As I get closer to the eighties in my Advanced Placement United States History course, I start hearing the tunes of Public Enemy’s song Fight the Power (see their Black panther like video here). I like to play this in class so that students might gain a greater understanding of eighties black rage with Reagan’s supply-side economics, black urban poverty, and the lack of a political voice. In the song, Public Enemy takes a shot at both Elvis and John Wayne for being racist, as well as white society for not clasping to black culture. Here are the words about Elvis and John Wayne from Fight the Power (Note: I only play the language free CD):

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant ******* to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
********him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam

I am not so sure about Elvis, but I have long thought that John Wayne was racist dating back to my Montgomery childhood. As I juxtapose the eighties to Cold War policies, I focus on the relationship between race, urban society, and economic policies. I attribute Reagan’s administration for giving rise to gangster rap….Groups such as NWA emerged with their hard hitting lyrics about life in Compton.

I briefly addressed this in a previous blog piece:

During the late eighties and nineties, America was in a struggle to define its intellectual and spiritual identity. The nation had clearly moved in a more conservative direction during the Reagan-Bush years. I recall the eighties being a period of heightened racial tension, as neighborhoods continued to become even more segregated due to the lack of economic opportunities for both poor whites and ethnic/ racial minorities. This was very clear to me at a young age when my family moved from Limestone, Maine to Montgomery, Alabama – one of the more segregated cities in the country. However, race was not the only “cultural force” at work. Americans still did not understand the origins of AIDS, as many ignorant of this terrible disease prejudiced by the realities of modern day relationships assumed it was a gay only disease. Moreover, the eighties was the decade that first introduced gangster rap, a form of realist genre that illustrated the harsh realities of black and Latino urban life, which was amply portrayed in the movie Colors (must see video here), starring Sean Penn and musically produced by Ice-T.

John Wayne, however, might not be as racist as I thought – - I do not know. Jake Nicholson, a student in my World History course, sent me this YouTube video of Wayne’s hyphen speech, which I have never heard before. Watch the video here or read his speech below and tell me what you think, as I prepare to introduce him to my US History students.

Hyphen Speech

The Hyphen, Webster’s Dictionary defines,
Is a symbol used to divide a
compound word or a single word.
So it seems to me that when a man calls himself
An “Afro-American,” a “Mexican-American,”
“Italian-American,” An “Irish-American,” “Jewish-American,”
What he’s sayin’ is, “I’m a divided American.”

Well, we all came from other places,
Different creeds and different races,
To form a nation…to become as one,
Yet look at the harm a line has done -
A simple little line, and yet
As divisive as a line can get.
A crooked cross the Nazis flew,
And the Russian hammer and sickle too-
Time bombs in the lives of Man;
But none of these could ever fan
The flames of hatred faster than
The Hyphen.

The Russian hammer built a wall
That locks men’s hearts from freedom’s call.
A crooked cross flew overhead
Above twenty million tragic dead-
Among them men from this great nation,
Who died for freedom’s preservation.
A hyphen is a line that’s small;
It can be a bridge or be a wall.
A bridge can save you lots of time;
A wall you always have to climb.
The road to liberty lies true.
The Hyphen’s use is up to you.

Used as a bridge, it can span
All the differences of Man.
Being free in mind and soul
Should be our most important goal.
If you use The Hyphen as a wall,
You’ll make your life mean…and small.
An American is a special breed,
Whose people came to her in need.
They came to her that they might find
A world where they’d have peace of mind.
Where men are equal…and something more-
Stand taller than they stood before.

So you be wise in your decision,
And that little line won’t cause division.
Let’s join hands with one another…
For in this land, each man’s your brother.
United we stand…divided we fall.
WE’RE AMERICANS…and that says it all.

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