[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
When people who weren’t there, and some who were, think of Chicago in 1968, they generally think of one thing: dramatic televised scenes of protest and police riot outside the Democratic National Convention. These scenes had an unprecedented immediacy for millions of American TV viewers. But Chicago in 1968 was much more (and perhaps in some ways less) than what could be seen on TV. It was people going about their daily lives—whether or not they were politically involved—working hard to make ends meet, raise a family, or succeed in school. For many, it meant facing discrimination, coming together in struggle, as in the important but nearly-forgotten first Rainbow Coalition that brought together the Black Panthers, the (white) Young Patriots, and the (Puerto Rican) Young Lords. It also meant working creatively to imagine alternatives.
Kristin Ross points out that as French historians from the ’68 generation write the story of May ’68 in France, they tend to focus narrowly on their own experiences, emphasize generational rebellion, cultural change, the role of students, and Paris to the exclusion of all else. They thus write the workers and, in a sense, politics, out of the picture. A parallel phenomenon can be seen in the U.S., in our pop-cultural understanding of the late ’60s. But younger activists now are in a position to sift through the legacy: what can we discard, what can we retain? What are the moments of relevance for us today; what are its moments of stunning irrelevance? What is the unfinished business of ’68?
The 1960s left deep traces in the American psyche, in more than one way. There were real political gains as well as setbacks. The Civil Rights movement’s disciplined and passionate political work has had a lasting impact, and the legacy of civil rights continued into the ’70s with the women’s and gay liberation movements. The counterculture overturned the rules for how we dress and who we have sex with; the student movement challenged the authoritarian classroom and changed relations between students and faculty; the antiwar movement helped end the war in Vietnam.
But the legacy of the period is incomplete and contradictory. First, it’s been erased. Scholars have argued that Ronald Reagan’s entire presidency, brown suits and all, was built on the erasure of that decade from our collective consciousness, or its replacement with repressive myths. Rambo, remember, created a very popular myth of returning veterans being spit on by antiwar protesters, a myth that has been integrated into people’s own memories, to the exclusion of the true histories of some soldiers’ activism against the war. (The erasure may have been so complete that when Republicans in 2008 tried to mobilize the specters of ’68 to frighten the electorate, those memories finally struck most voters as less than terrifying.)
And nostalgia for the past may hamstring thought and action. Younger people tire of hearing about the uniqueness of one special generation, and that exhaustion can sometimes permeate our sense of the histories of political action. The positive and ongoing aspects of the legacy of ’68, sometimes perversely, themselves impose limitations on the present. A case in point is the legacy of how revolutionary energies were channeled into institutions (what’s been called the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex”). Obviously, nonprofit groups do important work, but they also have limitations imposed on them by their structural status; they have not always succeeded in passing leadership down to the young; and their very existence may at times make it harder for newer, more contentious groups to flourish.
Finally, what we have retained from the rebellions of the period are not necessarily its most progressive aspects. Later generations of Americans inherited the individualism and obsession with youth, not the political coalition-building. Compelling insights into this history appear in Adam Curtis’s 2002 BBC documentary, Century of the Self. The film examines the impact of psychoanalysis, and specifically the theories of Sigmund Freud, on marketing strategy and government crowd control. Until the 1950s and ’60s, psychologists assumed that primal drives had to be repressed in order for society to function, and directed their efforts accordingly. This coincided with an American society in which people were asked to make sacrifices, to conform to social norms, to trust authority, to repress their impulses and unruly emotions. In the postwar period, however, new theories arose that emphasized the need to let feelings and impulses out. Psychologist Alexander Lower describes his own practice and the general revolt against Freudianism: “What goes on here is the liberation of feeling.” The voiceover states, “Those in power would now control the self, not by repressing it, but by feeding its infinite desires.”
This is what Herbert Marcuse, a favorite philosopher of the New Left, referred to as “repressive desublimation”: liberation of desire, yes, but channeled not toward more meaningful forms of human freedom, but toward satisfaction in material comforts and consumer excess. In the 1960s, a form of desublimation or derepression was expressed in part in the emphasis of the counterculture on individualism: “do your own thing.” But “do your own thing” became Nike’s command: “just do it.”
