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Imagine Being Born in 1959...
Attempting to walk in the moccasins of a Baby Boomer as a Millennial.
If you were, then there is a good chance that your first national memory was the Kennedy assassination. My father grew up in Baltimore off of Liberty Heights. I grew up in a house my great-grandmother owned, while my father grew up with his parents in a house less than 100 feet away. That became my grandparent’s house. So my dad was close enough to Washington, D.C. to witness the funeral of a slain president.
So, I grew up with stories about how even at the age of three, he remembered that day. He remembers Washington, D.C. in 1963 and the somber mood of the entire crowd.
Fast-forward to 1968. You have an older brother who is high school age and an electrifying youth movement on the rise. As Black men, my father and uncle could not avoid the calls for social upheaval. Many young Americans of all races and backgrounds engaged. Even at 8, my dad saw the smoke coming from the southern horizon of Liberty Heights. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left my community in trauma and anger. He was watching the television that used to be in my old bedroom when it happened.
To this day, I remember riding around Baltimore City with my grandfather. He helped community members and ran errands. You could still see the scars from the day my community lost its preeminent political leader.
But then there was Vietnam. My father was too young, and my uncle avoided the latter stages of the draft. Many weren’t so lucky.
It’s hard for us 90s babies to understand the emotions of that time.
Returning soldiers felt the nation’s angst over the war they had fought and lost. I can’t say for sure about my family requiring service. But I know they didn’t like the war. Still, my grandfather fought in World War II. He didn’t talk about the war until he watched his grandson try to make free-throw shots in the backyard. And I’m told I may have heard things others didn’t. But he honored his participation. This was the “good war.” The expectation for many young Boomer men was to have an experience within the U.S. military. This is not as widespread today.
So, you can imagine how living rooms tore apart by the antiwar fervor. This sentiment pervaded the country by the dawn of the 1970s.
Even though my uncle didn’t serve, I did hear stories of how the “don’t trust anyone over 30” crowd influenced him. It created gaps between him and my grandfather. My grandfather was a man who overlooked a lot of aggressive racism to help desegregate the faculty at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. So, the institution mattered.
And for my dad. He was a Black boy of the 1970s and a Black man of the 1980s. He enjoyed the Jackson 5. He loved his neighborhood clan. He engaged in the excitement television brought the nation.
The 1970s was a transition into the America of today. My dad loved ESPN, and who couldn’t? For the first time, an entire network dedicated to the beauty of sports — beamed to you in your living room. Dad grew up under the dawn of hip hop. He remembers Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Doug E. Fresh. By the mid-1980s, he was out of college and working jobs while still figuring out his life. Seems familiar.
My uncle came of age under social upheaval and political catastrophe. My dad came of age in national apathy but rampant economic growth. He sometimes regrets not taking more serious his affinity for engineering and numbers more. For he saw the rise of Silicon Valley and America’s new economy. He spent the first part of college in the server rooms of Carnegie Melon before transferring to Howard University. America was still dealing with having actually to integrate. Many White Americans were passionately against that effort.
Still, my Dad found a career in state and local government. He made mistakes. He had children like many of his generation in these years. He married a couple of times, the last one being my mother. And like many, the marriage did not last.
The 1990s came, and a generation was rising as politically and cultural influences as their parents. They spoke a new language of diversity and technology. Millennials started appearing in the early 1980s. But by the 1990s, they were America’s next powerful generation in sheer numbers. The generation that “didn’t trust anyone over 30” was now over 30.
My dad’s experiences are personal, but they do tell a story of a larger generation. By the 1990s, Baby Boomers thought it was the “end of history.” The Cold War had influenced geopolitics and life since they watched Andy Griffith, M.A.S.H., Mary Tyler Moore, and The Jeffersons. Now that was over. America’s private industries were humming. The inflationary and energy shocks that many of them experienced subsided. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon were charting a new course forward. Stalwarts like IBM (International Business Machines) and Xerox are still cornerstones of the technology sector. The country had noticeably progressed socially with integration beginning to show in daily American life and popular culture, a process that had started in the 1970s. The LGBTQ community had gained political and cultural power. The nation experienced a dark decade where the government responded to the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic as only a “gay men’s pneumonia.” The community chose to hide their pain and isolation no longer and thus a larger collective began forming with many other traumatized communities. People worked for recognition by “mainstream” society. Everyone deserves fair attention and access to rights under their democratic government.
So for some Boomers, the sentiment was how could one be critical of America? Many believed one was only seeking attention and acting in bad faith.
People still need to raise awareness of police brutality. Violence towards the LGBTQ community is still prevalent. There is a pervasive and shocking ignorance towards women’s health needs. But, people believed it was the end of history.
Then September 11th happened, and a rising tide of paranoia swept America. The bubble was bursting for this generation. It would only get worse. Rampant privatization proved only to shrink the middle-class, not grow it. Racial animosity still existed and prevailed. Violent threats by over-armed communities and systemic police violence/imprisonment pervaded. A wealth gap and mortality rate between Black, Indigenous, and White Americans exists and is wholly unacceptable. The right to recognition as a married unit under the government (with the benefits) was hard fought by the LGBTQ community. But in return, they face a radicalized Christian evangelical movement and a bigoted Republican machine. The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) was never passed. States, to this day, enact draconian policies. Laws that maliciously limit women’s healthcare.
So it’s not the end of history.
Still, I can’t help but sympathize with the lived experiences of being born in mid-century America. The television went silent at night. Now we watch the nation come to grips with President Donald Trump tweeting at 3 a.m. Seen through one of the many screens we stare at all day.
The human brain and our psychology can only take so much. Talking to my parents as our lives have changed in the last year, I reflect on the good faith reasons many older Americans worry about my age group. Our need to nationalize issues. Our vigor around making every older political view face the indirect carnage of their ideology.
In fairness. The Baby Boomers have seen so much. They have had friends die in the streets or their offices fighting the “good fight.” They have watched families start and end. They have seen a country go from one demographic to a completely new one. This is because of organic economic and cultural forces as a new generation takes the reins of power.
I used to wake up at 5 A.M. every day to be ready to respond to Trump’s tweets that inevitably would come. Sometimes I got a lot of likes. Sometimes I got very few. I did always get opinions. They ranged from pure racial hatred towards me to someone explaining they are a product of their environment. In these years, I finished college, found that the first love cuts the deepest, and took honest strides in my career and craft. Four years feels like ten. Because for some reason, I am exhausted. But not in the retirement kind of way. Not even close. It’s more that I want to spend more energy hitting my targets directly. Rather than rely on a scattershot approach that can sometimes hit or miss.
I reflect on my dad’s experiences and those of others because life is full of noise. But at some point, we all had to learn how to channel that noise. Gain the ability to turn it off and on. And impact the people and nation we love.
The gift of history keeps on giving. There are examples throughout the past that can help us innovate and recreate. I know we gripe about past generations. We interpret recent failures as a selfish and decadent ousting of egalitarian values. But life exists in cycles bigger than one individual or group. We examine the experiences of our ancestors through both micro and macro lenses. It reassures us that these cycles will continue. The sun will rise tomorrow. We are much better off when we remain reverent to that.
Photos are originals.