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Silencing the sounds of dishonor

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The group on stage was energetic. Their music, played by a technician at a console, had a good beat that pounded throughout and beyond St. Petersburg's Campbell Park.

Any compliment beyond that would be dishonest. Their voices, like those of so many rappers and hip-hoppers, were distinguished only by the willingness to be heard.

But the crowd, gathered in the park to celebrate Juneteenth, could have tolerated _ even appreciated _ less than professional entertainment. And indeed, many fine amateur acts did enthrall the audience during the five-hour program.

But when this group's act came to an abrupt end, it was the sound man who got the applause. He, like most of the crowd gathered in the park, had gotten sick of their lyrics. He turned off their microphones.

Their words consisted exclusively of repetitions of a rhyming phrase that means rear-entry intercourse, along with some explicit descriptions of the act.

A few seconds into their routine _ just long enough for the older people there to have the phrase translated to them _ the 2 Live Crew wanna-bes were driven from the stage.

"That's not what Juneteenth is about," said a man who was selling fish sandwiches and sweet potato pie.

I marveled at the nerve _ or absence of judgment _ these young men showed by performing so vulgarly for a crowd that included a spectrum of ages, disciplines and personalities. Did their parents know this is what they would get on the stage and do? Did this embarrass them, bring dishonor to their families?

A few years ago, the answer would have been clear: The disgraceful performance would have brought disgrace.

Especially on a day celebrating the day slaves learned they had been set free, knowledge that came about two years after the fact.

The celebration in Campbell Park on Saturday was the second such celebration in St. Petersburg since the state Legislature passed a bill in 1991 recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth.

The solemnity behind the festive celebration tended to amplify the metaphor this scene was.

For too long we've turned the microphone over to our children. For too long, we've ignored the obscenities they scream into it. For too long, we've turned our heads on their crotch-grabbing, butt-humping bravado and pretended it was a reflection of something more than the amorality we've allowed them to wallow in.

We pretend rappers are philosophers and fool ourselves that they are revealing hidden truths about life in the ghetto. They are not. Ghettos have never been places where truth or anything else hides very well, and they haven't changed. They are the same ones we've lived in for years. The only change is that somewhere along the line, adults went inside the house and turned the streets over to the children.

And the children are just like we were. They have the same determination we used to chip away at the barriers to full citizenship; they have the same energy that allowed us to stand up so long against heavy odds.

They just need parents like the ones we had.

They need someone to take the microphone from their hands and run them off the stage. They need someone to make them listen for a while.

It's easy sometimes to see young people behave badly and overreact. It's also possible at such times to smudge a whole generation with the mud only a few individuals have rolled around in.

That is never good.

It runs the risk of establishing a reputation young people then feel obliged to earn.

It also takes too much attention away from the individuals who are using their energy to redirect communities that have suffered too long from neglect. Dozens of those people could be seen at the Juneteenth celebration, promoting their programs to anyone who would spend a few seconds listening.

But it's frustrating to hear young people disrespect themselves and their ancestry with foul words and gestures. That's also frightening evidence that they don't understand:

Freedom isn't an heirloom that passes automatically from one generation to another; it's a coveted thing that each must be strong enough to hold.