Recently, through genetic testing, I've found out that my face cannot tell you what I truly am. I took a DNA test and the results were that my origin is 82 percent West African, 10 percent uncertain North American origin, and 8 percent British Isles. I haven't processed this knowledge. I'm not dark. I'm not light. I don't have many "African" features except for the butt and the hair. There are some genetic traits such as sickle cell gene and my reaction to dairy products as something toxic. But other than that, in the phenotypic sense, I'm a creation of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade with some mixing during enslavement. The science doesn't lie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever I am has changed little in the last 200 years. That's fitting. My DNA has been in existence for thousands of years and most of those eons, it has now been proven, were spent in West Africa.
I'm searching for the uncertain part. I started it with a chance conversation with a Caribbean professor. Followed that conversation up with an internet discussion with another Caribbean professor (Haiti and Jamaica have both been consulted). I hope to speak with a Pan-African scholar from Cuba. I'm handicapped because I don't even know how to contact someone in Cuba. The Haitian prof gave me a key. I had assumed that indigenous (and somehow labeled as 'uncertain') DNA meant Cherokee, Iroquois or something of that ilk. I had never considered Taino, Arawak, or Carib. Not even in the slightest bit. No matter how much I thought I knew I found, with the introduction of this uncertain ten percent, that I knew nothing at all. I'm still searching outside of what I know. I'm also searching for what is inside. And that is how we view each other.
I think one of the things we don't talk about enough in Black America is how our enslavement experience has made some of us have a pathological visceral distrust of each other. There is profuse conversation regarding Black America as a community but I'm constantly searching for examples which prove this phrase. Our experience causes us to have contempt for each other. Maybe not as bad as during the times when a Black doctor was a new thing and folks would request, Black folks, to not be serviced by him (or her). At the same time there were Black folks who would proudly state that their doctor was Black. Was this only when Black doctors lived among Black people?
When you have contempt for someone, in my opinion, you don't feel as uncomfortable as you should when you have committed an error against that person. And our version of Christianity, the slave masters' teachings, doesn't help as it is fraught with rationalizations for how and why and where it is okay to do wrong against your brother. It gives us excuses as well. "God will provide" is often used to take something, covertly and overtly, from someone else. It is often used as an excuse to not help someone who is less fortunate.
Even in our leisure moments, think on what I'm saying, we talk about ourselves in such disparaging ways. "You know how we do..." and "you know how it is when you deal with us..." I'm not the only one who has heard comedians, etc. make these kinds of comments to large audiences. Everyone laughed. No one was insulted. We accepted those words as if they were being read from the most irrefutable holy book. Do we really think so little of ourselves?
How many of you have raised money to go to and build a well or something like that in Africa? Now ask yourself could the money not have been spent in a more productive fashion and the pursuit of charity at home with say, buying some single mothers' washers and dryers? Those laundry mat machines are expensive and they practically eat folks' clothes.
How many churches have been closed due to foreclosure because of horrible investments? The only people who profited were the loan companies and the construction companies and perhaps a few lawyers hired to sort the devastation out. I met so many students at Howard who only needed food, shelter, some new clothes. Wouldn't it have been better to invest, directly, in those students? I think so.
But then again I'm nothing and I'm nobody.
I'm going to list a few countries for you now:
These are all countries from which I have primary testimony from people who became students, business people, and scholars in the US. All had idealized a beautiful Black America. And all were personally mistreated and castigated by Black Americans and simultaneously given help, aid, and assistance by Whites when they immigrated to this country. And it isn't a recent thing. I have had conversations with these people and even (when I lived in DC) held pointed interviews with international students on this topic. I asked these questions because I was driven to know the truth.
So how can we even form the words African Americans with our lips when we make no moves to welcome our African brothers and sisters when they arrive, sick or healthy, rich or poor, to the United States of America? Please believe me when I tell you that we are missing a crucial opportunity to plead our case. We are missing an opportunity to undo some of the damage done by nearly 30 years of media misinformation and mal-interpretation of who we truly are.
I'm sitting here now writing this blog. A very well educated and unemployed African American woman. That statement is not meant to solicit pity. Only three generations ago my great great grandfather spent 35 years as a slave. I guess I'm doing this for him as well. Trying to have a positive effect on the future while unraveling, hopefully, how he came to be a chattel slave without any memory of a mother, father, language, or anything. He couldn't answer the question, as he had answered many others, "where did you come from?" Because of his enslavement he never knew.
As his descendant I ask another unanswerable: how do we undo what we've been taught about each other?
I used to ask people to not call me an African American. Today I feel ashamed of my ignorance. I have something very few descendants of the slave trade possess and this is a relatively unscathed African genetic self. To whom much has been given much is required. I have to continue to search myself to find a way to make you see that you're so much more than entertainment. So much more than ball runners, bitches, hoes, and niggers. And part of that is a thorough examination of how we deal with each other. I am not sorry if anyone is offended as I have yet to discover how to gently whisper, "fire" in a burning house.
"You got the river of Jer-don, to cross. Thank God you got the river of Jer-don, to cross. Just take Jesus as your guide an' He will car-ree you the-ere. You've got the river, of Jer-don, to cross."
