A few weeks ago, I posted about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the case with which most of us in America are familiar by now. This killing was and continues to be a terrible scenario, and I spoke about my pain over this situation, and the need for Black people to know our history in this country.
But if you go back and read my post, I didn’t say anything substantial about the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing that night. I didn’t defend that item of clothing. And you know why? Because I think the championing of the hoodie as a symbol of racial profiling is misguided.
For the past few weeks, I’ve looked a pictures of folks in their hoodies, which is how they shared their solidarity with Trayvon Martin. And I’ve felt as if folks have looked askance at me, because not only haven’t I shared a picture of me in a hoodie, I’ve openly talked about the fact that I won’t be wearing a hoodie in the first place.
Just last night, I had a young girl—no older than twenty-five—call me out in the most disrespectful, harsh ways–ways that one should never talk to an elder– for my supposed “pettiness” and my being “bourgeois” when I posted on Facebook and argued that we needed to be honest with young Black men about the fact that the hoodie was not a great item of clothing for professional advancement. That young Black men wearing this clothing weren’t going to walk into a job interview and come away with employment and as a result, economic power.
Over the past few weeks, people on Twitter also have implied that I just don’t care about Trayvon Martin’s death, or implied that I have accused Black people of being stupid simply because I’ve told them that, instead of being caught up in the moment of the hoodie, they need to read and educate themselves (by going to the library) on the long history of racially profiling African American men in this country.
Can I ask you something? When did it become a crime for a Black English teacher to, like, tell somebody else Black that they needed to read a book? Because that’s what I am. I teach in the English department of a university, okay? I read, write, and teach books for a living, y’all. My twitter handle is “@blklibrarygirl”. Get it?
And then, of course, in the middle of all that, there has been the hullabaloo over the comments of Gerald Rivera, who argued that the wearing of hoodies of Black and Latino youngsters—males—is a justification for racial profiling. If this were eighteenth-century Boston, Massachusetts someone would have tarred and feathered that man and paraded Rivera in the streets. People have been so nasty and frankly, frightening, that Rivera retracted his statements.
But let me say what I have been wanting to say for the past couple of weeks, but have been too afraid to do so, lest my (admittedly much, much smaller) group of followers online do the same thing to me as Rivera had to withstand. He might have had wrong motivations for saying what he said about the hoodie and how he said it, too, but at the end of the day, the hoodie does a mixed message, sometimes a wrong message. And that’s why we need to be careful about conflating that particular item of clothing with racial profiling of young, Black men.
Yes, I said it. It had to be said.
Let me be very clear. Trayvon Martin did not have any responsibility to rethink his clothing that fateful night that he walked to the store to buy his candy and his iced tea. Trayvon was an American citizen and he was child of American citizens and they are the children of American citizens and so on and so forth. American citizens do not have the responsibility to show their identification papers to someone who is not a police officer while walking in their own neighborhoods. This is not 1850 and we are not living under the Fugitive Slave Act, okay?
Trayvon had every right in this world and the next one, too, to wear his hoodie. He was doing nothing wrong in the least. But it’s not that hoodie that caused Trayvon to be stalked and killed by George Zimmerman.
Trayvon was stalked and killed because of racial profiling. That’s it, plain and simple. And, quite possibly, he might have been stalked and killed because George Zimmerman might not be all there mentally, though that remains to be seen. The hoodie had nothing to do with it.
And further, the hoodie is not always a great item of clothing. You can call me names for saying that, you can leave mean comments below, you can say whatever you need to say to me. But you know what you can’t do?
You can’t show up to the bank and get money from a teller wearing a hoodie over your head. Why? Because your face is obscured.
You can’t go through airport security wearing a hoodie over your hear. Why? Again, because they don’t know who you are. Sometimes, I’ve even been asked to take off my glasses at the airport because I wanted to be cute in my driver’s license photo and I didn’t put them on for my picture. And in that case, you know I can’t be wearing a hoodie.
