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Letting His Freak Flag Fly

This post is written for the 5th Edition Smile for the Camera on the blog Shades of the Departed. We were asked for submissions on someone’s Crowning Glory, and I immediately thought of this picture. I didn’t know till later that the post probably should have been more brief – but the story started pouring out!

19710801-gwyn-ken.jpg

Almost cut my hair

It happened just the other day

It was getting kind of long

I could have said it was in my way

But I didn’t and I wonder why

I feel like letting my freak flag fly

And I feel like I owe it to someone

David Crosby1

The Hippie culture my parents were part of has been studied, imitated, mocked, twisted, and well documented – so that before I ever learned details about my father’s actual life I had been painted a colorful if distorted picture of his times. Even without knowing any personal facts about my Dad, I could tell you quite a bit about him based on his look.  He was a disestablishment, rock and roll, traveling hippie. Looking back at my early childhood, the music my father played and sang which was the soundtrack of my first 7 years was almost wholly centered on folk rock, and it was woven intricately through our lives. Many of the lyrics of those songs told my father’s story.  My father lived in, reflected, and in many ways embodied a great deal of the upheaval and profound change that the 60′s had on the world.

Kenneth Walter Gwyn was the youngest and only boy of my grandmother’s four children. My two eldest aunts were her daughters from her first marriage. My grandfather James was my grandmother’s second husband. He was black but I would say his coloring was close to tan, and he had blue eyes and a wave in his hair not unlike Nat King Cole. My father and his sister were the half siblings of their elder sisters, although no one in the family ever talked or thought of themselves as “half” siblings.

Kenny was the lightest skinned person in his family. With his hair cropped short, it had a light curl. Although he is shown above with an afro, unlike many African Americans who embraced an African culture that had been denied and absent from their lives, I can honestly say I never saw or heard of him adopting any African or even African American cultural aesthetic. He never used a “black vernacular” or wore a dashiki. He incorporated many musical styles over the years including early R&B, but more for its universal appeal than seeking to identify with a particular or separate black experience. He could not deny his black heritage, but at the same time, he looked noticeably different when standing in a crowd of black people. Dad’s was a family who wanted to fit in well in their middle class neighborhood. As a child in the 50′s Kenny loved playing cowboys, his favorite show was Roy Rodgers, he and his sisters learned piano in their home.

My father’s mother Elizabeth was born and raised in Newark by her grandmother after her mother died in childbirth. Eliza Mason Stewart “Nanny” was part of the movement among black women of her era to aspire to the best of Christian womanhood, uplift the race, and live morally exemplary lives. Her influence on our family was strong. At one point she owned several properties in Newark along with the Kearny home Dad grew up in, which she left to my grandmother when she passed away in 1965. My grandmother Elizabeth had been a member of the Kearny Civil Rights Commission and had been selected by the town as a representative to attend Martin Luther King’s funeral. Grandma worked to support the family and was clearly taking part within the system to improve race relations. Her father Samuel Stewart had been a World War I veteran, member of the Essex Co. Democratic Association among other veterans clubs and men’s clubs (in group photos always mostly white). He had run for Newark Council, worked as a school attendance officer from 1942 until 1961 when he retired to be come self employed in real estate before his death in 1964.

Dad’s family was living in a predominately white, blue collar town, on one of the two or so streets in town where the few black families lived. A great deal of the residents of Kearny worked across the river in Newark where in July of 1967 the city broke out in riots.

A variety of factors contributed to the Newark Riot, including police brutality, political exclusion of blacks from city government, urban renewal, inadequate housing, unemployment, poverty, and rapid change in the racial composition of neighborhoods.

Another catalyst of the riots was the “clearance” of 150 acres of “slum” land to build a medical school/hospital complex. Of course, this would involve the demolition of numerous homes in the predominantly black Central Ward.2 (My great great grandmother’s home was in that neighborhood, which I learned when I fruitlessly tried to find the location to photograph it for my family history.)