This song was just another gospel song to me until I looked out and realized that my feet were approaching my own personal River Jordan. Under the Old Law Jordan is a place of miracles and it is seen as movement from enslavement to freedom. Under the New Law it becomes a place of renewal and spiritual cleansing. Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan. Under both laws and in the songs of African Americans the Jordan is the site of transformation from the old life to the new. Jesus crossed the river many times as did others in the Old Testament. I take this to mean that there are constant stages along the way. We have one life and we move on, sometimes alone and sometimes mercifully with good company, into a new way of thinking, living, loving and breathing in a new type of freedom. The river is always moving, always changing, and it has been said that no man steps into the same river twice. So we must always be aware of the only constant of life and that is change.
Moving on when forgiveness is not requested and you will not be vindicated, believed or validated. I'm looking for inspirational quotes, religious verses, stories, which will help me in my journey to move from a painful past when the other person will not ask for forgiveness or will not make an attempt to make me "whole." What do you do when someone has lied on you to the point where it has been manifest in dozens of important relationships and that person lacks the courage to make it right? I'm stuck at this stage. I don't know what to do. My soul detests stagnation and that's exactly what I'm doing right now. I'm engaging in an activity of which I have no delight. There's no logic to it. And it's wasting something I cannot fabricate on my own: time.
We say, "forgive and forget." How do you keep forgiving someone who keeps doing the same things? How do you forgive someone who is so very destructive that even contact with someone who KNOWS that person can sometimes be so very emotionally draining? There are toxic people and those people need to be left alone. I think there are times when we can sit down with each other and say, "tell me your story, what's wrong?" And try to hear them out. That's called compassion. But do I allow my compassion to be a weapon used against me? I don't think so.
My granma said, "honey they talked about Jesus Christ and took his life. Who is you that it cain't happen to you?" I said, "I'm not Jesus." She said, "We all gon' have to go through something and as long as the Lawd knows...." I'm dealing with this right now. God knows. I know. Isn't that all that matters.
How do you deal with a person who honestly believes that they are above any type of morality, ethics or religion? That they are justified in their actions? I don't know and that's why I'm asking you. A wise man says, "they way they would deal with you." I know he's right but I cannot. I just can't. It's like I have some kind of chip inserted in my program which keeps me from making these types of decisions until it's too late. Too much time has been lost. Too many words spoken. Too many actions unquestioned and insults unaccounted for. Too many times biting my tongue and too many times averting my eyes. Too many days spent in forced amnesia. Too little time or energy to go back and make it right.
I have a good friend, close friend, who I respect and admire to the highest levels. But I hesitate to call the person friend because I'm a friend to them and they're using me. I know the person is using me. But I don't feel used. I feel so sorry for them. I've watched this person over many years and this is how they learned to survive from a very early age. It would take a miracle to get them to even be made TO KNOW that they're doing wrong to their own self. I should have said that I feel they're using me. I've never been told I love you and I thank you from this person requires at least two high calibre weapons pointed in the same direction. I've asked myself, "how did they get this way?" I should have asked how did I come to be someone who would tolerate an association without mutual admiration.
I'm at a point where the person is a drain on my spirit. Tired of being tired in general. Thank God I only know two people like this. Both of them, on both of them, I'd rather close the door. But here's the thing. I'd feel so bad if I did because both of them need me. Have you ever been cussed out on one day and had a tearful, recalcitrant child hold your hand and ask a type of backhanded forgiveness on the next? I have. Over and and over again. As I said before, I'm tired. Should I stop it or should I go off and re-charge and come back ready to do battle again? I don't know. I'm not that smart.
In both situations. One man and one woman. There's no drug abuse. No beating. No joblessness. Just spirit. I'm getting to the point where I look for signs of the soul and I'm so conflicted when I take a moment to reflect on my two old friends. They are right next to me and I'm looking out at the river. Knowing in all of me that I'm so very ready for rebirth and renewal and wanting desperately to finally have them tell me that I'm loved, worthy, and to not feel that feeling I get when I know I'm being lied to. And to not have the feeling that I get when I know I've been lied to and said nothing. I'm desperate to cross that river.
And now granma's voice mocks me, "I though you said you wasn't Jesus?" She's right. I'm not. Daphne E. Brown says I have to give them over to God. That woman and that man. I'm not Jesus. I cannot give them a Heaven and I cannot send them to hell. And as long as they have me around being blind to their actions and deaf when it comes to rebuking them, in a friendly way, they will continue to have justification.
I realized that I am part of their problem. I respect both people to tell them off (unless I take a sip and now everyone knows that my kidneys won't stand for that anymore). However, it's going to take some time because my love is so strong. For some reason, I don't love many and I don't love lightly. I am affectionate with most people as I truly love to give hugs and compliments. But my love? When I look in your eyes and tell you I love you, just the two of us, no one else. I'm not lying, trying to 'get' you, or playing. As I said before my love is strong. And yet another song plays in my head:
"I thought we'd stay to see forever but forever has gone away..." Humans don't own forever. All we have is now. I can't keep mortgaging my tomorrows with today.
