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!
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
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.
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.
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.