Wikipedia describes “six days of riots, looting, violence, and destruction — ultimately leaving 26 people dead, 725 people injured, and close to 1,500 arrested. Property damage exceeded $10 million.3

When I questioned my family about their experiences during this riot, I was shocked to learn that one of my aunts took part! When she and some friends who lived down the block heard about the riots, they jumped in the car and headed over “on a lark”. They found a liquor store that had been broken into, and proceeded to help themselves to several of the bottles of booze. But later she felt guilty for taking advantage of the situation – she wasn’t one of the people who were so full of rage at their powerlessness that they exploded in an angry wave. She was a teenager out on a fun adventure. While the riots were going on, my grandparents were on vacation in Bermuda! My father was 16 at the time.

While all of these social factors shaped my father’s experience, I feel none was as devastating as the effect of the dysfunctional relationship patterns that ran through my paternal line. Of course, the legacy of slavery left its own scars, but then followed generations of “father abandonment”. Beginning with the untimely death of my great great grandfather Melon Gwyn, a former slave, there followed the death at age 37 of his son James, when my grandfather James, Jr. was only 6 years old. His mother went on to marry a cruel man who abused her and her children. Grandpa married young, abandoned his first wife, then married my grandmother, but while my father was growing up Grandpa had abandoned his second family more than once, leaving without notice and disappearing for months or years at a time, and fathering at least two “outside children.” During the turbulent teen years when my father was just growing to manhood, my grandfather came back home. I only recently learned that my grandfather verbally abused and probably physically abused my dad – though corporal punishment was far more acceptable in general back then – especially for “correcting” a son on the wrong path.

Of course, when I was a child, I knew none of this history – Grandpa was a steady and benign presence in my life. He worked for the Post Office and by the time he retired had received a watch for 25 years of perfect attendance. We knew him as a joker and story teller, fish fryer, church goer. But I can imagine my father’s perspective back then: Here comes his “father”, back as the “head of the household”, full of authority and nothing good to say about my father’s wasting his life, failing school, experimenting with drugs and beginning to live his rock and roll lifestyle. I’m sure my father pushed all the wrong buttons, did all the wrong things in his father’s eyes. But who knows what kind of guilt my grandfather might have been trying to come to terms with while attempting to re-engage in the family he left behind and deal with the hurts of the wife he betrayed.

My father grew to reject his class, race, and every other distinction that clashed with his growing consciousness. He dreamed of a world where people saw no color, class or the false trappings of a materialist culture but embraced the new values of Peace, Love & Freedom. He ran headlong into the hippie movement. He grew his hair, wore patched bell bottoms, read “subversive” books, smoked reefer, dropped Acid, played his 45′s, then his albums, and then played his guitar. It became his salvation, and his ticket to a new life.

Kenny had a party on Brighton Nov. 11, 1967. We grooved. Kenny and the Situation Band played the new Jimi style, magic veiled us in our funny flower couture. I wore an old felt hat, bandless and Sally sketched me, while a Dylan poem was repeated, eclipse is both sun and moon… New people were there from Belleville, getting hip, waking from the trance. I remember there was laughter and hypnotism. The next day we went by tube to the village and wound up in Penn Station, where trains went to Belleville. A gloved hand snakes goodbye. It is hard to remember. I did keep notes, and they can remind of tiny details, but never the whole feeling. They are sketches, travel notes from that other place.

~ Thoughts of the Days, 1967. Reflections of Dad’s friend PK from notes in his diary.

While my aunts were at different stages: one an unmarried mother of 2, another graduated from college and newly married, the third going off to college, my father spent a lot of time crashing at his friend’s homes. He had found a new family of friends who were rejecting many of their own families’ values. However, a crucial difference separated many of them. While they dabbled along with my father as they expanded their consciousness in many ways, in most cases their families were in much healthier shape. Many of his friends who survived those years “unscathed” went on to college, traveled and then took steady jobs. They loved my father because he was one of them, and they grew up in Kearny together. At the same time he was developing a remarkable talent, attracting beautiful girls, using harder drugs, and soon traveling along a different path altogether.

