Have the 1990s Caught Up with Us?

My country is in turmoil. We’ve lost our way somehow, reversing the very precedents that those before us worked tirelessly to establish, diminishing our souls by desensitizing our minds to death and our hearts to injustice. Mistrust abounds, hatred abounds, fear abounds. I didn’t picture it becoming this way back in 2006 after setting my sights on conquering the world with my newly earned bachelor’s degree. I wonder what led us here. I think back on my lifetime and search for evidence that gives way to the caricature of blacks that exists today. There’s one period of time that sticks out: the 1990s. Why? It was the only other time I could recall in my 32 years of life where this same caricature was brandished on movie screens and dealt with on daytime television shows marketed to teens.


I enjoyed the movie Juice a lot for Shakur’s presence and the overall message. I wonder if now Juice is still shaping culture due to its themes and imagery. 

The 1990s saw black arts embrace things like ‘hood culture, violence, organized crime, and a mutual, angry mentality among blacks through music and film. I can remember films like Boyz N Tha Hood and Juice helping to fuel a stereotype that black men are notoriously more violent than males of other races. Much of the music and cinema created by or for black women showed black women doing it all – taking care of the home, the children, working, and often being left at a disadvantage at the hands of a black man who either disrespected their relationship by cheating or abusing her, or men who just wouldn’t keep their word. Independence and standing alone was the ideology that permeated black female culture in the 1990s. I can remember cranking the radio up when songs like “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing,” and “None of Your Business” by Salt-n-Pepa or “Creep,” came on the radio, and as a young black girl, celebrated that I was kind of being represented by anthems preaching about how black women are strong and powerful, women can sleep around if men can, and if you cheat on me, I will just go cheat on you and be happier because I’m sexy and irresistible.

Simultaneously, a third wave of feminism was sweeping through the United States in the 1990s, brandishing messages of sexual liberation for women, acknowledging non-white races of women, and, most significantly to me: challenging the traditional gender roles we had grown to accept in this country. You combine all these ingredients and shake them up in a bottle and the result of the 1990s on young black women, is that we came away from the decade believing we’d have to be our own rock and salvation, that black men had somehow abandoned us for our white counterparts, so we better just handle things on our own, and angst at the intangible – we couldn’t quite pinpoint why we were mad, but we were mad. Maybe it was that popular culture was scant on positive representations of us. Standards of beauty seemingly favored everything opposite of what we were. We knew we were getting paid less and being offered less and not treasured for our true value but rather for the caricature that had been drawn of us that each of us somehow had to pander to.

I wonder, though, if perhaps we’ve been deceived. Perhaps we were told we were ugly so that our pride wouldn’t get the best of us someday. Maybe we were pumped imagery of black families missing fathers so that we wouldn’t seek mates in black men, hence contributing to the stereotype black men were fighting that they don’t appreciate black women. Perhaps black women were revved up to be angry so that they – so that WE – could further socially alienate ourselves.

Regardless of the reasons behind what was 1990s black culture, one thing is apparent to me: the 1990s have caught up to us. The images we used to see in movies and in music videos have leapt out of the screen and serve as justification of our deaths in the name of self-defense. Blacks across the country are fed up – as they should be – but fed up doesn’t always look good on us. Police brutality is inexcusable, but we cannot fuel the brutality by acting in the same aggressive ways actors did on the big screen two decades ago. Black women believe black men are the enemy, but this isn’t true and black men need us right now. This isn’t a movie, or a pilot, or a hot single to drop on radio – this is real life where people are being killed for acting or being caught in ways of the 1990s.

I am not the first to point to this theory of the lasting effects of 90s culture on various races. However, my thoughts were directed in this manner after watching footage of Korryn Gaines’ traffic stop and subsequent standoff with the police at her home. You can watch for yourself: https://youtu.be/llnoIsAk66g

Her demeanor reminded me of a main character from Set it Off – short fuse, angry – but did she have a reason to be? If you choose to drive a vehicle without a plate, don’t you make yourself a target for being pulled over? Like I said, black people are fed up, but this isn’t the way to exercise that frustration. I do not find her heroic. I do not praise her decision to endanger her children over a power struggle with the police. I do not understand what led her to act this way. Her son has consumed this ideology with his mom and has now been damaged by having to witness his mother’s killing in his home (after a standoff with the police), suffering a wounded arm (he was shot, but not killed), and having to straighten out in his own mind at some point just exactly who the police are and what his place is in society.

But this is my country as of late. Police act on fear and brutalize people of color, no convictions are reported, and blacks across the nation from every class NOT JUST “THOSE IN THE GHETTOS” are slowly losing their minds on how to cope. Meanwhile, black people are fearful of the police and acting out because of it, our children are receiving mixed messages on what it means to be free in the land of the free, and mainstream media mixes and remixes headlines, commercials, and television show plotlines to keep the confusion going.

Dr. King would surely grimace at seeing us this way. And I don’t know what else to do besides write about it, comment on it, try to lend my voice to the productive, and do my best to live the values I speak on, but even that isn’t enough.