And further, you can’t take your driver’s license picture wearing a hoodie over your head in the first place. And you know why? Because sometimes, criminals of every race, creed, religion, gender, and color actually do wear hoodies to commit crimes.
They wear hoodies to rob people. They wear hoodies to come up behind folks and shoot them dead without being recognized.
As someone pointed out to me last night online, the mock-up picture of the Unibomber pictures him wearing a hoodie. The Unibomber, y’all? The Unibomber? Do we really want to connect that handsome, sweet, beloved boy Trayvon Martin with the same item of clothing worn by the Unibomber? Think about that for a second.
Did Trayvon Martin commit any crime? Of course not.
Did Trayvon Martin have a right to wear anything he wanted to that was in his closet? Of course he did.
Trayvon Martin didn’t do anything but walk in the rain with his candy and iced tea cloaked in his Black skin, skin that is not offensive to anyone except someone filled with racial hatred or mental illness. So why on earth are we trying to champion a piece of clothing as the reason behind his getting killed? And explain to me, please, how we are any different from White supremacists when we talk about how a piece of clothing identifies a young Black man?
Take your time. I got a few hours for you to figure out the logistics of that one.
I’ve actually read Facebook status posts where people compare the hoodie to the hijab. Are you kidding me? Since when is the hoodie a religious statement going back thousands of years?
I’ve had people debate me online that the hoodie is the same as someone Black wearing his or her hair in dreadlocks or natural. Really now? The sacred way that God made you, how S/He decided that a part of your actual body springs out of your head is equal to an item of clothing you can buy down to the Abercrombie and Fitch alongside White kids who have trust funds? Alrighty then.
I understand the long history of racial profiling of Black men in this country. Believe me, I’m aware. My mother told me that, before I was born, my father punched a man in Mississippi years ago for calling him the n-word and to this day, I wonder why he didn’t swing at the end of a rope.
I have two nephews and I worry about them, a lot. I may not ever have been stopped by the police and harassed because I was living and breathing in a Black male body, but as Tayari Jones talked about so movingly and eloquently on NPR a few days ago, I’ve spent my whole life worrying about the safety of young Black men I have loved in different ways.
And it’s because of that love and because of that worry that I’m concerned now that African American communities are championing—and encourage White people to champion—a symbol that just can’t hold the weight of three hundred and ninety three years of ancestral and cultural trauma, ever since the first kidnapped African disembarked in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia and was renamed “slave.”
Those kidnapped Africans weren’t wearing hoodies. Quite possibly, those Africans were naked, and their only crime was being in the wrong village on the wrong day, and they ended up following the tragic, mythic red path onto a slave ship.
We need to focus on the real issue of racial profiling of young Black men and understand that, though someone who was loved by his parents and was doing absolutely no wrong was killed while wearing a hoodie, he wasn’t killed for wearing a hoodie.
Trayvon could have been wearing biker shorts. In fact, he could have been wearing a corporate suit and tie. And you know what? George Zimmerman would have stalked him and killed him anyway. And that’s on him. And that’s on the tragic and brutal history of “race” this country. That’s not on a hoodie.
We need to find a more lasting –and appropriate–symbol to memorialize Trayvon, one that is not associated with actual wrongdoing, because he didn’t do anything wrong. We need to find a better way to honor other blameless young, Black men who were killed as a result of racism, who never did a thing to deserve their sad fate.
The hoodie is not that symbol. But I remain hopeful that we’ll find something else, something better, in the days to come.
Seventeen, not even marked by a real mustache. If you look at the picture, he’s still slight. Maybe he was destined to grow tall with big bones, a man’s hearty flesh clinging to his frame, but in this picture he hasn’t gotten that far.
I remember a boy I once loved at that age. His kneecaps still knocked when he stood with his feet together.
He left his house in the middle of watching TV, walked around the corner to go buy himself some Skittles, and in between his leaving and returning, he was stopped by a grown man, someone who was bigger and older in years. Something happened and the man shot him dead.
