When more than 1,000 black students at Howard University stormed the main administration building earlier this week to force the resignation of Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater from the school’s Board of Trustees, their intensity, resolve and sense of purpose seemed more reminiscent of the ‘60s than the ‘80s.
That shouldn’t have come as any surprise, say some educators, sociologists and young blacks themselves, who believe that what happened at Howard is just one example of a larger swing--still as much stylistic as political--nationwide.
In the midst of news headlines about gangs and drugs, high black youth unemployment and soaring teen-age pregnancy, these observers detect a rising movement among blacks between ages 16 and 23 toward black pride, black awareness and black assertiveness. It is evident in their dress, their music, their conversation and their attitude.
Rap Music Lyrics Change
In Los Angeles, Jim Patterson, program director for popular black-oriented radio station KDAY, saw its emergence more than a year ago when the lyrics of rap music rolling into his office began to change from girls and gold chains to resisting racism. And he noticed that the lyrics began to feature quotations from Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Suddenly, activist rap artists like Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, Ice T and BDP were selling hundreds of thousands of records, and black youngsters were listening to albums and song titles like “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Freedom or Death” and “A.F.R.I.C.A.”
In New York several months ago, music critic and author Nelson George began to notice black youngsters wearing leather medallions of Africa in red, black and green “liberation colors” and African inspired fashion--items he hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.
Interest in Malcolm X
Joyce Thorpe, manager of a B. Dalton bookstore just outside Atlanta, sensed it when she began being bombarded with requests for books on black history and black culture, particularly from black youngsters interested in Malcolm X.
Meanwhile at Central High School in Philadelphia, University and Fairfax high schools in Los Angeles and numerous other institutions across the country, college counselors suddenly began to get requests for applications to black colleges.
Observers say one reason for an upsurge in black activism is that today’s youth are the children of the activists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One of the leaders of the Howard uprising, for instance, was Raz Baraka, son of Imamu Amiri Baraka, the foremost author during that earlier period.
Members of the rap group Public Enemy said their political philosophy was first formed during two years in a neighborhood summer school program run by members of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers.
Those close to it say that the heightened black consciousness also is related to a number of other factors, including last year’s presidential campaign by Jackson and increased study of black history and culture surrounding the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
Positive Film and TV Images
In part, they say, it is the result of the positive images presented in some film and television programs, for example, “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” the television documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” and the movie “School Daze.”
But many, and particularly young blacks themselves, believe that the main underpinning is a desperate attempt at mere survival by the group that is the most “at risk” in the nation.
Nearly three of every four black children live in poverty, more than half in single-parent homes. Murder is the No. 1 cause of death among black males under 25. Black teen-age unemployment and high school dropout rates are soaring while the number of blacks attending college is declining.
In interviews, black youngsters said that as they look around and see their job and educational opportunities diminishing, their family structure deteriorating and their communities under siege by drugs and gangs, they are left with the chore of trying to heal themselves because society does not seem to have a place for them.
‘Have to Achieve’
“It’s our generation realizing that we have to achieve and we can’t do it by ourselves, and the adults haven’t made a place for us,” said Keith Ross, 17, of Philadelphia. “So we have to come together. It’s our time.”
“The young people have turned to each other as a collective way of understanding what’s going on and saying that they have to fight back,” added New York psychologist Lenora Fulani. “They’re saying, I’d better take my life in my hands because these people are doing a terrible job with it.”
No one is sure exactly what the extent of the movement is.
“On the one hand, you’ve got this expression of pride in our cultural heritage,” said Dr. Velma Lapointe, assistant dean of human ecology at Howard University and co-author of “Black Children and American Institutions.” “But at the same time, we’ve got the problems of high rates of juvenile delinquency, low rates of black men going to college, high rates of homicide, teen-age pregnancy to the point that it makes you question the relationship between the negative things that are going on.”