The photo above was taken in 1971, Kenny was 20 years old, and a father of two. He had met my mother in high school. She was descended from one of the original settlers of New Jersey, Captain William Sandford, an Englishman and a slave holder, who came to New Jersey from his home in Barbados. In July of 1668 almost two hundred years earlier, he acquired the land on which most of Hudson & Bergen county sits in an Indian Deed made with “Hanyaham, Kenarenawack, Gosque, Anaren, Tamack and Tantaqua” of the Leni Lenape. 4 Mom’s grandfather was a former mayor of Kearny, NJ, and I have to think that in the eyes of just about everyone in “established” society, she was taking a big step down. My parents were a young couple in love, but they were spit upon when they walked down the street together. They were married just 6 days before I was born, and my sister was born prematurely just 10 months later. Dad attempted working at a few low paying jobs but never for long. For the most part he earned money playing gigs for many years in a series of bands, then playing on the street and being paid by passers by who threw money in his open guitar case.  My mother finally divorced him after years of waiting for him to “grow up” and take responsibility for our family.

For me the photo above tells more of a story when seen in contrast with another. I imagine the photo below captures the last time Dad put on a suit and combed his hair to please his mother. It could have been taken only months earlier – maybe even just the length of time it took to grow his hair.

Elizabeth & Kenny circa 1966

He reminds me of Buddy Holly – and the innocence of the early days of rock and roll. In my mind, his pose already shows a hint of defiance. Of course, even today the changes in a person in their teen years can be startling. Still I have come to understand so much of how and why my father “let his freak flag fly.” For that I am eternally grateful to the friends and family who shared that history with me, but also to my parents for the most valuable things I believe I inherited from both of them. My curiosity, openness, and willingness to question: authority, history, family, and friends – and the intelligence to make some sense of the answers.

Sasha Mitchell

1. Crosby, David. “Almost Cut my Hair. Deja Vu Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, 1967

2. Herman, Max A. “Events” Newark Riots – 1967 2001. 22 Aug 2008

3. “1967 Newark riots.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Aug 2008, 17:12 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Aug 2008 .

4. Nelson, William, and Berthold Fernow. Calendar of Records in the Office of the Secretary of State. 1614-1703. Documents relating to the colonial history of the state of New Jersey, vol. 21. Paterson, N.J.: Press Print. and Pub. Co, 1899.

17 Responses to “Letting His Freak Flag Fly”

  1. on 26 Aug 2008 at 1:01 am Pages tagged "barbados"

    [...] bookmarks tagged barbados Letting His Freak Flag Fly saved by 8 others     greenbirrd bookmarked on 08/26/08 | [...]

  2. on 26 Aug 2008 at 3:38 pm Eden

    Sash,
    I love it. Although, I’ve heard similar stories from you over the years while growing up, it is so nice to be able to go back and reread the well-placed thoughts and stories shared by you and other friends. Beautifully written, but I’m sure you already knew that ;) Thanks again!

  3. on 26 Aug 2008 at 8:00 pm stephanie

    That was so wonderful—how you crystalized your intricate family history, stories, and personal insights to perhaps “connect the dots” regarding your fathers motivations and actions. Eloquent and intimate.

  4. on 27 Aug 2008 at 9:31 am Sandra Chapman

    Hi Sasha, Love it. How was your trip to Wash.DC. Penney said you stayed with Chip in MD. He has a beautiful home.
    Sandra

  5. on 28 Aug 2008 at 9:18 am Kenny Mac

    My freak flag has been at half mast for the better part of this decade. It woulda been ideal if he could of found a balance. Not everybody is able or willing to make that transition.

    He grew to reject his race? Wow. Certain aspects I can totally understand but you gotta take the good with the bad. I hope that reject was too strong a word. He didn’t hate himself or the cats he kicked it with? I’ve learned that drugs, self realization and figuring your role in this world usually tend to be a bad combination.

    Did you have the opportunity to find out from him directly just what made him tick? That’s an opportunity I didn’t get and wished that I had.

  6. on 15 Sep 2008 at 5:33 am Jasia

    I really enjoyed reading your heartfelt and insightful post, Sasha. Oh if only we could all have the kind of insight you have into our family members and the times in which they lived. Wonderful. And great pictures too! Thanks for sharing!

  7. on 15 Sep 2008 at 6:45 am A. Spence

    I heart your blog. You’ve been nominated. See my blog. :D

    BTW: I love the afro!!!

