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Social Studies

Last Laughs

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/16/2008

When I was a kid, every summer my family would take a pilgrimage back to Alabama to visit my extended family. It was a 10-hour trip, we drove straight, and it was pretty brutal. My father and godfather would drive and, being the old-school country Negroes that they are, we would listen to the blues the entire drive. And when I say the entire drive, I mean I heard every "chitlin' and collard green/ my woman left me/ my dog died/ I have a strange rash" song ever written. To this day, if I hear Z.Z. Hill singing, "Down Home Blues," I break out in hives. But what could I say? I was just riding and, frankly, I was happy to even be going on the trip. And, according to the rules of the car, the driver gets to pick the music. Yeah, as an adult, I despise the music of Clarence Carter, but I wouldn't trade those summers for all the money in the world. This, of course, leads to Jesse Jackson.

Y'know what? Let's leave the nuts out of it. Anybody paying the least bit of attention knows that the Rev. Jackson is, at best, ambivalent about Barack Obama, regardless of what he says. And why wouldn't he be? The changing of the guard is always a little awkward and, considering that it happened belatedly and out of nowhere in the black community, I completely see how Jackson would be out of sorts. Literally, in a matter of months, he's gone from the It guy in black America to a supporting player.

And the press and mainstream society have had a field day with this because, let's face it, for the past 20 years or so, it's been easy to dismiss Jesse Jackson. For those of us too young to remember anything from the civil-rights movement, Jackson has always been a bit of a caricature of himself. By the late '70s, going into the '80s, Martin Luther King Jr. had already been canonized; other big players like Andrew Young or Julian Bond had cemented their post-Movement careers, which left Jackson as the only real activist still being active. To many of us even that was more abstract than anything else. Yes, he would come to my church once a year and speak, but when I think of my earliest concrete memories of Jesse Jackson, to be brutally honest, it was his turn as host of Saturday Night Live. Even the stories of his presidential campaigns are more ethereal than the image of Eddie Murphy singing, "Don't Let Me Down, Hymietown." That's why I think it's so easy for critics, especially critics of a certain age, to mock him. Because when we think of him, it's in that context.

It's actually a little ironic that Jackson's relevancy is the subject du jour because I just saw the 1972 documentary Wattstax for the first time last week. There's a portion where Jackson appears before the crowd and chants his familiar credo: "I am somebody." He is young, vibrant, Afroed, and beautiful. And you can see his effect on the crowd as their chests puff out and they raise their fists because, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they believe that they are somebody. How do you dismiss someone who makes the hopeless hope?

Easy. Time goes on and we forget, which makes it easy to mock and make fun. "I am somebody" becomes a punch line because for many of us that goes without saying. But the only reason it goes without saying now is because someone said it then. And that goes across the board. When I talk to my dad, to this day, we often butt heads about how to navigate husbandhood, parenthood, race, politics, etc. Even though I disagree with him about a lot of stuff, I know that privileged perspective is possible because of the sacrifices and hits he took to get me here.

Which brings me back to our summer trips. As time went on, and I got my driver's license, I ended up driving most of the way and, yeah, I got to pick the music. It's fair to say that, as much as I hated Johnny Taylor, my father hated Eric B. and Rakim even more. But I was driving and you know the rules. Yes, my father bought the car and, yes, I wouldn't even know where to go if he didn't provide the directions. But, ultimately, when I'm driving, I get to pick the music. Really, though, it shouldn't matter who's driving the car or picking the music, as long as we all get there, right? H

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