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A 1950s Memoir

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I was asked to give a little insight into the 50s decade and to offer an opinion as to whether things were better then than they are now. Sorting out my sentiments about those times was an exercise in mixed feelings, but I’ve tried, and this one’s for you, Troy.



The 1950s have often been referred to as a time of innocence, and we who made up its younger population were tagged the “silent generation”. Born in the 1930s during the Depression, coming of age during the 1940s when World War I I raged, - the silent generation eventually became a group who rather than rocking the boat, rocked cradles as the 1950s ushered in a time of us marrying and giving birth to those who would come to be known as “baby boomers”.

To set the tone, I’m including the following paragraph which is from a novel I wrote entitled: “Along The Way”. This excerpt provides a snapshot of “the way we were“.

“It was the decade of the 1950s, the bland Eisenhower era that was typified by an “Ozzie and Harriet” wholesomeness. It was the period of television’s golden age, and Russia’s iron curtain, a time of hoola hoops and flying saucers. It was the day of Beatniks and Mouseketeers, Marilyn Monroe and Rosa Parks. It was when Emmett Till was murdered and James Dean killed, when Pat Boone crooned and Elvis Presley gyrated, when “doo-wop” schmoozed and “be-bop” squalled. It was also a time when a growing resentment of racial bigotry was elevating the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to a position of leadership in an evolving civil rights movement.”


Its hard to characterize the black experience during the 1950s because it differed from region to region, but for me, living in a suburb of Chicago, this was time when black people didn’t challenge the status quo. We stayed in our place, and doing this was no big deal because our place was a comfort zone, and we didn’t really care about mixing with white people, possibly stirring up their latent prejudices. Up north, segregation was not the law of the land, and mine was an interracial landscape rather than an integrated one, which is to say we co-existed with white folks while doing our own thing, enjoying our own music, establishing our own styles, becoming carbon copies of average white Americans. And, because we were good Negroes, white people tolerated us, very often rewarding those who were exceptionally good Negroes.


Although in Korea, thousands of young men were again dying on the battle field, within our communities the crime rate was low. You could leave your doors and cars unlocked and nobody stole anything left unattended. You could walk the streets and ride the trains at night without fear of being mugged. The idea of a village raising a child was a reality. We looked out for each other. Getting pregnant before you got married was considered disgraceful, and a hasty wedding would often rectify this. There was no shackin up during those days, either. The one vice we all seemed to have was smoking cigarettes, This was considered cool and glamorous and just about every body did it. Only musicians used drugs.

Blacks who worked hard and got ahead owned their own cars and bought homes in all- black neighborhoods, and those who got college degrees could get jobs in private industry where "glass ceilings" would remind them of their status. Working for the County or the State or the Federal government also launched many blacks into the ranks of the middle class. Of course, everybody wasn’t a professional or gainfully employed and many folks just scraped along, poor but proud, doing the best they could.


Anyway, as time marched on, and an obsession with Communism swept the country, Negroes began to stir from their complacency, realizing that second-class citizenship was unacceptable in a democracy. While a core of activists took to the streets to protest racism, others lent moral and financial support, and participated in economic boycotts. Martin Luther King was the man of the hour. Non-violence was the tactic and we had our eyes on the prize.


Then, - the 60s exploded on the scene as The Movement took on the militancy of revolution! Malcolm X stepped forward, making room for Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Negroes became black, all hell broke loose and assassination became the weapon of choice. And, as they say, the rest was history.


Social upheaval was an idea whose time had to come and the 1950s turned out to be the lull before the storm. But who is to say that "still waters didn’t run deep"? The "silent generation" just needed somebody to turn the tide.

When I look back on those days, I realize that ignorance was bliss. But I can’t help but appreciate how stress-free that bliss was. Which was a better time? All I know is that I’m old now and today’s world is so gripped by technology, so addicted to instant gratification, so wounded by violence that returning to a simpler time doesn’t sound so bad.