So now, going forward, the challenge is NOT unloving these two folks but examining how I love myself. How I expect to be treated. How do I treat myself? That's what I need to work on. Not those other folks. They doing good. They had me to always rely on when they needed a smile. A dirty story. A dance to some new music. Some bad food. A pack of smokes. A hug. A kiss. A cry. A bottle of vodka or some other little delicious gift. A hand to hold.
If I love you as long as I'm able to hear when you call my name you won't be hungry, cold, or lonely. That may not seem like a lot to you but it is the world to some. Nor even dirty or ragged. I believe in giving my best to my best. But not when it's taken for granted and my kindness is taken for weakness. That's a great gift I inherited from my granma's river crossings and from my own. You see I know what it's like to be all of the above and have to fight my way out of it alone. Sometimes it was my own fault and sometimes I was an innocent victim but that river washed me clean of the notion that it was someone else's duty or my right to take things from folks that I had not earned. I've been robbed. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually and we got to the gospel library once again:
"Well I would not, be a robber. And I'll tell, you the reason why. I'd be so afraid the Lord would call me and I'd be so afraid to die."
I have my dignity and my pride. I don't chase bunnies 'round the greyhound track. Some folks will do that. They know you want them to change so you two can love together and I'm not talking bout the girlfriend/boyfriend paradigm. Some of you all have mothers who promise not to go to the casino and some of you have fathers who promised to come to your games. Then they promised to come to the grandkids games.... And when you're too mad to spit they take out that ol' violin: you can't judge me, I been thru somethin too. Don't they say that? They good for bringing up their past when it's expedient and can be of good use. But they never seem to make any steps to change their future. That's what I'm talking about. So very sadly too many of us know this routine by heart. We've had the pain of those words etched into us with the diamond chisel point held by someone we love.
And do I have to tell you one more time that I'm not talking about a lover, a man, a woman, or a boyfriend or a girlfriend? I'm talking about mothers, fathers, cousins, sons and daughters. No one hurts like family (thank you Paul Mooney) and they keep doing it until you face that river and either decide to stay on the bank and be filthy or jump into that water and be made clean. It's not a one-time exercise, just like getting in the tub at night or the shower in the morning, it's a repeat until all days are done.
But now, I'm not talking about forty million souls. I'm talking about me. I'm examining me. I'm pulling myself apart, dissecting each part, and making decisions on what works and what doesn't work. How much more can this machine bear? What's my load capacity? How much faster or more efficiently could I operate if I achieve optimum working order?
I'm not Jesus. I'm not a machine. I'm just one African descended American woman. Overweight, bad credit, with a house full of children whom I love beyond all reason. I'm a human being who wants to love honestly, out in the open, and without shame.
How do I cross over once again? I think the water is cold 'cause it really don't look that inviting. That aren't that many folks on the opposite shore. A few folks are waiving me onward. I'm scared. I'm scared of what the new me will require. But one thing is for sure I can't stay here. Not one minute longer. Have you every drowned on dry land? I think it is very possible but I guess I'll go, one step at a time, so I won't find out.
I'll dive in and face my rebirth and hopefully I won't have to be dragged, kicking, flailing, screaming, fighting and biting into the cleansing River Jordan. Next time? After a long journey I want to be in a place where I see it and am relieved at the mere sight. That's where I want to be. Happy at the sight.
Sometimes I don’t think I took enough time to think why someone selected me to be their friend, lover, or associate. I should have. It seems as if I was always just happy to be wanted or needed that I never questioned why. Once in a circle, or assigned to a role, for some reason, I was determined to stay “on the job.” I was so afraid of failure that I didn’t mind losing. Today, I examine opportunities and it seems as if the things freely given are those which have the greatest cost in the long run. Play now, pay later. Today I honour my time. I don’t have to grab onto the first piece of little ol’ nothing that comes along. I am a prize and I do believe that it’s a great thing to have me around. I’m not talking about conceit. This is a lesson I had to learn about settling.
To be settled is not a bad thing. My granma always taught me to be suspicious of folks who are always at somebody else’s house. “What you payin’ a mortgage for if you cain’t stay at yo’ own residence? Gotta be something wrong in that home.” Unh hunh, my granma was a prodigious clocker of human behavior. She had to be. She was first lady of the church (the pastor’s wife) and she had to know how to balance the two stories she heard into the one story which might faintly resemble the truth.
I’ve heard so many girls say to me, “ooh, my man don’t mind my weight” and “he loves me big” and “He say he don’t care about all these hours I’m working. My man can’t stand a lazy woman.” Yeah. But the skinny girl I saw him with last week only works part-time. There’s a reason why we get picked for certain jobs and there’s a reason why we shut our eyes to the truth. You have to wonder why an educated and more than gainfully employed would allow some recently turned 21 year old man with a criminal record to sleep on her couch and eat her food. Why wouldn’t she at least try to bring him up? I see and I don’t see. I hear and I don’t hear. I try to think that folks ways and means are altruistic. But every time I see one of my physically fit Nubian kings running around with a girl who’s tipping the scales at three and fo’ hunnud I have to shake the negative thoughts out of my head. I re-place it with two things. 1. It’s none of my business. 2. They love each other. I say this while I mentally give my negative common sense a few lashes with my whip.
