THE GLOBAL IMPACT
AND SIGNIFICANCE OF
AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSIC
AS AN EXTENSION
OF AFRICAN CULTURE
MUSIC IS THE MAJOR CONTRIBUTION OF AFRICAN AMERICANS TO WORLD culture and is also the major contribution of the United States of America to world culture. Most of what we know as American music is either directly African American music or the music is derived from and emulative, if not an outright imitation, of African American music.
My thesis is in two parts. First, because of technical and political reasons in addition to its intrinsic aesthetic value, African American music has had a significant global impact. Second, although alignment with American commerce and political might has helped spread the music, African American music itself can only survive and develop as an extension of self-determined African culture.
At the same time I argue that our music is African, I also recognize that up until the last four or five years, for various reasons, some of which we will discuss in this paper, most African American musicians have been either unwilling or unable to recognize that the music they made was a direct extension of African culture and that the future of the music is secure only in an African controlled space.
THE HISTORICAL REALITY.
Our music developed simultaneous with the technology of the recording. African American music was the first Black music to be recorded and disseminated around the world immediately as a result of World War I.
The economic importance of recording the music was twofold. First, the fact that the capitalist record companies could make major money from selling so called “race records” was an incentive to record the music. Were it not for the considerable money to be made selling blues and jazz recordings to captive Black audiences as well as, in the case of jazz, to a significant white audience, the prevailing social climate of racism in the form of Jim Crow segregation would have dictated that the music not be recorded at all.
Second, the economic stimulus also meant that the musicians were elevated as a position of status within the community. The entertainer became a major focus of economy activity both inside of the segregated African American community and outside of the community. Musicians as a class commanded more material resources than any other class of Black professionals in the early 20th century.
On an aesthetical level, the development of the recording is most significant because without an audio recording of some sort, African derived musics can not be disseminated. One must be able to hear the music to enjoy it and learn it. One can not learn to play African music from reading notes on a written score. There is no written notation that can capture the complexities and subtleties of African musics. But the recording made it possible for this music to be passed on.
Perhaps if the recording had come from England, then maybe some of the African derived musics of the Caribbean and of West Africa may have had a similar world impact. I think, however, that the expansion of the American economy and American military prowess added significantly to the spread of this new technology. Even if another country had the technology, without the economic and political clout, that technology might simply have withered and the country may not have been successful at spreading its culture worldwide.
I do not believe that there is anything exceptional about African American music versus Caribbean music or traditional and/or contemporary musics from Africa. I believe the difference is the context within which the music was made, i.e. historic dynamism of the host country in which the music was born and developed.
If it were simply a case of raw world power, then European classical music would have been able to stave off the encroachment of (African) American music. Were it simply a case of aesthetic considerations, than why not music from Ghana or South Africa. No, I believe, more than the particular form of African music, the question is the context within which the music operates.
African Americans were influential because on the one hand they exhibited the dynamism of African cultural expression and on the other hand because they were part and parcel of the most powerful political, economic and technological country of the 20th century.
The combination of African American cultural dynamism and national political, economic and technological power was not matched in any other parts of the African world. As a result of being in America, even though the country was and remains racist to the core, African American musicians were enabled to travel the world exporting not just the music but also exporting specific cultural and economic values.
African culture at root is based on participatory democracy, even if the participation is circumscribed by caste and class considerations. Because of its location in the United States, the African expression of adaptation and accommodation was mated with the political expression of democracy. This is not the opportunity to investigate these aesthetical concerns, so suffice it to say that the dynamism of the music reflects not only the African desire for self-determination (which I shall discuss shortly) but also the American ideals of democracy. These aesthetical values were another reason that the music was so popular worldwide. African American music sounded like freedom. (An extensive treatment of this particular theme is found in my essay, “The Social Significance, Political Impact and Economic Potential of African American Music” contained in a forthcoming issue of the African American Review.)
The Fisk Jubilee Spiritual Singers were among the first African American musicians to attract European attention. Later there was the James Reese Europe Orchestra. After World War II this influence would also be felt in Africa at a major level. For example, Louis Armstrong performed here in Ghana during independence celebrations and also donated a trumpet to a school in South Africa where Hugh Masekela learned to play music.
Essentially, African American musicians and entertainers were the first Blacks to make a major impact on the world stage. As a group, they were the first people of African descent to travel around the world in the 20th century. Because they were the first they not only opened doors, they also served as inspiration for other people of African descent most of whom were still living in de facto slavery or at the poorest levels without immediate access to international travel.
The influence of African American musicians was also gigantic in the dominant culture societies of America and Europe. In Europe, African American musicians sometimes performed for heads of state. Even though they were more likely to be viewed as entertainment rather than “serious” or “high art”, nevertheless their impact was felt profoundly throughout world culture.
The ascendancy of African American musicians took place within the context of the phenomenal rise of American political and economic influence in general. America’s military and industrial dominance was signaled by the victorious rise to colonial status as a result of land seized after the so called Mexican American War. This led to the establishment of the manifest doctrine in the Western Hemisphere which further consolidated America’s international clout. Everywhere in the world that America dominated, African American music followed. Thus, after the Allied victory in WW1, the sphere of American cultural domination was expanded and then consolidated.
Culturally this impact was so great that it led not only to the celebration of what is now called the “Jazz Age,” but indeed this hot new music “jazz” even had a profound impact on European musical culture. European classical composers began using jazz motifs and themes. Germa n cabaret music, French cafe music, and English popular theater music, all evidenced the influence of jazz. In all of these countries and more, not only was the music itself popular via recordings, but also, African American troops from the U.S. and African American entertainers began to take up residence in exile, thereby deepening the influence of the music on various European cultures.
From a political and aesthetical point of view, it is important to keep in mind that the Jazz Age was an era that contained the Harlem Renaissance. This Renaissance was an unprecedented, major development of African American culture and politics.
But we must be careful to note that the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance was not just a period of singing and dancing. This is the time period of the Marcus Garvey movement which was the largest organization of people of African descent ever. Garvey’s newspaper was distributed throughout the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in parts of Central and South America, and most important of all, in Africa. The fact that Garvey reached Africa gave hope to Africa during a period of colonial strangulation that appeared as though it was impregnable.
The 1920s was also the period of DuBois’ beginning thrusts at hooking into the Caribbean initiated concept of Pan Africanism. The Pan African Congresses sponsored by Padmore, DuBois and their colleagues from the continent of Africa planned the seed of the liberation movements which directly led to the African Independence movements which reached fruition first in Ghana in 1957. The dynamism of the period between 1920 and 1960 directly paralleled the development of African American music.
This is a period when Black people all over the world were seeking self-determination and the vitality of African American music captured this yearning to create a new world, a political, economic and social world as dynamic as was the music. A music that kept renewing itself and politically grew bolder and bolder.
From Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” in Ghana, to Duke Ellington writing suites such as Black, Brown and Beige, to Dizzy Gillespie composing “A Night In Tunisia,” on to the revolutionary developments of the 60s and 70s, African American music directly reflected worldwide African efforts for self determination, and this political outlook in turned informed the aesthetics of the culture of this era.
People of African descent worldwide loved African American music because it reflected their political aspirations and set an example that it was possible not only to achieve self determination, but indeed to inform and even decisively influence European, as well as, world musical culture. If we could do so in music, could we not do so in politics and economics, in sports and technology? The music made us think like that.
At the same time that overt African American music was influencing the world, American music in general was also taking the world by storm. This was really nothing more than the second wave of African American music except at this point it is presented by Euro-American musicians and entertainers. So now the world really embraced our music because whites were performing it even though most of those whites never acknowledged their cultural debt to people of African descent.
Almost every popular 20th century American recording and broadcast artist was directly influenced by African American music, especially in the 20s and 30s up through WW2. Many of the recognized cultural icons from that period, vocalists such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra carried African American music around the world, although they generally called it simply “American” music. This led to the amazing situation of African aesthetic dominance through African American music being looked at worldwide as a “white phenomenon” simply because white Americans such as Benny Goodman and Glen Miller were performing the music.
An example of how ludicrous the “white wash” of African American music can be projected under the title of “American” music is Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole was an extremely dark skinned man -- he must have been Ghanaian or maybe Senegalese. In any case he was the first African American to have a nationally broadcast television program. His music was very, very popular with African Americans and with white Americans. His singing style was cool and smooth. He enunciated his words clearly and he was never very loud. Although he eventually became known as a popular musician, he started out as a jazz pianist, and then became a jazz vocalist before switching to popular music. As his popularity grew, people around the world became influenced by his music. He recorded an album in Spanish that was very influential throughout South America and the Caribbean. But let me illustrate the whitewash.
When Nat King Cole’s records were imported into apartheid South Africa, the government would not let them be sold with a Black man’s face on the cover. So the recordings were sold with pictures of white people on them. According to Hugh Masekela, who told me of this in an interview, most Black South Africans thought that Nat King Cole was a white American who was a great musician. They loved his music but had no idea that he was African American. So you see, the whitewash of our culture has even happened when the musicians were visibly Black.
I believe that any real evaluation of African contributions to world culture must also include those contributions which were masked in “white face” by performers of European descent who did not bother to make sure that the African influences were acknowledged. There is no American musical culture that is not African at a significant level.
Thus we see that America had developed as a military power and thus had political influence. America had developed as an industrial power specializing in technological breakthroughs, the most significant of which from the perspective of musical culture, was recording technology. Finally, through the efforts of African American performers directly, and white performers indirectly, America also dominated popular musical culture worldwide, and even going so far as to influence European classical music. This is the context.
Too often, those who make a critical evaluation of culture, decontextualize cultural from the social and political thrusts of the era and never take into consideration the technological developments of the period.
THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE.
In the 1990s African American music remains popular but it no longer is the most dominant form of African derived music worldwide. Reggae, for example, is just as popular in many African countries. In Brazil their local musics, samba especially, are more popular and have even influenced African American music. We are witnessing the waning of African American musical dominance and the rise of other African derived musics, including popular music from African artists such as Youssou N’Dour, Miriam Makeba, Baaba Maal, Hugh Masekela, Fela Kuti and Angelique Kidjo. This is a direct reflection of the diminishing of American power in the world which is concurrent with the development of African and Diasporic nation states.
The music can not be separated from the real world. The music can not be studied in isolation if we are to understand its influences. Above all, culture must be contextualized to be understood. The close of the 20th century is fundamentally different from the opening of the 20th century. Not only is American industrial and economic might on the decline, but also America is no longer the technological leader of the world, especially with respect to recording. In fact, there has been a serious revolution in the recording industry resulting in what I call the “democratization of technology.”
By this term I mean that high levels of technical achievement and technical equipment are available for relatively modest sums of money and do not require a college education to master. Hence, peoples all over the world, even peoples who are illiterate can own and operate state of the art recording equipment. The advent of DAT digital recording equipment and compact discs in particular are exceedingly important developments.
Digital recording of broadcast quality can now be done with battery operated, portable equipment. This means that it is possible to literally go among our people to record music in the context within which the music is made. We no longer have to severely disturb the ambience or environment where the music is being made just to document the music. We no longer have to be a world power and have air conditioned studios to record. The equipment is not as sensitive to atmospheric conditions. The equipment is highly portable and very lightweight. All of this is important when we are talking about developing countries and developing peoples competing with established industrial powers.
Moreover, this accessible equipment produces the same quality audio as the big boys with their million dollar budgets. The results are also broadcast quality. This means that a recording made in Ghana or Tobago can be of the same audio quality as New York or London. Which in turn means that we are now able to compete on the level of the quality of the music. Plus we are now able to do it ourselves and are no longer dependent on western technology and western technicians. I suppose that it is important to note that DAT technology was developed not in the west in Europe or America, but in the east in Japan. The state of the art recording equipment does not even come from the western powers. We must pay attention to these developments because they hold great implications for developing countries and peoples. These implications far exceed the realms of music culture and the arts in general.
Additionally, although the cassette is very popular in developing countries, the CD, or compact disc, is the minimum level one has to attain in order to compete in the international arena. Of particular note with respect to CDs is that they are much more durable in southern climes than recordings were. They are easier to transport and ship, more convenient to use, and wear much better than vinyl recordings. This means that developing areas where resources must often be shared and recycled will get more use from a CD than from a vinyl recording. Finally, because of the world acceptance of this technology, the end cost to the user has also dropped to levels that are within the reach of developing communities.
On an aesthetic level, African American music is in a serious decline because the overall development of African Americans is in decline. This may not seem obvious at first glance, especially to those people of African descent who live in developing countries and are inspired by what they see of African Americans on television. The difference is quite simply one of perspective and of relative direction with respect to self-development.
Initially, African American music was a spur to the attainment of democracy and independence. But after achieving independence and then struggling through neo-colonialism, most developing peoples are now working desperately to achieve true economic self-sufficiency. Thus, developing countries and communities want to own their own industries in all areas of development, including within the cultural sphere of music production. However, within the United States, most African Americans were bought off by an effort to integrate into the so called American mainstream.
During the last 20 years rather than an increase in self-development, what we have actually suffered is a decrease. African Americans own less land in the United States today than they did 20 years ago. African Americans own a smaller number of businesses than they did 20 years ago. Moreover, many of the businesses that African Americans do own are service adjuncts to multinational corporations and not retailers and distributors to African American people.
For example, a major company might make janitorial products or offer a janitorial service but all of its clients are white companies. Such a company is directly dependent on the good will of white companies to hire them and such companies will therefore operate in a manner acceptable to those corporations regardless of whether such “acceptable manners” contributes to the overall development of African Americans specifically or African people in general.
Within the musical sphere, African American artists sell more records than at any time in the history of recordings, and yet we have less independent development than ever before. We no longer own even one major popular recording company. Why don’t we have a Motown or an active Solar Records? The answer is because African Americans gave up on independent economic development. This surrendering of our economic potential is reflective of placing individual aggrandizement far above group development.
In general African American artists, regardless of how conscious they say they are, focus most of their attention on developing their individual careers and thus do not band together to form collectives and organizations whose goal would be the development of a community, even if it were limited to a community of musicians. This lack of group identity is not specific only to musicians. My critique of this cultural reality is the same for all levels of professional activity in the contemporary United States. The focus on individual advancement and the lack of organized activity means that even those musicians who are relatively conscious find that there is very little they can do because the majority of their peers do not want to work on collective projects.
I believe that this attitude of individual aggrandizement is reflective of the neo-colonial national bourgeoisie attitude with which developing countries are very, very familiar. Clearly, such people are not prepared to make the commitment and sacrifice that development requires. But more than their economic capitulation, there is the question of their political role and their aesthetic role as cultural workers.
On a political level, contemporary African American artists, for the most part, have been coopted by the commercial pressures of cultural commodification. In order to sell recordings, the artist must appeal to the masses of Americans. The tastes of popular audiences in the United States have been cultivated on appeals to sex and violence. The artist who wants to sell a million records had better take this into consideration.
This leads to aesthetic decline. The music is no longer dynamic and expressive of group ideals and aspirations, instead it is designed to appeal to a voyeur consumer mentality. The music is no longer to serve as a spur to action and inspiration upon reflection. The music no longer looks to accomplishments in the future. The focus is on instant gratification in the here and now. Thus, the appeal of the music is based on fads and trends, rather than long term collective development. Moreover, the aesthetic also reflects a fascination with youth culture to the exclusion of adults and elders. Thus, even if those adults who try to get with contemporary music find themselves forced to act like youth.
Look at major artists who have been recording for over ten years. Listen to their latest releases and you will see that they are trying to act and sound like teenagers. By doing this, these artists give up their function as teachers and mentors, and thus become incapable of offering the leadership and wisdom that adults and elders traditionally offer to any society. This is especially the case within popular music with its emphasis on youth culture.
So first there is a minimum of collective development, second there is an emphasis on sex and violence, and third there is an almost exclusive focus on youth culture. This is precisely a recipe for failure at long term, collective self-development as a people or nation. Within this context, we must criticize most contemporary African American music not only as aesthetically empty but also as politically regressive and even negatively counter-productive from a developmental perspective.
In the world context, where African Americans previously played a major role in inspiring peoples of color and developing peoples and nations, the music today is seldom anything other than advertisements for conspicuous consumption and moral decadence -- conspicuous consumption because the images of the music focus on products to be bought, and moral decadence because the violence and sex are pushed strictly within a context of individual gratification with only token lip service to the development of the people.
Contemporary African American music is particularly decadent precisely because the music, for all its posturing to the contrary, generally represents the views and interests of individuals rather than of a community. In fact, the values put forward are actually impediments and injurious to the material and moral development of communities and nations. But beyond that, most of these images are deliberate exaggerations and falsifications of our collective reality. The majority of our people do not live like what one sees in popular music videos.
Most commercial videos are self indulgent fantasies at best and intentionally are divorced from day to day reality but these same videos are beamed around the world via CNN and other cable networks. Multinationals consciously use this videos to expand the demand for products whose only purpose is to make the manufacturer rich.
Much of this decadent music is defended by saying that it reflects reality and that it gives the people what they want. Essentially this is the argument of professional puppets who exist simply as mouthpieces for multinational corporations. When our reality is that we are at the bottom of economic development and nearly impotent in terms of political power wherever our people are found, then what we need to do is change reality and not simply reflect it. When our people have been corrupted by constant exposure to chemical and psychological drugs, we need to advocate drug free environments.
In the case specifically of violence, as long as Blacks are killing Blacks in America it is perfectly acceptable for rap groups to advocate and glorify violent behavior. However, if there was a liberation movement going on and white corporate stock holders were being systematically shot down, then the recording companies would take a moral stand against records which advocate violence. The question is not violence, but rather the nature of the violence.
Finally, when an artist is trying to make a hit record rather than trying to reflect the hopes and aspirations of their community then it is impossible for the aesthetics to develop precisely because aesthetics are more than the taste of one or two people. Aesthetics represent the sentiments of the community as a whole, the judgments of value and beauty. If the community is underdeveloped, the aesthetic sense will also be underdeveloped. If the community is mired in negativity, the aesthetics will be the same. The only exception is those aesthetics which reflect a willful effort to bring about revolutionary change.
At every previous juncture in the history of African American music, the music has changed not simply to sell, but rather to reflect the aspirations of our people to better themselves. Even if the artists are not overt in their political articulations and sentiments, their aspirations will be to own their own companies, to garner fair fees, to reach out to people all around the world. Their music will reflect themes and styles which inspire the audience toward those general objectives. In the case of those artists who are overtly political, their work will be critical of the status quo in both content and style, and will advocate substantial collective change.
The musics of revolutionary artists will always incorporate the traditions of the people even as it makes use of the latest technology of the day. You will be able to recognize revolutionary music because it will be both people based and technologically advanced. This is the only way liberation forces succeed, and even within the sphere of music we have revolutionaries.
Revolutionary aesthetics differs greatly from national bourgeoisie aesthetics, even though the national bourgeoisie will often mouth slogans that seem to be revolutionary. They will decry racism but not advocate collective development. They will appeal to “color consciousness”, i.e. vote for me because I am Black, buy my music because it is really Black, but they will not advocate moral development. Moreover, rather than bring new ideas and new technological developments to their audiences, the musical national bourgeoisie will revel in displays of ostentatious extravagance: the biggest light shows, the loudest speakers, smoke and mirrors but no substance.
African American artists must decide which road they want to travel, but this decision will be made not by the artists themselves, rather it will be made by the community. To the degree that there is a social movement for self development, to that same extent, the community will produce artists who will celebrate the traditions of the people and simultaneously inspire the people to move to higher levels of technological and moral development. In order to be truly revolutionary in this period of worldwide cultural commodification, artists will have to present their music as an extension of a collective, if not national, effort for development.
Baaba Maal’s new release “Firin’ In Fouta” exemplies this development. Using the most modern of equipment, he recorded the traditional sounds of his village and integrated those sounds into the fabric of the music. Women pounding grain establish a specific sounding beat and a rhythm on one track. Children playing are part of the chorus of another song. I believe that all revolutionaries, in whatever sphere, whether political, economic or artistic, inevitably, in the immortal words of Amilcar Cabral, return to the source of their people and bring with them a push for technological development.
There is no such thing as a revolutionary who is out only for him or her self. Especially when they win, you will notice that the alleged revolutionaries immediately turn into tyrants and dictators who mouth slogans while they make themselves rich and do nothing or very little to increase the general productive forces and standards of living for the masses.
This is why benefit performances alone are a sham if the artist is not doing something to develop community. Charity and handouts are inadequate substitutes for development and self reliance. The major problem for African American artists is that once they become popular and successful they immediately remove themselves from day to day contact with their communities and live among the upper echelons of mainstream American entertainers. Thus, they can not reflect their community because they no longer have a community.
But I do not want to get mired down in negativity. Let us look toward the future impact of African American music as an extension of African culture.
SELF DEVELOPMENT AND SELF RELIANCE ARE THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE.
Clearly, wherever we find African people, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, there is a major need for development in all spheres of life but especially so in the area of economic self reliance. Thus, our reality establishes our agenda.
From my critique of African Americans, some may conclude that I despair about their will and ability to contribute to African development. The truth is just the opposite. I believe that African Americans are undergoing a crisis and a rebellion. We have a crisis because after all of our achievements specifically in the area of desegregation of the American society, our crisis is that we are materially and morally worse off as a people. While many of our artists have sold out, an equally large number are very, very concerned about what can be done.
In fact, even among those who have sold out, as they grow older -- and in this case “old” is thirty years old -- they realize that the system does not want them and that both as a representative of their people and as an individual they are rejected by the consumer, youth oriented culture. These artists will not simply disappear.
While we are faced with a crisis, we are also in a period of rebellion because the masses are suffer greater deprivation than anytime in the last two decades. People in the United States are reacting violently and rebelling against authority. While rebellion in and of itself is brief and sometimes even counterproductive if not harnessed, rebellion does establish fertile ground for revoltionary developments.
What is required is cultural liberation movements attached to national development projects. In this regard, I do not think that artists take the lead. As contradictory as it may sound, I believe that a close inspection of our realities will show that revolutionary artists develop out of the demands of revolutionary times. Only when there is ferment in the political, economic and technological spheres will there be revolutionary activity in the artistic sphere. There is no exceptionalism for artists.
Of course there will always be exceptional individuals who can perceive and focus on the revolutionary potential of a situation even when it is underdeveloped. And of course there will always be exceptional individuals who respond to the requirements of the moment in exemplary and innovative ways. But even these individuals can not exist apart from history.