The police came. The man was questioned. He wasn’t arrested and there seem no plans for him to be.
This sounds like a scene from a Science Fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe one written by Octavia Butler. But no, it’s non-fiction, a story repeated with a few alterations, going back in different ways to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Or Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
That’s right: Black boy. And: White man. Then: dead child in a riddled place.
Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a woman on the phone about the murder of this teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin, and she said someone told her that it’s a shame that we Black folks don’t teach our children about the brutal history of this country, how Black folks were treated in the past, and how that history keeps extending its reach into the present. It’s in a hundred history books, but how many of us will read that history?
I’m not a mother, but I know about a mother’s love. I have Trellie, a woman who tried to teach me about the world and how it would look at me as Black woman, despite her pride in me.
“You’re just as good as they are, baby. Always remember that. But still, be careful. Don’t curse anyone out because you need that job. Don’t shout, don’t whisper, but don’t you be scared, either.”
It’s strange and counterintuitive, isn’t it? The survival lessons a Black mother must teach her child.
These days, at my age, I realize it’s only her brilliant love that kept me from dying, either by my own hands, or at the hands of a society that just doesn’t want to see a Black woman without a mop and a bucket in her hand. Or, just thought that I was nothing better than that position one can find in the 1972 original version of The Joy of Sex.
“A la négresse [sexual position]—from behind. She kneels, hands clasped behind her neck, breasts and face on the bed.”
I don’t distinguish much between Black boys and Black girls. Little Black boys have their grave dangers they must face out in the streets and little Black girls have others that they must face in the rooms of buildings, like their own homes. But they are all someone’s children.
My mother knows this. She had three daughters and no sons, but now as a grandmother, she has tried to teach the same lessons to keep her grandson, my nephew, from getting caught up in the American penal system, for the supposed crimes of “loitering” and “violation of town curfew.” The lessons she must teach that young man about how American views him.
“Criminal. Blood spiller. Wasted bag of bones. Future deadbeat father of scattered seed.”
She knows that as soon as a young Black boy is snared by that penal system, that’s usually the end of freedom as he will know it, unless he is an extraordinarily unique man, like my friend and fellow poet and writer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was arrested at age sixteen and spend nine years in prison—in adult population.
And she knows the system is only the least of it. What if the White cop who stops her Black grandson in their small town doesn’t know he is the descendant of Dr. Trellie James Jeffers, or doesn’t know who that is, and decides to shoot my nephew dead?
She tells her grandson, “When they stop you, darling, stay still, be respectful, and don’t you talk back. “
She doesn’t tell him, “And you need to pray, too, because sometimes, all that doesn’t work.”
Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel with a group of writers. It was at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the panel was called, “Writing Race in the Age of Obama.” But my take on the panel subject was different, that it was time that White writers start writing about race, too, and not just when Black people (or other People of Color) entered their poems or stories. After all, colored folks had been doing the heavy lifting of “race writing” for at least two hundred years.
In the audience of the panel there was a Black-appearing woman, and like me, she publicly identified as having multi-racial heritage. She began criticizing me about my discussion of history, saying, “It’s a new day now. We need to be writing new stories. Why don’t you write new stories?”
When I told her that as a Afro-Indigenous woman, I write about that history, first about African Americans, and now, with a clear Indigenous presence in my work, I wasn’t someone trying to write a brand new story, but one that was uniquely my own and my people’s, she began talking about the fact that “there were multi-racial people” now, including her little boy, who she said had a Jewish father.
I began talking about the importance of listening to the ancestors and the woman smirked, as did several other people of color in the room. And then, that panel was over and it was time for me to the go to another one. But since that panel, I’ve been thinking about what was said, and why it keeps tapping me on my conscience. What else should I have said? What might have made the difference?