In our sense of the ’60s as a time of freewheeling, self-indulgent individualism, we’ve lost the memory that many groups were inventing new forms of collective action, from the rap groups and consciousness-raising sessions of feminists, to hierarchical revolutionary organizations, to coalitions among the youth micro-organizations known as gangs, to, even, to the media-fueled trickster Yippies. Though there was broad agreement about belonging to a Movement, and even, for a time, a shared sense that the Black Panthers were its vanguard, at the same time there were rifts, visible between and within groups and also, especially, between political activists and countercultural folk (in other words, hippies). Some made serious attempts to bridge this gap. Abbie Hoffman, interviewed by the video collective Videofreex, expressed his surprisingly pointed political opinion that the benefit of the heavily televised Chicago 8 trial was to “divide the ruling class.” The rift persists: can organized political struggle combine with libidinal rebellion—is the one too humorless to persuade “hearts and minds”; the other too frivolous to get anything done? Efforts to bridge the gap have also resurfaced in HIV-AIDS activism, in protest street theater and the work of “interventionist” artists. Many other divisions that we sometimes attribute to the identity politics of the ’80s were already fully on view in the 1960s. What surprises us now is how smart and sophisticated the analyses were and the fact that how hard work sometimes overcame the divides.
To Estelle Carol, a founding member of Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, political and social circumstances may change, but the four components of a grassroots activist organization don’t: “service, education, direct action, and theory.” Direct action and theory seem to have remained fairly robust, and education moves in and out of focus, but most of today’s small political grassroots groups—as opposed to more established nonprofits—seem less inclined to the “service” component. Understood not as charity or paternalism but as sustained participatory action, we might now be rediscovering a commitment to it, for example in food projects [See AREA #2]. For Abdul Alkalimat, Professor of African-American Studies at UIUC, and moderator of H-Afro-Am, the present hands us new challenges. He was a sociology graduate student and a member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in 1968, and is now a scholar of the digital divide and digital Black studies whose earlier work informs his engagement with a new political and aesthetic landscape. “In the late 1960s,” he told me, “OBAC was part of a movement to transform consciousness via a paradigm shift in aesthetics and the relationship between art and social movement, fighting for social justice and the promotion of self determination for African-Americans. In the first decade of the 21st century H-Afro-Am is promoting another paradigm shift from the actual to the virtual, taking the new consciousness into cyberspace. This is aiming for a higher level of self-determination as it is the greatest tool yet for mass literacy. In the 1960s we thought we were engaged in a revolution, but we were not, and now that we are in the information revolution, many of us are missing it. We transformed consciousness with the Black Arts Movement, but now the stakes are much higher and our tools are much more power-full.”
To return to the televised scenes of violence that riveted viewers in 1968, we can ask an updated question: Why didn’t the TV news pick up similarly chilling scenes outside the conventions—particularly the Republican Convention—in 2008? We have the internet now, so the news traveled fast among people primed to pay attention. But we have gone from monoculture to microculture; the news media have become willing servants to power; the whole world wasn’t watching the streets of the Twin Cities in 2008, as they were the streets of Chicago in 1968. (It was different in Chicago in November of 2008, as another Mayor Daley joined in a desire for symbolic redemption by welcoming throngs of Obama supporters to Grant Park.) In 1968, people thought they could change large-scale social and political institutions—and they did, to some degree, though the results were mixed. And we have a new set of circumstances: along with commitments to environmental and social responsibility, the pressures of energy costs are pushing us toward a more emphatic focus on the local. This is a good thing. But there’s a risk of myopia. Looking at Chicago in 1968—and its legacies today—we should pay attention the successes and failures of coalition-building; the thoughtful coordination of large-scale analysis and small-scale, local gestures; and the aching need for both emancipatory pleasure and collective struggle.
Among other preoccupations, this issue of AREA emphasizes the arts. Major changes were occurring in the definition of art around 1968, and specifically in Chicago. Precepts of modernist art had previously held that art must be autonomous, distinct from all forms of literary or political content, narrative, or overt persuasion. A ferment of dissatisfaction with this view was brewing throughout the 60s, but the events around ‘68 dealt it a major blow. Mass-mediated and violent political events required new ways of thinking about art and community. In many cases, this meant a move away from abstraction. This might mean a return to representational art (depictions of the human body, often in struggle), or the incorporation of text into image; it might mean performance art and guerrilla theater.
Like the Parisian art students who set up the Atelier Populaire to print propaganda in their classrooms, many artists in the U.S. felt they could not sit idly by. Some stopped making art. Some participated in boycotts and protest exhibitions. Under the art world radar, not even aware of one another, groups like AFRICOBRA and the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective produced brightly colored, provocative posters. But they also produced new forms of collective consciousness, collaborative practice, and ways of imagining art as both popular and passionate.
Earlier in the decade, the Port Huron Statement written by SDS had emphasized moral and emotional emptiness in the midst of plenty: in a central passage it speaks of exhaustion, fear, chaos, apathy, weakening, numbness, anxieties, yearning. This is the voice of affluent youth seeking meaning; elsewhere the feeling was even more urgent. With the assassinations of ’68, the riots that followed, Jeff Donaldson, a founding member of AFRICOBRA, wrote in the October 1970 issue of Black World: “the atmosphere of America became more electrically charged, the balloons jarringly shaken, many destroyed by the thunder and by the lightning of the real Amerika…and COBRA coiled angrily. Our coats were pulled. And the anger is gone.” Rejecting the artworld insistence on abstraction, AFRICOBRA and its allies created recognizable imagery, black faces and bodies, provocative slogans and poses, shattering their images and bringing them back together again with decorative patterns, superbright colors, lost and found line.