I had to realize that sometimes I got picked to be on someone’s team because my love was free. It came without conditions or standards. I had to realize that I was in this situation or that situation because I had given master classes in just how to mistreat me. I have had the experience of going out with someone for years and getting a phone call one day, “Baby, I can’t see you anymore. I’m getting married.” Before you call me stupid know this: it was in the days before cell phones and I called him and he called me. We were at a point where I went to his house without calling first. And we were VERY intimate. I spent a long time thinking I was stupid and feeling sorry for myself. I was basically the reason he could present himself as a gentleman to that poor girl he married. But come on nah, game recognize game, and you know he didn’t stop that pattern once he got married. He stopped seeing me but he did get in touch with me many years later to apologize. And oh yeah, to ask me if I could meet him somewhere. I declined.
I have to tell you something. You don’t have to spend your time with anyone who makes you feel bad, is toxic, or just is a plain old Debbie Downer or a Negative Nate. You don’t. You don’t owe anyone your time on this Earth. Black folks in America, we get conditioned to say, “that’s still yo momma” and “that’s still yo daddy.” Hell, what if your mama’s sitting ‘round the house smoking crack and selling children into slavery? She might be your mama but you don’t owe her your time (and the same applies for all of you out there who are getting hit up for casino money). And your fathers who never gave you the time of day? Make a relationship if it does no harm. Stress kills. Animosity kills. Negativity saps the life and creativity of the strongest creature. Why take yourself into the darkness for no good reason?
I had to examine why I had two phones constantly ringing. I had to examine why I got invited to every party even though I’d end up drunk and not remembering what happened. I had to examine why they called my name when I stepped into the club. I was entertainment. A thing. No one called to ask how I was doing. And the same guy who I thought I was so close to? If I would have had an ounce of self-respect I would have dropped him long before that phone call. You see I got down on my luck and I had three small children. I asked him to pick up a gallon of milk for me. He said, “call they daddy.” The same man who would have put anything I wanted which would have hurt me in my hand flatly refused to buy my three children a 2.50 gallon of milk (this was a long time ago). And later, I would realize, the same girlfriends who would call me and tell me how beautiful and smart I was wouldn’t even vouch for me to get a minimum wage job. Even though they had done the same thing and more for strangers. I had to realize my roles in the lives of these people. I was a source they came and took from and never made a deposit back in the back. Today, I don’t have a cell phone. And my land line rings only for those who truly care about me (or the student loan people).
A whole lot of living has gone into these words I write to you. A lot of time which on this day, I cannot say has been wasted. I have strength and courage to enjoy my own self by myself. I have gained wisdom throughout my existence and I would be so wrong not to reveal to you the lessons of my life. Be well. And always examine the support you provide. What role you play. And if there is a deposit commensurate with the withdrawals of your life, love and time.
I have two sons and two daughters. Yet I spend almost every waking hour fretting, worrying, crying, and agonizing on one child. Joslyn Lavonne is 29. John Van II is 24. Grant Worthington is 22. And my Sarah Vaughn is 14. Yet I concentrate over my one son and beg Allah the Merciful for him to find his respect, dignity, purpose and reason.
Joslyn is a beautiful college graduate who keeps her own house while attending graduate school. My Sarah can have the world. Grant is his own man and I rarely take the time to tell him I love him or compliment his progress. His uniqueness. His presence in my life gives laughter, calm, and joy. I am so wrong. Running after one and turning my back on the other three. Some mornings I can barely drag myself out of the house in a presentable fashion because I never closed my eyes until I saw the sun.
I ask my children to please forgive me as I have been completely wrong. My heart is ruled by my need to see all set to right. My granma told me many times, “chile, you cain’t make a grown person do nothing. They gots ta want to do right.” I know this. I am the proof of that statement. Yet and still I do not give the other three what they deserve because I have allowed myself to become beaten and defeated over one.
Grant is my golden bear. He is a physical specimen with a scant six percent body fat. Everyone loves Grant and Grant has an innate need to discover new people, cultures, and languages. He is a born protector and is always on hand to defend the helpless. Yet he uses his great strength with caution. He is also an ingenious young man who also knows how to use laughter as an alternative to his fists.
How many conversations have I had with my son about politics, religion, peace, and the coming zombie apocalypse? So many. I am blessed to be a parent who can sit down and talk to her children. I don’t have to bark orders or make grand statements. We, in our pleasant society limited by genetic connection, have the ability to talk like folks. I wish every soul in the world the same thing. I had this with my grandparents and it has paid off for my children. But the one thing none of us can stand is superficial conversation. We’ll just walk away and leave you in mid-sentence. Therefore, we like to talk about things which are vital and full of life. We are life.
When I think of Grant and his words to me over his brother. Grant and Joslyn and Sarah too are growing weary of my inability to put consequences on John II. They are right. I am wrong. But I just can’t help looking at John II and not seeing that beautiful nine pound little man. He was so fat that we had to have someone leave the hospital and get him bigger clothes. There. I’m doing it again. I’m supposed to be writing about one and I slipped into a narrative regarding the other. I’m trying. Please be patient with me. I feel as if not going the distance with all four of you will mean that things are my fault. I don’t want to fail you anymore. I can’t stand to not have your love and presence in my life. It seems, that this love is the only love which has any substantive and transformative powers over me.
