Changing times, and things unchanged

For a lot of reasons, I have been thinking a good deal about time lately. About what changes, and what remains. About beginnings and endings, and what comes next. During the last week of fall-semester classes, I made a guest appearance in Professor Nancy Bristow’s class on the 1960s (I was exhibit A) and was interviewed on KUPS about Woodstock (yup, I was there); a few days later, over the holiday break, I took a nostalgic stroll on the boardwalk back home—a place that was once the glittering pleasure paradise of the Jersey shore and is now a shabby, hollow skeleton of what once was. Ravages of time. It’s the end of the year, too, the beginning of another, and the start of my final semester at Puget Sound, completing nearly a half century of being in college.

Inevitably, Bob Dylan has been on my mind, too.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’.” He let us in on this in 1963, making clear in his own inimitable way what was happening all around us. He was reminding us, at that particularly pivotal moment in our history, of an essential truth about time that was first articulated by Heraclitus in the sixth century BCE: Time changes things, and it changes you. You have to keep up with it or it will wash you away. Once you “admit that the waters around you have grown” (and it’s always so evident that they have), “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” We are immersed in time.

That’s the warning Bob offered, plain even to a 14-year-old like me at the time. Looking to the changes that would surely come in the days ahead—particularly at the end of the 1960s, an era that he sang so eloquently about while “the wheel” was “still in spin”—Dylan predicted that a fundamental reversal of fortunes was sweeping in like a flood with that decade’s rising tide of social currents: “The loser now will be later to win,” he declared, just as sure as “the present now will later be past” and “the first one now will later be last.”

At the turn of the millennium, almost 40 years later, Dylan wrote and recorded another powerful song that seems to me a companion piece to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and one that has special resonance for me these days: “Things Have Changed.” The song appeared on a movie track (Wonder Boys) and earned Bob an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

Like its predecessor, “Things Have Changed” is a meditation on time and its changes. The first song looked forward, this one looks back. Here again, Dylan affirms the transformative effects of time’s rushing torrent. But now he offers us no call to action, no advice about swimming through, no warning about getting out of the way if we can’t lend a hand: “Lot of water under the bridge,” he says in a tone of resignation to the forces of time, “lot of other stuff, too.” The eager embrace of the changes coming is replaced with a cynical acceptance of the way things are. No more talk about the loser’s luck turning to winning. Now it seems that “some things are too hot to touch” and “the human mind can only stand so much,” so the singer can only conclude, “you can’t win with a losing hand.”

What happened? The anthem of the first song became an anathema in the second. You might just say that things have changed—with a vengeance.

To me, the songs together suggest something else, too—something that connects them and their times (and the songwriter) in a complementary way. It’s in how time is treated differently in the choruses. The first affirms that time is about change. In the second, however, “things” change rather than “the times.” Now “People are crazy,” the latter chorus notes, “and times are strange.” Time is unfamiliar, inexplicable, seemingly unknowable. Things may have changed, but the times really haven’t changed all that much.

Between the beginning of the 1960s and the end of the millennium, between the first song and the second, almost 40 years of time passed. A lot of water (and other stuff) under the bridge, for sure. But with respect to the things that matter, the things the latter song considers “too hot to touch”—war and peace, social justice and civil rights, human compassion and religious tolerance—not much progress has been made. Strange. From the commencement of the modern civil rights movement in 1960s America, with its dreams of peace, love, and understanding, through to today’s ubiquitous expressions of war, prejudice, hostility, extremism, and violence, we just haven’t come very far.

The historical displacement between these two moments in time makes me think of another “song” we often hear sung with a combination of despair and determination these days, a song that, like Dylan’s, evokes the 1960s for me. “Black Lives Matter” is a chorus intoned over and over in our streets and on our campuses (including our own), and it has earned a particularly urgent currency over the last two years. The phrase would seem to be, it should be, an unnecessary statement to make in the wake of the changes brought about in our society by the civil rights legislation of the last half century. The words would seem to be a redundancy. A self-evident truth. Of course black lives matter. Right?