These are my suggestions and recommendations for the revolutionary development of African American music, and by extension, African music in general.
1. The current trend in economic development is multinational. We all know that the biggest problem that African people face is that there are no African nations on the continent and that the nations of the Caribbean are political, economic and technological dwarfs without the indigenous resources to sustain themselves.
At this point it is important to digress to explain what I mean when I say that there are no African nations on the continent. The boundaries for all of the present nation states were drawn by European powers in the interest of Europe. Those of ourselves who consider ourselves Pan Africanists have long saw this as a problem. In trying to come up with solutions to this problem we have traditionally thought like Europeans. By that I mean we have always thought about changing the boundaries, redrawing the boundaries. Well perhaps their is an African solution.
We all know that along many of the borders of African states the people, without benefit of passport or diplomatic recognition, go back and forth between states. Perhaps the easiest way to develop Pan Africanism is not to do away with boundaries in the physical sense but rather in the diplomatic sense. This will of course find immediate objection among the national bourgeoisie and the sitting governments who will fear the loss of power should their opposition flood into their countries. Well, I suggest that the first step be the repatriation of the African diaspora.
African countries should offer dual citizenship to any and all members of the diaspora who are currently citizens of a non-continental African country. (Please bear with me and I will explain how this impacts the music.) This would mean that people in the United States, England, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. could apply for and achieve dual citizenship simply by buying land and paying a small repatriation annual tax. Unless the person took up residence, the repatriation would offer limited citizenship, excluding the right to vote, but after a period of residence, perhaps a year or two, the dual citizenship could include the right to vote.
The fact of the matter is that what most states are looking for skills and venture capital. Dual citizenship for the diaspora would offer both without tampering with the difficult question of Pan Africanism on the continent. In the diaspora, U.S.$50,000 is an insignificant amount of money to invest into a capital project, but invested in Africa that same U.S.$50,000 would be a major investment. Venture capital is relative to the context within which the capital is to be used. The appeal to the diaspora does not have to be altruistic. There is the opportunity for diaspora individuals to profit at the same time that they contribute to national economic development.
In the sphere of music production, this offer of dual citizenship could provide tax incentives and contractual incentives for artists who are currently constrained by U.S. taxes and American based company restrictions. Additionally, this offer would give diaspora artists access to new audiences and new markets. Finally, these artists could also represent their adopted country in international competition and conferences, significantly expanding the national clout of the host country. Of course, this example applies in the all other fields including sports, scientific and technological areas. But specifically within the sphere of musical production, the host country would be able to compete in the international arena and the diaspora artist would gain a home base and expanded market.
2. Cultural interaction is a fundable project for both artists and governments. Just as PANAFEST received support from AT&T, the American government and other international concerns, that support could be increased with the participation of diasporan artists who establish dual citizenship. The increase could be not only in the area of greater funds for PANAFEST, but also in the area of funding for developmental projects which could make use of the aesthetic and technical expertise of diasporan artists.
Artists could be invited to do collaborative projects and long term residencies which would include going throughout the countryside and not simply be limited to the capital city. The Ford, Rockerfeller and other foundations would be very interested in such projects especially if these projects were a joint initiative between diaspora artists and continental governments.
On the aesthetic level along the cross fertilization would offer a fantastic boost to the aesthetic development of the music. The nation state artist would benefit from working with mature diasporan artists and the diaspora artists would benefit by being introduce to traditional African cultures. Again, we are speaking about projects that require commitment at a level beyond cultural commodification for sale by multinational corporations.
3. At the most basic level, linkages can be established to facilitate cultural production. For example, I work with a small, independent recording company in New Orleans. We produce compact discs for approximately U.S.$2.50 to U.S.$3.00 per disc. The disc retail for U.S.$15.00 and wholesale for U.S.$9.00. At the very least, we could be facilitating the production of compact discs. All that would be required is a compact recorder which are currently available in the U.S.$1200 range.
On a national level, the government of various countries could establish national CD manufacturing plants which would offer services to citizens and make it possible for nationals to compete in the international market.
I am prepared to facilitate suggestion number three immediately and would like to take up specific discussion of suggestions one and two. I have intentionally made these suggestions very broad so that there is room for refinement that is necessary in implementation.
I do not think that international cooperation should be left exclusively to the multinational corporations. I believe that the nation states of Africa have a resource available to them whose potential is almost unimaginable. The African diaspora needs Africa in order to provide a national base for collective development and African states need the skills and access to technology and venture capital which the diaspora possesses. I believe that in order for African American music to become a world power again it must do precisely what it did initially and that is present itself to the world incorporated into the political economy of a developing nation. I am suggesting that African American music can become a true representative of African culture, not by extension and in the abstract, but by repatriation in the concrete.
The unification and development of Africa will not happen overnight, nor will it come about based on a European model. It seems to me that the development of African people worldwide requires the reintegration and unification of African productive forces. We must expand the nation state concept at the very same time that we strengthen the political and economic independence and self reliance of all people of African descent. The future belongs to those who unify and work together to change their current realities of under development into a future of cooperative development. One people. One aim. One destiny.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
PANAFEST, UNIVERSITY OF CAPE COAST, GHANA
13 December 1994
GUARDIAN OF THE FLAME:
BIG CHIEF DONALD HARRISON
It was a summer day in December (1998). The sky was clear, high, an almost pastel blue dotted by mere wisps of clouds. The shine of the sun bounced beaming off the white of the church building facade. Coming around the corner, brother man pushed a blue shopping cart that held a yellow fifty gallon trash can with an ice pick stuck on the top perimeter of the plastic container. Dude had a fist full of dollar bills in his left hand. I knew what he was doing. He was selling beer.
"Yeah. Probably that old cheap Budweiser," my good buddy and internationally-exhibited visual artist Willie Birch wisecracked. About three-quarters of an hour later, the vendor had acquired a couple of cases of Lowenbrau in the bottle; had them stashed on the bottom rack of the grocery buggy now improvised into a moving beer kiosk.
I spied a man in brilliant yellow shirt—it does injustice to the shirt to call it yellow, just as it does injustice to the sun to call it hot. The man was standing still, no breeze was blowing but his shirt looked like it was moving. The hue of the deeply mellow, vibrant yellow fabric was so intense that it made gold-dust jealous. Turns out, as we talk, the brother reminds me we graduated from high school together.
Then Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Band, walked up holding his baritone sax. New Orleans musicians have a tradition of resplendent cleanliness—as in mean, clean and beautifying the scene. Roger's sartorial eminence was such that just the hipness of his presence was musical. He stood on the sidewalk with a slight rearward lean, angled just enough to let you know he was hip and not so much that he looked like he was posturing or calling undue attention to himself. I heard strange and wonderful melodies in his insouciant stance, a bluesy riff in the way he unhurriedly unfurled a slow smile when I walked up to congratulate him on maintaining impressively high standards of beauty vis-a-vis male attire.
But before the praise song to Roger was fully out of my mouth, nightclub bouncer and renown gospel singer Joe Cool strolled by in a righteously pressed walking suit. The trouser hem draped softly over the tops of a pair of mustard colored, burnished, kid-glove leather kicks that looked so comfortable he could have worn them on his hands—as I dapped him I bent down and commented, "look at that," pointing with my chin to his lovely loafers, "leave it to you to give them something to look at when they bow down." Joe Cool has a beautiful grin when he is pleased.
Moments earlier, across the street I had seen our consigliori relaxing on the stoop next to one of Treme's most responsible business people (as they were incognito I will not divulge their 9-to-5 identities but I will say they were not visiting, this was their resident neighborhood and everyone who passed them spoke and were spoken to). The three of us were passing pleasantries for a minute when up pops union organizer and environmental racism activist Pat Bryant dress in a black suit, looking like a Baptist preacher. In response to my ribbing about his get-up Pat joked he had a Bible in his back pocket. With a straight face I asked, "what caliber?" He just smiled and showed us neither Bible nor gun. After giving me a conspiratorial glance, Pat said something to our mutual counselor-friend about the low nature of lawyerly work. The attorney calmly parried, "Like Booker T. said, it beats working in the sun." Yeah, that made sense; we knowingly head nodded. Pat leaned toward the counselor to discuss a personal matter, I bid them adieu and re-crossed the street to the church.
Back standing next to Willie, I surveyed the scene. Shimmering and shimmying down the street a block away you could see the feathered form and also hear the drums of new style Mardi Gras Indian, Fi-Ya-Ya. The distance but distinct sound cut through the cacophony of the crowd. Seemed like there was a couple of hundred people milling around the St. Augustine's front entrance at the corner of Gov. Nichols and St. Claude.
Fi-Ya-Ya in all his Indian glory had his headgear on. The mask fitted over his head like a knight’s helmet, or like one of them old paper mache, black and white, skeleton skulls like, well, like community activist/professional agitator Randy Mitchell wore. Randy was belligerently waving a black, pirate-like flag and daring anyone to take a picture of his copyrighted costume.
As I turned to take in Fi-Ya-Ya's arrival, another advertisement for African inspired, colorful splendor stepped softly around the corner. A man whose face I recognized from secondline parades, strode confidently through the crowd, his head cocked upward like a rooster squinting at dawn sky. He had on a black pin striped suit, a blood red silk handkerchief gushed out of his breast pocket, and he was crowned with a white Stetson hat. His spotless skypiece had a small feather stuck in the side that made peacock feathers look dull. I ran up to him, "man, ain't no use in looking for the sun, cause you the only thing shining!" He waved at me good naturedly and laughed.
Earlier I had been inside the church for the musical tribute section but when the mass portion kicked in, the Indian drumming and chanting that was going on outside piqued my interest. Their sharp shouts and sounds that were unignorable as spear stabs periodically pierced the quiet of the church sanctuary. Seemed like the drums were calling me by name. And that’s how I came to be outside greeting a plethora of cultural stalwarts such as Greg Stafford, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band leader/trumpeter and founding member of the Black Men of Labor marching club. Greg was resplendent in white from head to toe, including a tall conical African-inspired headpiece.
While waiting for the body to be released from the church services many of us passed the time by greeting and hugging each other while reminiscing about good times and other great second lines. We were patient. Regardless of what was or was not going on inside, we knew Donald Harrison Sr.would be delivered over to us for a final procession to the burying ground.
(So far I have not talked about the women—there were a couple of sisters so fine that when they strolled through the crowd, men stopped talking and just stood with their mouths gapped open. A little later when my wife Nia came outside and started hugging me as she leaned against my shoulder, Williestarted babbling about how beautiful Nia was. With every syllable, Nia's smile got wider and wider. I know that the significance of this interlude of describing the beauty of the women is lost on some people, but at the risk of being misunderstood, I say to you that where ever there is no deep and profound appreciation of women and music, beauty and dance, in such absence you find a general pallor and dullness to existence, an existence that opulence and ostentatious sex only makes more sad. In any case, as clean as all the men were I described above, apply the splendor of their appearance to the pulchritude of the women.)
Inside the church Fr. LeDoux, had said, there is something in us that celebrates life, celebrates through "music and dancing." He said that: music and dancing. A Catholic priest conducting a mass lauds the centrality of “music and dancing”—obviously this priest is a Black man (and I don't mean biologically, I mean culturally).
The church is decored with the usual artifacts of Christianity, but closer inspection reveals banners proclaiming the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles). Moreover, high up in the balcony, taking up the top wall, instead of a traditional cross there is what looks like a ten to fifteen foot ankh.
The ankh is a traditional African icon—for those who would want me to specify that the ankh is Egyptian, I suggest that you miss the point that Egypt is African, or at least originally was before euro-centric scholars with cultural axes to grind kept trying to point to Greece to explain the science and culture of North Africa. Anyway, there, in St. Augustine Caholic church, the largest religious icon was an ankh.
The ankh represents not simply life in the abstract but also the male and female principle of life in balance. The shape of the ankh has the ovary over the phallus—the circle (actually an upside down teardrop, the pear shape of the earth itself), or female, sits atop, the rod, or male.
Also, unlike most churches which have the pulpit at one end of the church, in St. Augustine the altar is in the middle of the congregational seating and what had originally been the dais and choir area was now where the musicians performed.
Need I tell you that this is a Black church? St. Augustine Catholic church is one of the oldest churches in the city and was built based on money raised by “gens libre de colouer”—free men of color—and by contributions from enslaved Africans who made money from trade and handicraft sales. Moreover, St. Augustine is located in Treme, which is the oldest continuously existing African American neighborhood in the United States.
For an hour before the formal funeral mass, there had been jazz and Mardi Gras Indian drumming, dancing and singing. Trap drummer Shannon Powelland djembe master Luther Gray traded funky pre-funeral licks. Bassist Chris Severin held down the bottom. Milton Batiste bested the younger trumpeters with some absolutely, hideously awe-inspiring trumpet flourishes that favored all the tones that hang around and in between but never at the center of the tempered scale—although, I must say that “Twelve” (aka James Andrews, bka Satchmo of the Ghetto) was right up under Milton with some trumpet wah-wah effects he made by sticking his hand in and over the bell of his horn as if his flesh were a rubber or metal mute. The two Willies (Willie Teeand Willie Metcalf) played the keyboards like balaphons, that uniquely African mixture of melody and percussion. And only son, Donald Harrison Jr.was out front with saxophone—he was on alto, his prettiest voice. And there were plenty more hornmen and drummers coming and going, including the ever effervescent vocalist/trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.
At the end of the musical tribute section I was called on to deliver a poem. I recited “Spirit & Flame.” Much of what I said was chanted, some was not even in English but, nevertheless and unfailingly, most of the people understood every sound I uttered.
* * * * *
Spirit & Flame
(for Big Chief Donald Harrison)
By Kalamu ya Salaam
you think this a costume?
you think this a ball?
you think this a lark?
just for the fun of it all?
Hoo Nan Ney!
the ancestors are enriched / our lives had been made stronger / the flame has purified us / if only / for a moment / the moment / of his flashing / his flaming / his wit / his anger / his upholdance of the legacy / of resistance / intelligence / seriousness / sun seriousness / hot pepper / cayenne colors / the shout of life in the face of whatever / the cultural tourists are calling themselves today / they / will be at the funeral / but who marched with him / when he was alive / who carried the flame / in their mouths / stepped in the sun then / when / no cameras were allowed / who waved hard high / the banner in their hearts / what men and women / sons, daughters / & lovers / who manifested / the dance walk of black shine / guarding the flame of our time / beaconing bright / terrible / and badder than that / on our good days / in our wild ways / when nobody can't tell us nothing / not a goddamn thing / and we sing / and we shout / and we act out / black & red / african culture / of many colors / don't take no trail of tears to his coffin / donald harrison does not need your pity / your moans / about what we gon / do / now that he gone / the fire is not out / if you continue to carry the flame / if your are guardian / if you are in the groove / conscious of who / & what we are / & all we come from / don't cry / don't you moan / stand tall / walk proud / let every waist wind up / let every foot kick forward / let every mouth shout / let every eye shine / don't bow down / go forth unbended / don't bow down / in sorry sorrow / you never saw him sad / as a negro / hoping to become white / by committing cultural suicide / he said feed the fire / keep the burning /grab some knowledge / be a scholar / know yourselves / honor your mother / honor your father / love your people / all they been / and had to be / while working through the slaughter / moving forward / keep on dancing / beat the drum / the drums of life / sing the songs / of who we are / follow his example / don't bow down / stand up straight / and guard the flame / the dark flame / of black fire / black fyah i tell you / fyah / & flame the spirit of struggle / spirit & flame / big chief / donald harrison / fayh chief / guardian / guardian of the flame / guardian of the flame / be a guardian / of the flame / the flame of life / shine on
* * * * *
On one side of the church sat All For One Records founder and former musical director for Sonny & Cher, Harold Battiste dressed in a formal length, black, white-embroidered top of African finery; his elderhood sagely complemented by the upside down halo of his magnificent white wisdom-beard. No one has made as significant an all-around contribution to New Orleans music as has Battiste who is prolific producer, composer and arranger in jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, and pop music.
On the other side of the church, the Big Chief of the Yellow Pochohantas and a man who has masked for over fifty years, Tootie Montana and his wife and chief sewing partner, Joyce Montana sat side by side. They could wear sackcloth and look regal. Throughout the services people walked up to Big Chief Tootie and paid almost as much respects to him as to the Harrison family. Though Donald Harrison Sr.was widely acclaimed for his intellectual prowess and historical insight into the significance of Indian culture, Tootie Montana is considered the most accomplished Mardi Gras Indian suit designer.
After my threnody, members of Chief Harrison’s gang shake tambourines and sing over the coffin, offering a last testament of fidelity to the principles and beliefs of their Big Chief. Also on hand to pay their respects were a number of other Indian chiefs, including some who are from rival uptown gangs.
A veritable who’s who of Black street culture slow marches up and down the church aisle for the last viewing of a man, who perhaps more than any other, argued for full recognition of the cultural significance of Mardi Gras Indians—a calling which significantly his children and grandchildren have actively taken up. His oldest daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson teaches Mardi Gras Indian culture in the public schools and in community workshops. His son, Donald Harrison, Jr.. is a professional jazz musician who has constantly recorded Mardi Gras Indian music and his grandson Brian Nelson has become a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Though, thankfully, his work continues on, undoubtedly Donald Harrison Sr. will be missed.
These services are unlike Catholic funeral services anywhere on this continent. The presiding priest both sings and preaches as legendary blind pianist Henry Butler plays in accompaniment. A trio of women read scripture. The highpoint is Donald Harrison’s instrumental rendition of "Amazing Grace." Predictably, this is truly a memorable New Orleans funeral.
Unfortunately, but also predictably, there were too many cameras (a couple of photographers had been requested by the family, but most were uninvited). Used to be you would only see the small, hand-held deals, now there are camcorders and video crews with ungainly boom cranes and artificial lights. All of this despite two big signs posted on the church's front door "no camera's inside."
Most of the picture taking was futile. No matter what they shot with, none of those pictures could show you the spirit swirling around this gathering for the send off of Big Chief Donald Harrison, the Guardian of the Flame. Only the human soul can appreciate the profoundness of the spirit. A machine at best captures but a pale reflection. If you really want to make a memento of such moments, you should go and osmose the spirit through your pores, inhale the bouquet of real emotions and deep sentiments.
After over an hour of church services, the second line finally began. For a block or so, I slipped inside the eye of the procession, pranced just behind the trombones, saxophones at my side and trumpets nappying up my kitchen with corkscrew tones blown at the back of my head. We proceeded up Ursulines past where James Black used to live (I believe it was his mama's house), where, when brother Black had passed on, the hearse stopped in front the door and the coffin was pulled out and literally thrown up in the air in ritual salute.
Earlier I had hovered at the heart of Indian drumming and chants as we prayed in our own secular way for Big Chief Donald Harrison’s safe journey to the ancestor realm. I am not an Indian nor a musician, but these are my people. I was here to bear witness with the vibrancy of my being, with my tongue chanting and body dancing, with my soul intertwined in celebratory resistance shout with all the others of us all in the street—no building, no structure, no coffin, nothing could contain us. This is why we don't die, we multiply. Every time the butcher cuts one of us down, the rest of us laugh and dance, defying death. It's our way of saying yes to life, saying fuck you to death and his nefarious henchmen, poverty, and racism.
The funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison raises two important questions. First, when does spectacle overtake ritual and, second, in light of the significance of the transition of this particular Big Chief, where do we go from here?
From the beginning in Congo Square on down to the jazz funeral of today, there have always been two kinds of audiences: those of the culture who came to make ritual, to affirm and renew; and those who came to witness (a few to gawk) and be entertained. Both audiences understood something powerful was going on, which is why they both were there/are here.
The ritual participants came, some literally looking like they wore whatever they had worn to work yesterday or maybe even whatever they had worn when they fell asleep slumped over a bar table at three o'clock this morning; or, then again, they came like that fierce sister who wore a circular feathered, multicolored hat about which to say it looked like a crown belittles the splendiferous figure she cut every time she bobbed her head, don't mention when she would turn and smile.
The ritual participants were the beaters of wine bottles and the bearers of babies on their hips. They were those who raided deep into the hearts of their closets to come out with their hippest threads and they were those who just heard the commotion, threw open their front doors, rose up off stoops and porches, and ran to add to the assembly because in the marrow of their being they “feel to believe” they are “called” to join in. These often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They came.
These are the ones who would have been dancers and not just onlookers in Congo Square—the musicians, the singers, the hip swingers, hollering until hoarse, and then shouting some more. These are the people whose existence in and of itself affirms the dynamic of the African way of knowing and celebrating life.
The others, the onlookers were there to be touched by the profundity of the ritual—and while they are welcome to watch, we must understand that no matter what they think of what they see (or what they write or how many pictures they print up and put in books), the onlookers are an appendage and ultimately not even necessary for the functioning of this culture.
Sometimes there are clashes between these two audiences, sometimes there are mergers. These two groups of people are connected in time and place, but are separate in culture and condition. Harrison's funeral makes me pause and ask: when does the spectacle of it, when does the gathering of onlookers, gawkers (especially the wanna-be sly cultural vultures—and you know who you are), when does this press of outsiders become so critical that they color, no, they mar the beauty and integrity of the proceedings?
It wouldn't be so bad, if the non dancers would step to the rear and sit quietly or move out the way, and walk on the sidewalk, but no, some of them are so bold as to want to be up front and personal. And please do not misunderstand this as a veiled referenced exclusively to so-called "white" people. There are a number of Negroes who show through and come back into the hood only when someone dies, and then only for a moment—don't blink your eyes or you will miss them. Like Dorothy, sometimes I wish I could click my heels and make all of them go away. Forever.
African American culture has always had to function under the scrutiny of outsiders, however, the mix is becoming so disproportionate that you can’t hardly feel the heat of the Black fyah because of the damp of so much chilly water.
Sometimes Donald Harrison (both Donald the father and Donald the son) and I would talk about these and other matters. In fact, more and more the nature and preservation of our culture is becoming one of the major topics of conversation wherever the culture bearers gather. Regardless of whether we are misunderstood, there are a significant number of us who will never liquidate our Blackness to indulge in indiscriminate integration, particularly integration of all things Black into anything White. Donald Harrison Sr. could hold court for days about this.
