle explosions. We have seen 9-11 and deadly uprisings, but we never thought it would come for us and our families; our media has always been permanent, our shows, our music, our movies, the moments we have witnessed have never gone away. CD’s, DVD’s, VCR’s, home game systems, computers, digital files; we have always had the ability to recall the past. Death is not recallable. Carrie Fisher can never again return as the same Princess Leia, and it makes us shudder to think of her as the “Polar Expressed” version of herself from “Rogue One”. Carrie Fisher can never again write her incredible film scripts and she can never bless us with glitter. On one hand it is kind of a beautiful testament to our generation. We are the flame keepers and the storytellers of a very real and visible pop culture, but has our naive reliance on those images and sounds made us vulnerable to the kind of unreal expectations of a reality that is quickly demanding we recognize the fragility of life? I have friends who are developing cancer and having parts of their bodies removed to prevent future cancer. This was not supposed to happen to a generation raised in roller rinks and malls. Maybe it is unfair, maybe it is selfish to place our emotional baggage on these celebrities...we never owned these people. We made them into permanent characters that they only meant to portray for a short time. And now, in the moments of their deaths, we might be grieving less for them, then we are the death of our own childhoods. On the other hand, our grief may be very real in the sense that Generation X mourns as both a parent and a child. Our need for their talents created their success, and their need to express themselves created our values.We don’t want to let them go, we want to hold on to the greatness for just one more moment. Goodbye 2016 and goodbye to ALL those we have lost. Rest in beauty.
I was on my way to New Orleans this week, to present at the National Council on the Social Studies Conference, when my colleagues and I decided to make a stop at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Coming into the parking lot, we saw a woman sitting out on the corner. She was in a make-shift booth, surrounded by signs that indicated that she was protesting against the Museum. I didn’t think much of it at first, as I was more interested in seeing the place where Dr. King was tragically gunned down and in doing some contemplation. However, walking through the museum, my mind kept nagging me about the woman. I knew that I had read about her somewhere. As we stood by Dr King’s final room, and reflected on all that had happened there, I had a view of her across the street.
The guide told us about the process of securing the Lorraine Motel for the museum; it had fallen into a bad way of drugs, prostitution, and poverty. The museum board had evicted most of the tenants, except for the woman who was now sitting across the street. She apparently had fought for years to stay in her room. A lightbulb went on over my head! She was THE Jacqueline Smith, who had been evicted from this hotel in 1988. She had been a desk clerk and a tenant of the motel, and had to be forcibly removed by the police in 1988 after a 2 month stand off that included having her utilities shut off. I had read an article about Ms Jacqueline while putting together the blog, posted the news, and moved on. Now, here she was! The guide said, “I can’t remember what year it was that she was evicted, but she has been out there everyday since.” I said, “Was it 1988?” The guide looked at me like I was crazy. How would someone possibly know the year some obscure woman was evicted from the Lorraine Motel? The answer as always, the 1988 project.
“You know, she has never even been in here”, the guide informed us.
I had to speak with her. Adding her voice to the blog would be an interesting angle towards the human interest stories we are moving towards publishing. When we arrived at her little protest area, we noticed a sign which told us that she had been sitting there for 27 years, and 300 days. She was demanding the museum move from the Lorraine, and spend the money on fixing the poverty in Memphis. Clearly, her animosity towards the museum is also motivated by losing her home in 1988, and also the treatment she was given in forcibly removing her from the property.
We waited at the table while she engaged in a conversation with two African-American women, telling them that the museum only serves to promote violence. “What good does it do to take school children to a museum that shows all of that death? You read all about the violence against black people, where do you think that comes from? People come to the museum, see how it used to be, and go out relive it. Look at that case up here at the college, where they were tying lynch ropes in the trees. Where you think they got that idea? Right here!”
