Ellen Shub Photography.
A contemplative Rosa Parks, 1983. Ellen Shub Photography.

In Jean Theoharris’s wonderful biography,The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, she teases readers with details about Parks’s inner life through her discussion of how quiet she and her husband Raymond were. In one story, Theoharris provides Edward Vaughn’s impression of Mr. and Mrs. Parks. Vaughn was the proprietor of the only black bookstore in Detroit when it opened in 1959. He describes  Mrs. Parks as one of his best customers. Reflecting on the Parks’s as a couple, Vaughn asserts that they were “two of the quietest people you ever see” (192). Theoharris doesn’t speculate on what Mr. and Mrs. Parks’s quiet love looked like, but I am certainly curious about it. What did a day in their quiet lives look like when they were alone together?

One of the ways that the Parks’s communicated the importance of their privacy in public was through the way Mrs. Parks wore her hair. On two separate occasions,  Theoharris reports that two writers encountered Mrs. Parks in the restroom as she was freshening “up before meeting with reporters” when Parks revealed an intimate detail from her private life. According to Cynthia Stokes Brown, when Parks removed her hat and hairpin:

her braids fell below her waist in a cascade of thick wavy hair that Rapunzel would have envied. When Mrs. Parks saw the astonishment on my face, she chuckled softly, “Well, many of my ancestors were Indians. I never cut my hair because my husband liked it this way. It’s a lot of trouble, and he’s been dead a number of years, but I still can’t bring myself to cut it.” (13)

Alice Walker offers a comparable story of her encounter with Mrs. Parks when they were both attending an event in Mississippi. According to Theoharris:

They went into the bathroom and Parks took down her hair. Walker was “stunned.” As she put back her bun, Parks explained “my hair was something that my husband dearly, dearly loved about me…I never wear it down in public.” (14)

Theoharris ventures that politics also played a role in Mrs. Parks’s decision to shield her long hair from public view. She writes, “[a]ware of the racial politics of hair and appearance, Parks kept her hair long in an act of love and affection (even after Raymond died) but tucked away in a series of braids and buns–maintaining a clear division between her public presentation and her private person” (14).

When Mrs. Parks first met Mr. Parks, he was involved with the Scottsboro case that she would also devote her energy towards. Of her involvement, Theoharris contends that, “[b]eginning with the Scottsboro case, Rosa Parks had learned to be discreet about her political activities.” Theoharris’s use of the word “discreet” greatly interested me because of what I take to be its current devaluation. Being discreet seems to have no place in contemporary American life. The fact that Mrs. Parks “learned to be discreet” makes you wonder what taught her such caution.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem to me that any lesson plan for being discreet is being offered–especially to young people–in American culture. Indiscretion rules the day. There are numerous accounts of young girls and young women being shamed by the circulation of nude pictures of themselves posted on-line or maliciously sent as mass text messages. Then there are the tragic efforts towards shaming people through social media that, in Tyler Clementi’s case, drove him to commit suicide. Most recently, I learned that Chicago gangs are using social media to kill their adversaries. Ben Austen’s fascinating article, “Public Enemies: Social Media is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago,”offers the story of two young men from rival gangs whose YouTube diss videos led to the death of one of them. Lil JoJo, whose funeral is posted on YouTube, announced his location on Twitter. This tweet led to the teen being gunned down as he rode on the back pegs of a friend’s bike.

The YouTube video above shows friends outside the funeral parlor having what looks to be a party. In order to redeem this and not dismiss the value of a systemic critique that highlights the drive for profits that fuels companies like Interscope records, whose deal with Chief Keef reportedly led to a contract somewhere between $3 million and $6 million dollars, to represent a young man who brandishes guns on film, brags about his gang affiliation, and whose music is implicated in someone’s murder, it’s hard to overlook the tragedy of this spectacle. Is this hip hop’s version of a second line jazz funeral typical of New Orleans?

The young people “honoring” Lil JoJo’s life fail to offer any recognizable sense of reverence for the life that was violently and unnecessarily taken. Are we to read their respect through the mere fact of someone uploading video footage? Is this hip hop’s version of commemoration? What does this commemorative gesture tell us about the cultural moment we’re living through?

One thing it tells us is that being discreet has very little value in the YouTube, Instagram, Twitter era. Life and death seemingly involve heedless postings and updates. I agree with Ben Austin when he writes:

We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist.

Austen contends that:

Everyday on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.

I would add married politicians like Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Vito J. Lopez (and let’s not forget Mark Foley) to the “surprisingly open” segment of the population that Austen limits to gang members. Elected officials appear to value discretion about as much as neglected children…and let’s not forget teachers. News stories about teachers can be found all across the internet describing the inappropriate messages and photos they send their young students…oh, and we can’t forget ministers like Eddie Long who struck a sexy pose for the young men he was accused of exploiting and violating. Thus, the YouTube, Instagram, Twitter generation actually spans all ages and professions, races and genders, classes and religions–American culture reflects an equality of explicitness regarding every nook and cranny of cultural experience.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in this contemporary moment who would pay private tribute to someone they deeply loved as Mrs. Parks did in pinning up her long hair. The few people who are keeping some aspects of their lives private are throwbacks to a time when being discreet could speak to a person’s character. But I guess character doesn’t much matter when you can become an internet sensation based on your YouTube views and your number of Twitter followers; privacy doesn’t pay like explicitness. I still believe that there are other ways of thinking about having a rich life and Mrs. Parks exemplifies this alternative in a way that is recklessly overlooked in this seemingly shameless time in history.

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