But times are strange. What is all too evident about the times in which we now live is that the phrase has become an essential declaration to make in the face of evidence opposing the truth it affirms. That black lives do not matter—to our institutions of law and order, to our justice system, to the fundamental structures that compose our society—would in fact seem to be the more evident truth when we look around us.

As we contemplate the unimaginable, senseless, and seemingly endless series of brutal deaths of unarmed young black men across the country in recent times, all too often at the hands of white police officers, it is hard not to recall those other painful images of unarmed young black men being attacked by policemen wielding clubs and unleashing dogs during the civil rights marches of the 1960s in the streets of Memphis and Chicago and Los Angeles. Images of today’s assaults are now captured in cell phone videos and even sometimes by the squad-car cameras of the offending police officers themselves rather than by network news cameras. But like the ’60s, those images are replayed on our TV sets daily, from LA and Baltimore and St. Louis to South Carolina and New York and Chicago.

Black Lives Matter: It must be said. The fact is, black lives in America have a life expectancy five years shorter than white lives, a higher unemployment rate, a higher poverty rate, a higher incarceration rate, and a lower graduation rate from college—and the gaps have widened rather than narrowed since the 1960s. Far from self-evident, the insistence of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and the determination to make it true is an absolute necessity in these strange times. Some things have changed; and many things have strangely only gotten worse.

“I Am Somebody.” I first heard this “song” as a young college student on a Saturday morning in the fall of 1968. It was spoken, actually, in a dramatic call-and-response performance in an old auditorium in a run-down section on the West Side of Chicago, where I stood with classmates who had brought me there. A gospel choir sang and swayed before us as a young minister and activist named Jesse Jackson stepped to the podium, and led us—in the dramatic and charismatic way only he could—in a complete, almost hymn-like, recitation of the powerfully simple poem from the 1950s written by the Rev. William H. Borders, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church. The poem’s last stanzas go like this:

I Am Somebody
I Am Black
Brown
White
I Speak A Different Language
But I Must Be Respected
Protected
Never Rejected
I Am God’s Child
I Am Somebody

I have never forgotten that morning, the claims of that poem, and the passion with which it was spoken. I can still hear it. And I am struck today that “I Am Somebody” is the first-person version of the contemporary utterance “Black Lives Matter,” a proclamation of its own in the face of so much counter-evidence—that poverty and appearance and history deprive people of color in our society of personhood, of dignity, of protection, of respect, of acceptance, and even of life in the eyes of many—of being worth something. 

For many in places of privilege, this deprivation can be invisible or repressed or simply denied. Even if it is too hot to touch, this, too, is a truth that must be exposed and asserted—insisted upon. I am. I am somebody. I matter. I am here. I deserve to live. My black life matters.

It also strikes me that those two phrases, like the two Dylan songs, are important markers in my own life experience in the academy, from my first years as a college student in Chicago in the ’60s, to my years as a professor in Chicago in the ’80s, then in Cambridge and Hartford, Conn., in the ’90s, and finally, as a college president here in Tacoma for the last 12 years. A lot of water under the bridge for me over that time, a lot of other stuff, too.

And as I look back I think Bob had it right—both times. Times are strange. Always have been. But they are also changing. Always will. Many things have changed, to be sure, and not all of them for the better. But I believe firmly that the wheel is still in spin. That we’d better keep swimming, and we can. That we’d better continue to learn to understand why times are strange, and we’d better do something—do more—about it; and we will.

You cannot be in higher education and not believe that. The greatest risk, as “Things Have Changed” warns, is to cease caring. If your time to you is worth saving, as Dylan put it the first time, then it’s time to get to work. A lot more change has to come to make our colleges and universities—and our world—into truly equitable, just, inclusive places. The colleges that take that change seriously, that insist on striving to make a world in which everyone is somebody who matters, will be the ones that change the times rather than being changed, or swept away, by them. It’s about time.

 Ronald R. Thomas