The two women look concerned, but let her continue to speak. “Look at that boy who went and shot all of those people in church, they gonna go and blame it on a Confederate flag. Ain’t no flag, it’s places like this here that don’t let us move forward! What good does it do to live in the past?” One of the women tried to interrupt her to make a point, but Ms Jacqueline never leaves much breathing room for anyone else to speak, 27 years of launching into the same speech. “You know what we oughta do? We ought to stop teaching about slavery and celebrate the good things black people are doing today. We have a black president! He wasn’t just elected by black folk! Celebrate our good things! Stop building museums that show the bad things. I mean, kids walk through there! All it teaches them to do is hate. Teaching about slavery, but not telling the truth that black people were here before slavery, not telling about the black man who built the capital (I assume she was talking about Benjamin Banneker).My great-great-great grandfather helped build this country! Why don’t the museum talk about that?”
The two women could see that there was no chance of having a discussion with Ms Jacqueline, and slowly found their way into exiting across the street. I waited for my chance to ask for an interview, taking in her protest area; boxes of flyers and handouts piled up on her bench and table, books, a sign that reads “Stop worshipping the dead”, a blue tarp tented over a box that contains her library, and a lifetime of accumulated memories. Finally, she finished the points of the speech she had been putting on to the two women who had walked away. She looked at me with a suspicious, steel gaze. I was my usual nervous self when I am faced with someone from 1988.
“Hi” I reached out to shake her hand, which she refused. “My name is Shawn, I am a teacher, and I write a blog about 1988. I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions about what happened to you here in 1988, and then put it up on our blog?”
“No, no, no. No, you can get whatever you want from me by going to my webpage!”
She handed me a stack of leaflets that dealt with the cost of the museum on Memphis and why the museum is destructive to children. The literature talks about how the museum flies in the face of Dr King’s message by taking a building that could have used to help the elderly and the homeless, and turning it into a place that encourages consumerism in the gift shop and gentrification of the neighborhood. It speaks about how the museum was not sanctioned by the King family and includes the story of Ms Smith’s eviction. I barely had time to read it before Ms Jacqueline began repeating the speech about teaching violence and the inappropriate nature of museums, perpetuating racism through learning about the past, and the lack of celebrations for the positive achievements of African Americans. She waved a dog eared book in the air. “This book, this man who wrote this book, is all about the need to teach civility. That is what we need to be teaching in our schools, not bringing kids to worship the dead!”
I had questions I wanted to ask like, “Isn’t it also important to have a place that lets school kids appreciate the positive outcomes of the struggle? “ “Here is a place where a horrific event occurred, that ripped apart society in 1968, and it has been turned into a center for education. Isn’t there something that can be said for that?” “How can you talk about what is inside when you have never stepped through the door?”
I never had the chance to ask anything, because for every pause she took, she was quickly lining up her next argument. She asked if we knew who George Washington was, and if we had ever read Washington’s rules for civility. “If only our kids were taught how to behave with decency towards each other, then we wouldn’t have these problems.”
She claimed there is no value in having a museum that only drags up old bad feelings. “Teachers lie anyway, talking about how slavery brought black people to America, when they should be talking about how black people were here before Columbus, how black people built the capital, how my great-great-great grandfather built this country. I mean, read Othello to know that black people were here first.”
I was really hoping for an opening to ask my questions, but by this time we were surrounded by a group of school kids and a man in a Michigan coat who began taking pictures of Ms Jackie. Without missing a beat she bounced back to beginning of the loop in her speech, which seemed like our cue to slip away, her voice ringing out behind us. “Have you ever read George Washington’s rules of civility?” I am pretty sure, my questions would not have registered anyway, as I am pretty sure once a crowd shows up she becomes fixed on hitting her points, the same routine for 27 years and 300 days. One crowd who stops to listen, brings another group of curious onlookers, and so on and so on. I am sure it has been this way every day for 27 years and 300 days.
Walking to the car, her words really started to play in my head. What if she was right? Wouldn’t it be more of a testament to Dr King and what he was doing in Memphis in 1968, to use the scene of tremendous sorrow and tragedy to provide relief for the poor and the elderly? Would Dr King be proud of them turning a profit in the gift shop from his death? Was my desire to see and venerate the place where Dr King was shot making me an accomplice to the gentrification of a neighborhood?
“The furniture isn’t even the actual furniture, they took the real stuff years ago” she had told the school kids and us.
