1.17.12 Last week VH1 Classic ran Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, which tracks the first five years of Bob Dylan’s career. The film spends a lot of time chronicling the world around Dylan through newsreel clips and extended interviews with people like Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Pete Seeger, trying to sort out how he became a primary medium for the collective conscience. It’s a history of the early ‘60s. As a 21-year-old in 1963, Dylan sang “The Times They Are a A-Changin’” with Baez from the podium during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and later in that same year, receiving a civil rights award from the ACLU a month after Kennedy was assassinated, he thumbed his nose at the progressive establishment.
“I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules and they haven’t got any hair on their head and I get very uptight about it. There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore, there’s only up and down. And down is very close to the ground, and I’m trying to go up, without thinking about anything trivial, such as politics.”
In those lines, you can hear one revolution ending and another one beginning. During the civil rights movement, white people joined black people to change something they knew was wrong. Then they turned to their own kind of liberation, and spawned a liberalism focused on ideas like sexuality, gender, the environment, and personal fulfillment. You could argue that they left the African-American community on its own through desegregation, white flight, Vietnam, and finally, the war on drugs.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I have a dream” speech, reflecting on the history of his people since emancipation, said, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on an island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He said a lot of other things, too, in a speech that, if you can find a quiet place to listen straight through, will send shivers through your blood. The islands are shrinking, but are we really all sitting down together at the table of brotherhood? Is that even a goal anymore?
There is a sense these days that America is becoming a post-racial society in which divisions are hardened by class, not skin color. There is also the sense that the conversation of race, which has almost entirely been about black/white relations and the legacy of slavery, must broaden to encompass America’s many fast-growing non-White populations: Asian, Latino, Arab, etc.
A little more advice from Dylan: “You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming. As long as you can stay in that realm you can sort of be alright.”––Giles Morris
Read the feature story with answers to our Dialogue on Race questionnaire here.