Future Impact Unclear
Nor can many predict what it will mean in years to come. “I think we’re right on the verge of it,” said Molefi Asanti, director of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadlephia. “I think the fullness of this will come in two years.”
Some observers point to the demonstration at Howard as an example of what’s ahead.
In the past two years, similar student protests have been mounted at nearly 50 other colleges and universities--the University of Michigan, University of Massachusetts, Wesleyan, The Citadel, Northern Illinois University, Cornell University, Columbia University and others.
In Los Angeles, it was black students at Jefferson and Washington high schools who initiated student protests over contract negotiations between the school board and teachers, and at Fairfax High black students held a sit-in last year when the school dropped its black studies program.
Walter Allen, a sociology professor and associate director of African-American studies at the University of Michigan, points to the recent riots in Miami and Tampa, Fla., as a more ominous indicator.
‘On Verge of Boiling Over’
“What we have is a kettle that is on the verge of boiling over, an explosion that is waiting to happen,” Allen said.
While many see Allen’s assessment as too apocalyptic, they do agree on one thing: This time the upsurge in black pride and involvement has taken on a tougher, harder edge, rooted in the more assertive aspects of the ‘60s.
They note that while black youth have been bombarded through school and the media with the legacy of Martin Luther King, it is a figure almost never mentioned there who has captured many of their imaginations--Malcolm X, a firebrand of the ‘60s whose philosophies of black nationalism and African identification have lit a fire in the minds of many black youth.
Thorpe, whose Decatur bookstore is frequented by black students from three nearby high schools, said the slain black activist is so popular that she sometimes hears students discussing him in the corridors of the nearby shopping mall.
“His books are like cornerstones,” she said. “Once the kids get a taste of Malcolm X, they want everything they can get their hands on. I have two whole shelves devoted to him. I don’t think I’ve got that much space devoted to Martin Luther King. . . .
Keeps Copies Handy
“I tend to keep 50 copies (of Malcolm X’s autobiography) in the store at all times simply so I don’t have to order 20 a week.
“I’ve had a couple of people say that Martin Luther King can only carry you so far. I think Malcolm X fills that need.”
Jim Lindsey, a Baltimore art salesman, said he has seen the same thing.
“I’ve never sold a Martin Luther King poster to a college student,” said Lindsey, who, hawking a series of black art outside a Howard University ceremony in honor of King, had already run out of one particular Malcolm X drawing. “It’s always Malcolm X.”
Una Mulzac, owner of Liberation Bookstore in Harlem and Dawud Hakim, who owns bookstores in Atlanta and Philadelphia, said Malcolm X is by far the most popular figure among black youth. They report that high school students are gobbling up tapes of his speeches, duplicating them and handing them out to their classmates.
Mulzac recalls an 18-year-old who wandered into her store recently and wanted to know if he really looked like Malcolm X, as his uncle had suggested.
“He was thrilled when I told him he did,” she said with a smile.
Aside from Malcolm X, there is interest in the more radical elements of the black struggle, the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam.
“There’s a real response to the more controversial leaders,” said Fulani, who speaks to thousands of black students on college campuses. “They’re not anti-Farrakhan, for instance. They have a gut feeling for (such leaders) in a way that they don’t have for mainstream politicians.”
Accompanying the interest is a hunger for slogans and articles associated with a more politically assertive philosophy.
Around black colleges, sweat shirts and T-shirts touting black pride are in hot demand. Vendor Jasper Hill, set up just off Howard University’s campus, said that by far his most in-demand item is a sweat shirt that reads “Black By Popular Demand,” a slogan coined by a college student at Fisk University in Nashville.
Leather pendants of “Mother Africa” have become increasingly popular, along with African-inspired clothing, Kinte cloth caps and scarfs. Natural hair styles, the vogue of the ‘60s and ‘70s, are rapidly replacing the greasy, processed “Jherri curl” look of the ‘80s.
Beyond fashion statements, bookstores report dramatically increased interest in books on African-American and African culture and history.
