Letter to Angela Davis

A Letter to Angela Davis

What Happened to Your Generation's Promise of "Love and Revolution"?

Dear Ms. Davis,

You know my father. You know my mother. They know you. And your sister Fania. Daddy helped you slip through Pennsylvania when you were underground. Mommy let Fania into our home when you were caught. Fania was pregnant, I was about two, and she later named her daughter Angela Eisa Davis. Mommy kept your niece's birth announcement. It is taped, next to pictures of people sporting Afros, in my baby book: "Born of the bloodfire of struggle for the people. I honor my child with your daughter's name. May they both be strong forces of love and revolution."

Oh, the promise of those words, those pictures, these images. My soul cries out even as I turn the yellowed page. There are pictures of Daddy and Mommy. Together. And me. Lenin lines the walls, stacked beneath a poster ("Unite Contre La Repression") in our living room, where folk then in their twenties would arrive and debate through study sessions, trying to fulfill the promise in that poster, those books, bringing the images and words to life -- a real life.

Of course that living room isn't ours anymore. Like so many folk in their twenties then, my parents divorced. And like so many folk in their twenties now, I was raised by my mother.

As I take full advantage of my generation's opportunity to enjoy a delayed adolescence -- single but yearning for marriage and parenthood -- I look back on my own family. I feel the lost potential -- at times feel imprisoned by it. I also look around our community, feel the lost potential, and -- at times -- feel imprisoned by it. I think we, now, are feeling the same way, imprisoned by the past. The Black Nation's hip-hop generation has been looking back at itself.

We give 70s parties, wear 70s bell bottoms. Well beyond any good ol' days cliches, my generation is recapturing its passage from youth to young adulthood. In an era when so many young Black men have seemed unafraid of killing and dying, Generation (Malcolm) X is reliving -- in the past.

A few of the best in the rap music industry can take and twist 1970s sound with 1990s image through old sampled beats and new spoken words. This aligns the modern on an ancient continuum and perpetuates the legacy of Black music; yet why do so many hot young singles go back in the day on wax? Why is Black music, our talking drum in the diaspora, sending a message of return? Why are we consuming your generation's music, your generation's love?

In the climate-controlled confines of local movie theaters, where we escape from the real world and enter the filmmaker's recreated vision, we go back to the days just before and just after Black folk in their twenties stepped into young adulthood. Something in the collective unconscious of young Black filmmakers remembers a people bumping on the dance floor, rolling with the skates at a disco ring, loving themselves enough to keep the gun unloaded in a shoebox on the closet's top shelf. From Crocklyn to The Inkwell to Boyz N the Hood to Dead Presidents to Jason's Lyric to Panther to Set it Off we revisit.

The release of rites-of-passage films heavy with Pro-Keds -era iconography moves us to a dine before AIDS (what happened to my sexual revolution?), before Reaganomics (what happened to my economic revolution?), before crack even hit Huey Newton's neighborhood, much less poisoned his body (what happened to my political revolution?). And in this slice of time before sneakers became one-hundred-dollar investments worth shooting the brother down the block over, parents called us into the house once streetlights flickered on through the community's night. Then, just as we grew old enough to play adolescent games past sunset, the safety of the streetlights blew. Now we stand on the stoops and porches ourselves, not quite ready to call out to the neighborhood kids, no longer the ones called.

I refuse to lie back and feel good about the retro movement in young Black cultural expression. Were a hot young single you love holding her broken old Lite Brite with strength equal to 1990s P-Funk revivalist record sales, you would worry. I know it's time for young heads to work toward true illumination. But that bright glare might spotlight a positive HIV test, a lot of time between jobs, the barrel of that gun now loaded, out of the closet, the shoebox tossed. Better to focus on the dim past as we stand on the community steps, peer into a situation where the streetlights still burned bright.

Too few households have left the stoop lights on along the streets of today's Black Nation. But why? Why after the hope and uplift and struggle of your life -- of your collective lives -- why is our community standing in the dark?

