Right on Cue

To all my brothers who is doing unsettling bids,
You woulda got away If it was not for those meddling kids...
--DOOM

My greatest fear about growing old isn't physical. One day I may feel different, but I like maturing. I like becoming wiser. It was simply impossible for me to write things in my 20s that I am able to write now. All of that said, this is what I fear. I know it's Andy Rooney, but watching this, I was embarrassed for him. Rooney ends this with a jibe that notes his ignorance of Lady Gaga is fine, because kids are ignorant of Ella Fitzgerald. I suspect that he gives himself too much credit.

When I was a kid at Howard, I used to go into Ben's Chili Bowl and hit the jukebox. I always played Otis Redding, The JBs, or Sam and Dave. I knew this music for two reasons: 1.) It was what my parents played, and on long road trips their music, not mine, was the soundtrack. It's like being black in America—I knew that part of their world in a way that they could not know mine. 2.) Hip-Hop created a culture of Digging In The Crates. The notion was that digging through crates and crates of records to find a gem was something to be prized.

Whatever you think of the music, no self-respecting hip-hop head, at that time, could ever get away with saying, "Man, I don't be listening to no Ella Fitzgerald!" Your friends would have looked at you like you were crazy. Knowledge—not the kind of ignorance Rooney evinces here—was prized. I remember going into Ben's and the old heads looking over and going, "Son, what you know about that?"

Here's what I knew—when me and Kenyatta took long drives through Maryland, I knew to play Otis Redding, not H-Town. I learned that digging through the crates. I learned that from my parents. But I never said that of course. I just laughed because it was cool and it was funny. But it was also instructional, and here I must apply what I've learned. Perhaps my generation had a monopoly on that kind of knowledge. Maybe young people today really don't know who Ella Fitzgerald is. I don't really know.

What I do know is that, like Rooney, I couldn't name a Lady Gaga song if I heard one right now. But I also know that my son knows more of my music than I know of his. He can recognize Nas, but I can't recognize, say, Drake. In other words, you'd do a lot better banking on my ignorance than his.

Age, like all power constructs, (race, gender, class) encourages it's own ignorance. To not know is a luxury of power. You don't have to know Their Eyes Were Watching God. But I damn sure better know The Scarlet Letter. (It's bad enough I'm slipping on Twain.) Age turns ignorance into a luxury, and worse, if you don't recognize it as a luxury you start to think everyone is as clueless as you. And of course you're clueless that any of this is even going on. It's just a bad look all around.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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