When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about her past, and going back even further, stories that she had been told by her mother and father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother, Mandy, her father’s grandmother. (Strangely enough, her mother’s great-grandmother was called Mandy or Amanda, too. This was the Cherokee woman.)
Mandy remembered slavery. She’d been a very small child when Freedom came, but she remembered even more: the day her father was sold down south to Mississippi. She never saw him again. Perhaps it’s something my mother said to me that has imprinted upon me the important of history.
“I was just a little girl when Ma Mandy told me those stories. If I had only sat still like she told me to. If I’d only listened, I would have so much to remember.”
I am a woman who has sat still, all these years. And with my own students of whatever their cultures and colors, I tell them to listen and to remember. To have intellectual curiosity. But most of my students are White. I don’t have many Black kids who will take my class and through my years of teaching, I’ve figured out why.
I’m hard on them. I make them write their stories and poems and papers over and over, to make them perfect. And they don’t want to think about the past. They want to focus on the “now.” They don’t want to know about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and what Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy.
They want to talk about Kanye and Nikki Minag and Real Housewives of Atlanta. And they roll their eyes when I say, “Let’s talk about history first and connect the dots, because sooner or later, the ‘now’ will beat you up in a racial way and you need to understand why that is. You need to remember how to survive.”
I know it’s painful to listen to those stories of a traumatic Black past. I don’t know why I was that strange child who would listen to stories of lynchings and rapes and countless—countless—racial humiliations of Black men and women.
Maybe I listened so that I could tell somebody’s children one day, even those who are not my own. Maybe because I know that I have to tend the ancestral altar, no matter how many people laugh at me, even folks who look like me.
I saw that Sister in that audience. I believe that she chided me not because she wanted to shame me or make me feel belittled, but because I was scaring her. For if the world hasn’t changed for People of Color in certain ways, if it hasn’t become “post-racial”, then what might become of her brown son?
I said, “I wish things had changed. I thought they would have, twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. But they haven’t. And we need to be prepared as a people.”
I didn’t say, “I’m not a mother and these days, I know why I made the choice not to be.”
What an act of courage to carry a baby inside your body, share your bloodstream with him, and yes, your Spirit, to push him outside the narrow door of your body, to tend to him, to put your hopes for the future on his shoulders and then have someone shoot him dead.
How hard can a mother’s grief be? I confess that today, I really don’t want to know. As many tears as I have cried for this little boy named Trayvon, I can only imagine his mother’s screams.
But I did agree to something. To bear witness. To listen to the stories and to pass them down. To tend the altar so that the needed stories are remembered and brought forth, in a time such as this.
I’m not saying the “now” isn’t important in one way, but there is a need for Sankofa.
To move forward while looking to the past. Because if we keep ignoring the lessons of African American history and its implications for our Black sons and daughters, if we keep forgetting that history entirely, who’s going to teach a little Black boy the necessary things when he just wants to go around the corner for some candy?
Like, “Baby, come back, it’s dangerous out there”? Like, “Don’t you leave my sight”?
Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”
I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.
I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.
And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.
And that’s where I get mad.
See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.
We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.
And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following: marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.
Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.
Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.
Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious. Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.
There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”
Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.
And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.
Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.” But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.
As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.
If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.
Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain. I had counseling for the pain. I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.
But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you). If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.
So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?
As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.
That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.
For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.
I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun. This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.
And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday. (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.
But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North. I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.
I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”
What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.
And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?
Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.
No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.
Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.
I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.
But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it. Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.
I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.
Thank you to fabulous historian, Dr. Blair Kelley for reminding me that today is the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois! He was born on February 23 in 1868.
Sidebar: Please forgive me for posting so late in the day. In my defense, y’all, last night, I came down with Some Kind of The Yucky Ick. I’m aching from my fingertips to the soles of my feet. But I still have five deadlines between now and next Tuesday, so send a Sister some good, energetic, healing mojo, please.
