What does it mean to be light-skinned, black and a woman in the 1960s? Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my true history? What does all of this mean?
Linda Jones faced these questions as a youth growing up in the Baxter Terrace Projects in Newark during the 1960s. Linda had no idea as a child what these characteristics and labels meant to society and accordingly how she would be treated in the future. She thought: “I had a pretty happy childhood, and I’m thinking, you know, everything’s good, I’m smart. What could go wrong?”
But to be a black person in the 1960s was to be put down, harassed, abused in mind, body and spirit, and denied rights that all human beings are entitled to. In a time of riots, protests and boycotts, Linda had to make important decisions that would shape her as an individual and change her life. The choice to be an active member in the civil rights movement and the determination to bring awareness of the truth to the community made Jones an influential leader in the ’60s and empowered her to be the confident, courageous, passionate, wise and peaceful woman she is today.
At the age of 9, Linda realized she was not part of a “normal” American family like in a television show she used to watch, Leave It To Beaver. At school, one of her light-skinned black friends was called a “nigger” by their teacher. Linda was completely confused by this word and never realized that it applied to her too. She used to cry because she was not dark like her mother’s side of the family, whom she thought was so beautiful. She even thought she was adopted, but her family assured her she was not. “They explained to me that I was a light-skinned Negro (that’s what we were called at the time), and I thought, OK, but I had a complex that stayed with me for many, many years.” Not only did Linda experience discrimination and hateful, ignorant words from white people, she was harassed by her own people as well because she was not dark. “People called me ‘red,’ and ‘high-yellow bitch.’ They said I must be from upper Montclair.”
As an intelligent young girl, she began to notice differences in the way white students and black students were treated. When she started high school at Arts High, she noticed the difference in education levels among the black and white students. Linda was a music major in this school, and when she saw how much training the white students had from their schools in comparison to her own training, she knew something was wrong.
Linda decided to be an active member of her high school and got involved in various clubs and organizations. Her sorority, or social club, “broke the color barrier at the white YMCA on Broad Street. We told all of the rest of the kids at high schools around the city, and everyone came up with a social club and we all met down there. Before long the FBI and everybody came down there to watch us because they thought something else was going on.”
Linda was also in a singing group that went to Motown, and she felt her life was above average. Then, in 1967, the Newark Riots broke out. Linda and her family watched the chaos from the roof of their apartment, when a helicopter focused its spotlight on them and ordered them to “throw down your weapons and come out with your hands up.” Her mother and her siblings dove into the skylight of their apartment. The police notified the National Guard that there were snipers on the roof and ordered her mother through the door to tell them where those people were. She replied and told them that they were only kids, and she couldn’t open up because her husband wasn’t home and her children were sleeping. The National Guard fired at her father and his friend, who were still on the roof and “scared to death.” Linda screamed in fear of her father’s safety. She looked out the window and “they put the light and the gun on me next.” At age 17, Linda had already experienced a lifetime of discrimination, prejudice and confusion.
During this chaotic time in Newark, Linda and her friends were becoming fully aware of their place in the eyes of the rest of society. They decided to join and “form some kind of a bond.” Linda recalled: “We realize something strange is going on in this land. We know now we’re the ones they’ve been calling niggers, we have slave ancestors, we’re not treated properly, we don’t get the same education, and we are economically bound.”
At the same time a small group of people decided they wanted to start a youth movement. Linda became one of the first members and executive directors of the Black Youth Organization. By April of 1968, they were able to recruit over 400 young people and reeducated them about their true history. “This group quickly manifested into the Chad School, the first black independent school in the state of New Jersey.” They handed out pamphlets to the youth of Newark to inform and educate them. They told them, “This is our city; don’t tear it down.” This group provided young African Americans with a sense of themselves and their community. It gave them hope, strength, confidence, courage to stand up for what they believed in, and, most important to Linda, it provided them with the truth.
Linda realized that “there was no such thing as a ‘Negro,’ and it took a lot of energy to denounce that because most black people preferred to be called that.” She was a part of a Newark high school boycott. The Black Youth Organization helped her to develop confidence and to understand what it meant to her to be a black woman. She knew that “I wasn’t a nigger or a Negro. My family and my ancestors did not come from “Negro land,” they came from Africa. And I deserved more than this. It was my foundation for my reeducation, for beginning to understand who I was and what a job it was going to be for me to stand up for what I believed in.”
Now, at 52, Linda is able to look back at her experiences from the ’60s. She reflects on how they made her who she is and how the events of the decade shaped our present situations in the world. Looking back on the Vietnam War, Linda said, “I kinda believe what some of the comedians think, nobody in Vietnam ever called me a nigger. I never believed personally that we had a fight with them. I don’t believe in war. I think there is a way that if you swallow your pride and step away from your ego, we can talk and work things out.”
Linda reflected on the present relationship of black and white people. She thought: “People say that ‘we should all just love each other,’ and that’s very true. And ‘we’re all God’s children,’ and I believe that’s very true. But if you’re not clearly aware that you’re part of a class that’s been intentionally put on the bottom—you must understand your history in order for it not to repeat.” She believes that lack of awareness of the truth is the reason why there are still so many racial issues today. While there is no doubt that we have progressed since the era of the 1960s, there is still much further progress to be made. Linda believes, “I still think there are a lot of white people that need to understand this, and I still think there are a lot of black people that need to understand this.”
On the present youth and their culture today, Linda commented: “I don’t buy the newest gangster rap, talking about ‘my nigga, my bitch.’ I mean, that’s their business, but I think it’s mine when it starts becoming an affront to all people—when it influences my daughter or my grand-daughter.”
Since life in the ’60s, Linda has been married, had children, divorced and lived through a 14-year drug run. She has been clean for 17 years. Linda has said that “it’s hard to do life alone. It’s a bit bigger than me—I still feel like a little grain of sand. At least now I understand I don’t have the responsibility of trying to save the world like I’ve often thought it was my job to do. At least I know I’ve had a hand in keeping peace.”
Linda was and still is an active member of her community, who strives to bring awareness to everyone she comes in contact with. Awareness of the truth about African Americans and their past can foster understanding among all ethnicities. Understanding a group of people and seeing them for who they truly are can lead to peace and unity.
Jones is representative of the people of the 1960s who challenged the negative norms, ideas and values, and the people who harbored them. She represents the very people who fought for change and found “true freedom,” courage and confidence in revealing truth and sharing it with others. Linda Jones signifies hope, progress and change.
Kristin Ferraro, a Rutgers-Newark Honors College student, studies music and theatre. She hopes to sing on Broadway one day.