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Cynique thanks again for your thoughts. I know many people from your generation, including my own mom, but rarely do I get this level of insight and observation. I often ask my mom what Harlem was like before I was old enough to remember. All I know is that Sam Cooke gave a great show at the Apollo and folks you to dress up on Sundays.

Chris I hear you. There have been studies to support what you say about recollection. Often folks recollections have little to do with reality.

When I think about the Harlem I grew up in my impressions are positive. I would play all day with the kids in the neighborhood. We played all types of variation on the game of tag, hide-n-seek, dodge ball, stoop ball, basketball (often using a trash can as the goal). I had a lot of fun.

But when I really look at it gangs were a big problem -- my family was robbed at gun point once. Almost everybody's mom was mugged at least once. More and more of us were sent to jail, murdered, dropped out of school, had children as a teenagers, became addicted to drugs. It was a bad in a lot of ways... Looking at it objectively Harlem is much better place to live now. Though I suspect, in many ways, it was even better in the 50's and earlier.

While poverty was prevalent when I was younger, it was not crushing as it is in a 3rd world country (no one was starving). Plus everyone was pretty much in the same boat and we were not bombarded by images of the rich and famous, as kids are today. Our plight, relatively speaking, did not seem so bad.

I think technology while making things better also exposes people to what they don't have or what they think they need. Easy access to credit, has made it easier for people to immediately get things they could not otherwise afford. Saving is unnecessary. Why wait when you can have it now -- especially when the entire culture is geared to facilitate and encourage this behavior.

While yearning for a "simpler time" today would be fruitless. We can simplify our lives... something I have lately been striving to do.

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A return to the simpler things in life can also involve civility. Young people, in particular, seem more disrespectful and brazen now than they were in the past.

(Let me see--how civil were white folks to black people in the South during those times? How civil were the cops to black arrestees? How civil were the cops and workers to each other during strikes? How civil was it when a white kid could walk up to you and call you a girl if you were old enough to be his grandma?

You were a young person yourself during that time--how civil were YOU to the old folks?

Come on, Cynique. It's all in your mind.

I would rather be a black man today than at any other time in history

But how Civil was it in Korea? How Civil was McCarthy to suspected communists? How civil were non Jews to Jews?)

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How many times do I have to emphasize that I speak only from my personal experience, Chrishayden? "Good Negro" is the operative phrase here. Good negroes practiced civility, and white folks patronized us with a pseudo civility in response. Young people back then didn't dress provocatively, and didn't rebel against their parents or society until the 1950s drew to a close, and the 1960s erupted. The 60s were the pivotal decade for social change! I don't need to do any research when I talk about my individual history. Every thing you claimed went on during this time is colored by the histrionics of your second-hand outrage.

And BTW, the absence of civility that escalated with the passing of the 1950s couldn't be any more graphically illustrated than by the content of the Rap lyrics which have had such an influence on the young. This is not to say that Rap is not an art form, or that the culture it enabled is not a legitimate social phenomenon, but it is to say that the civility of respecting women spawns a greater appreciation for the days when females weren't regularly referred to as bitches and hos

I realize that back in the 1950s things were different in the south, and other parts of the country. Any black person whose experience differs from mine is certainly free to step up and share their remembrances. Or am I challenging your preference for the present. And I never actually said I wanted to regress to the 50s. In the decades that followed, I appreciate having had a ringside seat to a very significant and compelling period in America's growth. But it is still my opinion that everything didn't change for the better.

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No Chris, you do the research: If you provide me a me a single example of someone dying from starvation in the US in the last 50 years, from a reliabl,e documented source I'll buy your next novel.

The person you find can not have been lost in the widerness, restrained against their will, an abandoned child or insane. I'm talking about a person with so little access to food that they actually starved.

This is not the first time you've challenged my starvation statment. Here is your chance to back up your challenge with facts rather than hyperbole.

Again speaking from my own experience. All of us kids, in the hood, had access to at least two meals a day, provided by the school or local centers during the summer, for free. Often I was drink the juice and threw the rest of the food away.

There is SO much food thrown away in NYC, at least, no one is starving. Sure some folks my be really hungry from time to time, but starvation -- negro phulese!

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