I am watching CNN these days and I am transported back in time to the sixties…1968! In my minds’ eye, I am walking down Gates Avenue and I am staring at fire eating buildings, smoke bellowing, human bodies sprawled in the streets and the acrid smell of burning buildings permeating. I smell the smoke in my nostrils as I walk down Gates Avenue toward Nostrand Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Am I dreaming?
Is this real as I listen to commentators Don Lemons, Anderson Cooper, Rachael Meadow, Al Sharpton? I remember a younger Al Sharpton, a little heavier, but with the same voice resonates the call for peace. Sharpton is still calling for peace as he did in the sixties.
Names change and new names are added to the list of Black males and females killed by the police. I still hear in my mind: “Power to The People” with a raised right arm with a clinched fist.
In the 21st Century, “Burn Baby Burn” is replaced by “Black Lives MATTER.”
In the 21st Century we are living through rhetoric that is nasty, divisive and results in acts of violence. In the sixties we faced similar situations with racially charged language and Intentional acts of violence.
After fifty years we are still battling the same negative circumstances. Time it seems has not healed these festering racial sores. Now, the wounds are bleeding and Black men yelling: “I can’t Breathe.” Racial confrontations still emit a foul stench of ugly and life-threatening behavior.
Twenty years ago, I published my first novel, A Brownstone in Brooklyn, about the “Turbulent Sixties.” I am re-reading the novel and preparing for the upcoming twenty-year anniversary of the books’ publication.
When I reached page fifty-six, I stopped in my tracks! I was reading about what was happening in the middle of the sixties, but coming alive, again in the nightly cable news alerts.
Now, I want you to meet and experience three characters, Hiram Henry Mario and Andy. Hiram Henry and Mario are inside the steel fence, helping shutdown the City College of New York, in an anti-Vietnam War and anti-racial protest. Henry is speaking to the crowd and Mario is a supporter inside with the protesters. Andy is outside barricade talking to his friends.
From A Brownstone in Brooklyn, page 56,
CCNY Campus Shutdown!
While Mario and Andy were talking, one of the leaders, Henry, who helped the radicals take over the CCNY campus, speaks to the crowd.
Andy reached through the fence and gives Mario, a close friend, a black-power handshake. They both turned to listen to Henry.
“Brothers are you with us?”
Andy didn’t respond, but waited a moment, “We’re fighting the battle out here.” Andy spoke up so Henry could hear him.
Mario moved inside the barricade toward Finley Hall. A group of students were listening to Henry’s voice. Mario spoke to Andy.
“You know we made our demands many months ago and there wasn’t a peep heard from the administration. We, we took over the campus. We did it because we were ignored! Guess what, we got their attention.”
“We, Black and Puerto Ricans, were noticed as a result of our taking over the campus in a non-violent way. Dr. King was right, when you demonstrate peacefully your opponent can’t handle it. In my eyes, it was good this happened, maybe not the rioting, burning and looting, but this is the result of frustration of being held down for so long.”
Mario, left the crowd, listening to Henry and came over to the fence closer to Andy. Andy was preparing to leave the campus for Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
“Mario, in Bed-Stuy something is brewing, I can feel it,” Andy moved closer to the iron gate, “if something isn’t done soon, my neighborhood will explode.”
“Hey, the south Bronx isn’t far behind. It’s just a sign of these times. People are afraid of change and when it happens there will be violence. Emotions are frozen in anger mode and can’t be changed.”
“Yeah, I hope these changes we’re fighting for today will make Black people, White people and Brown people, in the future, learn from these mistakes so this will never happen again.”
If I could talk to these characters in 2021, I would tell them that people never learn from the past and as the saying goes: History repeats itself!
In the turbulence of the 21st Century, we are facing situations that are eerily similar to events from the sixties. It is frightening and scary at the same time.
Yet, at the end of A Brownstone in Brooklyn we see hope. Maybe, just maybe, that hope can translate to today!