The Living Years

Every generation blames the one before. And all of their frustrations come beating on your door. I know that I’m a prisoner to all my Father held so dear. I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears. I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

In my grief, because Daddy had died, this song provided curious relief for our family.  These poetic and profound lyrics, though not popular at the time,  graced the funeral program, and somehow fitted the occasion. 

Another insertion was our family tree, an appendix to the obituary, which juxtaposed genealogy chart and a song about generation gaps. One marked the old landmarks, the other marked new impressions.  The tree summarized years of discussions with Daddy about those who had died before, hours and days listening and questioning.  The song sentimentalized the experience of death when it becomes present and comes home. It became a symbolic melody for us children, caught in the middle, grieving loss and pondering life. Mother been gone over twenty years before,  Father now gone the way of his ancestors, sobered us to the reality. We – now adult orphans, no joke – could only wonder about the path left behind, and the road ahead.

Opening the quarrels

My best memory of being caught up in this dispute between past and present, was a conversation between daddy and his youngest son, grown at that time.  This brother of mine had expressed irritation and outrage that his father worked on menial  carpentry jobs in the homes of white folks, but worse, he also addressed them as “Sir” and “Mister,”  reminiscent of the older segregation and slavery days. This out of order rebuke, son redressing father, caused the oldman to unexpectedly erupt.

You never held a job in your life, and don’t know a thing about making a living. Shut  your damn mouth!

I had no side to take in this altercation, even though, like the other siblings, we all had issues with our father. I knew too little to judge. However, this outburst was really  symptomatic of a deeper wound. It was a  matter that started or ended with a father’s disappointment in his son’s lifestyle, and living arrangements.

With maturity came more lessons about differences in generational value systems. One of those 1970’s Black sitcom aired an episode that climaxed with father and son trading frustrations and attacks, back and forth. The dad worked at airports, shining shoes for travellers; yes, back then airline passengers dressed to travel and shoes had to shine, if you can remember or imagine that time. The son character grew up during the militant 1960’s, the decade of Black Pride. Like my brother, this son was outraged at his father’s boot blacking occupation, ashamed that he made a living kneeling and polishing at the feet of white men. That kind of servitude belonged to yesterday; now it was time to stand up and be a man – I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees. 

The older man exploded. Do you know how far the money in this tip jar has stretched – paid rent, bought grocery, purchased clothes, financed children’s education. Yes son, this old shoe shining shuffling Negro stood up like a man when it came to taking care of his family – which, by the way includes you. Your daddy bent his back, spread his lips and showed his teeth so you could go to the fancy college, and read those crazy books about Africa and communism. What do you know about those foreign people, son. Boy, you got it all wrong …

But fathers we cannot shut it down with your parental declaration to shut us up. Last thing first, we probably know more of Africa than you forgot because the plantation beat that ancestral memory out of our grandparents. You sent us away to learn the white man’s way, but we ran into other people on the path. We learned from them that our world is bigger than we imagined, thus our generation has become inspired to explore its opportunities and possibilities.  Come on Dad, talk to me so you can see, what’s going on.

The other thing, we don’t owe anything to the ones that brought us into this world. I know the older generation loves to preach that bringing us here entitles them to take us out of here. However, children did not sign up for the birth canal, they were born out of the desires of men and women cleaving and clinging to one another. Babies are born out of parental choice, in the truest sense of the term. Infants are the answer to prayers that we cried out during the midnight hours; they are God’s gift through us. That means the parents are assigned to their offspring to nurture God’s creation. You must understand, we take care of the kids, but they don’t belong to us, and they don’t owe us anything.

There is a scene in the movie Guess who’s Coming to Dinner, with another Father-Son confrontation. The Sydney Poitier character, a young black man engaged to a white woman, during the early years of racial integration, he argues his choice to mix marriage with a white woman. His father is horrified. In this instance, the younger man gets the final word. In essence this was his stance  Dad, you see me as a Negro man, but I see myself simply as a man. Now please take care of my mother, and I will take care of my wife and children with all the uncertainties of the future.

Opinionated elders of every era have consistently sounded the alarm about the future, because of the depraved state evident in “their present generation of children.” It seems that since long ago, the youth were going to hell in a handbasket. Please pay attention to the publication dates of the below citations.

“Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli … the haste to know and do all ... before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions set by its gilded youth.” – Granville Stanley Hall,  The Psychology of Adolescence. 1904

“A fearful mutitude of untutored savages … the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.”
– A rant to the English House of Commons by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, February 28, 1843 

The indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced … at the English Court on Friday last … It is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies … to see that it is far indeed removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English.” – Times of London 1816

The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge.” – Rev. Enos Hitchcock, Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family. 1790

“I find by sad experience how the Towns and Streets are filled with lewd wicked Children … they have played about the Streets … have been heard to curse and swear and call one another Nick-names, and … what bawdy and filthy Communications proceeds from the mouths of such.” – Robert Russel, A Little Book for Children and Youth, 1695. 

Mutual Respect 

About five years ago, a Pastor advised that the problem  with youth in church is one of respect – the older folk don’t respect the young folk. Wow! 

Look again at the citations above and see how children were demonized and scapegoated in every generation, which evidences the blatant dis-respect to which my clergy friend alluded. 

About twenty five years ago, my Sunday school students were candid. We are just here, they don’t care about what we think or how we feel, they just want us here. This sense of being invisible in a crowd has a deep psychological impact. Akin to this is a personal example: still it is my experience that when I am the lone black person among a group of whites I fear being singled out, noticed for something negative, like perverted perceptions of my complexion. I think got it, children. This is subtle rejection, seen but not heard, recognized but not respected. We must say it loud and clear to those who will hear – See me, I am right here! 

Children and adolescents coming of age, must uniquely  define themselves. The mantle of leadership is upon you. Therefore, be wise like Elisha, the younger prophet, who asked of Elijah, the older sage, a double portion of his anointing. Indeed, this is a just ration for you will be appointed to perform greater works. It is not true that you are leaders of tomorrow; in truth you are leaders of today. Step up while you are in the peak years of physical and intellectual capability. 

The final words of this conversation comes from Kahil Gibran, author of The Prophet. It also opens new dialogue.  Speak to us of children, asks a metaphorical mother, with babe at her bosom. The travelling mystic answered: 

Your children are not your children. They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

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