Anyway, I just LOVE me some William Edward Burghardt DuBois, y’all! I own both volumes of his biography, written by David Levering Lewis. He was a genius, an activist, and the Ultimate Race Man Extraordinaire. DuBois was the founder and secretary of the Niagara Movement and one of the founders of the NAACP. Not only that, most scholars agree that he is the father of modern African American studies, even though they didn’t call it that back then.
His Harvard University dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 , which was later published as a book, still stands as a major, germinal text on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Click here to read the entire book for free online or download to Kindle.
Further, wherever you turn in African American Studies, you must encounter W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Studying Social Work as it relates to Black folk? Have to read that book. Black politics? Gotta read it. And Black literature, Black psychology, Black history–even Black music. Here’s a link to read the entire text for free online:
But there are two texts by DuBois that I hold especially beloved. The first is his theory of Double Consciousness (contained in The Souls of Black Folk), which explains why Black folks have to remain both constantly aware of the dominant, European American culture and their own African American culture as well:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
And then, there is “Criteria of Negro Art.” Like The Souls of Black Folk, I come back to it time and again to discover how I really feel about Black cultural and artistic production. DuBois states:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Sometimes, I agree with him. And sometimes, I really, really don’t. I go back and forth, arguing with Dr. DuBois in my mind–as if I could tangle with him intellectually, when no one can! But I do read this essay at least once a year. (Click here to read it for free online, and be changed forever, okay?)
Like I said, W.E.B. DuBois was and is The Man. That’s why there’s even a DuBois Institute at Harvard University named after him. You can click here to read more about it.
So, Happy Birthday, Dr. DuBois! And thank you so much. You remain fabulous–and relevant– throughout these one hundred and forty-four years.
Anybody who knows even a little bit about me knows that Lucille Clifton is my absolute favorite poet in the world. That might have something to do with my loving her so much—as in present tense, even though she joined the ancestors two years ago today. She was my friend and my beloved mentor, a real gift to me in this world and, I believe, in the next.
But it’s one of those strange things. Do I love Miss Lucille (as I called her) so much because her poems were so good or are the poems so good because I love her so much? Or, would I have loved her anyway, even without the poems?
I don’t know and guess what? The thought of living in a world where Lucille Clifton did not create poems for me to read is a frightening brain moment. So let’s move on before I linger there.
I celebrate Miss Lucille three times a year now. I celebrate her on February 13, the day she passed on to the ancestors who lived with her in her spirit and in her poems, and that is understandably a really sad day for me. But then, I celebrate her again on Mother’s Day, because she had six of her own children whom she adored and I considered her a second mother. And then, I celebrate her one more time on June 27, her birthday, which is seriously happy occasion, of course.
I just love to celebrate Miss Lucille—and celebrate with her!
Those who know her poetry know that I’m referencing one of her two most famous poems when I say “celebrate.” Here’s a link for those of you who don’t know that poem. Read it and–I hope–become deeper in your soul. There’s audio, too!
And here some other great Miss Lucille extras:
“Homage to my hips”, her other most famous poem. All sisters with glorious, big booties need to read this poem at least once a year.
Here’s a podcast I did almost two years ago with a circle of Black women to celebrate Miss Lucille’s birthday. This is a special podcast, including Miss Lucille’s firstborn child, Sidney, and National Book Award winner Nikki Finney. (When you click the link, go to “Episode 8” to begin listening!)
And here’s a wonderful video of Miss Lucille and Quincy Troupe, one of the great poets of the Black Arts Movement, and just a Down By Law Cool Brother as well.
.Enjoy! And celebrate. Miss Lucille is up in Heaven poeming with the ancestors and having a good old time with her husband, Mr. Fred, and two of her children who passed before her.
And she’s eating hot dogs, which she absolutely loved. And I just know she is looking very cute in a really colorful blouse, because she sure could wear an outfit. I miss her so much, still, but I hope if I’m good down here, I’ll be able to join her one day in Heaven. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, for real.