Was I being manipulated by the museum into an engineered emotional response? Maybe I do teach far too much about a past of wrongs, and not enough about being civil. Ms Jacqueline Smith had really gotten into my head. This was hurtful to me because I had such a visceral response to the Civil Rights Museum. The interactive displays, and realism of the exhibits really painted an in depth picture of the struggle for equality. The way the museum is laid out, takes the visitor on the journey from West Africa to Memphis. I was moved to tears when I saw the Selma section and my breath was stolen in fear at the illuminated KKK hood and robe. Each and every section gave me new information to think about, and old information presented in a new light. I was given many more stories of people who were involved in the movement to take back to class. I was able to follow the story of Congressman John Lewis who is going to be one of our upcoming guests in our 1960’s class. Had my response to the museum been selfish and morbid? Had I been only feeding my interests while ignoring the plight of the people of the neighborhood who couldn’t afford the fifteen dollars to get in the door? Was my teaching ghoulish and inappropriate? I worried that I was too mentally weak to fight her arguments. After all, I had been teaching for 17 years, and she has been teaching for 27 years and 300 days. The woman from 1988 was slaying the student of 1988.
“What does it teach to show signs that say ‘colored only’? It teaches kids to keep living in that past.” Ms Jacqueline had said in her speech.
Life intervenes in strange and interesting patterns. Friday morning I attended a breakfast in which Dr Terrence Roberts, who had been one of the Little Rock Nine, was the keynote speaker. I cannot adequately put into quotes what Dr Roberts said, because it would not do the speech justice. He spoke of his experiences at Little Rock and throughout his life, and spoke of the need for students and teachers to present and absorb history by making it meaningful. He talked about being the owners of our own education. In my head I could imagine a conference where Dr Roberts and Ms Jacqueline had a debate over the need to understand history. Would Dr Roberts be able to interrupt the loop in her speech and get in some of his own thoughts? My mind went back and forth between Dr Roberts and Ms Jacqueline, who had taken up residence in my head.
Then, Dr Roberts said something that set my conscience free. He was relating a story of himself sitting down to write a book about teaching civility. I could not believe that the notion of “teaching civility” was popping up again. I couldn’t believe that Ms Jacqueline and Dr Roberts were on the same page. He said something to the effect of sitting down to write this book and playing his bible app through the book of Psalms. He said he was drawn to Psalms 28:3
“Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbors but harbor malice in their hearts.”
Dr Roberts broke my mind free! If I am to make sense of what he was saying, it is this. One can teach people how to be civil, but unless hearts are changed, one can only change what’s on the surface. Teaching civility only hides deeper rage in a polite demeanor. One can only hide behind civility and a mask of kindness for so long before the corrosive rage and hatred that were never changed, rise to the surface. We cannot just force people to change, because we believe we are right and they are wrong. I often think this about political posting on Facebook, which I myself have been guilty of in the past. You can demand that people listen to you, bullying them and belittling them into silence, but you will not change them on the inside. Silencing someone is not progress. That is where a good history lesson is important! A good lesson can help you see the mistakes of the past, the wrong doings committed by humans against other humans, and help us to seek greater justice in our present. A good lesson can help us to appreciate the strengths of the past, while weighing out the mistakes.
The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is a good, no a GREAT, history lesson. It is place that lends itself to contemplation and a reflection over how far we have come since the days that Dr Roberts was being beaten up and tortured by fellow students at Little Rock High. We gain a sense of hope and strength in dealing with the struggles that exist in the now, and perseverance for the ones that still line the path ahead. It is a place where we can experience the senseless death of Dr King, but be reminded of what his sacrifice on that balcony meant. Museums and historical opportunities don’t teach us violence, they teach us actual civility, that of a change in our own hearts by casting a mirror on our souls. Dr Roberts set my mind free that morning. He may never realize what motivated me to hug him upon meeting him. I am grateful for his words. I am also grateful to live in a nation that allows diversity of opinion and the ability to critically analyze all sides before we choose to make up our own mind. In that regard, I must also thank Ms Jacqueline Smith for teaching us that the road to justice is not immediate and it requires constant vigilance.
Further study work on Jacqueline Smith’s Protest
A one-woman protest at the Lorraine Motel By Hamil Harris
Side Trip -- Jacqueline Smith's personal, and private, crusade by Terry Dean
Jacqueline Smith’s protest site http://www.fulfillthedream.net/pages/mlk.jsmith1.html