“What were the Sixties really like?” When a younger friend asked me this question, in a moment I suddenly felt many years older, realizing that was “just yesterday” to me was a historical period to my youthful friend. But how to answer her question? I’ve been thinking about it for years now (haunted by the question still, obviously), as another two decades have slipped past. Here's an overview from Wikipedia to get you started, if you were "born too late" to be one of us, but --
There can be no single answer to what the Sixties were like, because they were different for everyone who lived through them, even if only American experience is considered. How old were you in the Sixties, for starters? A little child, a college student, part of the workforce, or someone “over 30,” one of those the young were told not to trust? Male or female, black or white or yellow or red or brown? Living in San Francisco or Chicago; Selma, Alabama; Aberdeen, South Dakota; or in the wilds of Maine? Rich or poor or in-between?
Student, lawyer, secretary, grocery store cashier, factory line worker, teacher, or Peace Corps volunteer? A draftee in Vietnam, conscientious objector in El Paso, refugee in Toronto, or a protestor at Berkeley? Singing and playing in a rock-and-roll band? Member of the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society, or Young Republicans, or the Country Club?
There were peaceful demonstrations, and there was violence, and there was the undeclared war, and there were drugs, and there was also the continuation of American suburban life, with big weddings and brides in white. Towards the end of the Sixties there was the Pill, but all along there were pregnancies (planned and unplanned) abortions, and young families, some hippies, others mainstream. And for those in their ‘teens and 20s, there was exciting music, poetry everywhere, plenty of available sex and drugs, a lot of lofty ideals, and a minefield of dangerous pitfalls.
That's why I say there is no telling what the decade was “really like,” except in terms of individual lives, but if you weren't there and want a close-up view I just read a new novel that presents a convincing picture through one particular window.
by Judy Juanita
NY: Viking, 2013
We meet the novel's protagonist, Geniece Hightower, in Oakland, California, in the summer of 1964. Just out of high school, she enrolls in Oakland City College, “City,”
. . . a raggedy, in-the-flatlands, couldn’t-pass-the-earthquake-code, stimulating, politically popping repository of blacks who couldn’t get to college any other way, whites who had flunked out of the University of California, and anybody else shrewd enough to go for free for two years and transfer to Berkeley, prereqs zapped.
Geniece is a journalism major. Right away meets Huey Newton. Right away she loves sitting on the campus lawn, listening to the “black intellectuals and the white boys from the W.E.B. Du Bois Club talk.” Quickly she learns that light-skinned black students (“yellow, high yellow, sandy yellow, mellow yellow, sandy mariney, light brown, peach, or caramel skin; the line stopped there”) had one hangout, darker-skinned blacks like herself another. She lives at the Y (10 p.m. curfew) and works 20 hours a week at the county welfare department in Oakland. She’s launched into life but still has her aunt and uncle’s warning in her head:
“We want you to be a virgin until you graduate from college. If you’re not a virgin, you won’t graduate. Once you have sex, you can’t think about anything else.”
Judy Juanita’s novel is divided into four main sections, one for each of Geniece’s four years of college. Sophomore year she is introduced to Black Muslims and has her hair cut into a natural: “Sleek, short, very African.” She wonders what “being in love” feels like and if she is in love. No longer living at the Y, she allows a boyfriend to hold political education classes in her apartment, and she cleans and cooks for those who attend.
I knew I was becoming militant. I just didn’t know if I wanted to become a militant. Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, the protesters, the sit-in demonstrators down south were my heroes. I loved them from a distance and on paper. But the militants I met, mostly the guys on the soapbox on Grove Street, were harsh and abrasive and condescending to everyone, not just white people. And they made people do things. . . . I didn’t want that kind of power over people. I just wanted it over myself.
Huey Newton isn’t the only real person readers encounter in the pages of this work of fiction. Bobby Seale is there, and Stokeley Carmichael, too. The war in Vietnam is audible always in the background.
Junior year is a turning point for Geniece, as one black group goes one way and the Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defense another. She enrolls at State and lands a work-study job in Admissions, date-stamping application entries from all over the world.
Lives came out of the words: how little money one’s father made; the off-the-wall place one had traveled to; family crises; serious illness defeated; political activity noted like a badge of honor – “I belong to the W. E. B. Du Bois Club.” They weren’t afraid: “I participated in the freedom rides.” Stuff I never mentioned: “The protest changed my whole life.” State was a destination for radical students: “I’m a child of a union family.” Dissidents. The streets of Berkeley were the pull for people bucking the system. Nonconformists. State was pulling people like me. I was not an in-between. I was a junior facing a cast of thousands wanting to be right where I was, a part of something big, essential, swimming in the big ocean.
In the course of her college career, it is not until her junior year that Geniece sees herself at the center of social change taking place across the country. Before that she felt like “an in-between”; now she is, as people said in the Sixties, “where it’s at.” But she is not yet where she will be at the end of her senior year. . . .
I don’t want to give away too many details of this story, because it’s the details that make the central character’s life a real one and make that time period come alive. Her social and sexual and romantic relationships are important to her development as an adult. Her feelings for journalism wax and wane, but editing the Panthers’ newspaper is an important job she takes very seriously. Also with the BPP, she confronts the question of guns for self-defense, and a volunteer job through the Tutorial Center introduces her to two young, self-sufficient black girls neglected by their battered mother. Education is not limited to the classroom. (It never should be.)
But Geniece Hightower is determined to graduate in four years, so she wisely avoids serious involvement with drugs. While music is part of her life, it also remains, like Vietnam, in the background. Race, class, and gender relationships – politics within and beyond the university – the future she will have as a Black American woman – this young woman maintains ties to her family at the same time she is finding her own way in the world.
Personal, political – political, personal – yes, this was the Sixties. Judy Juanita gives readers a very real look at that exciting and turbulent time through the eyes of her strong, questing protagonist. There are pages when the prose lifts into lyricism, so it should be no surprise that the author’s writing has for years encompassed poetry as well as reporting. This is her first novel. I’m glad she wrote it and hope it won’t be her last.