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Elder Black Americans Say Younger Generation Detached From Their History

Queen Thurston remembers her 1940s childhood in West Oakland with fondness, and a little nostalgia. She'd come "home right after school, do her homework, then head out with a dozen or more friends and roller skate all over the neighborhood until it got dark, and sometimes later.

"The kids used to all get along," recalled Thurston, 79. "It's not like today. Families were intact back then."

The "back then" of Thurston's memory is just one thread in the fabric of African-American history that the nation began commemorating Tuesday as part of Black History Month. The United States and Canada made it official in 1976, when Negro History Week was expanded to a monthlong period of observation and remembrance of the struggles and achievements of African-Americans. Other calendar dates are set aside to celebrate Mexican, Filipino, Tibetan, Jewish and Irish histories.

Black History Month events are scheduled throughout the Bay Area over the next four weeks as churches, bookstores, museums and community centers such as the West Oakland Senior Center, where Thurston is a member, do their part to reactivate this chapter of the American story.

Perhaps never before has the African-American story been so fraught with contradictions. President Barack Obama's election shattered a moral and racial barrier, and it crystallized centuries of African-American progress. Black history is now, more than ever before, American history. At the same time, however, black America is a fragmented notion. Disparities between the wealthy elite, the growing middle class and the disenfranchised urban poor are starker than ever.

Oakland, a bastion of proud black history, is also an epicenter of its fragmentation. According to a study released this week by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Alameda County is the second-deadliest county in California per capita for youths ages 10 to 24, trailing only Monterey County. This is particularly true for young African-American men, who are 14 times as likely as their white counterparts to die violent deaths, most often by handgun.

Increasingly, experts say they think the best way to mitigate this violence is to emphasize to youths the importance of elders, mentors and a sense of place in a larger history. As Black History Month begins, elders in the community are speaking about what they have learned -- and what they can offer.

For Thurston and other members of the West Oakland Senior Center, some of whom grew up and spent most of their lives in West Oakland, their history has been too forgotten, and much too soon.

"The younger generation seems to be cut off from knowing all the contributions blacks have made," said Thurston, who studies African civilizations in a local group. She hopes to pass that knowledge on to her 16 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter. "A lot of these children today have missed out on knowing that there was a lot of greatness that came out of the black community."

A common refrain among an older generation of African-Americans in Oakland has to do with the slow erosion of the social webbing that bound their communities together as children.

"We respected our parents to the utmost," said Sandra Johnson Simon, a 61-year old lifelong resident of West Oakland, "Nowadays, to me, it seems like a lot of these kids don't understand the definition of family."

Elizabeth Webb agreed, though she wondered whether her generation has played a role in mismanaging how the message of struggle and eventual liberation was conveyed to today's youths. "A lot of our young people don't seem to understand our struggle, which is sad, and I don't know whether we didn't do our jobs, but they're not aware of what we had to go through to get here."

Webb, who is 78, moved to Oakland in 1962 and became politically active in the civil rights movement. She marched.

She began to teach herself the African-American history that she had never been exposed to in Detroit, where she grew up. She belongs to the Black History Committee at her Berkeley church. In addition, she's in charge of tracing her family's genealogy.

"From the time my people came here as slaves, and we were separated with no identity, we had to adapt to a strange language, and to do that takes a lot of strength," she said.

"I'm proud of that, proud my people could withstand that."

Still, for many older Oakland residents, this month also represents a time to take stock of what has gone wrong, and how best to fix it.

James Brooks moved to Oakland in 1979, the year before the crack epidemic hit the city and catapulted thousands of African-American families into poverty and misery. By 1985, crack had already wreaked a heavy toll. Brooks was president of the black student union at Laney College that year.

"When drugs started, we became anesthetized as people," he said. "When you lose a sense of community, people can be killed all around you and it doesn't affect you as much."

Brooks and many of the other members of the West Oakland Senior Center say they think that this month is an opportunity to remember the past -- but also to remember how their childhood values are still applicable.

"These days, we'll see a child do something inappropriate and we won't take the time to reprimand that child," he lamented. "When that happens, a whole generation of youth comes up not knowing who elders are."

That's important, these elders say, because even in an era when Obama can be president and Oprah Winfrey a kingmaker, the role of all those old-fashioned institutions like family, school and neighborhood are critical.

At 72, Pauline Brooks is an elder, but she's a baby to Oakland. She moved here in 1993, after her Los Angeles business was destroyed in the Rodney King riots in 1991. She grew up in New Jersey and marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. Her brother, Dr. Frank Napier, was the superintendent of schools in Patterson, N.J., and the man who hired Joe Louis Clark to save his school. The saga was chronicled in the film "Lean On Me," starring Morgan Freeman.

"The violence of today is just one side of things," Brooks said. "There are very many African-Americans who are very much on target."

Brooks says what's happening in the African-American community is just a mirror of what's happening across the broader society.

"We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go."

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