In our middle-class world, Black was an ever broadening umbrella, both by necessity in this country’s bifurcated color caste system, and by choice, as life changed under the Supreme Court’s 1967 landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling. You could, say, have an Indian mom and a Jamaican dad, and you’d still be Black. You could have a Filipino dad and a Black mom so light-skinned she made you do a double-take, and you’d still be Black. Your mom could be a white lady from the Netherlands and your dad could be a Black man from D.C., and you’d still be Black. You could have two deep dark chocolate parents and sound like a Valley Girl, and of course, you’d still be Black.
Like Harris, I’m a middle-class Generation Joneser, a Black preppie who also swore allegiance to his Purple Majesty. Some of us, like Harris—and like Prince—were bused to all-white schools from majority-Black neighborhoods. Others, like me, grew up in the ’burbs and boroughs next door to white kids, attending prep schools or Catholic academies or the local public schools, part of a hugely optimistic, messy national experiment. (Never mind that folks had been crossing the color line for years, often by force, creating a rainbow of phenotypes among African Americans.)
This didn’t always make for some rosy kumbaya moment. We grew up with the specter of nuclear war hanging over our heads, when it really felt like it could all end with the push of a button, as Prince warned us in 1999. And a lot of times, especially once we got to high school and dating made everything a lot more complicated, we were too Black for the white kids—and way too white for the Black kids.
Code-switching became embedded in our DNA. Barack Obama, another integration baby, was mocked for his fluid code-switching. But for us, that’s not performance. It’s just a survival tool.
That cultural adeptness makes for a canny politician. It’s an adeptness that has held Harris in good stead on the campaign trail, whether she’s jamming to a drumline, making dosas with Mindy Kaling or dragging Joe Biden for his record on school desegregation. And it’s an adeptness that will be on display as she faces off against Mike Pence in the first and only 2020 vice presidential debate.
Compromise and consensus are a key personality trait of Generation Jonesers, particularly among Jonesers of color, said Jonathan Pontell, a social generation expert, who coined the phrase. But that compromising nature, in this era of political extremes, can seem out of step, something for which both Harris and Obama have faced criticism.
“It’s a great skill to have as a politician, to be able to compromise, bring people together,” said Pontell, who’s working on a book about Generation Jones. “But I don’t know how realistic idealism is right now. We as a country are very tribal — and very angry.”
Jonesers, he said, were weaned on idealism as kids in the ’70s, only to be confronted as young adults with the money-hungry cynicism of the ’80s. We were the guinea pigs living through the real changes effected by the turmoil of the ’60s, turmoil we were too young to understand. As integration babies, Black Jonesers were raised with high expectations, expected to excel, to bust ceilings.
But racism is real, and often, when we were accepted into Harvard or Yale or Dartmouth or got that plum job, our peers, the kids we hung out with on the playground, accused us of being unworthy beneficiaries of affirmative action. Racism, we learned, has a particular sting when it’s being wielded by the one you thought was your ride or die. It’s why some of us, like Harris, embraced HBCU life, seeking belonging. Acceptance.
Straddling the racial divide can be a painful and lonely place. A number of my friends, bougie Black kids who grew up with the best, and with expectations to be the best, didn’t make it out of their 30s alive—felled by drugs, or by suicide, or by sheer bad luck.
Prince knew all this, tapping into the angst of a subgeneration. He always looked askance at the poor hand we’d been dealt, but he hid from the world, choosing to shroud himself in mystery.
Toward the end of his life, though, he picked out his ’fro and stepped into the light, becoming increasingly vocal about his politics, speaking out for Black Lives Matter. In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, he held a benefit concert he dubbed, “Rally 4 Peace.”
When he died, my husband and I held a vigil at our house, playing Prince nonstop, wiping away tears. I’ve read that Kamala and her husband did the same.