  8. on 15 Sep 2008 at 8:19 am Kathryn

    What wonderful insight into the life of your father. Love the ‘fro! I enjoyed reading your post about your dad and your family.

  9. on 16 Sep 2008 at 10:54 pm Carol

    This post was certainly NOT too long. It is beautifully written with love and understanding. Only by sharing and reading stories like this can we ever have hope to see each other as people and not colors.

  10. [...] Letting his Freak Flag Fly This is my best work, because I felt confident in writing it that I could tell some hard truths but [...]

  11. on 17 Feb 2009 at 1:11 pm Henry J Magee

    Sasha,

    My name is Henry Magee. My sister stumbled across this info on your father and called me today to let me know.
    I truly enjoyed reading
    “Letting His Freak Flag Fly.” Brings back so many fond memories.
    Your father and I grew up as best friends on Brighton Avenue. It wasn’t until our early High School years that we drifted in different directions (although not by choice). Your father somewhat a free spirit and I the son of a hard nose police officer.
    I remember when you were born. Kenny would have been proud to see how well you turned out.
    Please feel free to contact me.

    Henry

  12. on 29 Jul 2009 at 5:45 pm Lorine

    Sasha – beautiful! You are a writer. Don’t stop. I look forward to you getting back in YOUR groove and continuing your blog posts.

    Lorine

  13. on 07 Apr 2011 at 3:13 pm John Peters

    Sasha,
    I knew your father from following his band Black Forest Rhodes around..remember the day they played in Branch Brook Park in Newark ..We were all doing drugs back then and having a great time doing it..Your father could really play the guitar and sing..I just found out that he passed away and I’m so so sorry, the world will be a lesser place without him.You are doing a good thing here and your Father would be proud..

    Take care,
    JP

  14. on 03 Mar 2012 at 8:59 am James Lavecchia

    Fantastic Job Sasha,
    I remember meeting Kenny for the first time. This one afternoon I was dropped off at your Dads house on Brighton Ave in Kearny with all my drums don’t know how I got there, as I didn’t drive. I remember jamming just the two of us on the porch we played for hours mostly Cream and Blues kinda of stuff. Lori showed up at on point saying you two sound great together. Long story short Ken and I worked for years learning music and constructed several bands and becoming very close friends between 1966 and 1973. The only one that gained any notoriety was Black Forest Rhodes. Ken was a joy he would either be playing or off in a corner somewhere reading those were some of the best years ever we learnt a lot from each other me mostly from him.
    Love Him
    Still miss Him
    And talk to him every time I walk onto a stage to play.
    Jamie Lavecchia

  15. on 03 Mar 2012 at 12:29 pm Josh Hamby

    Sasha-
    I reached out to you a few years back when I read one of your tributes to your father and was so glad that we were able to connect. As you know, I spend years going to see your father play with my friends. He had more talent than 99.9% of those that end up making it big. At the time, I would rather see Kenny jam than CSNY, Dead, etc. Not only was he a truly talented musician and writer, but his voice was like no other and had “heart” and “soul” coming right out of his mouth. He is very much missed and I feel blessed that my path crossed his.
    Bless you,
    Josh

  16. on 05 Mar 2012 at 12:55 pm CARRIE STANHOPE

    SASHA i REMEMBER YOUR DAD, MAKES ME SMILE,YOUR ARTICLE IS BEAUTIFUL.

  17. on 14 Mar 2012 at 5:40 pm Kevin Caldwell

    1st saw your Dad play when I was 12 (1968)in a Kearny Park…Finally got to meet & hang at 14, I was large long-haired boy for my age & Bobby Williams & Jay Johnson were also good friends so we had commonalities in our lives, tho the age difference normally precluded these things. I wish I could whisk you back to those daze of innocence fading…sitting in his living room showing me Medical book pictures of various diseased limbs, laughing till the glasses fell off our faces, or at 16 when my father was having me put away next day for incorrigiblity (6 months) and finding Kenny hanging on the Ave in front of Romeo’s Pizza ,giving me a packet of ——-, at two for a dollar, “but since yer going away ONE dollar a pop”.The 1971 pic above with the Poofy shirt IS the timeframe I see in my head….good times/bad times, but, definatly, times that will never be forgotten.

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