MAXWELL: Getting older, we are living life in reverse

2/28/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A saying goes something like this: The older you get, the more conservative you become. Well, what happens when the opposite happens _ when the older you get, the less conservative you become?

All of the older people (45 and over) whom I consider friends are living life in reverse. We are not becoming more conservative by any means. Like a fool, I let myself get talked into joining AARP a few years ago. I later came to my senses and decided I do not want to be associated with an organization that constantly reminds me that I am over the hill.

Heck, I went out last week and bought my first Eminem CD. And guess what? I like it. I had heard the blond dude before but did not know who I was listening to. On some of the cuts, he sounds like a brother, I mean like a real gangsta.

If staying closer to home is a sign of creeping conservatism, then my friends and I are becoming more liberal-minded. This weekend, a group of us are meeting in New York at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to check out “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers,” an exhibition of nearly 200 works by 94 photographers who have exhibited internationally. It includes cutting-edge images, portraiture, domestic scenes, street stories, nature, performers and political issues. By now most informed people know that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is in a huff over one photograph titled Yo Mama’s Last Supper, a shot of a nude black woman as Jesus Christ.

In January, I flew to Chicago for a weekend and met friends at the Historical Society. There, we viewed a great exhibit of photographs, drawings, paintings, murals and illustrations of groups and people who have made a positive difference in the communities by fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and other societal ills.

My friends and I are reading stuff that we would not have read, say, 10 years ago. A former college mate in Tampa suggested that, if I really want to know “what’s going on with some of the young people” I write about, I should subscribe to Vibe.

I have and enjoy this slick magazine that captures hip-hop culture in all of its varied essence. The current issue features a terrific analysis of so-called hip-hop gospel that is written by Tony Green, a former St. Petersburg Times pop music critic. At issue: Is the new genre “salvation” or “blasphemy”? Green leaves the verdict up in the air.

In the past _ when I was old _ I probably would have dismissed hip-hop gospel outright. Now _ in my new youth _ I accept this music and other artistic forms on their own merits and in the spirit of their creators and their fans.

Here, for example, are lines from B.B. Jay’s song His Love: “Yo, we too blessed to be stressed, dog/Recognize I’m pro Christ, I’m fo’ Christ/ Recognize my dome is full of wise things.”

Is this good music? I have heard it, and I like its rhythm, its energy and its urgent tempo. The point is not to glorify hip-hop gospel but to show that I and a number of older people are willing to listen _ and listen with open minds.

Indeed, age is making me more tolerant. What about the signature baggy attire so many African-American young people and a growing number of whites wear? No problem. I would, however, counsel against dressing inappropriately when a suit and tie are called for. Pierced and bejeweled noses, eyelids, tongues and belly buttons? No problem. Let the wearers decide appropriateness for themselves.

What has helped me become more liberal-minded as I grow older is the foundation I established seven years ago. Called Role Models Foundation Inc., it is a journalism organization for young people in Florida. We conduct writing workshops, award college scholarships and generally help participants feel good about themselves. We publish an online magazine, and we adults let the students do all of the work.

Being in their orbit has made all the difference. I do not necessarily learn hard information from the hundreds of young people in the foundation, but I get to know their concerns, their hopes, their dreams. These kids have made me see them as real people and not as a subset to be controlled and pushed around.

Traveling to foreign countries _ walking the streets of Bucharest, Warsaw, Tel Aviv and talking to citizens in these places _ also has liberalized my thinking. How can any intelligent person travel to distant lands, interact with residents and eat their food and sleep in their homes without becoming more tolerant?

No, aging has not turned my friends and me into intellectual fossils. We have become more tolerant of others. We are becoming citizens of the world. We are living life in reverse.