This is not a blog post for hits. This is just a blog post for me and my grief. Please excuse what I’m sure seems like self-indulgence. It is self-indulgence. I admit it.
But I have to talk, because I just can’t even believe it. I just can’t believe Whitney is gone. I don’t have to give her last name. Those of us Americans who are a particular age all know her by her first name, as our friend, as our sister. She’s always been just Whitney.
I first heard her sing in 1985 when I was seventeen years old. I was an emotionally messy, young girl and it was a very messy year.
I was getting over my first real relationship—y’all know what I mean—in which I had fallen in love and been made a a royal fool. Sometimes, I look back and still can’t believe I was that stupid. On top of that, my father was dying. I was living in Atlanta, where my mother and sister and I had moved when my parents separated. Then Daddy was diagnosed with terminal heart disease and he moved from North Carolina down to Atlanta with us, a move that I greatly resented.
There were ugly scenes and screaming between Mama and me, but my father arrived in Atlanta the fall of 1984, frail and diminished. My mother tried to explain to me the meaning of wedding vows, that she had stood up before God and a justice of the peace with this man. And this man. A man who’d been so vigorously cruel , who had ruled my world—the world of my mother and my sisters–was husked down to a harmless nothing. You would have thought I would have been glad, but instead, somehow I was even angrier.
Despite the screaming, my mother and I remained extremely close and so that winter, whenever she woke in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, following the ambulance that carried Daddy, I would go with her. And we would listen to the radio.
We’d travel the interstate in that old white car with the blue seats, watching the city lights and listening to Whitney, who had released her first single on her first album. Whenever I hear “You Give Good Love,” even now, I think about my mama and daddy. I think about how she stayed a good woman for him until the end, despite how he’d disappointed us all– and even worse. And there was a feeling I had, of hope and melancholy at the same time. Those radio nights gave me a lifeline I can’t explain. Mama’s favorite song off that album was, “Saving All My Love.” The sound of her raspy Filtered-Kools Alto on those first words made me smile.
“It’s not very easy, living all alone.”
Daddy died that summer, but there were Whitney-sounds to comfort me past the grief and confusion his death presented. I turned eighteen and entered one of the worst times of my life, an ugly, downward time that I never thought I would live through. Then, I looked up ten years later and I was finally starting to come out of it, only to discover that Whitney had entered the worst of it.
It never seemed to get better for her, though I knew it would. I just knew it. It couldn’t end. Not for Whitney.
Tonight talking to Kim, my oldest friend in the world and a monument of my childhood, I reminisced about what Whitney meant to me. She was that big sister I idolized. Tall, smoothly brown, otherworldly pretty, popular, talented. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
That I grew up and realized Whitney wasn’t perfect has bothered me over the years more than my own relatives’ frailties. More than I wanted to admit to myself, which is why I tried to forget about her. I was so disappointed in her, though somehow, I never could give her the chance to be human even though I wanted people to give me that same chance.
But every once in a while, on the phone with Mama, she would say, “Remember when she hit that note in ‘I’ll always love you’? That girl sure knew she could sing.” And then, “I just can’t understand what happened.”
Whitney was supposed to be perfect. I mean, look at the pictures. Look at her beauty. Even when it diminished, it was still there, different but defiant. Listen to the records even when That Voice changed. She was supposed to be my guide through my womanhood, as she had been through my girlhood.
And now my girlhood is over.
Every time someone has passed in these two years, I’ve said it. My childhood is over. My girlhood is over. But somehow, I thought I could always get it back, no matter what looking in the mirror told me. The same way Whitney was going to get That Voice back. She was going to return to me, and bring with her what I’d lost. What we’d both lost.
I can say it now. I loved her. I still do. It didn’t matter that I never really knew her. I felt like I did. We all felt that way. And I wished I had given her another chance.
But now, Whitney’s gone, whether I want to believe it or not. Childhood is over. Girlhood is over, finally, and for good. I guess, at least I still have the songs. And my memories of the Atlanta skyline.