Big Chief Harrison was a studious man, who read voraciously, and thought deeply about being and the meaning of life. I shall not attempt to put words in his mouth, nor to project my own sentiments through him. We need only tell the truth about him. We need only note that he gave name to the "Guardian of the Flame."
What fyah was it that he wanted to keep burning?
The people outside the church was sparking like flint stones clacking against the hard rocks of our place and time. Mayor Marc Morial was inside expressing condolences. Outside Ferdinand Bigard had dressed his son in a Friday night, negroidal-red Indian suit. Donald Harrison Sr.'s body was resting inside the coffin inside the church. Outside Indians were scurrying back and forth, chanting in the street. The fire was outside—also inside to a significant degree, but mainly outside—in the hearts and soul of the people who sang and danced during the musical tribute and retreated to the street to wait out the formal religious part of the funeral.
People do not want to talk about this cultural separation of church and street, especially since the street is the more celebrated. Perhaps, such celebratory discourse sounds sacrilegious and most of us who write and publish in mainstream organs are either Christians or are very reluctant to do anything that might be construed as anti-Christian, but facts is facts. Those who maintain the street culture of New Orleans are mainly blues people who are often very spiritual but who are not necessarily very religious.
Yet, the street folk don’t deny the church it’s place in the community. A significant section of the Black community goes to church, and most Black people, be they Christian or not, believe in “God,” but spiritual beliefs on one hand and strict adherence to Christian doctrine on the other are two different concepts. This African-based spirituality sans Christian religiosity is the difference which demarcates the Black blues people from their fellow Blacks in the community. Moreover, the blues people are generally the marginals of society, the most impoverished materially, but, at the same time, they are the richest in terms of cultural creativity and integrity, and particularly in terms of African retentions (both conscious and unconscious).
New Orleans would be a piss poor place to live were it not for the presence and culture of the Black poor/blues people of New Orleans. The people who don't own a pot to urinate in nor a window to throw it out of (over sixty percent of them are renters!), these are the people whom Donald Harrison spoke of, with and for. These were the people who marched with him on Mardi Gras day. These and another element: the conscious brothers and sisters, kin and kind, who might work at City Hall or for the School Board but who dress out at appropriate occasions and shake their backfields like a saucer of Jello in the hands of a four year old. It is the poor and the conscious elements who align themselves with the poor who keep New Orleans Black culture alive—the ones who will dance at the drop of a hat and can't imagine life without music.
This is what Donald Harrison asked us to keep alive, and this mission speaks directly to the second question: where do we go from here?
The best way to preserve New Orleans culture is to support the people who make the culture. Open doors for them. If you live or work in the big house, then throw food and resources out the window, pass on strategic information. But do it as a religious offering not as a material acquisition or purchase. Make your sacrifice and then go home. Let the spirit carry on. Let those who make music and dance, those who sing and chant, let them be and do what they gotta do without the interference of outsiders of whatever color who have a vested interest in becoming experts on what they have never and can never produce: a culture as vibrant and exultant as New Orleans street culture.
There is room for all at the table, but if you can't cook, get out the kitchen. Make whatever contribution you can and where you can't, get out the way and give the dancers room to do their thing.
Whether onlooker or participant, the passing of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. speaks to us, encourages us, cajoles us—we must carry on: support New Orleans culture. Guard the Flame with the seriousness of your life, because that is precisely what the flame is: life. The flame is all about the joy and celebration of life. Be a guardian of life. Regardless of how cold it does or does not get, let the fyah burn full up!
—kalamu ya salaam
photo by Alex Lear
THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC
Black writers write White. This is inevitable for those of us of the African Diaspora who unavoidably use the language of our historic captivity as though it were our mother tongue when in actually English (Spanish, French, Portuguese or whatever European language) is our father tongue, the language of the alien patriarch who negated our mothers' tongues and mandated we use an other tongue; a white tongue in black mouths.
I believe our music is our mother tongue when it comes to representing the full and most honest spectrum of our thoughts and feelings, our responses and aspirations, our dreams and nightmares concerning who we are and the conditions with which we struggle. At the same time, the father tongue/imposed language is the lingua franca of our daily existence. This mother tongue/father tongue dichotomy represents the articulation of our classic double consciousness. When we make our music, we are our own authorities and our own creators and innovators. When we write the English language, the social authority of the language is vested in the dominant culture.
The language of our dominating step-father is a language that has not only historically degraded us but is also a language which demands conformity to alien values. Moreover, the words of the “King's English” are often incapable of expressing the complexities of our values and realities, especially those values of positive “otherness.” For example, what English words are there that give a positive description for spiritual beliefs outside of the “great religions of the world” (all of which, incidentally, are male-centered, if not outright patriarchal—think of bhudda, krisna, allah and his prophet muhammad, etc. not to mention jehovah and god the father, son and holy ghost)? All of other terms, e.g. animism, ancestor worship, voo-doo, traditional beliefs, all of them have a negative or “less than” connotation.
When we consider the specifics of our history in the Western hemisphere, the negativity is increased in terms of words to describe our reality. There are literally no English words for important segments of our lives. But beyond the negative of our resistance to exploitation and oppression, significant aspects of our existence are “undefined” in standard English, either because similar concepts do not exist or because our concepts are oppositional. In this regard, the Black tendency to coin new words is not just slang, creating words is a necessity if we are to reflect not simply our reality, but also our worldview and our aspirations.
At the same time, Black culture is by nature adoptive and adaptive. We can take anything and make use of it in our own unique way. Thus, the fact that English is a foreign language does not stop us from shaping and literally re-structuring how we use the language to make it work for us. This adaptation of a language we have been forced to adopt is however for the most part an oral activity. When it comes to writing, there is less latitude in the restructuring process. If we wrote the way we talk, few people would be able to read it, sometimes not even the authors, partially because the standards for writing are much more rigidly enforced than the standards for talking, but also because although we can make sounds and use gestures when we talk to give specificity to our utterances, this specificity is lost in the translation to text.
Just as there is no way to accurately notate Black music using standard western notation, there is no way to accurately translate all aspects of Black life into text because, in the words of musician Charles Lloyd, "words don't go there." For technical and/or social reasons, writing the way we speak is then: either impractical, impermissible or just plain impossible.
Yet, this impossible dream—writing Black in a White language—is precisely the task of the Black writer. The limitations of language are merely that: limitations to be overcome. Indeed, although undeniable in their negativity, the limitations of language are actually the least of our problems with writing.
The more we learn about writing, the dumber we get about ourselves.Unless accompanied by a critical consciousness, the formal act of learning to write at the college and graduate level alienates us from the majority of our people. An overwhelming percentage of the examples we are given of great writing inevitably come not only from outside of our cultural realities, many of those examples are often literally apologia for racism, sexism and capitalism (or colonialism). The very process of learning to write well is a process of not simply studying others but indeed a process of adopting the methodologies and values of an alien culture, a culture that has generally been antagonistic to Black existence. As a result, almost by definition, anyone the mainstream considers a good Black writer is either culturally schizophrenic or at the very least ambivalent about the values exhibited by the majority of Black people not only in the United States, but indeed in the whole world.
If any of us spends six or more years intensely studying how to write in an alien language, then, to one degree or another, we can not help but be alienated from our origins if our origins are outside of the culture that we have been taught to master as a writer. One sure indicator of this bi-polar state is the references we use in our work. In general three groupings will stand out: 1. Greek mythology, 2. western canonical writers (Shakespeare to Raymond Carver), and 3. western philosophy (with a notable emphasis on modernity in terms of Freudian psychology, existentialism, and post-modern individualism).
While I do not argue that any of these three groupings are irrelevant to our daily lives—after all we are partially a social product of western culture even as we are marginalized or otherwise shunned by the American mainstream, nevertheless, I do argue that to elevate these cultural references to the major tropes, images and structural devices of our writing implicitly alienates us from those aspects of our own existence that are based on other cultural values and realities.
Indeed, at one level, to engage in intellectual argument via writing reductively requires us to drag into our text words of Latin origin. We can not even restrict our word choice to simple Anglo-origin words, but are forced instead to use multi-syllabic words whose origin is twice removed from our reality. (A quick perusal of the vocabulary used in this essay will illustrate that point.) In any case, the upshot of all of this is that the more we master literacy, the more non-Black our expression becomes because the formal mastery of literacy is synonymous with covert indoctrination in western views and values. This is the dilemma of academic study that all writers of color face.
So profound is this dilemma that many of us who have mastered writing become so alienated from our "native" selves that we are unable to move an audience of working class Black people whether the audience members are reading our books or listening to us recite. How odd then, for example, to be a Black poet with an MFA in creative writing and be unable to rock a Black audience. But then one of the purposes of our education was to teach us to act like and fit in with people who historically achieved their success by excluding and/or oppressing and exploiting us.
Please do not construe this as an argument against MFA writing programs or against studying writing in college. I strongly believe in the value of study both formal and informal. The question is do we go to school to learn how to do what we want to do, ever mindful of the institutional objective, which is to make us like them, or do we go to school to prepare ourselves simply to fit in, to get a good job, to be recognized by the mainstream as a good writer? Or, to put it in other terms (community to student): "we sent you there to bring back some fire, not to become mesmerized by the light show!”
This brings us face to face with a profound fact of the Black literary tradition—almost without exception, those Black writers who have made the greatest contribution to our national literature were either self-taught or were consciously oppositional to the mainstream in both their content as well as in their use of language. Think of a Dunbar despondent that he was never accepted for writing in straight English; other than dialect poems his most lasting contribution are poems such as The Caged Bird Sings and We Wear The Mask, poems which focus on the dilemma of alienation. Think of highly educated W. E. B. DuBois whose great body of work is a veritable arsenal of charges against the west and is a celebration of Black life and resistance to oppression. Think of Langston Hughes, Richard Wight, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka—all of them self taught. Think of Francis Ellen Harper, an activist author; Ida B. Wells, an activist author; Toni Cade Bambara, an activist author; all of them autodidacts. Or if we want to consider those who were specifically educated as writers think of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Pultizer prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, or Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander; all of whom focused their magnificent and often iconoclastic work on the lives and struggles of working class Black people. These and many others are the great writers of our literary tradition.
Just as not one great musical innovator within the realms of blues, jazz, gospel and Black popular music has become a great creator primarily as a result of formal musical education, in a similar vein not one major Black writer who has been college educated has made a profound impact on our literature (or in American literature as a whole for that matter) unless that writer has consciously taken an oppositional stance. This is no accident. Indeed, throughout our history thus far in America, opposition to the mainstream has been a prerequisite of Black greatness in any social/cultural endeavor. Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen.
It is too soon to tell whether what is sometimes referred to as the "New Black Renaissance" in Black literature will produce major contributions to the historic continuum of Black literature. While it is true that popular production is at an all time high, as the case of romance writer Frank Yerby demonstrates, there is a big difference between popularity and profundity, between best sellers and classic contributions to the tradition. Frank Yerby dominated the bestseller lists for romance in the fifties, yet his work is hardly read and seldom referred to today. Will many of today's bestsellers be subject to the same popularity vs. profundity syndrome?
Capitalism materially rewards commercial success and, in the process, emphasizes the entertainment values and minimalizes the political values of the work. Art becomes a spectacle and/or product for distribution and sale, rather than a process and/or ritual for community upliftment. Indeed, there are those who argue that that an emphasis on political relevance is an artistic straight jacket. My response is that the diminution, if not total negation, of relevance is a hallmark of commercialism, a philosophy that is best summed up in the adage: everything is for sale. I am not arguing against entertainment. I am arguing for relevance and for the elevation of people before profits, community before commercialism. Or to borrow a phrase from Jamaica's Michael Manley: "We are not for sale."
When the Bible asserts, What profits it a man to win the world and loose his soul?, a fundamental truth is raise. Do we understand that soul is a social concept, that our existence as individuals is directly dependent on social interactions? The writer who is alienated from self, invariably argues for the supremacy of the individual, the right to write and do whatever he or she wants to do without reference to one person's affect on or relationship with others. Whether pushed as good old American, rugged individualism or post-modern self-referentialism, the outcome remains the same: alienation from community and schizophrenia of the personal self.
Unless we consciously deal with the question of alienation, we as writers will find ourselves unconsciously and subconsciously at odds not only within our individual psyches but with our native (i.e. childhood) and ethnic community howsoever that community may be defined. This fundamental fact is not a problem peculiar or exclusive to Black writers, it is a problem for all writers in America.
Whom we are writing for determines what and how we write. Writing presupposes audience, assumes that the reader can understand or figure out the message or meaning of the text. Some writers write for the approval of other writers, others seek to impress critics, many attempt to capture a popular audience of book buyers. Those are but a few of the many audience segments that influence, if not outright determine, the nature of writing. In ways often transparent to or not consciously acknowledged by the writer, the tastes and interests of the presumed audience actually shape the writing. Choices of subject matter and vocabulary, style and genre are all interconnected to the interpretative abilities and desires of the presumed audience.
The authority of the audience as auditor is particularly important for writers who are peripheral to or marginalized from whatever is the mainstream of the language that the writer uses.
All writing also brings with it a tradition. Over time standards of literacy develop. The writer then may seem to be a Janus-figure: glancing in one direction at the audience and trying to shape the writing to appeal to or at least be understood by the assumed audience, and glancing in the opposite direction trying to match or exceed the prevailing literary standards. For writers of color in the United States the very act of writing alienates us from our native audience most of whom are not readers grounded in the literary traditions of the text's language.
I would argue that the truth is that every writer goes down to the crossroads—and not once or twice in a career, but each and every time we write, whether consciously by choice or de facto as a result of the particular spin we put on the style and contend of what we do. We choose between speaking to the truths of our individual and collective existence or serving mammon by scripting products for the commercial mill. We choose whether to pander to our audiences by concentrating on pleasure and thereby winning applause and popularity, or to prod and push our audiences to recognize the reality of our existence and to struggle to improve and beautify the world within which we live. In this regard, a more important metaphor for the Black writer is Elegba, the trickster Orisha of the crossroads.
In the final analysis, writing is a conversation, and even if we can not tell the pilgrim which way to go, certainly we should tell the pilgrim from whence we have come, what brought us here and what is the nature of the "here" where we now find ourselves. Moreover, the point is not simply the content. The point is also the conversation. Not just what we are saying, but also with whom we are speaking, to whom we are writing.
One of the sad truths of Black writing is that most of us are employed to be guides (some would say pimps) of Blackness. In order to succeed in mainstream terms, serving as a translator of Black life, explaining the exotica (inevitably with an erotic twist) to the non-Black mainstream is almost unavoidable. But who will explain Black life to Black people? Who will break down the whys and wherefores of our daily existence in a language that our mothers and fathers can understand and appreciate, that our children can embrace and learn from?
The question of audience is seldom raised directly in school but is implicitly dictated by the writings suggested as models. When was the last time our people were validated as the authority for our work, not simplistically as the consumers to buy our books or CDs, not duplicitously as the voters to determine a popularity contest, but sincerely as the validators who determine the ultimate relevance and value of our literary work?
I believe the question of audience is a dynamic rather than static question. I believe in audience development. I believe that we must both reach out to our people and we must teach our people, we must embrace our people and we must challenge our people, we must elevate our people and we must critique our people, and ditto for ourselves and our peers. I believe in cycles rather than linear development. I believe in constantly doing one's best rather than achieving perfection by creating a masterpiece or two. There will always be contradictions, but the motion of our work need not be in a negative direction.
Writing is often defined as a lonely profession. I do not believe it has to be that way. Part and parcel of developing audience is developing community—as writers we need to create networks and organizations of support for one another. We need to model audience development and not simply leave it to retailers and investors to market us while pitting one writer against another. In order to know what to write about in terms of defining, defending and developing our communities, we must actively be engaged in defining, defending and developing community. If we can not develop community among our colleagues, how then will we be in a position to realistically inspire and/or instruct our audiences?
The question of audience is the ultimate question in our quest to contribute to the development of a Black literary tradition. I do not believe in racial essentialism nor in racial proscriptions. Just because one is a Black who writes, that does not mean that one's work has to be part and parcel of the Black literary tradition. I believe that Blackness is color, culture and consciousness, and that color is the least important component. Cultural awareness and practice is important, but consciousness—choosing to identify with and work on behalf of Blackness—is the ultimate sine qua non.
Each of us can choose to reject an allegiance to Blackness howsoever “Blackness” might be defined. We have the right to identify with any one or even with a multiple of human social orders. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Blackness among African Americans is the rejection of Blackness as a defining marker of self-definition! Moreover, I do not denigrate those who choose social options that I reject—everybody has a right to define themselves. However, for those of us who are writers and choose Blackness, I suggest that we have chosen a difficult but exhilarating path. We have chosen to pass on the torch of that old Black magic, a firelight that started the saga of human history, a mighty burning whose bright Blackness continues to stress the sacredness of love, community and sharing.
—kalamu ya salaam
photo by Alex Lear
THE IMPORTANCE OF
AN AFRICAN CENTERED EDUCATION
This topic requires us to ask a question first, not just the obvious question of “What is an African centered education”, but what is required is posing the even more profound question: “an African centered education for whom and for what purpose?”
I do not presuppose that a hypothetical African centered education is in and of itself of major value unless we know whom and what we are speaking about as both the subjects and the objects of that education, and unless we are clear on what is the purpose of such an education. My contention is that audience and purpose are the two least discussed sides of the African education triangle, whose third side is the content or curriculum of African centered education. Except for a brief comment at the end, I will focus my presentation on the questions of identity and goals.
The dominant society Euro-centric educational modality presupposes that their education system is good for everyone, and if not good for everyone in the abstract, is de facto required of everyone over whom they have dominion, which is a large percentage of the world. Second, the dominant society presupposes that their education is a requirement of civilization. Unfortunately, many of us who reject Euro-centric educational information, often adopt Euro-centric educational methods and philosophy. We presuppose that audience is not a major question and that a dominating intent is a given.
In addition to defining African centered education in terms of philosophy and curriculum, when we address this issue of African education it seems to me to be important for us to also clarify who the “we” of African education is and what is our purpose in obtaining an African centered education. Answering those two concerns, i.e. the identity of the audience and the intended goal of achieving education, will enable us to realistically define “African centered education” grounded in the context of functionality rather than abstracted into the context of rhetoric and fantasy.
Let us first, then, consider the question of the identity of our audience, which, of course, presupposes, that we identify ourselves. First of all, my concern for Africa is defined by Africa the people and not simply Africa the land. Wherever we are and whatever we do, taken in its totality, that defines what Africa is.
Our ancient civilizations are important but they are not the sole criterion. Indeed, to the degree that our traditional life did not enable us to withstand the blows of the empire, to the degree that our traditional gods did not enable us to reject the missionary impulses or at the very least incorporate the new god into our beliefs rather than having the new god dictate the rejection of our traditions, to the degree that our traditional values and beliefs collaborated with the European invaders, to that same degree I suggest there are African traditions which, at best, need to be modified and, perhaps, even ought to be discarded.
My first position is that I celebrate people and my second position is that I am critical not just of my historic enemies but also I am, and indeed must be, self critical.
I do not buy the myth of race, the myth of racial universality, the myth of dualism, i.e. a thing, a person, an action is ipso facto either good or bad, and is not subject to transformation nor contextulization. I believe in the traditional African dialectic which recognizes that everything is contextual and all things are capable of transformation.
Moreover, I believe, nationalism as currently practiced is not only a dead end in terms of social development, I believe nationalism as currently practiced is ultimately a socially negative philosophy that inevitably invites the demarcation of territory and the raising of the flag of individual ownership of the earth.
There are no African countries in Africa. Each one of those countries are European defined entities which, at best, are administered by Africans, and usually Africans who are European educated. In fact, the concept of Africa as we speak of it, is itself a European concept, a bundling together of various peoples and beliefs under a racist label to facilitate colonialism. There will be no true African nationalism until the nation states of Africa are redesigned to facilitate the development of African people rather than maintained as a leftover form of colonial domination, forms which were established to serve the interest of English, French, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent German and Belgium colonizers.
So I suppose, now is as good a time as any to deal with the question of what do we mean by African. What is an African? Is this a racial definition? Is this a cultural definition? Is this a political definition based on historical relations of the last five or six hundred years?
Obviously, whether we want to or not, we must confront this issue of self definition head on. For example, are mulattos, i.e. mixed blood Africans, any less African than those who are unmixed? Be careful how you answer, because it is not our way to exclude. If we look around the room it is obvious that we African Americans are a mulatto people -- not by choice in most instances, but regardless we are mixed. Does that make us as a mulatto people any less African than continental Africans?
The first task of an African centered education is to help us define what being African is. I believe that Africans, and all other people, are defined by color, culture and consciousness.
Color is a racial definition, race in the sense of breeding population, a group of people with common genetic roots. I also believe that rather than create sub-categories, and sub-categories, and breakdowns to the point of absurdity such as quadroons, octoroons, etc., we should acknowledge quite simply a normative standard. For me, African is inclusive. One can racially claim Africa if some (although not necessarily all) of one’s ancestors are racially African and if one chooses to continue that racial identity. My qualifying “and” quite simply recognizes that if a single person who is racially African decides to dissolve him or herself into another group, be they Asian or European, then, over generations, the individual’s Africaness will cease to be an issue. In fact, my caveat is that color is not an individual definition but is a group and generational definition.
Culture is a way of life, again defined by normative or group standards. The culture one exhibits is the culture that defines the person. We can learn, understand, and relate to many different cultures, but in the final analysis it is our social living which determines which culture we are. Most human beings are born into a culture, but it is also possible to adopt a culture, and over generations become native to the adopted culture.
Consciousness is the critical element, particularly in the context of liberation. We must be aware of our people and culture, accept our people and culture, and immerse ourselves in our people and culture. Awareness means more than simple experiencing. Indeed one can witness and not understand, just as one can understand without being a witness. The best is to both witness, i.e. experience, and to understand, i.e. critically reflect on the culture. Given the reality of colonialism and neo-colonialism, it is impossible to be African in the modern world without being socially conscious of what it means to be African, what racism means, what colonialism means. To be African is to be self-reflective.
Thus I define African in terms of color, culture and consciousness.
African Identification Within The Context of the United States.
I believe that there are three major categories of social identification for African Americans in the context of the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century. First there is the question of race, and more precisely, the question of racism. Racism has undeniably affected every area of our lives, and to the degree that an education does not address or avoids addressing the reality and effects of racism, to that same degree such an education risks being irrelevant, regardless of its nomenclature or subject matter. So then in a modern context, an African centered education will analyze and offer methods of coping with, if not out and out destroying, racism.
