Where I Came From
November 14, 2016
REWIND FORTY-ODD YEARS:
This is my hometown of Newark, New Jersey a long time ago.
But this was never the “Brick City” I knew. My history starts a little closer to something like this…
That’s right, the Newark Riots of 1967. But this still isn’t quite accurate.
I came along five years later. The area of Newark where I was born was the historical route in which General George Washington and his troops took reprieve before making the landmark passage across the Delaware.
Here’s what I can recall as a preschooler.
Yep, pretty much.
I’m a product of the era that brought you timeless classics, such as bell-bottoms, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, colorful Dashikis, platform shoes, culottes (“cool-outs”), and Disco music. Well, bell-bottoms and Dashikis came onto the scene a bit earlier, but my generation arrived when they were COOL.
Okay, what was actually “cool” is debatable. But back then, these items were. Just take my word for it.
So, things were different. Not better or worse than the year in which you’re reading this…just different.
Take the school system for instance. Ten years after The Riots, a community was still trying to get its bearing out of the rubble. There was a feeling of hopelessness. Worst of all, there were children growing up in the midst of national ailing segregation, and the rise of institutionalized racism.
Don’t know what I mean by that? Google it. Politics isn’t on today’s agenda. Maybe some other time, if you ask really nicely.
In the 70s, The Newark Board of Education was undoubtedly facing a new breed of student, a body of youngsters who could be taught to Hope, and Dream, and Strive against all obstacles. We could achieve any goal, become anything we wanted to be in life…as long as we put our minds to it. The color of our skin could not hold us back.
A youngster, I stood behind my desk at 8:30 after announcements, raised my left hand at a 90º angle, and placed my right hand over my heart.
I recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang My Country Tis of Thee like any other kid across the nation.
Unlike most schools across the U.S., predominantly Black ones in urban areas…(thriving on the ashes of discrimination and turmoil)… required something to lift the hopes and aspirations of their children.
In Newark, that “something” was the standard curriculum of Fine and Musical Arts.
The song taught to me by my loving music teacher, Mrs. Bowen, who allowed me a tambourine solo during every performance?
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black by Nina Simone with lyrics by Weldon Irvine.
Home-schooling was practically unheard of in Newark (and likely still is). Parents worked, and they worked long and hard to pay the rent, to buy clothes and medicine if required, while relying on the country’s long-established social benefits program.
In the 70s, I recall the family subsidy programs issued by President Carter and his administration:
People needed the food lines and the “handouts” because, y’all, money was too tight to mention.
White labeled bags of bleached-flour bread. Long, brown cardboard boxes of government cheese you had to a slice yourself. Plus, no-name jars of peanut butter.
I ate those sandwiches happily and often. Thank you, President Carter.
The point is that I grew up at time when teachers were CO-PARENTS, because people earned the right to assistance on the home front. Yes, you read that correctly.
Can you imagine? A teacher who cared about whether “his” or “her” children came to school clean behind the ears, and clothes fresh and pressed. If your teeth appeared not to have been brushed, you were pulled out of line to be sent back home.
(I never was, but I’d seen it enough. Trust me, when you saw the poor, sniveling kid who endured that humiliation, you made sure you were RESPECTABLE!)
And, lastly, if you showed up looking tired or beat (sometimes literally), your FOLKS were called in to speak to the Principal. Ooooooh!
All this to simply state how fortunate I was to be in my school years during a time when teachers and administration gave a shit. And why did so many of Newark’s educators seem to go above and beyond?
I like to believe it was because we were all in the fight pits together. Teachers were from Newark. They resided in Newark. They saw the future of their community every day when they looked at the little faces that shined back at them for hope and guidance.
Adults back then wanted exactly what us kids would inevitably want a decade or so later. To feel Safe. To be Happy. To Live Free. For anyone to achieve that, we needed each other.
And for any of us to muddle through the (often) painful or dire circumstances families faced at the time, we all needed MUSIC.
—End of Part One.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and above all, were left inspired…possibly troubled enough to contribute in your own community…but reminiscent of your own past nonetheless.
Until the next segment,