Back in March, I went to a screening for Legacy: Black and White in America (site) held at the Getty Center.* It was a crowded event with probably every Southern Californian member of the National Council of Negro Women in attendance. The film featured the recently-deceased Dorothy Height and a number of other famous blacks – academics, entertainers, activists – discussing the way things were during the Civil Rights Era and how far the black community today has and hasn’t come.
Those who fought segregation, discrimination, and oppression during the Civil Rights Era, in this film and in general, are sort of like icons. They were and are known for being deeply religious, family-centered, community-oriented, highly motivated, and in possession of fierce determination and a strong work ethic. Every medium available has been used to praise the accomplishments of these individuals.
Yet for all the praise, the story continues as a depressing one. The documentary presents this clearly. For all the struggles undertaken, successive generations continue to fall further behind the pre-Civil Rights ones.** While the interviewees discuss the wisdom and encouragement to succeed passed on to them from their parents, churches, and communities, they lament the unmotivated and demoralized youth of today. They contrast the “greater vision” they had for their own futures, despite the terrible conditions growing up, with more recent tendency toward peer-sabotage (i.e., criticizing those who do try to better themselves or hold to higher standards and thwarting their plans). One participant attributed it to a widespread fear to hope for something better and work towards it.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the Civil Right Era is the fact that, despite its accomplishments, the heritage has become one of failure. A lot was destroyed after the fight for freedom, although I don’t know if anyone has researched on whether it was “because of” or “in spite of.” At any rate, films like Legacy are bitter-sweet. As we continue to honor the heroes of the past, I wonder if it serves as a sort of “opium of the masses.” Talking about the glories of the 1950s to 1970s allows us to forget the present.
*What does this have to do with art? Nothing. The art panel discussion following the documentary failed to make any meaningful connection. Actually, the 100%-non-black panel failed to do anything other than bore the audience with their political rants.
**There are numerous examples backed by statistics, but here’s a personal one: In high school, my maternal grandfather earned a C grade in Trigonometry. Note, however, that that actually required him advancing far enough to take the course. Today, many students try to get by learning as little Algebra as possible.