Although you might not want to hear it now I do love you equally. My heart has four chambers only so each one of you can have your own room. Each one a ubiquitous epitome of the next generation of whatever gifts and curses I may possess. And Grant, it’s not lost on me that when you shave we look just alike. You’re my male twin. I’m just a little taller than a tall woman. And you, at six foot three or four are a tall man but not so tall that you look odd. I love the sound of your voice and I love, even more, the presence of that slight Mississippi lilt to your words. When you speak, my grandfather will never die. He thought you were the cutest thing with the hair on the sides and not on the top. He would say, “That boy look like Eisenhower. Come here Ike!” And you would wobble over to him. I think that had more to do with him always having Twinkies.
I have cried with you. I have cried for you. But your strength is more than I will ever possess. If Noah’s flood made a re-appearance I would not be shocked to see you floating along on the back of a dolphin or being towed by a small whale. All creatures feel your genuine heart and they bow to the presence of our Creator in you. Only those possessed by that Other would ever be so mean to you. Only those who have yet to discover themselves would do wrong to you. You are a man among men and God made you so tall and strong as a reflection of what is placed inside of your body. You are a golden soul.
So, the three of you. Have pity on your mother. She’s trying hard to get right. I confess to my wrongs and I beseech you for your patience with me (and your brother). Ask yourself, when you’re mad at me, what if it was me? I’m giving what I would give to any one of you. But forgive me a little more when I tell you that I have never an opportunity to worry about the three of you. You just don’t live your lives that way. You three seem to have been born with control. Oh, we’ve had some moments here and there. But you always seem to balance your own scales. Of this fact, I am so very proud.
If no one ever calls your names for an award or a title I will be pleased. There is no need for the world to recognize you. I do. God does. That’s all we will ever need. Each other and God. That’s how we got started and that is how we shall end. Your mum loves you too well. Please call more often, drink more water and eat more spinach, take your vitamins and don’t forget to take a good, long hot bath once a week. Take long walks and be nice and respectful when meeting strangers. Always keep a book to read. And even when you don’t feel like praying get in a quiet corner and meditate on you. Find peace. You may never find love. But you must find peace. Good night or good morning. I love you infinity. Feel me now, doing our secret headshake to all of you. I place my forehead against yours. I take my two hands and place them on either sides of your face. And I breathe your air. That is the way of ancient royalty. And it is our way today. That is all.
When Duke Ellington was asked how it felt to enter hotels from the back and play in the front, to hear the cheers of White crowds while knowing there were precious few of his color being allowed to see him, he said, "I took all of the anger necessary to pout and wrote me some blues.” When Bill Berry of the Urban League was asked about how it felt to do a thankless job under such scrutiny (I'm paraphrasing) he said, "Don't waste time in wondering why, I just do the hell out of my job." Before I had a high school diploma and I was over thirty years old I would wonder why my way was so hard. I had somewhere I wanted to be. My friend, Fred Lewis told me, "Time spent in recovery is still lost time." And he also said, "Plan your work and work your plan."
When Dr. Jean-Germain Gros (Haiti) would get mad at me because I would get my feelings hurt teaching Black folks and start to spew some pretty nasty nouns and verbs of self-hatred and it seemed to me that the people I doggone near idolized, the people of Black history, hated me for my efforts. I wanted to stop trying, forever, but he said, "It is the duty of all those who have been fortunate to receive an education to help those who seek the same."
In 2008 I interviewed Dr. Toyin Falola. A Nigerian brother who is not yet sixty (at the time) and who had authored over 100 books on HIS people (Yoruba/Nigeria/West Africa). I asked him how he did his work. How is he able to produce and where did he go from here? He said, "I am already where I want to be. This is what I have wanted to do all my life."
You see, back before he was Dr. Toyin Falola he was Toyin, a little Yoruba boy and this boy had been taught to honour teachers, scholars, writing, and working hard. No one called him a nerd or pushed him to the side because he couldn't jump high, dance, or spit a verse. Falola was able to plan his work and work his plan because he didn't lose time in recovery from the external scourge of British Colonialism of Nigeria.
Later on, I met Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura, a Temne man of Sierra Leone. Dr. Bangura is less than five years older than me. But he has authored hundreds of articles and he has written at least sixty books. He holds doctoral degrees in Linguistics, Computer Science, Political Science, Mathematics and I think Economics (I can never remember that last thing). Once upon a Bison time Dr. Bangura has been my teacher. He's been my grouchy A surrogate father who doesn't listen to my excuses (and I got a lot of them) and he has also fed me when no one cared if I was cold or hungry. He's a good man.
