Thursday, February 2, 2006

Coretta and them changes

Coretta Scott King passed earlier this week, thirty-eight years after her husband. She had a real good run and she died with family in Mexico. That steady, inexorable arc of decline could belong to any one of us, and no doubt will, give or take details, to all of us. But the life of Coretta Scott King was a life of purpose at a high level, in the service of a cause that animates and resonates in America today and forever. And for African Americans, her passing leaves that which nature can't stand: a vacuum, an absence almost as resonant as the cause she lived for.

With her death the debate has intensified about "the way forward," now that so many of the icons of the African American vanguard are fading with time. Coretta's passing comes on the heels of the death last year of August Wilson, a playwright for the ages; actor playwright, conscience and voice Ossie Davis; and the passing, in January, of preservationist Joyce Maynard, longtime champion of Weeksville, N.Y., a settlement of freedmen and freedwomen that came to produce the state's first black police officer and first black woman doctor.
Some of the comfortable anchors of the past have escaped us for good and we're more adrift now than we were before, if you can imagine that. That potential for drift has alarmed some African Americans; at a time when challenges facing black Americans are more, and more aggressive than before, black America finds itself at a crossroads, with few of the singular personalities we relied on in the 1950's and '60s.

The African American intelligentsia has fragmented, broken off into a number of little pieces, shards of generation and gender, of economic circumstance and even skin color. What's missing, what's been missing for years, is that unifying force with the ability to synthesize disparate elements into something approaching a cohesive whole. Jesse Jackson can't do it; his own personal baggage (child out of wedlock, the lingering memory of "Hymietown") is a problem, one kept largely on the down low but a problem just the same. Some have rightly pointed to Sen. Barack Obama as the kind of inspirational lightning rod black Americans need in the future. Others embrace the homey practicality and growing media savvy of Rev. Al Sharpton.

The 2004 election gave a hint of them changes. That's when African Americans broke with their automatic pulldown of the Democratic lever and actually increased their numbers of support for President Bush, dissing Democratic challenger John Kerry for reasons that had as much to do with their sensitivities to "family values" as for Kerry's insubstantial position on the Iraq war.


Whichever way African America goes, it's clear that a major generational shift is happening for black folks. Coretta Scott King's passing only makes clear what's been happening already: the convenience of that single iconic force speaking truth to power on behalf of black Americans has now become, officially, history.

“The old has passed away,” Bernice King said as part of the eulogy for her mother at the church in Lithonia, Ga., in the Atlanta suburbs. “There is a new order that is emerging.” The shape of that new order, its players and personality, will be the stuff of much debate, probably as soon as this (midterm election) November.

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