By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnit
It began with the Magnificent Montague.
He was a disc jockey on KGFJ, 1230 on your AM dial, back in the days of Supremes and Miracles, Sam Cooke singing “You Send Me” and James Brown testifying about papa’s brand-new bag. KGFJ was the very heartbeat of black Los Angeles, and Nathaniel Montague one of its signature voices. He was an excitable type and when a record hit him just right, when rhythm met blues in that sweet spot that makes you close your eyes and snap your fingers, he had this pet phrase.
“Burn, baby, burn!” he’d cry.
Forty years ago this Thursday, that phrase entered the American lexicon in a way that had nothing to do with music, a way that struck fear into the heart of Middle America. The Watts Riot began on that hot August night when a black man named Marquette Frye was pulled over by a white cop on suspicion of driving drunk. A crowd gathered, needled by the heat, prodded by the long-felt frustration of contending with a racist police department that occupied black neighborhoods but didn’t police them.
Predictably, the thing exploded. Somebody threw a rock. Somebody jumped up on a car. Somebody got a shotgun. And somebody lit a Molotov cocktail, threw it into some liquor store or pawnshop, and watched as fire blew out the windows and blackened the walls.
“Burn, baby, burn!” they cried.
I offer you all this as context, so that you can feel a little of what I felt in reading an Associated Press story a few weeks ago. It seems the Huey P. Newton Foundation in Oakland, Calif., which is named for the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is seeking to trademark a name for the new hot sauce it’s coming out with.
They want to call it — you saw this coming, right? — Burn Baby Burn: A Taste of the Sixties Revolutionary Hot Sauce. The Panthers say they are selling the sauce to finance the educational and antiviolence programs of the Newton Foundation.
Your first thought is to wonder what’s next. Power to the People Electric Company? Off The Pig pork rinds?
Your second thought is to marvel at how that which was once dangerous and intimidating has become safe and unthreatening enough to sit on a supermarket shelf. Maybe you remember the title of that old Doobie Brothers album: “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.” To that you can now add a corollary: What were once threats are now marketing slogans.
It’s not a new lesson, of course. Ten years ago, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the wickedly sarcastic old Gil Scott-Heron song about liberation through insurrection, was recast as a commercial for athletic shoes. Still, if you are old enough to remember when words like those were dangerous, the fact that this is not new does nothing to ameliorate the sense of dislocation.
You want to ask if nothing is sacred, but that’s not the right word, is it? What’s lost here is not holiness but passion, that ardent impatience with injustice and malfeasance that so often characterizes the young. Growing older — or, perhaps more accurately, gaining a stake in the status quo — tends to relieve people of the conceit that progress is something you can riot your way to. Unfortunately, it also relieves them of passion and impatience.
There is something sad in watching threats become advertising, something that speaks of expanding waistlines and thinning scalps, of impatience becoming surrender and people watching the dying of the light but forgetting to rage against it.
Forty years ago, an exhortation of joy at the power of song became a battle cry for mistreated people in sweltering streets. Forty years later, it is a hot sauce. I’m reminded of something Scott-Heron once said, and here I paraphrase: “People often ask what I think of the ’60s. I personally think the ’60s are over.”
If that wasn’t true then, it sure is now.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org