In his father role he says to me, "be a good girl" and I answer, "yes sir, I'll try" and he says, "you ain't got no other choice." And I realize that I don't. I don't have any other choice because it seems I'm programmed, that I came to this life pre-programmed for study and writing. Now to channel those gifts into something useful. Wasting time? My biggest sin in wasting time is running after folks who mean themselves no good. My granma said (and I want you all, us all, to learn this and learn it well), "Chile, there's some folks you can do all you can for and they'll still turn around and kick you in the butt. It IS some folks you cain't be good to." (Granma, up in Heaven with Jesus and my grandfather, please believe me when I say that I’m trying not to be one of the butt-kickers.) This from a VERY religious woman who was strong in her faith and not the supermagical Black thinking type of plantation house, slave master Christianity. My grandmother studied. My grandfather studied. And through them I became passively involved in the Socratic method before I ever knew what they had done to me.
We talked about those pages in Genesis where God uses the personal singular pronoun and then all of a sudden, for two verses, He switches to the plural pronoun, "Let us make man in our image." Who was He talking about?
And we debated Mary Magdalene and before I ever stepped into Dr. Rowan's graduate classes on Rome and the history of the church, I had been taught, and told, and knew, that this woman was not a prostitute or a harlot. Nowhere in the Bible will you find her labeled as such. This is the doings of man and men
And my grandmother told me most emphatically to go and find, in the Bible, where God had told Eve anything. She was supposed to be under the leadership of her husband Adam. Adam failed to teach Eve what God had told him to do. My grandmother was tired of all the sins of the world being placed solely on the shoulders of Eve as if she held a gun to Adam's head and forced that man to eat whatever fruit it was. And I found, after study, that my grandmother was right.
This week, I wanted a cigarette really bad. I didn't want to buy a pack as it takes me about a week to smoke them and I rarely have enough money to fill my tank these days. I took a walk down to the bus stop by my apartment complex. I asked a couple of folks to sell me two cigarettes. I had a dollar in the pocket of my blue jeans. Stupid thing. I was sick. I had a chicken in the oven. Sarah was in the house alone. But I NEEDED a cigarette.
I was successful in getting those smokes and I was so intent on getting my nicotine fix that I didn't wait until I got back to the apartment. I stood, or rather leaned, at the bus stop with all of my brothers and sisters who are not as fortunate as I am. I have a very nice mommy van and I really should have been using it to take me and Sarah to the gym. We both had a lot of energy that day.
I got something more than a smoke. I overheard an older Black woman tell her (I would keep eavesdropping and hear the girl say 'granma' - just like I called my baby who left me in April of this year). I heard the granma say something so sinful, terrible, and disgusting that I couldn't believe that the words had been said again. You see, the same statement had been made to my daughter about me. The granma said, "Yo mama might have book sense and get along with them White folks on her job. But she ain't got no kinda common sense. You better than her, you know how to get 'long in these streets. She cain't talk about nobody no way." I wanted to scream at that woman!!! She was setting granddaughter against daughter!!! She was starting the same cycle which has been one more hill to climb between my daughter and I. She was fulfilling the Book of Revelations by setting mother against daughter!!! How many times does this happen in Black American life? How many times will we have to endure this thing?
This "Black Baby Beatdown?" That's what I'm calling today's essay. Black Baby Beatdown is what we do in our homes. And we cause our BEST to spend lost time in recovery. We make our way so much harder by having our BEST plan their work and work their plan under the most horrible circumstances. And they are to take that negative energy and still write them some blues? And do the hell out of their job?
I was once a substitute teacher in the Normandy School District. Trust and believe that what I'm telling you is the absolute truth. I had a mother come to me and tell me that I was killing her son's NBA dream. All I told him to do was have a back up plan. The young man, in the 12th grade was barely five foot six. Where was he going? The midget NBA?
And? You need more? Earlier this year I had a young lady in my class who declared that she, at the community college basketball playing level, was going to the NBA. Scholars, friends, and fellow Amazons (you see, I'm a little taller than the average man and I'm more muscular than most women), do you know that girl was a half head shorter than my Sarah???????
I have a 9th grade daughter who is five foot eight. I have a son who is six foot four. I know a little something about when and if a growth spurt is going to hit you. I am from a family of Amazons and War Kings. And let me tell you, for my Staples family (the Irvings are smaller folks), I'm only average if NOT a little smaller than my girl cousins and my boy cousins DWARF ME!!! All four of my children are bigger than me or taller than me.
This girl, in addition to being small, had ZERO muscular structure as in Venus or Serena or even La Vonda. I wear a size 16 which is the norm for women three to five inches shorter than me. But I weigh 230 pounds. I have a lot of fat but I have a helluva lot of muscle. I took the girl to the side and talked to her about frame.
I have a big frame. And I was desperately trying to show her that she was in no way prepared to even gain the muscle necessary, let alone the height, for what she THOUGHT she was going to do. I even went to the web to SHOW her the height and weight and low body fat (and that skinny does not equal low body fat) of other WNBA players. On each and every one of those women you can clearly see knee cap, collarbone, wrist bone, they have large frames capable of withstanding all of that running, jumping, and they are also capable of holding a lot of muscle and therefore their body weights are much higher. They also have very large femurs and more gluteus muscle - these two areas make insurance charts useless for measuring the health of athletic Black women.
I was so intent on teaching that girl that she was wasting her time that I showed her the difference in her bone structure and mine. Even though she was slim her flesh covered her wristbones, knee bones, and collarbones. She did not have a big frame, she was not big boned, she is delicate. I showed her my collarbones - you can see them. Even though my fat percentage is about 30 percent, it doesn't keep my knee cap, some ribs, and wrist bones, and collarbones from showing. I wasted my time trying to pull Baby Dee back from a waste of time.
