Monday, August 18, 2014
I am so furious and horrified about what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, that I can no longer bear to follow the news. But John Oliver got me to watch this 15-minute clip by reminding me that one can tell the truth, make the power visible, and speak the truth to that power, all while making those in power look just as insane as they really are.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Labi Siffre tells us why those cut down in their youth by run-amok "authority" figures must not die in vain. He came out of self-imposed retirement in 1985 to write and perform this song after seeing a South African film clip of a White soldier shooting at Black children.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
I woke up this morning already knowing I was going to see "Get on Up", the new James Brown movie that opened this weekend ("in a theater near you!"). When I read the backlash on Facebook against the movie for being made by White folks to the exclusion of Black film-making professionals other than the actors, I dismissed it, frankly. I get it. Believe me, I know there are Black professionals who can do anything a White person can. And I know Black folks are sick unto death of White folks making money from exploiting them in one way or another. It's gone from slavery to private prisons with sports and entertainment folded in for good measure. And I make it a point to buy books and films written and produced by talented Black creators for just that reason. But I'm not going to disrespect the Godfather of Soul for anybody. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.
Anyway, while I was thinking about all this, I came across an essay by Kevin Alexander Gray entitled "The Soul Will Find a Way" (re-posted after the page break below). It was published several years ago on Counterpunch and it's about James Brown, but in order to do proper justice to the subject, Gray had to go deep and stay long. He wrote about growing up in a rural county in South Carolina (where Brown was also from). He wrote about being poor and Black. He wrote about love and violence. He wrote about funk and pain and glory. And by the time he cut me lose, I was limp and sweaty and remembering my youth.
See, the thing is I was born on top of a mountain in Southeast Kentucky to a pretty young woman with a knockout body and the newly returned soldier she married for his allotment check. Eventually, she told me she thought he would never come back, but life disappointed her that way many times as the years went by. And between the two of them, they made my life strange and sometimes hellish and what doesn't kill you makes you strong, they say.
I learned early what women are for in Appalachia and the buried knowledge made me tough, as buried knowledge will. But I was too intelligent to be able to accept my lot in life and so I shut myself off from other people except on the most superficial levels. And in one way or another, I have spent most of my days on Earth in that space.
Though he was writing about Black folks, Gray's essay took me back to my roots because I'm a woman from Appalachia who discovered the Black community like an explorer looking for a land she had only heard of once in a lullaby. I've never understood it all. Why I felt so drawn to include and be included by those I was forbidden to know. Why I bulldozed the boundaries between us and walked out onto the dance floor with my Black partner in 1961 when I was barely more than a child. Why I felt more comfortable with Black folks than with "my own people." Why I wound up bearing a bi-racial child out of wedlock in my thirties. How and why I learned to cross the great divide DuBois called the Color Line until my soul belonged where my skin never could.
The cost has been great because I became one of the "regulars," and not always because I was wanted. Like the feral cat that keeps trying to run into the house when you open the door, I refused to take no for an answer. And I can't explain it.
"You're not really White," I've been told for decades. Black students tell me they come to sit in on my classes sometimes to "get in touch with their Blackness." Black student groups ask me to speak or sit on panels because, they tell me, "you say things that need to be said, but nobody else will say them." And my loneliness after accepting the hugs from one after another before I leave the building is palpable.
But I remember the moment in time when the lightening struck. I was seventeen and had been ushering for plays at the theater in our city so I could watch them for free. As a reward, we were offered the perk of ushering for the Dick Clark Show that was passing through town. The show was jam-packed with popular stars of the moment and as I sat in the dark mezzanine watching Paul and Paula, Gene Chandler, and The Ronettes, I was enjoying it all, but I was my usual reserved self. Until The Tymes, I think it was, came out and performed one of their hits and swung me out into the Universe never to return.
It wasn't their voices that did it. It was the dance routine. Four Black men moving in perfect synchronicity and from somewhere deep inside me, I suddenly felt a scream rip its way up through my body and burst from my open mouth. I lost my cool completely in a way that never happened again. I never forgot that moment and I never recovered from it. But I didn't really understand its significance until I read Gray's essay and then it all came together. Four men descended from Africa, down through four hundred years of pain and anguish that produced a strength so beautiful that it was grace incarnate in African-inspired choreography. And the spirit that brought them through the fire, bringing the music with them, reached out and touched the spirit in my soul.
Twenty years later, a Black woman I had just met told me she knew the minute she saw me that I had been "shocked by the culture." Today, as I read Gray's essay and watched Get On Up and reconnected with my own personal journey of music and dance, the celebration of life I felt encompassed all the kaleidoscope of feelings that take a human into the fullness of their being. I am grateful for whoever it is I am and I am endlessly grateful for the knowledge that I am not, after all, alone.
James Brown and Kevin Alexander Gray and millions of others living and dead walk with me. And I with them.