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Social Studies

Generation Why?

By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/5/2005

So, I’m watching the premiere of Everyone Hates Chris, the new UPN sitcom based on Chris Rock’s life as a kid. The entire series is set in the ’80s, and as the main character walks down the street with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five playing behind him, all I can think is how it’s about friggin’ time. I’ve been watching these shows set in the past my whole life, and this is the first time that you get an indication that—gasp!—some black people actually existed more than five years prior to the present.

You know, even as a kid, I was always suspicious of the whole Happy Days/Laverne and Shirley thing that was so huge. Oh, it’s the ’50s. Hey, look at that wacky Fonz and his cool jacket. Ooo, now they’re having a sock hop. Wow, things sure looked fun and more innocent back then! Boy, I wish things were like they were back in those . . . happy days.

Yeah. Needless to say, things weren’t so happy for a bunch of folks back then. The stories I heard about the ’50s from my family and other older people didn’t have anything to do with no damn souped-up jalopies. I don’t personally know anyone who was going to sock hops and listening to Buddy Holly—and, frankly, I find the whole framing of the ’50s as some kind of faraway utopia insulting when people that look like me were catching hell.

Mass media has generally continued to reflect this limited view of the past. The Wonder Years? Great show. Nice reflection of folks coming of age during some of the most tumultuous times in American history, the 1960s. Of course, we all know what the ’60s looked like, right? Everybody’s got images of Woodstock and hippies and free love and cats burning their draft cards, right? These sorts of shows throw in some grainy black-and-white footage of the March on Washington during the establishing montage and, if you’re lucky, during February they’ll air a Very Special Episode where Dr. King shows up and the whole cast talks about how Racism is Bad, but when you’re really talking about the ’60s, it’s all about Vietnam and college movements and, well, stuff that white Baby Boomers get worked up over. Suffice it to say, real history was a bit more, well, colorful than what is usually shown.

You know what’s been really bizarre for me as I get older? Watching my own personal history slowly but surely vanish before my very eyes. I swear, half the shit I see on, like, the VH1’s I Love the Eighties or That 70s Show, I’ve never seen outside of TV. Like, I remember the pantsuits and the Farrah Fawcett-esque feathered hair on TV, but people in real life didn’t dress like that around me. And, I have to say, I remember a lot of O’Jays, a lot of Earth, Wind and Fire, and a lot of Stevie Wonder. Can’t say I remember a whole lot of Bee Gees.

Lemme tell you, I really enjoyed the music of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam. I remember the very first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the chills I got down my spine when Nirvana was on MTV’s Unplugged, and, yes, I have a mental snapshot imprinted in my memory of standing behind the counter at Louie’s Bookstore when a girl came in crying and told us that Kurt Cobain was dead. But when people start talking about Kurt Cobain as the “voice of a generation?” Well, as a card-carrying member of said generation, I have no idea who the hell they’re talking about or who the hell they might have been talking to when they came to that conclusion. Now, if they said that about Q-Tip, I might be inclined to sign up for that, but, of course, it would be ridiculous and downright arrogant to say that one person or one set of images represents the viewpoint of such a diverse and varied group of people. Right?

So, yeah, it’s nice to see a cultural history that seems at least a little similar to what I remember from growing up portrayed in Everybody Hates Chris. Just the choice of music and that fact that the kids are wearing Adidas sweatsuits and sneakers is enough to make me smile and remember a simpler, kinder time. Maybe Chris Rock can call his show Wonder Years or Happy Days. Or, something like that.

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