I have a quote to give you as well. "If you do not control your life someone else will control it for you." La Vonda R. Staples. I also know that everyone must serve someone. Isn’t it a great thing to choose your servant and your master?
That doesn't ALWAYS mean law enforcement or the courts. It means the dialysis center, the doctor who decides to cut off your leg or foot due to sugar, and the eyes which become blinded from cataracts and therefore you can no longer read.
So much in this life is beyond planning. Everyone it seems wants to have a "that's why" moment. Children, Big Mama is now speaking to you, and to my four heirs of the Kingdom of Boolabu, I'm also talking to you, THERE IS CHAOS IN THIS WORLD AND CHAOS DON'T KNOW THING ONE ABOUT YOUR PLAN.
Our culture, African American culture, is so quick to pull down those who don't know how, have been designated by God, to rise. Crabs in a barrel, endlessly and effortlessly, without thinking, performing the Black Baby Beatdown of our great minds and thinkers and inventors.
And I sit here and wonder where will the next Dr. Carver, Dr. Keith Black, and Dr. Ben Carson come from? When the mammies is calling their Black sons "nerds" when they try to sit and study. Where will the next Miles Davis come from? Or for that matter Ella Fitzgerald when all the singers are doing STUPID A RUNS and got 75 percent of they titties and 90 percent of they booty tooted up to the camera? Where will the Black pool of genius, when will the Black pool of genius be regenerated? From what source?
I am going to tell you the truth right now: I'm tired of pushing my Sarah to make friends with other Black American girls (she has no problem making friends with Black African girls). Her friends are those who are in the gifted program and who are in her physics and advanced geometry classes. Her friends are the girls who participate in the classical voice competition. Her friends are the ones who cannot go outside until the homework is done and if the sun goes down before the work is done? Oh well.
I tell Sarah that her job is being a student and the pay off is the career she will have once the Harvard degrees are done. She can buy a ticket and enjoy the sunshine on some island AT THAT TIME but not now.
I bring to Sarah the knowledge that her A's are only A's in her school district. I let her know that without additional study she would only be a C student in a better district. You think I'm putting her down? I am not. I don't blow smoke up peoples rear ends and if you ask me if you look fat in that dress I'm going to tell you "no, you don't look fat, you are fat." It's the same thing I tell myself. Forewarned is fore armed. I don't have time to lie to you. You don't have any more time to waste in lies. "I still look good." "My man like it." "At least he tryin'" "Ain't no one person wrong." On and on ad nauseum and infinitum. What we do in the name of not standing will help us all to fall.
Black Baby Beatdown is not about one group. It is about the extinction of Black American excellence and the extinction of a group of people who survived slavery and Jim Crow. It's about intra-racial racism and how we do each other. You see, the external is racism, and racism has no science so therefore it is chaos. Plain and simple. You can't stop it in the external.
It’s also about tearing up the lambs and protecting the wolves. Not giving a damn about the scholar but keeping the murderers’ names off the lips of the police.
If we won't stop valuing light skin, good hair, and light eyes, how can we expect the external to stop de-valuing Black skin? That's an example of the end point of Socratic reasoning so learn it and learn it well. The superficial is just a start. Re-purposing the seven billion dollars spent on fake hair and fake straightness into something real, something which will last for all time. That would be a very good start indeed.
I'm comin' to a close and 'bout to make it plain. After all, I don't know how to be a professor. I know how to be a preacher and a teacher, a hybrid of the two, since that is what my parents were all of their lives. I know how to mother you, give you a cookie or bake you a cake when you do good. And I expect the same from my teachers. I shout out to all of those men, who I have met, who I know, and whom I've only studied, I am always YOUR child (even Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura who is driving me crazy with his Obama-madness right now),
I say to these men and my grandfather is included, "Did I do good daddy?" I want to know if my teachings, writings, beliefs have shown any sign. When will I receive my sugar cookie, my cake, my five dollars or a gold star? And they all answer without saying a word, "Don't expect it. Don't seek it. It may never come. You do these things out of compassion which means you CANNOT expect a reward."
I could sit and spout big words and theories at you but what good would that do? Especially when I just got to the educated party myself. Truth be told I STILL have to look up Latin phrases and I don't really have a handle on things such as gameinashtalt or geshtalt or Durkheim or even Hegel. It runs me to the books with great regularity. And I'm smart enough to know that I don't know anything. This is why I ask questions and try like hell to NOT make statements. I tell you what I have seen and hopefully you will prove me wrong. I don't WANT to believe my lying eyes.
If you want to turn the vision into a lie please take the hand of baby Miles and Ella. Take your other hand and cover the mouth of one who calls a child a nerd. Grow two more hands and cover the ears of two children who say they want to be doctors and block out the roar of the crabs. Take your feet and topple, knock it down, strike the foundation of intra-racial intellectual destruction of Black American life.