This type of art had, or at least seemed to have, a more immediate impact; at least for some segments of The Movement, culture was power. 1967’s Wall of Respect, a collaborative mural at 43rd and Langley that spearheaded the community public art movement when it appeared two short weeks after the Chicago Picasso was unveiled, was one starting point. In a poem, Haki Madhubuti (don l. lee) called it “the wall, the weapon” and said that it made “white people run.” Poetic bravado, but it points up parallels in the cultural work done by the image-conscious Black Panther Party. It wasn’t just graphic artist Emory Douglas who did creative work within the Party. Like many others, the Panthers imagined a different society and tried to put it into practice. Much of the work they did involved caretaking in the community–breakfast for children, free health clinics. But they also worked creatively in a different way: projecting powerful (and scary to many whites) and at the same time stylish masculinity, they propagated an image of their own power far disproportionate to their actual use of guns.
It might be argued in this and other cases that activism was itself an art form. The Hyde Park-based feminist abortion collective Jane [see AREA #5] could be seen an instance of rebellious creativity—which is not to trivialize the bravery of the women involved. If it hadn’t been so deadly serious, the group might be thought of, in today’s terms, as a clandestine DIY performance collective. Addressing emotion and the subjective experience of the self was a key feature of the nascent feminist movement. Feminist women contributed a key insight to the movement in organizing “rap groups” whose function became known as “consciousness raising.” By talking about personal feelings, connecting on that basis, and then analyzing the causes of shared experiences, participants arrived, over time, at a social analysis of their own oppression. The personal was political, in the strongest sense possible.
This was as true for the women of Jane as it was for the family politics of Black Power expressed in Barbara Jones-Hogu’s print, Black Men We Need You. Like many of Jones-Hogu’s works, it takes a few moments of looking at the vibrant image to understand all, or even part, of what’s going on. A black woman stands with her children, taking up most of the space of this unusually narrow vertical format. “Black Men We Need You, Preserve Our Race”—only then do you notice the unobtrusive (white!) text at the bottom right: “Leave White Bitches Alone.” This wasn’t just an analysis suggesting that political forces structured personal experience; it was a demand for personal lives to be lived in accordance with political goals. Jones-Hogu and her collaborators viewed these messages as positive (though assertive), but it’s no accident that this one wasn’t on a wall, but in the more private medium of silkscreen.
As Bob Crawford notes in his intergenerational conversation in this issue, the art scene in Chicago was viewed as more political than the scene in New York. Still, the mainstream Chicago art world also had many individuals and groups, like the Hairy Who, that were not overtly political. But the Hairy Who’s work expressed their own kind of rebellion, through overt and sometimes grotesque sexuality, pleasure, violence—a surreal anti-aesthetic. Art critic Joanna Frueh has referred to Chicago imagists (in which she included later ’60s groups) as “Chicago’s emotional realists.” But what ties them to their more political contemporaries was more surrealism than emotion. The surreal in this period is most obviously associated with the Chicago Surrealist Group. But it’s there in AFRICOBRA, it’s Yippie mythmaking scaring delegates away from Chicago taxicabs, it’s WITCH (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), it’s newly imagined forms of affective solidarity, the pansexuality of early gay lib, the Black Panthers’ imagemaking, the stubborn insistence that the way things were was not the only way they could be. Cynthia Edelman wrote hopefully in the Chicago Seed in 1969: “Ahead lie boycotts, demonstrations, speeches, WITCH guerrilla theater—out of it may come schools that do not shrivel the soul, nursery pools to aid ghetto mothers, free abortions, population control, doctors and other professionals so badly needed…a living wage at least for clerical slaves, and of course unforeseen developments.” This surrealism of anticipation was not the unreal, not anti-realism, but a surplus added on top of the real, or what the AFRICOBRA manifesto describes as the super-real—what Donaldson also called “Art for people and not for critics whose peopleness is questionable.”
We have divided this issue into three main themes: “Hidden Histories,” “Then and Now: Legacy,” and “Intergenerationality.” In “Hidden Histories,” our authors excavate less-known organizations and forgotten episodes from the late 1960s in Chicago. The section includes a subsection of shorter profiles written by students from DePaul University and the University of Chicago. In “Then and Now: Legacy,” we look at the traces of 1968 in the present. How did that era shape our own? What remains relevant? In “Intergenerationality,” we think about specific contacts between individuals of different generations, people who fall between generations, and the concept of the “generation” itself—often seen as an invention of the ’60s.