Sometimes we grow down

Nearly 20 years ago, I participated in an event called Unity Day held in downtown Miami. As an 8-year-old in December 1990, I was too young to really understand the context, which was an attempt to promote racial reconciliation in the wake of the Wynwood race riot earlier that month. Miami back then was at the height of acquiring its cartoonish reputation; as much as I roll my eyes about the antics that still go on there today, the craziness between 1980 and 1990 will probably never be matched. It’s fitting that the decade ended with rioting…because it started with rioting, too. Between the Mariel boatlift and the constant drug warfare that started with a Tarantino-esque massacre a mile from my house in broad daylight, the 1980s were, um, a special period even by South Florida standards. Oh, did I mention that Nelson Mandela was snubbed in 1989 by city leaders because he had publicly praised Fidel Castro’s stand against apartheid? I didn’t even remember that until I read it on wikipedia just now. Compared to all the other insanity happening around that time, an incident involving one of the defining figures of the decade was a forgettable sideshow.

Anyway, Unity Day.

I only really remember two things about Unity Day. One, I was one of four or five winners of a citywide essay contest, and I got to stand at a little lectern on the courthouse steps and read a few silly paragraphs about racial harmony. Maybe the ongoing series of public embarrassments that followed can all be traced back to that December day.

Two, Luther Campbell was there. This was a year after As Nasty As They Wanna Be dropped. Most of the local news coverage of 2 Live Crew was outraged, outraged at the filth of the city’s most famous rap act. So my 8-year-old brain kind of figured that Campbell must be a wacked-out monster, and I couldn’t understand why he was showing up at an event that also featured the mayor, the chief of police, a bunch of Miami Dolphins, etc. etc.

But Luke turned out to be super cool. I think I remember all of us (in the group of essay readers) getting to meet him for a few seconds and shake his hand. And that always kind of stayed with me, how this guy who had just been vilified by “respectable” adults turned out to be, by all appearances, a perfectly normal human being.

So for most everyone else who watched Colbert tonight, Luke was just a clown, an attention-craving has-been who happened to write a dumb op-ed in our local alt-weekly condemning the Cordoba House project without even making any novel points about it. But I just had to shake my head a little. Because I was there, twenty years ago, on those courthouse steps looking down on Flagler Street, at a ceremony specifically devoted to tolerance after a terrible, racially charged event. And so was he.

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