Second there is the question of class stratification and class identification. Class stratification refers to a person or group’s economic identity vis-a-vis the economic or productive forces of that society. It is not simply a question of income. It is also a question of where one fits in relation to maintaining the economic status quo. A professional, a public school teacher or corporate secretary, may make a smaller hourly wage than a carpenter, but the professional has had to undergo specific social training in addition to skill development.
The professional is expected to be more “civilized,” more “mannered” than the laborer. What does that mean? It means quite simply that part of being a professional is identifying with and adopting the social values of the dominant society. Indeed, the professional is responsible for propagating those values. In many ways the professionals are priests of the status quo. So then when we talk about a class analysis, income alone can be misleading. We should make an analysis of the relationship to and function on behalf of the economic status quo. An African centered education must attack capitalism, the economic philosophy which elevates the bottom line (or material acquisition) as the measure of social development rather than social relations within a society as the measure of social development.
Third is the question of gender relations. I believe that the establishment of the patriarchy, i.e. male domination of women, was the first battle waged by Europeans in their attempt to colonize the world. Indeed, their whole mythology begins with overthrowing the matriarchy wherever it existed. Greek legends of the gods, Zeus raping Europa, or giving birth to a female god sprung from his forehead, are all nothing more than mythological rationalizations of patriarchal domination.
Christianity and Islam continue this trend introduced by the Greeks. Christianity goes so far as to propagate the myth that a man is a “mother”, specifically that Adam, a man, through the intercession of god, gave birth to Eve, a woman. Furthermore, most classical Christian theology does not recognize women as fit to act as intermediaries to and representatives of god. Islam’s virulent strain of misogyny is even more oppressive. This question of gender relations also raises the issue of heterosexism in the form of violence against homosexuals for no other reason than homosexuals are different and not like normal people. An African centered education would elevate matriarchy and attack patriarchy.
Although anyone of these three strains could be explored at some length, that is not the focus under consideration here. I simply wanted to identify, the three major lines of social demarcation in the contemporary context.
Before moving on, I do think it important to point out, that one can be anti-racist but be capitalist and sexist, or could be anti-capitalist and be racist and sexist. I am saying that a progressive position on one side of the triangle, does not guarantee a progressive position on the other sides -- and, yes, I am defining as progressive, ideological and social struggle around anti-sexism and opposition to heterosexism, particularly opposition to so-called homophobia.
Finally, on this question of relevance, my basic contention is that in order for an African centered education to be meaningful it needs to be focused on development, meeting the needs of the working class masses of our people, both the employed and the unemployed, rather than focus on the career development of African American professionals, particularly those professionals whose day to day work is within the context of predominately, dominant culture, educational and business institutions. Moreover, African centered education should definitively be opposed to the development of a Black bourgeoisie, a Black class of owners who profit off the exploitation of the African masses.
If an African centered education does not specifically address itself to the needs of our people then it has failed to be relevant to the struggle although it may have great relevance to individuals in their quest for tenure, for promotions, and for political office. As Sonia Sanchez so eloquently noted a number of years ago in evaluating a position put forth by some well meaning brothers, we should respond to all advocates of ungrounded and non-contemporary Afrocentricity with this phrase: “Uh-huh, but how does that free us!”
How does that free us is precisely the question to ask -- especially when we are clear on who “us” is. I am not interested in joining any atavistic, nostalgic society that knows more about what happen four thousand years ago, four thousand miles away than it does about what happened forty years ago within a four mile radius of where we meet today. The purpose of calling on our ancestors is to sustain life in the present and insure life in the future, and not simply nor solely to glorify the past.
Our people have very real needs today. We are faced with very real problems. For instance, as quiet as its kept, African American women are quickly becoming the number one victim of AIDS. This coupled with the dramatic rise in breast cancer deaths among African American women suggests a fundamental area of struggle far more important than arguing whether Alice Walker is dipping her nose in other people’s business in her crusade against female sexual mutilation.
At the same time, I must note, that quite clearly, a contemporarily grounded African centered education would not only support the struggle against female sexual mutilation, it would also offer an analysis of that phenomenon and point out that sexual mutilation is strongest in those area of Africa where Islam is the strongest. Part of what we are witnessing is the brutalness of male domination of women, regardless of the fact that, on the surface it may seem like, women are willingly participating. We African Americans surely can understand self collaboration in oppression, we who have a long and regrettable history of house negroism.
I reiterate the need to be self critical and the need to be grounded in the lives of our people. Far too many Afrocentrics are petit bourgeoisie professionals who are based at predominately Eurocentric educational institutions. Far too much of the focus of contemporary Afrocentrism is on the long ago and far away. Where is the community base? Where is the focus on the needs of the community? To a certain extent, much of what we see in some narrow Afrocentric theorists is an attempt to compensate for years spent suffering under the constant and withering intellectual onslaught of formal education teaching Black professionals that Black people are intellectually inferior. After one has invested so many years in academe, one sometimes spends an equally inordinate amount of time researching to prove to Whites that Black people are not only as smart as Whites, but indeed that we were the world’s first smart people. “Uh huh, but how does that free us?”
The issue is not about proving anything to Whites. The issue is meeting the needs of our people, being grounded in our people. Furthermore the inordinate amount of energy devoted to the study, praising and admiration of African kings and pharaohs displays a serious sense of inadequacy and disdain for the common woman and man. What difference does it make to me how smart the leader was if the majority of the people are kept in ignorance? I don’t care what the priests knew about life, what did Ayo and Kwaku know, what did Bertha and Joe know? I don’t care how intelligent and spiritually refined the royal order was, what were the conditions, relative level of educational achievement and qualitative life of the people who were like you and I? Tell me about the lives of the masses, what we didn’t, what we did. Let us learn from our mistakes and build on our achievements in the context of building serious social relationships among ordinary people rather than this almost mystical interest in kings and things.
I agree with Amilcar Cabral that the focus of the African professional ought to be to commit class suicide. Rather than identify with the dominant society via a focus on developing professional skills for the purpose of being a more productive professional or for self aggrandizement, professionals ought to focus their skills on the uplift and development of the African American working class (whether actively employed or unemployed). This is what DuBois had in mind as a mission for the so-called “talented tenth.” Today, too many who would qualify as talented tenthers on the basis of education have deserted the mission, and it was the mission, and not the level of educational attainment, which defined the talented tenth in DuBois’ perspective.
Mission fulfillment is not a question to be taken lightly, because it is no small nor straight forward task to work in the interest of one’s people if most of the work opportunities are controlled by our oppressors and exploiters, and if the remuneration, both monetarily and socially, are so meager when one works in a predominately and/or all Black setting, that one is not able to sustain one’s self. We are faced with the task not only of waging political struggle but also we must engage in the very real struggle of economic support for one’s self and for those whom one has the responsibility of sheltering, rearing, or otherwise nurturing, not to mention economic support of the struggle itself. There is a subjective reality of survival involved in committing class suicide. But greater than the subjective question of individual survival is the objective question of group direction.
The upliftment of the masses does not mean that our task is to turn our brothers and sisters into “junior Europeans” (to quote Kgositsile). The upliftment of our people does not mean that we are trying to civilize anyone, or to teach them how to wear business suits and ties, or to show them how to pay taxes and speak properly. In fact it means quite the opposite. The upliftment of our people means securing and returning to the hands of our people the power to define and determine our own lives. Upliftment quite simply means to end outside domination and exploitation, and to reintroduce our people as the subjects, the makers and shapers of their own destiny.
In order to fulfill this mission, the petit bourgeois, the professionals, the educated, will have to physically and psychologically reintegrate themselves into the day to day life of the people who they hope to uplift. They will have to speak to and with working people about an expanded sense of the world and our ability to actively participate in building the future. Additionally, they will also have to listen to and respond to the concerns, aspirations and ideas of the working people. In short they will have to be organizers who both bring information and skills to serve our people as well as receive sustenance and inspiration to keep on developing. In short we are talking about the particular (the professional) and the general (the people) engaged in a dialectic of self-development and self-empowerment that neglects neither and enriches both —properly speaking a European language is not a prerequisite of this process.
I hope that these observations with regards to goals and identity vis-a-vis African centered education make a contribution to the ongoing discussion and struggle to achieve peace and liberation for people of African descent wherever in the world we are today! In closing, please allow me this one additional observation.
African American cultural expression, particularly African American music, on a world level is the single most influential force in contemporary African life. Moreover, among African Americans, our music is also the most expressive language of our community. The emotions, thinking, and soul of our people are expressed through our music. Indeed, before our writers and other intellectuals are able to articulate our realities, the essentials of that reality have been expressed in the music. Assuming that this assessment of our music is true, the question must be asked: how come many of us Black intellectuals can’t or choose not to sing, dance or perform our music? How come we don’t write about our music, do serious studies of our music which are detailed and insightful rather than non-serious miscellaneous general platitudes? If our music is so important how is it that in practice we devote so little attention to the study, documentation and propagation of Great Black Music? How come we don’t advocate the economic control of our music in terms of our own actual participation in the dollar and labor investment in the development of recording companies, distribution companies, production companies, and critical journals? If we are truly African centered, beyond listening to watered down versions of our music on the radio and owning five or six records, how come our personal libraries are so lacking in recordings, not to mention books on and about, our music? How come we are becoming experts on and conversant in Egyptian hieroglyphics but can’t tell the different between the sound of Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker, not to mention have never actually listened to Robert Johnson or Rev. Gary Brown? How come we ignore our music? Could it be that we are not as African in the day to day expression and understanding of our culture as we talk and dress like we are?
That’s just a little something to think about. I encourage questions and dialogue both now and after this particular session. I encourage sharp criticism of the system and sharp self criticism. I end with this poem.
There Is Nothing Inexact About Misty
(For Erroll Garner)
saints transform the world with the insistent
art of their actions
anviling the mundane inertia of america
into an ephemeral spiritual sublimity
unclogged by bathetic sentimentality but
nonetheless full of feeling, after all
which is more important: rocket science or creative
music emoting the ethos of its era?
far more valuable than scientific esoteria
is the subtle articulation of sensitive souls in motion
nakedly singing world witness, propelling
us to dare transformation into what does not now exist
to demystify technology, be unintimidated by history
& as adventurous as a kitten up a tree, look at
the lyrical possibilities of your life,
if you are brave and disciplined enough
to openly express your total self
secure in the primal knowledge that
no matter how high
you go or don’t, ultimately
all life is really
about is how deep you are
photo by Alex Lear
Could You Wear My Eyes?
At first Reggie wearing my eyes after I expired was beautiful; a sensitive romantic gesture and an exhilarating experience. For him there was the awe of seeing the familiar world turned new when viewed through my gaze, and through observing him I vicariously experienced the rich sweetness of visualizing and savoring the significance of the recent past.
I'm a newcomer to the spirit world, so occasionally I miss the experience of earth feelings, the sensations that came through my body when I had a body. I can't describe the all encompassing intricate interweave of spirit reality -- "reality" is such a funny word to use in talking about what many people believe is so unreal. I can't really convey to you the richness of the spirit world nor what missing human feelings is like. I'm told eventually we permanently forget earth ways, sort of like when we were born and forgot all those pre-birth months we spent gestating in our mother's womb, in fact, most of us even forget what it feels like to be a baby. Well the spirit world is something like always being a baby, constant wonder and exploration.
Reggie must have had an inkling of the immensity of the fourth dimension --which is as good a name as any for the spirit world--or maybe Reggie guessed that there was a meta-reality, or intuited that there was more to eyes than simply seeing in the physical sense. But then again, he probably didn't intuit that this realm exists because, like most men, centering on his intuition was difficult for Reggie, as difficult as lighting a match in a storm or imagining being a woman. In fact, his inability to adapt to and cope with woman-sight is why he's blind now.
I was in his head and I don't mean his memories. I mean literally checking his thoughts, each one existing with the briefness of a mayfly as Reg weighed the rationality of switching eyes. This was immediately following those four and a half anesthetized days I hung-on while in the hospital after getting blindsided by a drunk driver a few blocks beyond Chinese Kitchen where I had stopped to get some of their sweet and sour shrimp for our dinner. Through the whole ordeal Reggie never wavered. Two days after my death and one day before the operation, Reginald woke up that Monday morning confident as a tree planted by the water. Reggie felt that if he took on my eyes then he would be able to have at least a part of me back in his life.
He assumed that with my eyes he maybe could stop seeing me when he brushed, combed and plaited Aiesha's thick hair or sat for over an hour daydreaming at her bedside while she slept, looking at our daughter but thinking of me; or maybe once my chestnut colored pupils were in his head then my demise wouldn't upset him so much he'd have to bow his head like he was reverently praying when a woman jumps up in church to testify--like sister Carol had done the day before--and has on a dress the same color as the one I often wore.
Reginald was so eager to make good as a husband and father, to redeem whatever he thought was lost because of the way he came up. I am convinced he didn't really know me. He had this image, this ideal and he wanted that in the worse way. Wanted a family, a home. And I was the first woman he ever loved and who ever loved him. All the rest had been girls still discovering themselves. We married. I had his child. And for him everything was just the way it was supposed to be. For me, well, let us just say, some of us want more out of life without ever really identifying what that more is and certainly without ever attaining that more. So, in a sense, I settled -- that's the woman Reginald married. And in another sense, there was a part of me that remained restless. I hid that part from Reginald. But I always knew. I always, always knew me and yes, that was what really disoriented Reginald. He loved me and I could live with his love, but until he wore my eyes he never got a glimpse of the other me.
I used to think there was something wrong with me. I should have been totally happy. Of course, I loved our daughter. I loved my husband. I could live with the life we had, but... But this is not about me. This is about the man whom I married. I married Reginald more because he loved me so much than because I loved him back like that--I mean I loved him and all but I would never have put his eyes into my head if he had been killed and I had been the one still alive.
After we went through all the organ donation legal rigmarole, we actually celebrated with a late night seafood dinner; that was about eight and a half months before Aiesha was born. Just like getting married, the celebration was his idea, an idea I went along with because I had no good reason not to even though I had a vague distaste, a sort of uneasiness about the seriousness that Reginald invested into his blind alliegance to me. You know the discomfort you experience when you have two or three forkfulls left on your plate and you don't feel like eating anymore, but you have always been taught not to waste food so you eat that little bit more. Eating a few more mosels is no big thing but nonetheless forcing yourself leaves you feeling uneasy the rest of the evening. I can see how I was, how I hid some major parts of myself from Reginald and how difficult I must have been to live with precisely because he didn't really know the whole person he was living with, and he would be so sincerely worshiping the part of me that he envisioned as his wife, while inside I cringed and he never knew that despite my smiles how sad I sometimes felt because I knew he didn't know and I knew I was concealing myself from him. Besides, what right did I have not to eat two little pieces of chicken or not to go celebrate my husband's decision to dedicate his life to me?
In hindsight I came to realize I shouldn't have let him give me things I didn't want. Reginald would have died if he had known that having or not having a baby didn't really make that much difference to me. He wanted... You know, this is really not about me. When we went to celebrate our signing of the donation papers, I didn't know then that I was pregnant but even if I had, we wouldn't have done anything differently; stubborn Reginald had his mind made up and, at the time, I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the sincerity and dedication of Reg's declaration--my husband's pledge to wear my eyes was unmatched by anything I had previously imagined or heard of. When somebody loves you like that you're supposed to be happy and if you aren't well then you just smile and, well, I think when he saw the world through my eyes he saw both me and the world in ways he never imagined.
The doctors told Reginald there usually weren't any negative side effects, although in a rare case or two there were some unexplained hallucinations but, even for those patients, counseling smoothed out the transition. The first week after the operation went ok and then the intermittent double visions started. For Reggie it was like he had second sight. He saw what was there but then he also saw something else.
Sometimes he would go places he never knew I went and get a disorienting image flash from a source about which he previously would never have given a second thought, like the svelte look of a waiter at a cafe, a guy whose sleek build I really admired. Reginald never envisioned me desiring some other man. I don't know why, but he just never thought of me fantasizing sex with someone else and now suddenly Reginald looks up from a menu and finds himself staring at a man's behind. Needless to say, such sightings were disconcerting. Or like how the night I got drunk on Tequila would flash back every time I saw limes. Reginald is in a supermarket buying apples and imagines himself retching, well, he thinks he's imagining dry heaves but he's really seeing the association of being drunk with those tart green, lemon-shaped fruit. And on and on, til Reggie's afraid to go anywhere new, afraid he'll run into another man I had made love to that he never knew about, like this person he saw in a bookstore one day, a bookstore Reginald never went in but which I used to frequent. That's how I had met Rahsaan. Reggie just happened to be passing the place, looked inside the big picture window and immediately peeped Rahsaan. When he looked into the handsome obsidian of Rahsaan's face with it's angular lines that resembled an elegant African mask, Reginald got the shock of his naive life. He didn't sleep for two whole days after that one.
And when he closes our eyes to sleep, it's worse. A man should never know a woman's secret life; men can not stand so much reality. Their fragile ego's can't cope. It's like they say in Zimbabwe: men are children and women are mothers. Being a child is about innocence, about not knowing the realities that adults deal with every day. Men just don't know the world of women. So after Reginald adopted my eyes, you can just imagine how often he found himself laying awake at night, staring into the dark trying to make sense out of the complex of images he was occasionally seeing: awakened by the terror of a particularly vivid dream in which he saw how he had treated me, sometimes abusing me when he actually thought he was loving me--like when we would make mad love and he wanted me to suck him, he would never say anything, just shove my head down to his genitals. Sex didn't feel so exquisitely good to him to see his dick up close, the curl of his pubic hair.
Although the major episodes kept him awake and eventually drove him down to the riverside, it was the unrelenting grind of daily life's thousands of tiny tortures that propelled poor Reg over the edge. Looked like every time he turned around in public he felt unsafe, felt vulnerable to assault from men he previously would never have bothered to notice. Seemed like my eyeball radar spotted potential invaders everywhere Reg looked: how to dodge that one, don't get on an elevator with this one, make sure there's always another person nearby when you're in a room with so-and-so. And even though as a man Reg was immune to much of the usual harassment, it became a real drag having to expend a ton of precautionary emotional energy in the course of taking a casual stroll down the block to buy some potato chips. The strain of always being on guard was too much for Reg; he became outraged: nobody should have to live like this is the conclusion he came to.
He never knew when the second sight would kick in and the visioning never lasted too long but the incidents were always so viscerally jolting that they emotionally disoriented him. In less than two weeks it had reached the point that just looking at make-up made Reg sick. He unconsciously reacted to seeing some shades of lipstick by wetting his lips with his tongue, like there was something inappropriate about him having unpainted lips--a vague but powerful feeling that he was wrong for being like he was started to consume him. And he couldn't bear to watch cable anymore.
The morning Reginald blinded himself, he stood on the levee staring into the sun without squinting. Silent tears poured profusely down his cheeks. He kept saying he had always thought our life together was beautiful, and he never knew I had suffered so. And then he threw a twelve ounce glass, three-quarters full of battery acid onto his face, directly into our unblinking eyes. A jogger that morning found Reginald on his knees, shrieking. The runner ran to a house and begged the people who lived there to call an ambulance for a Black guy folded over on the levee screaming about he didn't want to see anymore, couldn't stand to see anything else.
—kalamu ya salaam
photo by Alex Lear
AND THEN THEY LAUGHED
A somber, chartreuse funk deftly settles expectantly into the cushions of the wicker sofa right between John and Angela. Scooting its ass back deep into the throw pillows with the oriental scenes embroidered on them, looking from left to right, back and forth, checking out first the woman and then the man, the woman, the man, and greedily anticipating a rousing good fight, funk's emerald eyes were shinning with a scintillating brilliance.
(If you were John right now you would be wondering why this woman was being so hard on you, calling your cards marked, your dealing cheat, throwing her hand to the floor, turning the table over and screaming about the sins of gambling.
(If you were Angela right now you would be wondering why do men make you treat them so hard, why do they take a woman who sleeps by herself for some kind of rainbow trout to be caught with hook words, split open, gutted, fried, seasoned with dollops of hot sauce, and eaten with relish leaving only bones and a shriveled head on the otherwise bare plate.
(If you were John you would be tired of this shit.)
(If you were Angela you would be tired of this shit.)
Funk knows that the fun part about this prime time drama is that an argument doesn't have to be about anything real to make a good show, it just has to be emotional.
Once (a year to the day after their first date—she reminded him she had to remind him!) Angela wanted to talk about their future in the third quarter of a close game.
Another time (about six months after he moved in) she wanted to discuss bills, 11:38 at night.
Then there was the time they had just finished eating (at that time they hadn't even discussed living together) and John had even volunteered to wash dishes and Angela wanted to stand next to him rinsing the dishes and asking him questions about what he did with his dick. With suds half way up to his elbows, John couldn't care less about what she put between her legs when he wasn't there so why, as he washed dirty dishes, did she care about who all he saw or why he wanted to sleep with a woman who wasn't her, shit, maybe the bitch was fine. He even wiped the beige enamel top of the stove clean and wrung out the well used (three holes and frayed edges) dishrag.
But though he cleaned the kitchen well, John had neither clue nor key to unlocking the deep concern he had for Angela which was incarcerated inside his size 47 1/2" expanded chest. John's maturity, but a seed yearning for spring, was winter blocked by acquired emotions and ignorantly assumed stances that always seemed to missile guide the first words out his mouth -- maximum overkill syllables designed to destroy all vestiges of life. John sincerely believed you had to be finger quick on the button push or else the other person's ICBMs would blow you away.
Angela, on the other hand was visibly shaken, quietly close to crying. Though she knew without a doubt when she was being fucked with, Angela was completely ignorant of what was happening inside of John, and, based on her ignorance and the stupid things John said and seemed to do with periodic regularity, Angela assumed the worst. When the ground moves rapidly you don't have to be a seismologist to know it's an earthquake.
It wasn't personal, there were many different Angelas and Johns tussling with this same bear. Is there something in the air that makes it so hard now a days?
"I don't know, maybe we, maybe I should be alone." Self-rejection didn't even sound like her voice. John was well enough equipped to interpret the no trespass termination inherent in the dangerous-colored, slicing sharp, concertina barbed wire gradually unraveling out of the cotton softness of her sound.