My mother tells me I should write something nice. "Why don't you talk about all the good things that happened?" she asks me. Well, it does feel good to turn on my radio and hear the old school mixes, hear my favorite hip-hop artists talk about "back in the day," about "goin' back in the day." I'm listening to all the good stuff all the time. But aren't we a little young, isn't hip-hop a little young, for any of us to feel good about going back?

It was during the '70s that my peers were able to rise from where we'd been forced -- undereducated, underfinanced, underground -- and create the multibillion dollar industry that is called rap. But now, just as we've started to create a new generation ourselves -- who mimic our words, our sounds, and our deeds -- we haven't been able to build on your promises of love and revolution. What will be the substantive results of our legacy, our image? What were yours?

It's bad enough that brothers are dying but that the death seems sometimes to be feeding on itself, springing out like fresh blood from within ourselves; this is just, this is just too much. 1 know each generation struggles, Ms. Davis; but I'm asking you to help me come to terms with these losses. I know there are retro elements in any new trend, but each film looks at the moment of transition, the place where our families, our communities, our world seemed to fall apart. We mix sounds of family reunions and backyard barbecues with words of terror and pain.

I am writing from a seemingly sheltered, comfortable life, but I, too, have seen boys fall to our streets. I've seen their blood fall to our streets. I've heard young men listen to your music and say, "This is when Black people still loved each other."

I've seen girls fall to our streets. I've seen their futures fall to our streets. Eve seen young women look around them and heard them say, "I'ma just go on and have his baby before he gets locked up or shot up or something." I've heard that.

Your generation's ex-husbands are replicated in my generation's babies' fathers. This is not an empowering new configuration of family that is somehow uplifting and free. Our babies' mothers are alone and tired and broke.

I can only remember a glimmer of revolutionary-type lovin', of we gonna make this happen, baby I love you this much, enough to make this happen, this is our struggle, this is our struggle, we gonna struggle together baby-type lovin'. Where are our models of strong manhood for young men? Where are our models of strong mates for young women? Where are those revolutionary, revolution-era families?

Are we supposed to get those models from our grandparents? From books? Forced further and further past strength to strain, what is left but the prison of bad choices? I see whole families imprisoned by bad choices. I see whole communities surrounded. I sometimes wonder if we were better off when we had fewer rights, but more revolution. I'm asking because after seeing my family fall apart, seeing the Movement fall apart, I know the real revolution was at home. For a Black woman and a Black man to create new Black life, nurture it, watch it grow together, that is a revolutionary act. It is the only way we will be able to live -- to remain alive.

I know the face of a real postwar syndrome. I belong to it. I have seen the ache and the rage in my own father's eyes. But now he can see a piece of that part of himself in me. He was too young then. He was too young to see such death. I am too young now. Our death -- real and metaphorical -- and our prisons -- real and metaphorical -- have kept your generation so far way. And they have kept my generation flung backwards in time.

I am asking your peers to come forward with the full force my peers have spent in the stretch to yesterday. What formal structures (as formal as family configurations) do you have in place for us? For your grandchildren? Will you help us rebuild the extended family -- the one I remember from my childhood -- in our community today?

I know Tupac needed everyone who had ever been down with anything Afeni had been down with to visit him in jail, Ms. Davis. He needed that. He said that. Geronimo wasn't released until Tupac was dead, but you weren't all locked up. Or were you?

Are we going to kill each other off before your generation returns, is released, to finish leading, to finish parenting? Where are our leaders? Where are our parents? Will you hear us? Will the new Black Radical Congress address us? Will it include us? Will it address the brilliance lost like Tupac's, brilliance lost on our community streets every night?

Ms. Davis, we re crying out to you in the dark. We have come of age without the wisdom of the earlier generation. We have your style, but we don't have your substance. Tupac was just a symbol of our murdered potential. A future so lost, so gone, that sometimes, just sometimes, Ms. Davis, it seems gone for good.

Love and Revolution, Ms. Davis. Love and Revolution.

Still yours,
Eisa Nefertari Ulen


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