“There’s a real movement,” said Thorpe in Decatur. “In the last couple of years it has really escalated. There’s a real hunger for it.”
So great is the demand, Thorpe said, that she set aside a separate black section, which takes up about one-third of her store. Impressed by her sales figures, B. Dalton headquarters sent a memo to its 700 stores to see if similar requests were occurring across the country, and suggested that if so, other stores might want to follow suit. One hundred stores have, B. Dalton officials said.
Counselors See Trend
At high schools, particularly at schools where blacks are a minority, college counselors said black students are expressing a strong, new interest in attending black colleges.
“Five years ago, I would seldom have a black student ask me a question about a black college,” said Don Olson, college counselor at University High School in Los Angeles. “Now, virtually all of my counselees who are black have asked me about them.”
“There’s a lot more interest,” said Mickey Braiman, college counselor at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. “In the past, some kids felt that they would only be able to survive if they went to a black school. Now the attitude is that ‘I can survive at any school, but I’m looking out and selecting a black school.’ Now kids feel, ‘I have my own . . . ' It’s a positive choice.”
Many black colleges report dramatic increases in enrollment and interest. Spelman College in Atlanta reported that inquiries doubled last year and freshman enrollment jumped by one-third. Nearby, Morehouse College was so swamped with students this year that some were being housed at a Days Inn motel.
A lot of that is because black parents who have actively sought integrated elementary, junior and high schools for their children have become disenchanted with the results, high school and college counselors report.
That was the attitude of Tracy Lewis’ parents. After 18 years of footing the bill at prestigious, mostly white private schools in and around Gary, Ind., they packed her off to Spelman against her will.
“I didn’t want to come, but my dad told me that it was time for me to be around black people,” said Lewis, 21. “I felt that things that are black aren’t good. I thought black schools, because they were black, were inferior. Now, my attitude towards my blackness has changed 180 degrees. It was like somebody socked me in the head and said, ‘Where have you been.’ When I came to Spelman, it was the greatest feeling of relief. It was so cool being around other black women.
“If somebody had told me that in 1987 I would have been in Forsyth County (Ga.) marching against the Ku Klux Klan, I would have said ‘You’re crazy.’ But there I was.”
Other black students, like Keith Lee, a senior at prestigious and integrated Central High School in Philadelphia, report similar awakenings.
“I was always hanging out with a lot of white students, and because I’m light-skinned, everybody was always asking me if I was Puerto Rican or some other culture,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about my heritage. Now . . . I find myself anxious to go to the library to read about black literature and black history.”
At the same time, students at largely white universities have flooded the African-American studies departments, colleges and universities report. At the University of Michigan, the numbers have jumped from 250 students to 1,600 students in the past four years.
Although most share Malcolm X’s street-tough philosophy of “By Any Means Necessary,” popularized recently by a rap album of that name, those interviewed, adults and youth, were quick to say that they have not adopted a “hate whitey” stance associated with black militants of the 1960s.
“I wouldn’t call the attitude militant,” said Darren White, 27, of Jersey City, N.J., as he browsed through the stacks at Liberation Bookstore in Harlem. “Let’s say aggressive.”
Patterson of KDAY in Los Angeles said he has seen that attitude in the focus interview groups conducted by the station with local youth.
“There’s more vocalizing in terms of getting their just reward . . . " he said. “The prevailing mood is: ‘We have the ability to get it done. We’re gonna do what it takes to get it done.’ . . .They realize that they have to do it because the other systems have let them down.”
Black youths are talking to each other through rap music. It has become what one rap artist fondly calls “black youths’ television,” the pipeline of communication.
“Clearly, Public Enemy and all of those rap groups are speaking to a concern and a felt need among those kids,” said Allen at the University of Michigan. “It’s a concern and need that speaks to some of the difficulties confronting society, sort of a crying out and a demand, if you will, for change.”