When Multiculturalism Was Young…

by Jeff Chang

In the 1980s, multiculturalism seemed a danger to the nation. Books filled the shelves warning that its rise on university campuses signaled no less than the closing of the American mind. Two decades later, it was fodder for satire. Cartoons like “The Boondocks” and “South Park” depicted multiculturalist teachers as if they were clueless white hippies.

But before all of that, back in the early 1970s, it was a genuine counterculture led by a small avant-garde of artists and writers.

For a long time, they didn’t even have a name for what they were doing. There were lively scenes going on in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco—all cities that had critical masses of young people of color, universities where programs like Afro-American studies or ethnic studies were taking root, and community centers that served as hubs for artistic and activist expression.

The San Francisco Bay Area was the real beating heart of what would become the multiculturalism movement. It was there in 1968 that students at San Francisco State College launched a campus-wide strike that lasted five months, the longest in U.S. history, as they demanded the creation of a Black Studies and a School of Ethnic Studies. Soon student strikes had broken out at the College of San Mateo and the University of California at Berkeley, and universities such as Stanford, Michigan, Syracuse, and Harvard began adding such courses to their own campuses.


Strike at SF State 1968, protesting for the establishment of ethnic studies departments. Shows massive confrontations of police and students, faculty.

The hippie counterculture had faded quickly after the so-called Summer of Love—and by 1969, when dozens of brand new ethnic studies courses were first taught across the country—it had turned tense and violent. At a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, Hell’s Angels beat to death a concert-goer. But as the hippie counterculture entered its decadence, a new Third World counterculture was emerging.

The new Afro-American and Ethnic Studies programs at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley ushered in a kind of an intellectual renaissance. Feminists of color, too, had begun organizing a response to Second Wave feminism. In segregated ghettos, barrios, and Chinatowns, young people of color set up storefronts for community organizing and arts projects. Tiny publishers sprouted like poppies.

In the Bay Area, especially, with its compressed geography and its history of united fronts, vibrant Black, Chicano, and Asian American arts movements began crossing quickly. At places like the Kearny Street Workshop or Glide Memorial Church, activism around Latin American or Asian politics, South African apartheid, and Black Panther electoral campaigns mixed with discussions about Lu Hsun, Pablo Neruda, and Nina Simone. Poetry readings on Haight Street, mural-making in the Mission, and late-night salsa sessions at the International Hotel were part of the mix.

“We were very supportive of each other. You’re young, you have energy,” recalled the author Jessica Hagedorn, “and you go out to things night after night, and you support everybody. And the same comes back to you.”

The Bay Area scene seemed to transform into a movement after Ishmael Reed and Al Young turned their Black Arts journal Yardbird into one that was explicitly cross-cultural. “By the early 1970s, it was no longer a secret among astute observers that what officially passed for literature in the United States was really only representative of a select monoculture,” explained Young at the time. He could have been talking not just about literature, but theater, television, dance, or contemporary art.

In 1975, Reed first began to use the term “multi-culture.” At the time the dominant idea was that all “minorities” were expected to assimilate toward a WASP ideal, to melt into the boiling cauldron of America. It was paradoxical to think of American culture as being “multi-“, as potentially having more than one vector of development.

But Reed, Young, Hagedorn, and their peers were describing multiculturalism as the next step in the great American march to freedom. The civil rights movement had been concerned with bringing down legal barriers to integration. The multiculturalism movement would concern itself with bringing down cultural barriers.

Civil rights activists had attacked differential treatment under the law, the engine of racial segregation and inequity. But after the end of de jure segregation, the nation needed visions of how to live together. The law could set only the basic terms on how we were to interact. The multi-culture was the place where we might actually create a new nation. That would begin with artists asking how we might redefine what it meant to be American.

By the 1980s, as civil rights legislation made it possible for communities of color to expand their participation in American life, Ntozake Shange, Julie Dash, Spike Lee, David Henry Hwang, Hagedorn, Reed, and others pushed this question directly into heart of the mainstream.

Around the corner, a major backlash awaited—the start of the culture wars—and paradoxically, just the kind of success that would make multiculturalism seem a fait accompli.


JEFF CHANG has been a hip-hop journalist for more than a decade and has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, Vibe, The Nation, URB, Rap Pages, Spin, and Mother Jones. He was a founding editor of Colorlines Magazine, senior editor at Russell Simmons’s 360hiphop.com, and co-founder of the influential hip-hip label SoleSides, now Quannum Projects. He lives in California. His latest book is Who We Be: The Colorization of America

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Contemporary History

The History Reader Newsletter