"I don't understand what you want out of this." A torrent of cold, quick darting lizards fell into his lap. Well, he didn't want to always be on trial, that was for sure. She was smelling up the air. Wasn't she woman enough to say it straight out if she really didn't want him anymore? Every inch of her body was covered. After loosening the reptiles, Angela looked like she was headed underground. John flinched and moved back an inch or two in distaste, although he didn't know he was moving back.
Angela saw the small movements of his flesh which portended major emotional shifts. She foresaw his big feet walking out the door. His green shirt turning sundown forest dark as he slammed the door behind him without speaking or saying any kind of goodbye other than the finality of his olive drab silence.
Angela saw John's muscular back hovering over Crystal's nakedness and sensed his delight in being inside of Crystal. He had someone else (even though he swore that "it" was over, Angela had seen:
(how Crystal eyed John when they had gone to the mayor's inaugural reception and Crystal was allegedly working the room for the mayor and had shook John's hand two beats too long and had barely, limp-wrist offered Angela only the top half of her fingers in a half-hearted gesture that was supposed to pass for a sisterly greeting,
(and, besides, Angela was neither blind nor vain, there was no way Angela's lanky leanness could even come close to any one of Crystal's eye-popping curves—not that John ever publicly gave Angela any reason to feel jealous but still every woman knows when a former girlfriend and potential lifetime rival is the kind of fine that every man wants to fuck,
(and besides Crystal looked like she always got her man, plus anybody else's man she wanted,
(and Angela, even though she hated herself for hating Crystal, well not really hating Crystal but rather hating Crystal's body, hating that Crystal had that kind of body that other women can't help hating because it made a woman feel, well, feel inadeq… ah, uncomfortable, especially if one was a little overweight, or a lot, or a little underweight, or a lot, or just a little skinny—like Angela was—or whatever,
(Angela really didn't want to dwell on how thin her thighs were,
(Angela must have been the only woman in the world who "loss" weight after having a baby,
(and Angela never could find a really pretty hairstyle to complement the long oval shape of her face—what shade of lipstick was that Crystal was wearing?—shit,
(Angela could understand why former-collegiate-all star quarterback John was attracted to Crystal who, even at thirty something, looked preppy as a goddamn college cheerleader,
(well, at least I'm taller—not quite up to John's 6'3" but at least 6" taller—than she is, is what Angela rationalized to console herself when Crystal brushed pass John for the third time in less than two hours,
(Angela was tired, if John wanted that—and there was no doubt in Angela's mind that "that" was waiting by the phone to call John the minute John walked out of Angela's door and was fully able to avail himself of the various female options lined up waiting for a chance to do what Angela had not been able to do,
(oh la-dee-da if it was going to be all this then let him go to Crystal, men always had someone else…) to be inside of and she had no one else she wanted inside of her.
Angela wanted to want John, but considering how everything was turning out, at that moment she didn't want him inside of her again ever, no matter how good it felt and it did feel good most of the time, but, so what, no matter, she could handle missing him, missing it. It would be hard but the way to deal with a snake is to cut its head off, don't delay, don't play, don't hesitate.
"John, please leave."
Funk lay back exhausted but utterly thrilled, marveling at the depth of Angela's self-depreciating workout. Even thought that thing with Crystal had been over two years ago, Angela made that stale episode live again. God, she was good. The crying bit in the next scene was going to be a snap.
Angela was glumly biting her lower lip, which she always did when the stress became a bit much. And John had just dummied all the way down, had not said a word as he did a mental inventory of what were the downsides to cutting his losses and booking up soon as this next scene was through—damn, she had said "please leave" just like she meant it, all soft and shit and with just enough resolve to make it razor sharp, soft but sharp, how did she do that?
Funk could hardly wait for scene two.
—Take it from the dialogue. Speed?
"John, please leave."
John had his directions backwards. When he should have been moving forward he had backed up, now he was reaching out for her with his snakes outstretched. Like he was trying to capture something.
He noticed that she was wearing the silver earrings he had bought her. She could keep them. He wouldn't ask her for them back. Nor the red suede shoes or the orangish Kenyan woven handbag. Or the three hundred twenty-five he had "loaned" her. "This is a loan, not a gift," spouting mixed signals. He knew when he wrote that check that he wasn't going to see that money again. He never meant to see it. John only meant for Angela to be in his debt.
She stood up.
Vultures were on the roof. Patient.
Angela knew nothing stays fresh forever but must all flesh rot so quickly? Was this cancer or murder?
She looked up and the jury was glumly filing in.
Wes had beat her twice. The first time he just knocked her down
and if they had not been living in Houston
and if she had not had a baby who was five months old
and if she had not been so young
and if she hadn't just made up her mind to make it work
and if her Honda didn't have thirty-seven more payments
and if Wes hadn't been tearfully pleading, his knees scraping the mauve, stain-resistant Dupont carpet on the floor of their three bedroom dream/nightmare house, his pale blue linen-shirted arms encircling her thighs, not caring about how he must have looked, singing an Al Green beg about how sorry he was
and we're going to make it
and I'll never ever hit you again,
and if her mother had not just gone back home after staying five weeks helping with the baby,
and if she were not up for a promotion at Xerox,
maybe she would have left then and there,
and thus, never would have gotten slapped a second time and ended up going off on his ass, pouring a whole pot of just cooked spaghetti down his back and grabbing a long, long kitchen knife when he started to move at her, remembering the way her jaw had hurt for five and a half days after he had knocked her down that first time and then promising herself, like a Jew viewing relics of the holocaust for the first time, "Never again. Never again."
She had told John this story. He knew not to hit her.
Look at her she thinks I'm going to hit her. John couldn't help his thought process; his Negro male ego, having successfully gnawed through the rope holding the door, was now fully uncaged and roaming the streets of John's emotions. A well chewed human dove's feathers warmly covered the bellicose, blood stained jowls of John's unfettered ego.
This was a strange ass woman.
This was an ordinary male.
Nothing prepared him for living with something he couldn't control. All his examples were wrong. He had never seen any of his peers treat a woman like their new car and really take care of her. From what all he knew about women John would bet the farm that if you didn't watch out they had a secret way to make a man cry, and what man wanted to cry?
"John, please leave."
"John, please leave."
"John, please leave."
If she didn't stop saying that he was going to have to punch her out.
"John, please leave."
Regardless of what John thought he was hearing, after saying it the first time, Angela had not said another word.
At a moment when it would have taken a whole lot of understanding or at least the image of some man John respected advising John on the manliness of admitting confused emotions and admitting to being lost on the relationships frontier, John pushed on confident as Custer that he could cope with whatever Angela had in mind. On the wide screen Eddie Murphy (whom John mistook for an experienced navigator/scout) was acting the fool, his manic guffaws misdirecting John. It made sense to John.
John had watched tv football. He knew what was happening. A fatal loop of instant replay was stuck in John's head. Angela was standing over John's quarterback, pointing an outstretched finger into the poor boy's face. Actually she was standing astraddle him doing the Cabbage Patch over his prostrate body. How did that look on Monday night television, a sack on his fifteen, and she jumping up, standing one foot on each side of his hip, "take that motherfucker, take that motherfucker!"?
"On who? On you!" that finger with the blood red fingernail kept saying. About thirty-six million people was watching her knock him flat on his ass and then gloating with a long red finger in his face!
"John, please leave."
Where were his blockers?
"John, please leave."
Five minutes passed like that.
"John, please leave."
Although there was always another game, who wanted to lose like this?
Angela didn't want to repeat herself. Once was enough. What she really wanted was to disappear. She also wanted her little girl Harriet to grow up in another kind of country where she wouldn't be expected to be some man's woman. If there was such a country, Angela's daughter Harriet could be happy. She could have children if she wanted to. Could have a lover, if she found one she wanted, but she wouldn't have to be "his" woman. That's what she wanted.
John was leaning against the podium wondering what he was supposed to be doing. He didn't know how to talk his way out of this one. Worse than that, he didn't even know he was not trapped in something that he had to escape. The microphone was on, the tape recorders were documenting, the reporters had their pens ready to scribble down every word of the post-game, wrap up.
John was almost forty. He had seen a lot of shit. He had been with a lot of women -- well, without really counting closely, he had been with seven, uh eight women in some kind of serious, well, almost serious, well like he had lived with (more or less) four different women in the last seven years and almost got married twice. He was tired.
He was also unreconstructed. He didn't know how to disarm. How to divest of the need to own. John was afraid to let go and afraid to hold on to a woman's inquiry into his guts. John's EWAD (Early Warning Defensive Radar System) went bonkers -- Angela was set to launch fifty questions. His ego was asking him why did it have to go back in the cage. There was no logical answer.
And Angela, his sweet, sweet angel, had her own pack of troubles to tote, she couldn't help him with his. Besides she was no expert on safe cracking, there was no way for her to reach into his head or even if she could, how could she know his head was not what most needed reprogramming.
How does it happen that you can get to someplace but you can't go back to where you came from? How does it happen that you long for something you ain't never had? Something dim but very valuable was in the distance and they both were reaching for it, but it was far off, far off. Very far off.
John decided he was too tired to talk but really his problem was he couldn't read the script. All he knew was English, albeit at a first year college reading level, thank you; English, a language severly limited in conjunctions and in nouns denoting inner realities. John had fifty-seven ways to express anger and only two words that he knew of that seemed to fit this puzzle. He didn't even know sign language. He had his arms folded.
Angela was deeply hurt by John's refusal to unknot himself, but she was determined. She had journeyed to the crossroads at midnight many times before. Sometimes confused, perplexed and in a quandary, Angela had simply sat on her rump and stoically greeted the dawn. He never met her there; one usual lie was that you had to go to the crossroads alone, but if two was one then being together was alone, right? Sometimes, just marching on down the highway, she would catch a reflection of her moon-shadow on the roadside and realize how doofus she was being by courting the devil behind the particular simpleton in whose hands she was considering placing her life, and invariably on such occasions when even a little sliver of a moon would throw a sharply defined shadow sprawling across the gravel, invariably those would be the times when she knew that the particular man was not worth the particular effort, so even before getting to the crossroads she would back down and return home, would tell Alfred, or whatever his name happened to be in this particular incarnation, "This is not going to make it."
Angela had become strong enough to resist jumping in the water just because a swimming pool was conveniently near, clean and available. Once she had gone right, got married to Westley Richardson, II, Esquire. Blood turned out to be an excellent lawyer, the natural profession of liars. And once she had gone left and not married Julius James Johnson, the man all his friends and acquaintances affectionately called J.J., even though returning the rings and canceling everything damn near broke his heart, Angela knew that was better than going through with getting hooked up to a plow she was not prepared to pull. By then Angela had learned to listen to her stomach which invariably got upset at the way J.J. treated women, and Angela didn't take it personally because the fool was even hard on his mama which was a sign clearer than that storm God dropped on Noah that things wasn't going to work out. Yes Lord, Angela had been to the crossroads.
At the crossroads anything you did had its ups and downs but, based on the lessons life had smacked hard into her head, for sure it was better to walk than wait, "Let's just end this now before one of us hurts the other."
Of the three, predictably, Funk was the only one not hurting: Don't stop now. Keep the action going while it's flowing. (You know Funk is a midget and likes to drag everybody down to its level.)
Angela was so into the scene she didn't hear the director yell "cut." Even though there was this tremble in her voice, somehow, she was still holding her head up and keeping her face dry, even though a floodtide was raging just behind the brown damn of her determined-not-to-cry eyes.
Funk knew it would be a waste of tears if Angela didn't cry until after John booked up. Funk decided to take matters in hand and started whispering the name of every man who had ever fucked and left Angela. Wait a minute, Funk thought, that's a redundancy of the first order. Everybody Angela ever slept with was gone—well, of course, she had put a couple of them out, but they were gone, and hence, had left. It wouldn't be long now before she jumped to the grand conclusion that going to bed with a dude wasn't nothing but a prelude to the man leaving her. Funk liked the symmetry of that: getting laid was a prelude to getting left—how they said it? Wham, bam…
(Do a slow-mo, three sixty shot.)
John stood up. Turned slowly to walk out the room. And then, inexplicably paused. His back was to Angela. She wasn't looking. His voice stopped his feet from moving. He was shaken by what he heard himself uttering. He couldn't even look at her and say it. The words had thorns and ripped his lips as they poured out. Deep inside him he faintly heard something cursing at him. The mumble was the muffled indignation of his ego protesting confinement.
But there was also a warm light beckoning through the fog. John could hear its slow blinking, an E major seventh chord with a husky Ben Webster whisper, only John didn't consciously know Ben Webster's sound so he could only recognize it in his subconscious having stored it deep in his memory cells when he was a child and his parents were playing Duke Ellington's "In A Mellowtone" RCA album with the 1940 Ellington orchestra's rendition of "All Too Soon" or the 1942 "What Am I Here For," both of which featured Ben in all his majestic glory. Although John could not have called Ben Webster's name to save his life, Ben Webster's sound was the singular touchstone that kept John from making a total fool out of himself and walking out the door.
When John had first heard Ben Webster his mama and daddy were dancing in the front room and he was hanging over the side of a tub they had put him in to keep him from crawling around, and they were speaking some funny language that John did not remember sounding like the language he later learned to speak by mimicking them. That sound that was blinking like a beacon inside of him. He wanted to be his daddy dancing. He wanted Angela in his arms. He wanted to hear Ben Webster again. But he felt awful stupid. He had hugged a lot of women before. But none of the others made music in him and suddenly like a baby, all he wanted was what he wanted, nothing more, nothing less, don't give him no other arms, he wanted his mama, he wanted Angela to be his mama and he wanted to be his daddy.
But just like John didn't consciously know Ben Webster, he also didn't consciously know what he wanted. Which didn't make John feel better; actually, not knowing what he wanted made him feel worse. Meanwhile John's feet stayed rooted to the carpet. E major 7th. He could hear it but he couldn't think it. John didn't think his inability to leave was right, in fact he felt down right weak. If Angela had been hugging him at that moment and had had her head resting on his chest, she would have heard a faint grunt, an involuntary exclamation that acknowledged that at least John knew exactly what Stevie Wonder meant when he sang "There's something 'bout your love..." da-da-da something "...that makes me weak, and knocks me off (pause) my feet." Even though Stevie was blind, Stevie had peeped this, so maybe, John having all his faculties of sight intact, just maybe, this was the right thing to do. Or something. Maybe being weak was right. John was barely passing his first lesson in submission to human love.
But Angela wasn't looking. When John had stood up, she thought that was it, blood was about to do the famous fifty yard dash right on out of the danger of relating to a female other than his mama.
Angela was deeply hurt by what she interpreted as John's refusal to speak in the mother tongue rather than growl in the colonial language. His silence handcuffed her, and him. She started to nickname him Cortez. Made love with his boots on. Saw her indigenous femininity as virgin territory to be mounted, surmounted, claimed and controlled, a phallic flag stuck into with its nuts waving in the wind. Thinking of love like a business: what he could gain, what he stood to lose. Angela was really tired, at that moment, so she didn't hear him stop, desert the armed forces, and of course she didn't hear that E major 7th, nor the Ben Webster buzz. But what she did hear, she didn't believe at first, even though she had been wanting to believe.
"Angela. I don't know what to do. I'm scared of you. But, I love you."
Funk was furious. What a revolting development this was. Funk was sure that shit wasn't in the script.
After checking the newly revised script, Funk was even further dismayed to find out that Funk was eliminated entirely from the last scene.
Don't tell me you're going to shoot some lame-ass, happily-ever-after bullcrap Hollywood ending. Naw, couldn't be. This stuff just doesn't happen in real life. Not to Negroes; and weren't we supposed to be keeping this one real?
Funk's bad breath was all up in Kalamu's face, but you know how Big Mu can get when his mind is made up. Funk and Kalamu stood toe to toe for a minute, psychically parrying and thrusting retorts back and forth. Just looking at them, it didn't look like nothing was going on, but Kalamu was arguing with Funk the way authors do with their fictional characters, telling Funk, you don't like it you can just go head and write and direct your own story. But this is my project.
Funk, of course, shot back, naw, this ain't your story, this some bullshit trying to appeal to the women by putting men down cause a brother wasn't going to put up with somebody telling him it was wrong to feel the way he felt. Besides, Kalamu, you know good and well there ain't no happy endings for 99 out of a 100 Black couples.
Well, Funk, just call this: the one after ninety-nine. And with that Kalamu turned his back on Funk and called out: Make sure everybody has the revised script. The one with the Black ending.
Kalamu knew that no matter how consistently acquainted with sadness this society forced our people to be, love and laughter was what we intimately craved and would risk everything to achieve. Fourth and inches. The safe play was to punt. But without a second thought, they lined up with two wide receivers and everybody else blocking.
Funk reluctantly split behind the cameras, but staying nearby just in case one of them muffed it and Funk would be able to slip back in and put a real-ass ending on this bad boy.
—Is the crane ready for the overhead? This is the last scene, let's do it in one take. One smooth take. Tilt down as the crane goes up, zooming in as you rise. And Funk, back up, we're catching a bit of your shadow in the shot and we don't need that.
Angela jumps up quickly but very quietly, she doesn't want to frighten him. Angela takes John's hand. Turns him around. He isn't crying. But his hand is shaking. She doesn't have to look in his eyes. She doesn't have to look period. Everything is bright, red bright, makes her close her eyes. She glances furtively at him before shutting her eyes.
John's eyes are open but he isn't observing anything outside of himself. During this brief moment, John's eyes are a double mirror: he is looking inward at himself (even though he appears to be standing with his eyes wide open staring straight ahead at the hanging ivy in the ceramic pot with the macramé tie that Angela had labored on during the four and three quarter month period the last time she wasn't "seeing" anybody) and at the same time, Angela catches her own reflection in the opaque blankness of John's stare.
Angela knows, with the unprovable certainty that those who believe in god possess, she just knows that at last, and also for the first time, somehow, John is deeply inspecting himself instead of questioning her motives when there is something he can't figure out. A pheasant, feathered the most dazzling green, flies across Angela's line of vision. She knows it has sprung from John's chest, free to fly the friendly skyways of her dream visions.
Angela instinctively starts chanting prayers of thanksgiving. Cognizant that she is near a threshold and wanting to remain on the path, Angela humbly and silently asks the creator for guidance. There is no sound and she thinks the silence is the answer.
"Don't do anything. Don't say anything. Just hold me."
After he held her, they talk for thirty-nine straight minutes. It is a start.
Today, it's one thousand, two hundred and forty-five days later. John and Angela are still together.
They laugh about this now.
—Cut! Ok, that's a wrap!
By then Funk, in a truly foul mood, had angrily put on his wrap-around shades and silently slithered off the set into the urban shadows.
—kalamu ya salaam
photo by Alex Lear
THE ROSES ARE BEAUTIFUL,
BUT THE THORNS ARE SO SHARP
Blood didn't know why he wanted to kiss her private lips. Didn't know why the sharp energy of her smell made the large muscles on the inside of his thigh twitch. Didn't smell like sex. Didn't even smell human. Undomesticated, wild, maybe a pine-needle bed where a deer had rested. A fragrance born by the wind from whence only the wind knows where. Didn't know why, but he liked the memory of his slow kiss-rub-lick-suck of the cleaved dark of her. And he liked that she liked it.
Theodore sucked the caramel colored coke through a straw, drawing out gurgling sounds as the last of the liquid, mixed with air, cascaded upward through the crushed ice. He shook the cup once, tore the plastic top off with the straw still in it and threw it into the litter receptacle; swirled the cup, tilted it upward shaking shards of ice into his mouth, sucked on the ice and thought of her moan as he nodded hello to a co-worker on his way back to his desk from his ten minute break.
I close my eyes. I am crazy. I open my eyes. I am crazy. I do my work and when I finish working, every time, I am crazy. Obsession. The need for every day to be night. I tape the evening news using the timer on my VCR and later look at her over and over. Her eyes. I know looks that the tv camera never sees. Sometimes I watch with the sound turned down. Read her body language. The motion of her jaw as she talks. Count how many times I see her tongue on screen. How often they show her hands. The feel of her nails on my neck. The rhythm of her voice reciting my three syllables: "The-o-dore" except she enunciates "Thee-I-ADORE." "That's the news. This is Ann Turner. See you tomorrow." SEE YOU TONIGHT. BABY. TONIGHT!
The bronze point of her breast cutting a curvature in his consciousness. Why continue, he thought as he continued. A man shouldn't be consumed by desire. His imagination saw the inside of her thigh flash quick as the picture of the contents of a darkened room momentarily lit by five milliseconds of lightening flashing during a summer night storm when you are standing near the window sipping something mildly intoxicating and a "Quiet Storm" format radio station unfurls aural ribbons.
He drank her features even when only his computer was in front of his eyes. Drank and drank, and was never quenched.
One day he refused to call her. The whole day. Concentrated on not calling her.
She doesn't own my fingers. My feet are my feet. I have business. I wear a suit and tie. I drive a car -- red, sleek. Here is my off-ramp. I like the feel of taking it at 40mph, leaning into the curve. It's like when I ease into her. I'm gripping the wheel firmly but lightly like I do her breasts, and I brake a little, back off the clutch, let the engine slow us down, and hit the accelerator slightly at the top of the curve, pushing through faster now. Through the steering wheel I can feel the car's power surging and responsive to my every expert move, like Ann.
I smoke cigarettes. I urinate at break time and wish, in the middle of the men's room, Joey to the right of me, Harold on my left, Amos at the sink talking shit about what he made his bitches do, I urinate and as I shake myself, wish it were her fingers shaking me. I will not call. The boys see me zipping my pants. They don't sense her. I look into the mirror at my reflection, scratch my jaw, dry my hands, and, leaning forward, balancing my weight between the sink ledge and the balls of my feet, careful to pretend I am examining my razor bumps, I search deep into my eyes: her profile.
"The roses are very nice."
Thirty-eight dollars is more than very nice. Forty-one dollars, forty-two cents.
"But, I can't accept them."
I've bought corsages for proms. I've bought flowers on mother's day. I've even given my aunt a plant for her anniversary. This is the first time, the first time I've ever bought roses. And they are only "very nice."
