For the Culture: 50 for 50
Written by Briana Oldham
A blast from the past as the last five decades are discussed complete with colorful commentary.
They say in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you come from. I wanted to delve deep into what the last 50 years looked like in African American culture, almost to gauge what the next 50 years may hold. When trying to unpack several decades of all things for us and by us, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. During my research, I had the honor of learning more about monumental events, controversial movements, and some of the more talked moments in time. I did not want to leave out information that perhaps wasn’t common knowledge, so I included little-known gems as well. My hope is that this trip back down memory lane—sung in my best Minnie Riperton voice—revives stories worth retelling and looks ahead to the future.
1970s – Can’t kick off a discussion about the 70s without mentioning the blaxploitation era. This genre, as indicated by the name, produced movies some say showed stereotypical Black characters and plots that many found inaccurate and offensive. Not everyone took issue with the content and, as a result, these fan favorites created a genre many went on to enjoy. Films such as “Shaft,” “Superfly,” “The Mack,” “Foxy Brown,” and “Black Samurai” became cult classics.While there were mixed feelings about the blaxploitation era, the time period helped launch the careers of actors and actresses we know and love today.
The 70s were also full of firsts. The first issues of Essence and Black Enterprise magazines are published. Charles Gordone was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the play, “No Place to Be Somebody.” In baseball, there were big things popping locally and nationally as Leroy “Satchel” Page was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and became the first former Negro League player to receive this honor. Right here in our own backyard was Frank Robinson. Robinson would become player-manager of the Cleveland Indians and go on to become the first African-American manager of any Major League Baseball team that next year. Closing out the 70s, which were full of residual feelings from the Civil Rights movement a short decade prior, I must give honorable mention to the television premiere event of the miniseries “Roots.” This was the first miniseries to offer a glimpse into the harsh reality of slavery and went on to achieve the highest ratings for a television program. It ran for eight consecutive nights.
1980s – Some of our most beloved contributions to the culture came during this decade. This era kicks off with the launch of Black Entertainment Television (BET). I cannot think of anything more representative of being Black than what this network pioneered over the years. There are also many developments that took place during this span of time which are lesser known facts. Historical events that took place were Guion S. Bluford, Jr. became the first African American astronaut to make a space flight, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate, and the first Ph.D. in African American Studies is offered by Temple University. File all this in your Impressive Facts About Us (IFAU) memory bank to be retrieved and shared among friends and family later.
1990s – Let’s get political. Political... like the Olivia Newton-John classic but Black with different words. The 90s were off to a rocky start after the beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles. A year later, when the officers were acquitted, citizens rioted for three days straight, resulting in the murder of over 50 people, with an estimated 2,000 injured and 8,000 arrested. Things started to look up the next few years as Jocelyn M. Elders becomes the first woman, and the first African American, to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General, Margaret Dixon is appointed president of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins is elected as the first African American president of The National League of Women Voters. Women helped to help clean up the image of what could be considered the not so nice 90s.
2000s – It was during the new millennium that we saw a resurgence in the natural hair movement, neo-soul music was back on the rise, and we welcomed our first Black president. These three separate but equal millennium moments together in the previous sentence may be a bit of a stretch. However, India Arie told us she was not her hair and we still feel that today. Although I like them all, I can’t tell the difference between Ella Mai, H.E.R., or the next light voice songstress. Furthermore, we all know the world may never be ready for another brotha living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I wish I had more space to devote to such a monumental occasion as having Barack Obama elected, but there aren’t nearly enough characters to explain how proud we were as a people and what a dream come true that was.
2010s – The beginning of this final decade should feel closer in memory than it does, yet the 2010s feel like 2000s, which is probably a reflection of my age, so I digress. Last but not least, 2010-2019 was a time reminiscent of decades past where music, television, movies, even social media, were unapologetically Black. “Freedom” by Beyoncé, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, “Black-ish,” “Grown-ish,” “Mixed-ish,” and “BlacKkKlansman,” immediately come to mind for me. These became etched in history as revolutionary works of art about where we are and where we have the potential to go. The sitcoms painted a picture that made us feel like we were seen and heard for once and made it feel as though we all grew up the same way but at various times. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out to Black Twitter. It is not only uplifting and powerful, it is the funniest part of my day.
As a culture, over the last fifty years and then some, Black people have persevered like no other. There have been the best of times and the worst of times and, while we may not be exactly where we want to be in our personal lives, through our pretty and sometimes painful past, we are still living our ancestors’ wildest dreams.