What about when you kissed me? What about that great dinner we cooked together in your kitchen trading culinary tips, and ate in the after glow; I fed you desert. A fruit salad first from my fork, then the grapes from my hand, and that last strawberry we shared lip to lip as I kissed you with the succulent deep red meat poised between my teeth and letting it fall into your mouth as you sucked my lips and you slipped your fingers into the bowl and one by one inserted your fingers into my mouth and l sucked the juice off, cleaned each finger with the sweep of my tongue. And the night we spent the night drinking coffee in the French Quarter, walking around waiting on the sun, delirious, delicious and crazy in each other's eyes? The first time. The second time. That Saturday evening in the thunder storm with all the lights out and a very good bottle of moderately expensive wine. My comforter on the carpeted floor, the sound of rain on the pane accompanied our rhythms. The third, fourth. Damn it, last Monday, two days ago. "My legs are wide open," you said. I almost cried in your arms I felt so happy. I pick you up just about every day from work -- every day you allow me to. We even sometimes make groceries together. That linen jacket, the pink one. The surprise manicure and facial treatment certificate. The health spa six month membership. "My legs are wide open." That's more than nice.
"I said, I can't accept them. I... No, don't come in. Please."
Then I forced myself past the three-quarters-opened door. I didn't mean to knock her down when I pushed my way inside. But she fell. And then something happened. Looking down at her I saw the shock on her face. "You see it doesn't feel good getting pushed around, does it?" is what I thought to myself. "Now you know how I feel sometimes the way you treat me," I continued thinking while silently observing her. The beginnings of a smirk unconsciously edging itself onto my face. It was as if I rose up above myself and was outside of my body watching myself stand there. I could see everything. I knew everything. I knew she was surprised by how hard I shoved the door. Even so, I could see she wasn't hurt sprawled there on the floor. Embarrassed but not hurt. And afterwards when I left I knew when I slammed the door shut hard behind me, I knew the sound cut the silence. She didn't know I had it in me. I knew. The way she looked up at me.
As she fell backward, slammed into the way and fell, he closed the door quickly. And then, as though she had misunderstood him the first time, he held out the roses to her again. She had one knee slightly up. Her straight, woolen, beige skirt with the deep split in the front had ridden up high on her legs, falling away from above her knees.
Anger and the beginnings of fear overpowered her perfume. She didn't smell pleasant anymore.
The red, red roses swinging before her face.
"I am more than nice," he thought to himself.
The phone rang.
She covered her face with both hands. Then lowered one hand to the floor. Began pushing up, to stand. Theodore stepped forward and planted himself, blocking what would have been her path of ascendancy. She stopped. He saw that she knew she would never make the phone. Let her machine answer the intruding call. Four rings and the noisy interruption stopped.
After the chirp of the phone stopped, he bent slightly and pushed the roses at her again.
She batted them away. She does not want to be distracted. He pushed them forward again.
Her hand moved slowly. She pushed gently, tried to move the flowers out of her face. Why was he insisting? Why were the flowers thrust at her like a gun?
He had unbuttoned his trousers. They slid down at his feet. He stepped out of them. "My legs are wide open," she had said just two days ago. The goodness of his dick hadn't changed any in the time between the last time and now. She wanted it then. She gave it up then. Now was then. In his mind. He eased his jockey briefs off. Now, he still had his shirt and tie on. And his jacket. And the roses in his hand.
That was her only real reaction. What?
Sometimes shit be happening to you and it be so far out the box you can't believe it be happening.
Theodore was standing there with his penis erect. His jacket on the floor now behind his trousers. He knelt slowly. Placed the flowers down beside him. Pushed her skirt up. She closed her eyes. Her flesh was cool beneath the nylon of the panty hose. Then she moved, slightly. Her head shook slowly from side to side. She covered his hand with her left hand. A momentary halt.
She tried reasoning with an unreasonable man, "Are you going to use something? I'm ovulating now."
Theodore ignored her. She saw him ignore her. Theodore began pulling at her panty hose.
"I'm not going to let you do this."
She started to struggle silently. She surprised him with her strength as she tussled with him. The thrust of her arms rocked him backward. He admired that she didn't hit like a girl. Now she was on one knee. He pushed her again. Harder. She sprawled backward. Her shoe slipped and her legs flew from beneath her. As she lay disheveled on the floor trying to decide whether to kick him or to try and run from him, he pushed the roses aside and knelt resolutely in front of her. He looked between her legs which were awkwardly gapped open. What was it "there" that had him crazed on the floor. The reddest rose. The petals of her vagina flower. The thorns of her refusal to receive him.
Then suddenly she pushed him harder than he had pushed her. He fell back on the flowers. The thorns bit deeply into the palm of his left hand.
He picked the flowers up and threw them at her. Hurled them into her face. Hard. A thorn cut her cheek. She felt a faint sting. When her hand came down from her jaw, a long bloody smear had creased the light hand side like a crimson life line burnt into her palm.
He expected her to cry. But she made no sound. Did not even whimper. But stared at him with an undisguised hatred. The force of her stare stunned him. He stood up. She bolted up without hesitation. Balled her fist and stood rigidly upright, silently daring him to touch her again. He backed off slowly. Retrieved his clothing. Dressed. Every time he glanced at her she was still glaring unblinking at him. Her blouse rose and fell as she took deep, soundless breathes. He turned and walked briskly out of the door, slamming it behind him. She stepped over the flowers and quickly locked the door behind him.
They were in a movie and he cheered when the hero smacked the actress portraying the wife. Ann froze, intuitively knew for sure that Theodore Roosevelt Stevens, III was wrong for her. All the little signs she had ignored because she was tired of searching for someone with whom to share her life and had settled for someone with whom to have a little fun. After applauding the hero's response to his wife's cinematic betrayal with a short clap -- actually Theodore was celebrating the hero's refusal to be suckered more than applauding the guy for hitting the woman, it's much harder to see through how a woman is using you than it is to smack her once you figure out that you've been used, and Theodore admired anyone with insight into the feminine species -- his right hand had pawed the air seeking Ann's hand to hold again, but her arms were folded.
"What you mean?"
He caught the tone, the cut, the coldness. The sharp point contained within all her soft curves. Theodore knew this was fire he could not walk through with his bare feet.
She bit her bottom lip but not to keep from talking, the biting was just a habit of preparation when she had to fight a battle which she did not choose, but which she would wage without quarter.
Walking up the aisle after the movie's over, "Let's go for a drink; we need to talk."
"Anywhere." Clipped tone. The claws were still showing.
Anywhere was near by, but the silence riding over was long. "What's up?"
"This is the last, I mean I don't think..." She swung her head quickly. They were at a stop light. Right before the turn onto Causeway Blvd. He looked over during the pause for the light. Her unblinking eyes focused directly on him. She read him the news -- that's how it felt, all the emotion was calculated although unforced and rendered in well modulated tones, "I thought about your question about us living together, and the answer is no. And I think we ought to break this off."
The light was green. Theodore pulled through the moment. Said nothing. While moving through the traffic. He said nothing. Circled onto the expressway. She hates games. He heard her. Into the expressway traffic. Then he pulled over to the side. Slowed. Emergency lights flashing. He looked over at her as the car coasted to an easy stop. He turned the tape deck off. He turned the key. The engine stopped. The stick shift loose in neutral, rocked back and forth beneath the easy side to side push of his hand. Then he pulled the emergency brake handle. She has not stopped looking at him. This was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning into the third mile her breathing is even and her stride is smooth. She will kick the fourth mile. She is ready. Suddenly she stops. A crow caws, breaking the silence of the morning cool. Two cars pass along the generally deserted stretch of road. The light is soft. Her face is soft. Her eyes are hard. She begins walking and in a few seconds builds up to a trot and then is running again.
Thursday he will bring roses and apologize.
Everybody thinks it's easy to be me. To be the model of charm and poise on the weekday evening news. A face recognized. Gwendolyn Ann Turner. Actually, Gwendolyn Ann Turner is me, and most of the world -- I shouldn't exaggerate, most of the city -- knows: "This is Ann Turner, your evening anchor, sharing the news of New Orleans with you." Most of the world knows so small a part of my real persona and yet people think because they see a small part of me so frequently, they think they know "me."
I was so fat as a child, so "Gwenie." Overweight, intelligent, gifted with a lean, hard mind -- too hard. Up to the middle of college I was always the "brain," never the beauty and even when my birthright beauty began to exert itself in college -- it's like it's hard to judge just how beautiful the flower will be when all you see is the beginning bud. I had to run in P.E. and found myself liking the loneliness and the challenge of the long runs, figuring out how to run without wearing myself out, how to swing my arms, how to set my pace, how to breath, how to use my body, yes, how to use "my body" and I pushed it and enjoyed pushing it. The more I ran, the more the physical side of me came out, but it was all because I enjoyed the meditation part of running. At the same time I was trying to figure out how to meet the physical challenges rather than because I wanted to become "fine" or "thin" or something, but the more I ran and enjoyed running, the more I found beauty came within my reach and required just a little work to enhance it. But the thorn on the flower was that becoming attractive just made being me more difficult, more demanding. I split in two. It became so easy to be pretty, to be wined and dined because my body shape was what it had become, or more accurately was what I had made it become, my skin color was what it was, my voice, my hair, my eyes, my slender fingers, my beige bottom firm, round and protruding.
The thought stopped her: "I hated being fat and I'll never be fat again." She stopped at the road side, put her hands atop her head, fingers interlaced, breathed deeply, looked up into the dawning sky and summoned strength -- she was beginning to resent the deference given to her for all the wrong reasons. Well not so much "wrong reasons," for all the "Ann Turner reasons" and none of the Gwendolyn Ann Turner reasons.
Here I am 28 years old, sexually active, so far away from any kind of serious relationship that it doesn't even hurt anymore. I'm never alone unless I want to be and I've never met anyone with whom I always want to be. Being so popular as a media personality just makes being alone as a private person inevitable.
Ann took a deep breath. She had volunteered the decision to drop "Gwendolyn" because Ann is so much easier to articulate cleanly into a lapel microphone or an overhead boom, no consonant blend obstacles to negotiate.
If I hate being beautiful, why do I run everyday, stick to my diet, groom myself immaculately? Wear complementary colors. Procures pedicures. Manicures. Facials. Ann runs everyday and Gwen waits. Waits for what?
Gwen waits in a desk drawer, in a diary, in five completed stories, 79 completed poems, and 34 incomplete sketches, outlines and ideas for stories. And in the drawing pad. The monthly self portraits drawn with soft lead pencil while looking into the dressing table mirror. That had started in college. During the first week of every month Gwen sketched Ann, and afterwards Ann would stare at the drawing, looking for Gwen. Gwendolyn had gone to college certain that writing was her destiny but the motion of circumstances had sidetracked her. The path from Gwen to Ann had started not from her own volition but rather began because of her physical presence and personality; the transfiguration wasn't the result of will, but rather it was physiological and sociological chance.
As the new Gwen started to blossom, Gwen "hated" the attention even though some small part of her loved it, fed off it and grew more confident, stronger week after week. That's how she had eased into broadcasting. In college journalism even those who only wanted to write were "counseled" into taking at least two broadcast courses "in order to be well rounded," and, of course, even though she never sought the behind the mike position, of course once she was there, once people saw how effective she was (even if she was a little overweight), then her instructors steered her that way: "the camera loves you / your voice soothes and exudes sincerity / I know you want to write but I think it's apparent your future is in announcing." Meanwhile, Gwen the writer patiently waited for release. Now, years later, a professional broadcasting career confidently established, writing as a career option is not possible, not to mention being economically unfeasible. Gwen rarely spoke but when she did...
"Ann you do television because it's easy for you. There's no challenge staying in shape. Reading news copy is so easy. We always liked to read. Ann, you like to read, and I have to read; that's one of the only ways I can even exist. All other times I'm shoved deep into the background."
These two people in me. Gwen wants to be a writer, a deep thinker, and Ann, well, Ann pays all the bills and acquires all the frills. Or something. What does Ann want? Ann is not a want, Ann is a thing, a procurer. Ann's ultimate job really ought to be to create a space for Gwen.
She begins walking and in a few seconds builds up to a trot and then is running again.
I was already in the shower. Theodore was behind me at the toilet, urinating and the "morning deep yellow" of his streaming urine refracting early daylight made it easy for me to see the splashes flying out of the bowl. I hate it. I hate the sloppiness of the way men piss. I hate it. I step out of the shower.
He swung his head, tremendously pleased with himself. Happy about his manliness. His sexiness and skill as a lover. His good fortune: he was fucking Ann Turner and she was liking it. Everything was in order. At the office his commissions were bounding upward. When a client saw him, they were impressed by the smooth, articulate, fastidiously groomed, intelligent, business savvy, young Black man fashionably attired in tastefully muted burgundy suspenders over ice blue crisply starched dress shirt with a white collar -- these days Theodore was always impressive, so impressive that clients flocked to him the way those chickens used to do at his grandmother's farm in the summertimes when he was sent to spend a few weeks and would wake early, jump out of bed, get dress quickly and run into the back yard with a cap full of feed, throwing the kernels on the ground and calling out in his young baritone (he remembered that even as a teen-ager he had a heavy voice): "cluck-cluck cluckity-cluck, come here chickens, yall in luck, cluck-cluck cluckity cluck." Because he was looking at himself, his external eyes focused on the stream of piss, the splash of water, the diffuse light from the skylight as well as the rainbow shimmering in the toilet bowl cast there by the prismed light of the cut glass mobile hanging from the skylight latch, in his head the beauty of her big round booty moved beneath the knead of his firm hands, because of all of that he neither saw the seriousness in her eyes nor heard the coldness in her voice as he perfunctorily answered, "What?"
"I realize this might sound a bit strange to you but I've got a thing about hygiene. When you use the toilet, please sit."
"Put the seat down and sit. Urinate sitting down. When you stand, your urine splashes, and it's unhygenic."
Much head as she gives, she's worried about a little urine on the toilet seat. She swallows. She loves it. She licks me clean. And she's worried about me standing up pissing.
Theodore stood there, naked, his member held nimbly in his left hand. He was just about to shake the drops off the tip with a vigorous motion. How would he shake it if he were sitting on the toilet seat? This was a trip.
I knew he wouldn't understand.
Theodore didn't understand what was going on.
Ann turned back into the shower, almost regretting that she had brought it up. Almost. Gwen had decided long ago that Theodore was just a momentary thing, even before he overestimated himself and made the major faux pas of popping the question about living together.
Ann was slower to decide. There was a lot she liked about Theodore. The lovemaking for one. And, well, the lovemaking for two. His humor, he was sort of witty. No, really he was convenient. Although right for a fling, he definitely was not living together material. And unhygenic and far too possessive.
"Theodore, I don't need you to pick me up after work. Yes, I know it's late when I get off, and I know I could save the cab fare, but it's easier. I have two cab drivers who are regulars. I call when I'm close to ready and they're outside the door waiting for me. I get in, we come straight here, they wait until I'm inside and everything is safe. Theo, I know you don't mind but you don't have to wait around for me.
"I'm staying late. ... No. I'm not sure exactly what time I'll be finished. ... I'll just catch a cab. No, Theo, I won't call you. I'll catch a cab, and I'll talk to you in the morning. ... You'll be sleeping when I get in. I'll call you in the morning. ... Theodore don't call me at one a.m. ... What do you mean where will I be? ... What do you mean what do I mean? I mean I can take care of myself. ... Obviously, you don't know it.
Gwen had peeped all of that weeks ago. The shower door opened. Theodore stepped in.
"You mean when I urinate, you want me to sit down like when I uh, defecate?"
"When I saw you bleeding, I knew I had messed up real bad. I don't know what got into me. I mean you know me, I'm not really like that. I mean, I was crazy or something. Ann? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You want me to beg? You want me to crawl? What? I've sent you letters, I've called every day. This hurts me too. I don't know what else to say. I mean I know I did something really, really wrong. And I know it will be hard for you to ever trust me again, but I love you. I really love you. I mean I'm serious. You make me feel like a man..."
Ann didn't even listen to the whole tape. He talked to her machine for twenty, sometimes thirty minutes or more, sometimes. Sometimes he just said, "I'm gon keep calling until you talk to me." This went on for over two weeks.
Fortunately, the erase mechanism was fast.
This is about a year and a half later. Theodore is married (yes, he sent Ann an invitation—she didn't go; he wasn't surprised).
When Ann got the invitation she felt sad for Theodore's intended. He had wanted a wife but he wasn't prepared to deal with a woman. She left the invitation in the hallway, on the table, the table that held the telephone / answering machine, beneath the mirror. The invitation pushed half way back into the envelope. Ann did not even wonder why it had been sent. Gwen didn't care. A casual toss and the invitation landed with a slight rustle atop a small stack of junk mail. Ann didn't mean Theodore's invitation was junk mail, but she knew she wasn't going.
Later that day she sat sketching herself. Clarity. In the mirror was Gwendolyn Ann Turner, a thirty-year old, unmarried Black woman. Ann didn't frown. Ann didn't cry. She knew, she knew she would never marry. And she could live with that, was content to live with that. But Gwen smiled, she smiled because she appreciated that Ann Turner was becoming increasingly less interested in Ann Turner and more interested in developing Gwendolyn Ann Turner.
Never marry. God, what a thought. But not really. Even though she had been raised to marry. Even though it seemed like the whole world was wondering when she would marry. And have children. In a flash both Ann and Gwen realized -- neither one of them had every really wanted to be married--not once they were mature enough to honestly face themselves. Ann just didn't want to be alone. Although sharing board was just about out of the question, Ann could and would always find someone with whom to share bed. Ann accepted the cost. She could pay the bills. No problem. An inconvenience sometimes, but no problem. And Gwen. Gwen was happy, she gave thanks to be alive and thriving. And writing -- her new novel was almost finished.
A spray of roses sat elangantly arranged in a bright black vase. "Our vase" -- Gwen had found it while wondering through the French Quarter. She was drawn to the pear-shaped container without even knowing why or how she would use it. As she walked along with the trendy shopping bag which held the vase swaddled in newspaper, she passed a florist. Roses were on sale: $9.99 a dozen, and thus began the floral addition to the sketching ritual. The fragrance of the flowers would radiate through the room while the young woman deftly drew her monthly self portrait. And as was usually the case within the last few months, Gwen would be smiling a generous smile. To her beautiful self. Clearer than she had ever been and glad that she understood the necessity of thorns on roses--everything beautiful must protect itself.
—kalamu ya salaam
I Sing Because...
Amid the weariness of work day's end, Sarah-Bell savored the quiet of oncoming twilight. At last, she could momentarily take it easy, unhurried. And she was grateful for small blessings.
Lilting into the breezeless amber of the October evening, a mesmerizing wordless song flowed from Sarah-Bell's full, plum-colored lips as she plodded down the dusty lane. Her ankle-length, thorn-tattered, sweat-soiled skirt swished with each step.
Six-foot-four-and-a-half-inch, one hundred-eighty-seven pound Jim One-Toe, deftly dragging his maimed left foot, hobbled beside Sarah-Bell. He had a pretty fair voice himself.
One-Toe smiled in admiration of the way Sarah-Bell made each phrase of her improvised reel end on a little upward swoop that just naturally made a man feel good.
"Sarah-Bell, you sing so pretty. Can I be your man?"
Sarah-Bell furtively peeked over at One-Toe, smiled and immediately refocused her gaze on the last visible tip of the orange sun swiftly falling behind the nearly clean-picked field of cotton plants.
"One-Toe, you know I got a man."
"But he don't come to you all the time," One-Toe retorted. A quick grin of near perfect white teeth flashed across the dimpled midnight of his handsome blue-black face.
Almost two good moons had passed since anybody had seen Mule-Boy visiting Sarah-Bell. Gathering was most over, Mule coulda been sold off by now—everybody knowed Master Gilmore over to the nearby plantation was good for sending you down the river at the drop of a hat.
Sarah-Bell scrutinized the squinting sincerity of One-Toe’s slender eyes. “It ain’t that he don’t. He can’t co…”
Suddenly interrupting herself, Sarah-Bell deftly hiked-up her skirt as she stepped around a fresh pile of smelly horse droppings. Then, while shooing away a fat, green and black, fly with a quick fan of her much-pricked, field-toughened hand, Sarah-Bell continued her conversation, "...and you couldn't be with me every night neither, that is, if'n I was to even let you come by at all."
One-Toe was encouraged that Sarah-Bell was at least considering the merits of being with him. He spyed a brief glimmer of interest smoldering in her eyes as she announced her decision, "Naw. I don't think so, One-Toe. I thinks I can wait."
"Yes, m'am." One-Toe was disappointed, but not discouraged. He had plenty mo' days to blow gently on the spark he glimpsed in Sarah-Bell's pecan-shaped eyes. He reckoned harvesting the love of a woman like this was worth a long season of planting and weeding.
"But if you was to get tired a waiting. I would come. You know I would. Like a bird to the nest. I would come to you every night I could."
"Which make you no different from my far-away man who come to me every night he can."
"Well, don't forget I'm closer to the nest. I can get to you quicker than him, even if'n I ain't got but one good foots," One-Toe joked. Sarah-Bell grinned as One-Toe made fun of his own infirmity.
She liked his gentle humor but she didn't feel a need for another man climbing on her just now, even a fine man like One-Toe.
For a few seconds they exchanged knowing glances and allowed their eyes to speak for them. Then, while holding her hand palm side out, Sarah-Bell gracefully waved to One-Toe and spoke in a husky half-whisper as she strolled on, "Good night, brotha One-Toe."
One-Toe peered longingly at the broadness of Sarah-Bell's back and the ampleness of her hips. He looked til his imagination was as full as it could stand to be. One-Toe wanted that pretty-singing woman. He had seen a bunch of women who was face-prettier, but he had never heard no one or nothing, neither woman, man, child or bird, what sang prettier than Sarah-Bell.
One-Toe had been thinking so hard about holding Sarah-Bell in his huge arms he missed catching sight of Chester Browne squatting nearby Sarah-Bell's door. When her singing faltered and then abruptly fell silent, One-Toe quickly surveyed the area to see what disturbance had stilled Sarah-Bell's song. One-Toe glared at Chester. Everybody knowed what a driverman in the lane after hours waiting by a woman's door meant.
One-Toe spit into the dust, turned and drug himself into the bitter barreness of his resting room. Shortly thereafter One-Toe heard the thudding shuffle of Chester's horse moseying past the open doorway as Chester and Sarah-Bell rode out the lane. A high-pitched whinny from the horse taunted One-Toe, but One-Toe refused to look at the too-familiar abduction.
Chester wasn't talking, and Sarah-Bell wasn't singing.
The chomp chomp chomp chomp of the sorrel's hooves echoed against the mud-caked wall of One-Toe's sleep space and reverberated inside One-Toe's skull.
One-Toe forcefully buried his face into the gritty dirt floor and stifled an urge to say something, to say anything; a word, a sound, call her name, something.
Sarah-Bell's silence tormented One-Toe. He would gladly let them ax-chop his good right foot if-in he could visit Sarah-Bell; Chester or no Chester. Naw, if-in he had a cooing dove like Sarah-Bell to share nights with, he wouldn't even dream of running again. He would stay and comfort her.
It was nearly an hour later before Chester had finished his business. Chester never kept any washing-water in his cabin, and Sarah-Bell had not even dared think about going down to the master's well, so all she could do was wipe herself with her skirt tail before she set off to walking back.
Despite her general habit of immediately forgetting the weight of an overseer hovering over her and thrashing into her, Sarah-Bell found herself mulling over her plight. Her thoughts were accompanied by the stark crunch of her footfalls on the loamy trail.
Maybe, if-in it proved necessary and she didn't wait too long, maybe Sarah-Bell could brave a trek over to Gilmore's and plead with Mama Zulie for some womb-cleaning chawing roots. Sarah-Bell paused and fleetingly hugged herself. I sure hope nothing that drastic is needed. Probably not. Her regular bleeding had just stopped a day or so ago.
As Sarah-Bell pushed determinedly on a trivial worriation nagged at her. Even though she was aware that Chester's drool could do her no harm, it sure was a mighty aggravation the way the taste of Chester's nasty kiss sometimes seemed to stay in her mouth for days. Luckily, on this particular night, he had mostly wanted to suck at her nipples rather than her lips.
Plus, he had come quickly enough. It hadn't been too long fore a spent and drowsy Chester dozed off and Sarah-Bell had been able to scoot from under him, slip off his pallet and proceed to walking the three-quarters a mile back to the lane.
By the time she was most halfway there Sarah-Bell had managed to bury Chester's assault and summon up a plaintive song to soften the knot of jumbled sorrow resting heavy in the bottom of her stomach.
Shortly, for the second time, the soles of Sarah-Bell's thickly-callused feet felt the well-worn familiarity of the lane's path. Sarah-Bell was welcomed back by the sleeping-sounds of her people. Snores. Whistles. Sobs. Groans. A few moans from someone sick, or was it from someone really tired, or maybe both.
Sarah-Bell was too exhausted to stumble fifty more yards down to the creek for to wash herself. She would do that in the morning. And though she was hungry, she was also too fatigued to gnaw on the piece of hardtack secreted deep in the pocket of her skirt. Right now she needed to lay down by herself and seek the solace of sleep so she could disremember the dog-odor of Chester's hair she had endured when he had been slobbering on her breasts. It was funny how that foul smell lingered in her consciousness. Seems like smell and taste had mo staying power than the abuse of touch.
Sarah-Bell's sharp ears caught the faint sound of some animal moving in the woods. Judging from the swift lightness of the rustling coming from the bushes, she guessed it must be a rabbit. An owl hooted. Sarah-Bell wordlessly empathized with the prey--run brother rabbit, less you be somebody supper.
Times like this Sarah-Bell wished she was brave enough to hightail it like One-Toe had done. Maybe she would make it to Mexico, which is where One-Toe said he had been headed. Sarah-Bell thought of what One-Toe had declared when they brought him back: Some gets away, some don't. Getting free was worth the risk, worth losing some of a foot.
She flinched at the thought of so permanent a loss. Even though she had survived more than her share of suffering, Sarah-Bell still didn't know if she could stand one of her limbs being mutilated or cut away.
Sarah-Bell was too tuckered out and emotionally drained to do anything more than collaspe into her doorway. She didn't even crawl over to check on her children balled together in slumber beneath a patchwork spread of sackcloth and shirt pieces. No sooner her dark-haired head nestled onto the curved comfort of her pillow-stone, a weary Sarah-Bell was dead asleep.
The next day in the pale dim of half-dawn morning light only one child sat where two usually fidgeted. Sarah-Bell's heart dropped. "Where Suzee-Bell?"
"Them took her," Johnny-Bell replied.
Was no need to say who "them" was. Was no need to ask "where" they took her.
We ain't got nothing but each other, and they won't let us hold on to that, Sarah-Bell's insides roiled with anger. Both man and God was unfair. Man for what he was doing. And God for allowing men to act the low down way they did. Sarah-Bell knew Johnny-Bell would be next. She knew it just as sure as she knew a snake would eat an unprotected egg.
Johnny-Bell was her fifth child.
"What's yo name, boy?"
"Johnny..." the child stuttered frightened by the hissed intensity of his mother's question.
"Naw. Yo name Johnny-Bell. BELL. You Johnny-Bell. Yo brothers is Robert-Bell and Joe-Bell. Your sisters is Urzie-Bell and Suzee-Bell. No matter where they cart you off to, no matter what they call you by, you remember the name yo mama give you. And if you ever hear tell of yo brothers or yo sisters, you go find 'em if you can. But you remember 'em even if you can't find 'em. You remember yo people. You hear me?"
"Say, yes, Sarah-Bell. Don't mam me. Call me by my name. Sarah-Bell."
The confused four year old wet himself. He had never heard his mother speak so harshly to him; but he didn't cry.
When she realized how hard she was shaking him, Sarah-Bell softened her grip on Johnny-Bell's shoulder. He was just a scared little boy, and her rage wasn't making this crisis any easier for him. She could feel currents of fear in the heavy trembling racking his little body, which was twitching like a throat-cut calf at slaughtering time.
Within seconds Sarah-Bell reigned in her emotions, mustered up her fortitude, and tenderly enfolded Johnny-Bell into the comforting shelter of her bosom. They swayed in mutual anguish as she sought to rock away both his fear and her grief.
Instinctively she handled her perdicament as best she knew how. Within seconds of hugging Johnny-Bell, Sarah-Bell was breathing out a long-toned lullaby and anointing the reddish-brown hair of her son's head with song-embellished kisses.
And she didn't loosen her embrace until she heard the rooster crow for day. After emerging into the muted shine of daybreak, hand-in-hand, mother and child marched down to the water to bathe themselves.
The word about Suzee-Bell buzzed through the small community. Just before departing for the fields, glassy-eyed and scowling, Sarah-Bell stood in the middle of the lane sullenly declaiming her determination.
"Yalls, hear me. Every time I have one, they take and sell 'em away. Sarah-Bell is through birthing babies. No matter who lay down with me, ain't no mo babies coming out of me. I'm done. Done, you hear me. Done."
And with the finality of her words resounding in everyone's ears, Sarah-Bell whirled and commenced to trudging off to the field. One-Toe scrambled to catch up to Sarah-Bell.
Without breaking stride, Sarah-Bell closely examined One-Toe's unblinking gaze. Satisfied with what she saw, Sarah-Bell gave a quick nod and gratefully accepted the respectful silence of One-Toe's company.
She started singing, quietly at first but more forcefully as they sauntered on. The irresible refrain of Sarah-Bell's song syncopated their gait. Together, they would face another day.
—kalamu ya salaam
photo by Alex Lear
our sister is thin. she is leading her whole family down the street. her four year old is just ahead of her. she and her little man, two year old malik, walk hand in hand behind skipping and giggling sekou. she is not paying any attention to things in the streets: the cars, trucks and busses whizzing by in both directions. they had missed the bus they needed. the evening was nice. warm. so why not walk and why not take a short cut down napoleon avenue, a thoroughfare what used to be one of white folks' big streets?
a camera swung innocently on her hip beneath the medium sized windbreaker, which enveloped her. although out of sight, the camera was at the ready because she liked to shoot. most of the time without film. she would "see" a scene. compose an artistic comment from a chance encounter. but not being able to afford as much film and processing as she would shoot if she had the green to match her ambition, she would just flash the camera and capture the still in her mind's eye, the image frozen in her brain as the sound of the shutter-click indicated the shot was complete. some people did not understand taking pictures without film. they either were not deep into art or else they were not poor. but poor artists know, you've got to practice your art anyway you can.
cause she was on a family outing. listening to her boys be themselves. actually coming back from standing in line paying a bill and headed to the house that barely qualified as shelter, not to mention was a poor stand-in for a secure and loving place she could accurately call home. because her braids were in place and would not need rebraiding for another three or four months. because the essential bills were now paid. and she did have thirty dollars in her pocket for two weeks of food. because sekou was singing "space is the place..." his favorite sun ra song -- oh, she was proud that sekou dug ra. i mean, what parent would not be proud of a four year old with the sensitivity to embrace sun ra? because she was making sure she was walking slow enough so that malik could keep up but fast enough so that sekou would not outdistance them. because malik was just getting over the flu and she kept hugging him from time to time both to cuddle and to take his temperature. because she was enjoying her kids. and had taken fifteen shots of them already today. the last one a little shaky because she didn't use a flash and the shadows were getting long, which meant shooting at a slow shutter speed and her hand had shook a little as she focused on the look in malik's eyes and saw the man whose seed spawned malik. the hand shake was not out of hate or even any particular rememberance of love or passion, but rather because this little man looked so much like that big half-a-man and she could not help but wonder would little man grow to become the whole man that the older man was destined never to be. she knew that was her task. to somehow teach these little sweet knuckleheads to become men, somehow, in the absence of a steady man on the scene. if you are a young woman. attractive but not gorgeous. black in color and consciousness. poor as a welfare queen, except not even food stamps stuffed into your bra. proud in the classic "we may not have much but we're going to make it" way, estranged from your birth family because you have become, some-terrible-how, exactly what your upbringing and college education was supposed to prevent: a poor, single mother of two, head of household, fatherman long gone. if you have struggled with being a statistic for three or four years running. cooped yourself up. did odd jobs here and there. hung on by a thread. managed to hold on to your decency -- i.e. declined to live off of ocassional dollars left on the bedside by dawgs who liked the way you jocked their dick -- managed to stay physically clean of diseases (and you have found the easiest way to suffer sexual deprivation is to do without completely, except, of course, for the casual hand job in the tub or a particular good spliff of reefer every other week or so), so you’re clean and have managed to hold on to your pride. no begging back to mama. no buckling under to stern papa's patriarchal nonsense. if you were wearing synthetic clothes even though you prefered cottons and wools. payless sneakers when rockport walkers were really what you needed, especially given that you walked most places you had to go--a buck a throw to ride the bus added up to a tremendous deficit in the pocketbook, and besides, it was usually three bucks to ride because it was cheaper to take family outings then to even think about paying one of the kids in the block to be a babysitter, besides what sense did it make to let kids who were little more than babies watch your babies? if you had finally sold some photos to some magazine for less than you hoped but for as much as you could expect, cashed the money at the corner, paid your electricity bill, paid the rent, and still had thirty dollars and change left over to buy food for two weeks until next payday, because of all of that, if you were shooting a photo of your youngest son and you saw the last man who dispassionately screwed over you staring out of your son’s two year old eyes, your hand would quiver too. all of the above is why her hand shook a little trying while squeezing off that slow-shutter-speed shot.
because of ruminating on all of that and because she just never would have expected it, she wasn't paying attention to the brother walking toward her until he stopped in front of them. went down into his pocket and began pulling out a pistol that was so long it seemed like it took two hours for him to keep extracting it from its hiding place. he just kept coming up, up, up with that thing.
why was he showing her his gun? was all she could think of at first.
brother was tall but not overly tall. just regular ghetto brother tall. tall enough to be playing ball instead of pulling a gun on her. was moderately attractive, except she did not pay too much attention to his looks because she was faced with the fascination of a lethal weapon about to be aimed at her chest. he maybe weighted as much as her whole family -- sekou was no more than forty-some pounds, malik was only about twenty-nine pounds, and she weighed ninety-eight pounds wringing wet -- she had weighed herself the last time she took a bath at her girlfriend's house, her girl friend, whom she hadn't seen or talked to in months now, kept a scale next to the tub, so when she stepped out, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, to hop on the scale and give it a go, the scale registered ninety eight and a half pounds, she had deducted half a pound for the water dripping off her and for the towel she was clutching and rubbing across her body as she dried herself -- so 98 plus let's say 30 was 128 plus say 45 was 163, no 173, yeah, he looked to weigh 200 or so pounds. shit. he didn't need no gun to rob her. he could have been like most men and just threw his weight around. but she couldn't help paying attention to that gun.
a gun is a funny thing when it's aimed at your chest, when it's in the hands of somebody who doesn't give a damn about your life, when it's loaded and maybe also loaded is the person holding the piece. a gun is funny in the macarbe sense that even though she was a statistic of poverty she had never thought of herself as eligible to become a statistic of homicide until she was confronted by a little piece of specifically twisted metal, phallic shaped and capable of spewing a metal projectile that can rent flesh, shatter bone and easily cause fatal harm.
we had embraced when we met, the huge of my bear hug almost wrapped completely around her twice, my right hand on my left elbow, my left hand vice versa, her living flesh encased against my chest, i could feel her breathing, her small breasts, the slenderness of her back, the top of her head not fully up to my chin, she didn't look sick or anything, or feel weak, but no one would mistake her for being at the top of her game, she had a semi-nervous gesture when i asked how she had been, both hands went to her hair and tugged the braids back on her head, hands over her ears like she didn't want to hear the question, and she looked down, away from me, before answering that she was just kind of coming out of seclusion. while she made those silent sad gestures, i was thinking about her children being sequestered in a cramped shotgun double, and, of course, trying to be a bit sensitive, i didn't ask how she was caring for her kids, i mean i was just another man who was not going to support her two young negro males, and if you ain't going to solve the problem what right do you have to tell a young mother that she ought to take better care of her kids, doesn't she know that every day she gets up, dresses them, feeds them, as best she can? i guess if i were she i too would have been in seclusion. and then she tells me that she almost got killed.
but that's life in the waning moments of the 20th century, everybody is almost getting killed, life, especially in new orleans a recent statistical murder capital of metropolitan america, life is murder. i could tell from the quiet, unhysterical, deliberate, clearly ennuciated, without eye contact at first but then the quick glance up into my eyes, i could tell that life is sometimes death from the way she said the word for the day around our way: killed. i could tell this was not an exaggeration.
you know the old saying, what goes up must come down? it's not the lift off that's scary, nor the arcing descent, what is scary is surviving the crash. i'm beginning to understand the anxiety of survival. sort of like how it felt surviving the middle passage. what am i living for? how come i'm still alive? when friends and kin fall all around you, you wonder why you're still standing. in this case, i was also wondering how she was still standing.
i mean it was difficult visualizing her on the sidewalk, pulling malik close to her with a firm hand that just moments ago was leisurely linked to his little palm. or how did sekou, big eyed and backed back against her thighs, how did he look while some original gangsta practiced his mayhem tactics on this family trio. sister got less than nothing--all the cash she will beg, borrow, earn and steal this year will not cover her annual debt, and some hardleg is trying to jack her up. what a tremendous disrespect for life this is. what kind of parasite would ripoff a whole family whose liquid cash is probably less than the cost of the bullets and the gun being used to rob them?
sister laughs nervously as she relates to me how big the gun was, pantomiming the gun being pulled on her, coming up out the dude's pants, she uses her hand with finger and thumb stiff at a perpendicular angle and just keeps raising her hand higher and higher until it's over her head. i imagine when all the money you've got is thirty dollars and it's secreted on your person, and your two young boys are scrunched up against you silently waiting for you to do something, and there's this big dude standing in front of you about to rob you or whatever, i imagine, at that moment, the gun do look like it will keep growing in size, bigger and bigger and bigger.
"i told him, you know you wrong for that. you see my kids..."
i could not imagine being bold enough to tell a robber he's wrong for robbing. but beneath the stress of crisis, she rose to protest the moment of her assault.
"i had to tell him, man, you wrong for that. and then i kinda instinctively backed toward the street. before i knew it, we were standing in the street. a car came along. the driver hit his brakes. leaned on his horn. swerved around us and kept going. i was yelling at the car: stop, stop. the dude hollered at me: give me your money or i'll shoot you. but by then i was standing in the middle of the street, my arms around my kids and then another car was coming. they was just going to have to hit me and my boys, or stop. fortunately the car stopped. i jerked on the passenger front door but it was locked. roll down your window, i begged. help me. please. help me. i pointed at the dude at the curb: that man is trying to kill us."
i watched her unconsciouly re-enact the escape as she narrated the scenario of resistance to assault. the unsentimental starkness of her words connected me to her like a fishhook in the flesh, each syllable held fast and pulled me closer because it hurt to back away from her. when i had asked how she had been, i had no idea how near she had come to not being and how out of it i would feel as she related to me the tale of her near demise.
although each one of her quiet words conjured up an image in my mind, everything i was thinking was abstract compared to the knot of feelings wrenching my gut as i stood transfixed by the mesmerizing sight of her pantomime, her body jerking through the survival motions: the desperate pulling at the car door, her braids thrashing as she frantically grasped for an opening; the fearless pointing at the assailant, her arm extended, ending in an accusatory finger aimed at some spot to the right of me; the protective collecting of her children, the hugging of open space with right arm and left arm, the hunching over, making a shield out of her body. i was hearing her words with one mind and watching her body with another mind, and both minds were marveling at what they witnessed. she sang and she danced. her words were warrior song, her motions, warrior steps. and yet she was unarmed, all she was doing was defending, defending her right to be, to be woman, to be mother, to be walking down the street with her children. you know we're in bad shape when a single mother and two children are viewed as easy prey, when a literally poor woman who obviously doesn't have big bucks can't take a family stroll through the afternoon without one of her brothers pulling a gun on her, threatening murder, demanding her money or her life.
i was simply standing there listening to her story, painfully aware that i was doing nothing but listening. she was not only doing the work of telling the tale, she had also first done the work of surviving the murderous maze of choices facing her that fatefilled afternoon. when a robber puts a gun in your face, most people's minds shut down and they become incapable of making calculated decisions, incapable of making any decision. most people freeze up and simply do what they are told. but this sister in the flash of a few seconds figured out how to be a survivor. threaded through the labyrinth of violence and somehow found a path to avoid the palpable possibility of getting murdered. this sister refused to go silently into the book of urban armed robbery and homocide.
i was emotionally exhausted as she continued the story of a murder that didn't happen. since she was here telling me about it, i knew that the story did not end with her murder, but as she revived the terror of the moment with the sound of her voice and the intensity of her movements, i felt the helpless chill of realizing just how fragile we all are in confronting the callous brutalities of contemporary life.
even though it would have been a tragedy had she been shot, the greater shame is that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, unbelievable about this story. if i didn't know it before, i knew it now: the realities of late 20th century new orleans had predisposed me to accept murder as a normal way of life. i wondered what i would have done had i actually been a witness to the attempted robbery. how would i have reacted if i were a passerby? would i have driven away, like the driver of the first car that almost hit them, or would i have simply stood motionless as a tree witnessing a black on black lynching, a black man assaulting a black woman?
"it was an older black man at the wheel of the car that stopped. i pounded on the window. i looked over my shoulder at the dude standing on the curb with the gun still out. please, help us, i shouted. the man unlocked his door. i pushed my kids in first."
then she addressed me. reminded me that i was not innocently an uninvolved spectator. by directly addressing me, she did not allow me the simple escape of observing her as though she was a television or a movie screen. she reminded me that i, a man, was looking at her, a woman. what was the relationship of my manhood to her? as "a man" i could be a perpretator or i could be a helpmate. she reminded me that manhood was no abstract choice. day to day, incident to incident, relation to relation, one on one, one to many, one to none, each man had to choose how he related to each woman. i didn't say anything as she interrupted the narrative flow, looked directly at me and made a parenthetical remark as she continued. what could i say?
"man, it was some shit like in a movie. it was happening so fast. but what was i going to do? i didn't want my kids to see me getting shot or nothing. or whatever that man with the gun intended to do to me." the awfulness of "whatever" hung in the air like the scent of foulness in a slaughterhouse. i said nothing and just waited for her to hurry up and get away from the man with the gun.
"at first i was going to tell the kids to run but they wouldn't move. they just kept clinging to me. so when i pushed them out into the street, they kinda was resisting. but it was the street and maybe getting run over by a car or else standing still and getting robbed and maybe getting shot. lucky for us, a car stopped. so after i got the kids in the car, i jumped in behind the kids. the man who was driving asked me what was wrong. i said just drive please. please drive. and he drove off. i didn't even look back. to this day i couldn't really describe that dude to you, but i can still see that big-ass gun."
and then it was over. she stopped talking. went into herself for a second or so to lock down whatever emotions that retelling and reliving the tale had set loose.
once she was back to the present, she looked up and into me in real time, swung her attention to my presence and calmly met my gaze without the terror of the past beclouding her bright brown eyes. she was no longer back at the scene of the crime, she was now standing in safety before me, a slight, very slight, smile creasing her face. silent. and then she said: "i'm alright now, but i been kind of staying inside, yaknow." and then she giggled nervously. i mumbled something about being glad that she was ok, and then recognizing that i had nothing substantial to add, i changed the subject.
days later, i find myself facing the question: what are you going to do about it? it's over but it's not over. murder marches on. armed robbery careens through our community unabated. no matter how i twist the combination of causes and effects, proactions and reactions, i don't come up with any great new insights into the problem.
in terms of dealing with our very real social problems, i am a beggar standing lonely outside a banquet of the damned. i don't possess any secret solutions or even any short term suggestions. but i know i must say something. so i raise up these few words and shout out to all my brothers: hey, my brothers, if you see a young sister, reed thin, dark skinned, walking down the street with two big-eyed kids, hey, please don't fuck with them. and brotherman, if you find them in trouble, please help them. that's the least a human being can do. help, and, most certainly, do no harm.
—kalamu ya salaam
Forty-Five Is Not So Old
It was 1:30 in the morning. Lucinda was half a jigger away from inebriated as she held a double shot of Seagram's and 7-Up poised before her glossy, hot pink painted lips. Precisely at that moment, Lucinda made up her mind "since I'm going to die eventually, I might as well live tonight" which meant she didn’t want to go home alone tonight. In fact, she hoped she wasn't going home at all, at least not to her own home.
Billy must of thought she was a fool. "Away on business" or so he had said with feinted casualness. Lucinda knew. Even as she had allowed herself to act like she believed him when he said he had to go to Portland for four days, she knew. Maybe he really did have some business to do there, but for sure he was sleeping with Sandra with her little narrow ass. It didn't matter that Billy Jo had left Thursday during the day and that Sandra was at work on Friday, answering the phone when Lucinda called on some pretense or the other. "I know something is up," Lucinda mouthed right before the cool liquor crossed her lips.
Lucinda was a public relations specialist, she knew how to make things look like what they weren’t. Who had said life was just an illusion? Wasn’t it true that illusions were part of life? The only question was do you believe? Do you believe in what’s not there? Damn, this liquor makes you think some funny thoughts. But no, Billy Jo’s disinterest was no illusion. Nor was Sandra an illusion.
Just thinking of that little 96-and-three-quarter-pound strumpet made Lucinda angry because invariably it made Lucinda think of when she weighed 115 pounds and was good to go, but that was at least eight years ago. Her eyes growing increasingly glassy, Lucinda silently surveyed herself in the large mirror behind the bar. One hundred fifty-five pounds really wasn't that heavy, “besides I'm tall and have big breasts. How is it these little skinny wenches can get men so excited, what's to it?
"Furthermore, the slut has buck teeth. What in the world could skinny Sandra possibly do for William James Brown that he likes better than what I do for him," Lucinda wondered as she took another slow sip of her mixed drink. "I don't look bad--for my age. Hell, in fact, it's not really age. It's experience. I look good to say I'm as experienced as I am."
Lucinda smirked as she thought about how Sandra couldn't massage Billy Jo's feet like she did, then wash them in a little antique porcelain wash basin--I bet she doesn't even own any antiques--dry them with an ultra-fluffy, teal-colored towel, and then slowly suck his toes as her flawlessly-lacquered fingernails crawled up and down the soles of his size-eleven feet. And for sure, Sandra had no clue of some of the more stimulating thrills Billy Jo's big toe could arouse. Like when Lucinda felt really risqué, really felt like lighting up Billy Jo's little firecracker in her sexy night sky, after cutting his toe nails with a clipper and gently buffing the edges to a smooth evenness with an emery board, after washing them in warm water with a scented soap, after tenderly drying them and then sucking them as he lay back on their bed, and after massaging his feet with baby oil, and as it got good to him, after all of that, Lucinda would climb up on the bed and slowly stroke her pussy with his big toe, stroke it until she was wet. God, a woman didn't know what she was missing if she had never reached a climax with her lover's toe tapping on her clitoris. What did that inexperienced child know about sophisticated lovemaking? Lucinda took a long sip of her drink.
Lucinda recalled how pleasantly surprised Billy Jo always seemed whenever she dropped in on him at work. With a toss of her luxuriously coiffured hair which had been crafted into a gleaming and glistening, jet black, lengthy, chemically-treated mane that languidly lay across her shoulders, Lucinda smiled slyly as she reminisced about how it had been, the last time she turned Billy Jo on at his office.
"Billy, I was in the neighborhood, on my way to that little boutique I discovered, you know the one I told you specializes in silk batiks and as I crossed Poydras I felt this twinge like a little spark of lightening." He had looked at her partially annoyed but also partially pleased as she stroked his male ego. "I couldn't wait. So..." she slid seductively around his desk, "I decided to stop here."
Lucinda reached down and slightly opened Billy Jo's bottom desk drawer. She propped her leg up on the edge of the drawer as she took his right hand and cunningly glided it beneath her skirt and up her thigh. Lucinda shuddered involuntarily as she expertly guided his fingers into the curly mass of pubic hair and the moist flesh of her mound. She tensed her thigh muscles when his fingers reached her clit. "Yes, yes, I needed that," she salaciously whimpered while throwing her head back and squeezing her eyes close with the same intensity as the forceful contractions caused by Billy Jo's fingertips tap dancing on the head of her clitoris. Lucinda savored the first trickles of what would soon become a flow. And then his phone rang. It was intrusive Sandra reminding "Mr. Brown" he had an appointment in ten minutes.
"That's enough," Lucinda said pulling his hand away, "for now." And then she remembered his astonishment as she bent over to slowly suck her moisture off of his fingers. "We can't have you smelling like pussy when you shake hands with the movers and shakers of industry."
When Lucinda completed tongue washing each finger, she reached into her mauve silk purse which hung by a silver metal shoulder strap dangling off her left hip. Moving aside her black satin panties which she had removed in the parking garage, she withdrew a pink linen handkerchief that was embroidered with her initials. Before she finished drying his fingers, there was a knock at the door.
As Sandra entered, Lucinda ostentatiously finished her task with a flourish, waving the handkerchief, "there, all clean, all dry."
After daintily refolding her handkerchief and replacing it in her brightly beaded pouch, Lucinda slowly kissed her husband on his clean-shaved cheek, paused to close the bottom desk drawer and cheerfully called out to him over her shoulder as she sashayed past Sandra, "have a good meeting honey, we'll finish ours tonight."
Pausing at the doorway, Lucinda pirouetted coyly, "and Sandra, you have a nice day. OK." That little narrow-ass secretary didn't know anything about how to administer sexual quickies, didn’t know that men liked sexually aggressive women who were otherwise the model of ladyhood.
* * *
While she was lost in the reverie of remembering the sexual games she often played with Billy Jo, an impeccably dressed young man sat on a stool one removed from Lucinda. Attracted by the resonance of his masculine baritone ordering a cognac, Lucinda turned to look directly at his massive profile. She sniffed and caught the faint whiff of an expensive cologne. He was ruggedly handsome.
"Hi," she smiled at him.
He looked at her, briefly. Lucinda saw the almost imperceptible survey flicker as his eyes started at her face, moved quickly down her body, strayed briefly to her behind--she sat up straight and slightly arched her back--and down her legs, and... and, nothing. He turned away without even responding.
She wanted to throw her drink at him. Instead she decided to annoy him. "I said, hello."
He grunted, turned his head and pretended he was ignoring her. Lucinda hated to be ignored.
She got up, slid onto the stool next to him, and ignored his ignoring her. "My name is Lucinda."
"And your name is?"
Oh god, what a common name, Lucinda thought, he probably doesn't even have a college degree. Lucinda's liquor continued the conversation, "Jawon, that's nice." Pushing her purse aside, Lucinda leaned forward on the bar's leather lining. "Jawon, I'm conducting a survey. Would you mind if I asked you a couple of opinion questions?"
Jawon grunted without looking at her.
"I take that grunt to mean, 'oh god, why doesn't this old bag just leave me alone with her silly questions. I'll answer one or two, but she better make it quick'."
Jawon was slightly taken aback by her boldness. He turned to get a second look at this woman. Lucinda leaned back slightly, crossed her legs, and did not bother to tug down her worsted wool dress. Noticing her broad, soft-calf leather, black belt with the bold, gold buckle, Jawon accessed she was probably some kind of leather freak who liked to tie down men or spank them with a black riding crop. Nah, it's not worth it, was his final appraisal.
"If our ages were reversed," Lucinda leaned forward again, bracing her flawlessly made-up face with the back of her exquisitely manicured hand, "If I was a mature man and you were a young attractive woman, would you be offended if I brushed you off without so much as a civil hello?" Sporting a self-assured smile, Lucinda looked directly at Jawon awaiting his answer.
Acid cruelly dripped from Jawon's thickly mustached lips, "I think you ought to be at home baby-sitting your grandchildren instead of out here trying to rob the cradle."
"Ah ha. Well, Jawon, ten years from now, I hope you're not sitting on the other end of this question, and if you are, I hope the lady whose attention you're trying to attract, is just a bit more understanding than you are now. That's all. You may go now."
Jawon backed off the stool and walked away, leaving a dollar tip on the bar while offering no further acknowledgment of Lucinda.
* * *
Lucinda turned to face the mirror behind the bar and in the reflection caught sight of Roderick, the genial bartender, standing discreetly to the side, dressed in black slacks, a crisply starched white shirt topped with a hand-tied black bow tie, and a black and white checkered vest highlighted by a metal name tag which mirrored the bar's multicolored neon-and-florescent-lit interior. There was neither smile nor smirk on Roderick's placid face, nor did his eyes give any indication that he had watched the drama unfold. Without bothering to look directly at him, Lucinda sat her drink on the dark wood of the bar and familially addressed Roderick, "Well, Rodney don't just stand there. Freshen my drink, please."
As Roderick moved toward her, Lucinda glanced at her watch. It was almost midnight in Portland. Lucinda mischievously decided to call Billy Jo and disturb whatever little excitement in which he might be engaged. Before Roderick could pour the freshener, Lucinda waved him off, "Rodney, I've decided to go home instead of sitting here and getting my feelings hurt. Be the gentleman that you are and call a cab for me please."
Lucinda never, never ever drove her white Lexus when she went alone to paint the town. A solitary woman cruising down the avenues late at night was like flashing a baked ham in front of hungry bulldogs. Any man that she might meet would pay more attention to her car than to her, and assume that where there was a Lexus there was a big bank account that they might access. Besides, it was safer this way. Not that she had ever done much more than flirt, just to see if she still had what it took to attract a man ten years younger than she. Most of the time... oh, why think about.
Pulling two crisp, new twenties from her purse, Lucinda waved them at Roderick, "I assume this will cover my tab for three doubles and also adequately provide for your well being."
Roderick nodded affirmatively as he received the bills with a smile. His clean-shaven head was oiled to a soft, attractive sheen and were it not for the gaucherie of two gold-capped teeth, Lucinda might have found him attractive as well as personable.
"Will there be anything else I can do for you?" he asked Lucinda in a charming tone that implied he was both a trustworthy listener and a resourceful procurer.
Lucinda's liquor got the better of her normal disinterest in what other people did or didn't do. "Does diabetes run in your family, Rodney?"
"Not that I know of. No, I don't believe so. A little arthritis is all I've ever heard about, but then my folks are from the country, out Vacherie way. Don't a day go by they don't walk at least a mile and all their food is fresh, home cooked."
"You're fortunate, Rodney. Did you know the treatment for diabetes is deleterious to the libido?"
"So, I've heard."
"Watch your diet young man, we wouldn't want your libido going south before you're sixty-five."
"Ah, no mam. We certainly wouldn't want that to happen." Roderick had been idly wondering if she were single or out for a fling, or both. Without her having to say anymore he knew that she was grieving for a husband or lover who was no longer sexually active. Someone called to him from the other end of the near empty bar. Roderick waved an acknowledgment to the customer while he was wrapping up with Lucinda. "Is there a particular company you prefer?"
"No. How would I know, I don't usually take cabs."
"OK. I'll be right back." Roderick walked briskly down to the waiting customer, served him, reached under the register, pulled out the bar’s phone and rotely punched in the White Fleet number as he walked back to where the matronly woman sat.
"A cab is on the way. The dispatcher will ring me when they're outside."
"Such an efficient young man you are."
"Thank you," said Roderick with a graceful bow of his bald head.
"Rodney, one more thing."
"Yes. At your service."
"Might, I use your phone to make a quick long distance call?" requested Lucinda while removing another crisp twenty from her purse along with the note page on which Billy Jo had written his hotel telephone number. "My husband would just love to hear from me at this particular moment." Roderick took the twenty with his right hand and handed the phone to her with his left.
"Take your time," Roderick said over his shoulder as he moved to the far end of the bar.
"Mr. William James Brown, please. He's a guest." Lucinda smirked at the thought of calling Billy Jo from a bar.
Although she felt her mood turning foul, when Lucinda heard Billy Jo answer the phone, she brightened her voice, "Hello, my lover. Where ever you are."
"You know where I am. I gave you the number and you called it."
"I miss you."
"I miss you too, honey."
Then there was an awkward hush as Lucinda waited for Billy Jo to indicate interest in her. And waited. And waited.
"Other than missing you, I'm doing all right, thank you," Lucinda finally broke the stalemate, not bothering to mask her sarcasm.
"I'll be home late Sunday night."
"Should I wait up?"
"You don't have to."
"Billy Jo why do you..." her words trailed off into a strained silence. Something was in her eye, she paused to dab the edges of her left eye with the heel of her hand. "You know where I am now?"
"No, I don't Lucinda. Where are you?"
"I'm sitting in a bar, but I would rather be somewhere with you."
Something else was in her eye now. "Billy, I just want to make you happy. Be good to you. Make it all good to you..." Lucinda abruptly stopped babbling. "You see you've got me babbling. Would it excite you if I told you I wanted you so much that we could make phone sex right now. And...," Lucinda paused. "I started to say something really naughty but this is a mobile phone and anyone could be listening."
The liquor kept her talking long after she normally would have stopped.
"I'll be forty-nine next week and, in another four months or so, you'll be forty-six, and that's not so old. I was thinking maybe some other medication might help you, I mean, maybe, make you feel less, or, I mean, feel better, or...," his tight-lipped silence was not making it easy. "Are you sorry that I couldn't have children?" As Lucinda questioned Billy she instantly regretted saying anything and wished that he would say something. Anything. "Billy are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here."
"And I'm not."
"Lucinda, I think you've had too much to drink."
She had not realized she was slightly slurring her words.
"It's all right. I'm catching a cab home."
"See you Sunday night, honey."
Lucinda held the phone to her ear long, long after the dial tone sounded following Billy Jo hanging up. As Lucinda lowered the phone from her ear, Roderick moved toward her. Before she could hand the phone back to him, it rang and startled her. She almost dropped it. Roderick grabbed it, also catching hold of her hand in the process of securing the phone.
"It's OK, I've got it." She left her hand nestled in Roderick's as he used his free hand to expertly hit the talk button, shift the phone to his ear, and answer, "Hello." While he listened to whomever was talking, Lucinda tightened her fingers on Roderick's hand. "Thanks. She will be right out."
Roderick hit the talk-off button and leaned on the bar without trying to pull his hand away. "Your cab is outside."
"Yes, it is."
"Rodney, you wouldn't be interested...?"
"I don't get off until four and I've already promised..."
"Just kidding." said Lucinda unconvincingly as she reluctantly released his hand. "Have a good night."
Lucinda slowly descended from the stool, studiously attempting to maintain her balance and walk as straight as she could. Roderick shook his head. She didn’t have a ring on her finger and she was calling her husband from a bar at almost two in the morning; Roderick had seen so many like her, "the world is full of lonely people."
* * *
At the door Lucinda paused before heading out into the chilly dark. Who was she fooling, she had never cheated on Billy Jo. And never would; even if she did like to sometimes pretend she would enjoy being promiscuous. No, what Lucinda really enjoyed was being desired. Desired like Billy Jo used to do before his illness flared and… Lucinda didn’t want to think about it.
So, why did she keep thinking about how unfair it was that she had been a virgin when she first married, stayed married for five miserable years, spent seven wasted years so-called “dating” until she found Billy Jo floundering in a marriage that was all but legally over; so terribly unfair that now that she have found the man she wanted he didn’t…
Lucinda had salvaged Billy Jo from Betty’s neglect. That woman was so…beneath Billy Jo, so incapable of helping him achieve the finer things in life. Unfortunately, for Billy and Betty’s children, all three of them looked like their mother and, worse, acted like their mother. They were all parasites, they just wanted what little money Billy Jo had saved, which wasn’t much. What was a measly $78,000 anyway?
It’s amazing what one can think of when opening a door.
Betty didn’t understand Billy Jo, what he wanted in life, what a legal career could mean. She was uneducated and Billy Jo deserved more. Betty undoubtedly didn’t know how to do all it took to keep a man—Lucinda used to say to “keep a man happy.” These days she cynically just placed the period after man. Later for this happiness crap.
But wasn’t she entitled to happiness? People admired her—she came from a good family, was well educated, took care of herself. That thing with her uterus didn’t stop her from being a woman. And my, my, my, wasn’t she some kind of woman? Exactly the woman Billy Jo needed as a helpmate to eventually become a judge.
Lucinda loved Billy Jo. He would be a public success, and God knows he was privately terrific. Lucinda loved the way Billy Jo made love to her, even though she knew he was not as interested in loving her as she was in being loved by him… Oh, this was all too… Lucinda pushed against the burnished brass plate etched with the club name, Black Diamond.
* * *
As the door swung open, an early morning gust sent a shiver through Lucinda and she suddenly remembered asking Billy Jo to turn around. “I want to suck too,” she had said while he had been patiently slurping her wetness with an almost disinterested expertness.
In her dating career, which seemed like another life time ago, she had had the opportunity to sexually examine maybe twelve dicks. Ah, the variety of the male sex organ, the little differences, particularly when aroused. She liked the feel of some, especially the way they throbbed when she squeezed or how they jumped as she teased the scrotum with her fingernails; for a couple of others it was how they looked, the veins pulsing on…what was his name, yes, Andre, light-skinned Andre, with the thick veins crisscrossing the surface of his thing, or the hooded darkness of Jerome’s uncircumcised penis; and then there had been the size of Harold’s tool. A basketball player’s big dick, but he hadn’t known what to do with it, or without it, for that matter.
Love making with Billy Jo had been the biggest turn on, surprisingly so—oh, you could never tell just by how a man looked, or even how he danced, you could never tell if he knew how to make love without using his dick. Billy Jo knew. And Lucinda really, really liked that.
Moreover Billy Jo wasn’t squeamish about her freaking him. He hardly moved the first time she inserted a forefinger in his rectum, while she was sucking him and he was busy down there giving her head. Why was she like that? What did it look like? She supine, he on top of her, his head bobbing between her quivering thighs, his knees astride her head, his member in her mouth, her nose just beneath his taunt testicles—Lucinda really liked that he was clean so the smell was never suffocating—and her hand spread across his bottom, one long finger deep inside him. What would a photograph of that look like?
He never questioned her, or made her feel embarrassed or feel anything but happy to have her way with him—not even the time she reminded him to shower and have a bowel movement before they jumped to it when they had been out on that wonderful weekend at the spa in Nevada, and had had a big lunch, and a scrumptious dinner, and had been out all day and dancing half the night, and...her finger was all the way in him, plunging at him, and the more deliberately she pushed, the more he nibbled at her clitoris, and she sucked him so hard she was afraid she was going to hurt him, but it felt so good. Why? Why all of that? Why did it take all of that?
* * *
At the curb, the cab driver held open the back door of his maroon Toyota Camry. Lucinda slid in, thanking the driver by flashing a wide smile and making no attempt to hide her thighs as, one by one, she slowly swung her legs into the sedan. She would have really given him a good peek but he was studiously not looking, and Lucinda was not sure whether he was just being a gentleman or if, for some unfathomable reason, he really didn’t want to catch sight of what lay between her legs.
Lucinda slid all the way over to the driver’s side of the back seat so that she was directly behind him when he got in. After she gave him the address, Lucinda folded her arms, briefly; she made sure the door was locked and then pushed her body deeply into the corner of the back seat.
Lucinda knew what she was going to do. Lucinda knew what she shouldn’t do.
She scooted down, lay her head on the fabric of the backseat and pretended to sleep.
Her hand crept under her dress. She had not worn panties.
“Any particular way you want to go?”
“Oh, whatever. I’m sure you know how to do your job. Take whatever route. This time of the morning, what difference does it make? Are you…?” Lucinda stopped herself. She didn’t want to make small talk. She wasn’t even mildly interested in this young foreigner. She certainly didn’t want to know what country he was from with his African accent. What did that matter?
Yes. Her left hand was there.
“Don’t mine me. I babble sometimes after a drink or two. I’m not used to drinking.”
Good, he was taking the expressway. No lights. No stops.
If he turned around and saw her—God, I would be so embarrassed, Lucinda lied to herself, halfway hoping he would look at her, would… “Oh.” She scooted down further and gapped her legs wider. Forefinger in the hole, thumb on the button.
She was beginning to breathe heavily—is that why he turned the radio on? “Is OK I play radio?”
“Yes. Of course.” Their eyes met briefly in the rearview mirror. Could he imagine how smooth her thighs were? The treadmill and the exercise ball were really an effective way to keep her legs toned. What would he think if he turned and saw her, saw down there? The way she kept her private hair close cropped. How the dark of her looked in the shadows, the deep chestnut of her bulging labia major set off by the cream of her dress bunched up almost to her hips. Would he pull over and try… even on the expressway? What would he do if he could see the glistening sheen of the beginnings of a mildly musky flow dripping down there?
Lucinda smiled wanly. The guy looked away and pretended to be just driving a woman home. But Lucinda knew. Maybe he could smell her arousal. “Billy.” Barely audible, her utterance was more a release than a sounding. Lucinda wanted to touch her nipples, to rub them between her thumb and the side of her pointing finger. She could smell the driver, he reeked of Old Spice or was it one of those obscenely-colored (whoever heard of quality perfumes in those garish shades), one of those obnoxious body oils those unkempt street merchants hawked? Lucinda closed her eyes.
Lucinda imagined Billy Jo’s lips sucking her breasts. Could you call this sex? A short tremor shot through her. Lucinda’s legs jerked and she bumped against the back of the driver’s seat. She knew she should stop. Billy. Just thinking about him.
She turned slightly sideways as though she was going to curl up on the seat or like she was trying to get comfortable, or look out the window. Or anything but… “Oh.” Why was she doing this to herself? She never usually made sounds during sex with Billy Jo because she usually had him in her mouth when she came. Lucinda wanted to stop, wanted to move her hand. But. “OH!”
“You OK, lady?”
“I’m OK.” Lucinda caught her breath and held the air inside her chest, tensing to enjoy the sweetness of the release that was just about to happen.
Lucinda paused, turned and looked up at the rearview mirror; she was certain the man was leering at her. But he wasn’t. At least he was pretending he wasn’t. Lucinda was sure he was waiting for her to close her eyes and then he would stare. “OH,” a sudden contraction caused her to jerk. Her free hand flew to her mouth. She bit her fist.
Lucinda knew that men got off on watching women please themselves, however, she no longer cared whether he was furtively observing her. Lucinda squirmed as she continued and her thumb press hit just the right rhythm. “Oh-Ohhh.” She turned her head just as the driver adjusted his rearview mirror.
Patrice Orobio saw the woman fling her head back and open her mouth, like she was, well, like she was… No, she couldn’t be. These crazy American women. He didn’t like that they were so out of control.
Meanwhile, in Portland, after replacing the receiver and pausing for a moment of silence, Billy Jo lay on his side in the dark, Sandra firmly massaging his back.
"That was Lucinda."
"What did she want?"
"Nothing. She was drunk."
—kalamu ya salaam