Only then, when the battlefields is taken to the homes, actively, instead of the passive punkish present way of begging power to cure us of our ordinary pain, will we see the pool of Black genius regenerated for and by self. Internally. Then we will halt the extinction of the Black man as husband first and father second. And, we can each one be the unrewarded victor of our communities and stop the beat down of our Black babies.
And so I end this day's impromptu writing to you and to myself. This writing is the way my brain sweats. This is how I expend all of the negative energy, it is my coping mechanism and I think I've learned how to direct it, even in some small way. I direct it at me and since I'm no better than you it's also able to be transformed into many horizons.
"Is you de one? Is you de Black Moses." That's what Jane Pittman asked of all those children as she held them and looked deeply in their eyes. And she undoubtedly gave that feeling to them, that they COULD BE THE ONE. An illiterate slave woman, fictitious, had more belief in the days of cain't see 'til caint see than we have on this day. Last words come from first my grandfather and then my grandmother, "Daughter, the Lawd don't come 'cause he made you. You 'sposed to be the one." "Ev'ry tub gots ta stan' on it's own bottom." If you don’t know please sit down, take some quiet time, and figure out what my grandparents were saying to me and what I am saying to you.
I get emails from all over the world. It was no surprise when I received an email with a photo attached. Happy, shiny Black couple beaming from the base of the Eifel Tower. They were in Paris. I deleted it. Photo proof that another girl was living the dream, offered to me, but in my stubborn mind had cast to the side.
One cold day when I was living on the East Coast a few years ago a very good Black man came to me, out of the blue, and said, “I’m going to marry. I’m considering you. But you’ll have to lose weight, quit smoking, quit your pity parties, and stop cursing. I can’t stand to hear a woman curse.” I thought I was being insulted so I fired back with both guns heated to an orange glow. Won’t tell you what I said because I have gained enough humility to be ashamed. He wasn’t hurt. You see, he knew he was throwing a hail Mary pass to me and I think he knew the probability of my deliberate lack of intent to catch what was, although I didn’t know it at the time, an easy ball. He also went on to say that he wished I would also adhere to some school of religious belief but all I was hearing was, “blah, blah, blah.”
I knew what he was about. He was “made” when I met him. But if you would have told me that he pictured making me his missus I would never have believed you. I didn’t think enough of myself, still, at that point, to dream that high. And let me tell you something, this was an honourable proposal which would have done me a whole lot of good. I heard him say one thing but my mind turned it into another. After all, the man was only asking me to control myself, to be healthy, and to be a lady in action and in my words. What was so terribly wrong with that?
The chance passed. I knew him well enough to know that if I had tried, he would have been faithful to my efforts. For some reason, I reminded the man of his mother. I don’t know how but I did. But his mother didn’t curse. His mother didn’t drink. His mother was a faithful dedicated woman who never weighed a pound more than the Creator had lain upon her bones. What he was asking would have been good for my children and if we never walked down an aisle pursuant to becoming man and wife? It would have been good for me. But I didn’t listen and as I said before the chance passed.
My hindsight has laser-like adroitness and acuity. Now. Now? Now! I think I might cuss about 100 times a week as opposed to my former 100 times a day. I used to smoke a pack a day and more and now the cigarette folks can’t get 10 dollars a week out of my pocketbook. Now? I used to go to buffets without shame and wearing what I called my “eating pants.” They’re a pair of exercise pants with the drawstring pulled out. What sickness. What madness. I put the barriers up and erected them high and blocked my own good blessings. My life with him would have been everything I ever wanted.
You see, if I showed you his photograph you would say, “You wanted him.? And yes. I did. I saw something in him. I felt something from him. I was sensitive enough to know that he would have been my greatest teacher. The brother was so deep he was infinite on the knowledge of Black people and the world. And he had the humility to always be learning and trying to know more. He would have turned me on, shone the light, to the greatest discoveries. And yet, I refused to go through his basic training and become his commissioned officer in the battle against the greatest evil: ignorance. I failed to show up for duty because of my conduct which was unbecoming of an officer and a gentle woman.
I have regrets. But I also have a plan to get to be the one who sends out the smiling photo from the base of the pyramids as well as the Champs Elysée. That ship may have sailed for good. And it might return. I do nothing negative nor do I seek to destroy another girl’s happiness. I’ve done that before and it’s a sin I advise all to save for a distant lifetime. I don’t want to hurt anyone because that weapon always follows the path of the boomerang. So, I’m not gunning for that man, who could have been my man, and is now my distant friend.
I can follow his words to become the best me and therefore best use the gifts I have to help all men and women. In so doing, the words I heard while sitting in that chair will have meaning, will resound for centuries to come. Throwing off the colloquialisms which are rife within Black American female life I can become better than I ever was. If I will only open my eyes and ears to the possibilities and make myself ready to be taught. If not? I will always see another girl living my dream and it will kill me, just a little bit more, incrementally, every day I walk this Earth. I want more. I can do more. But more is needed from me. And the hardest lesson I’ve ever tried to learn is the lesson of receiving wisdom when that wisdom hurts.
“We had been out in the fields all day. Working. Not saying a word just working. Picking that cotton, man. It’s almost like that traumatized me more than Korea. Seems like my whole body remembers, you know, the movements of picking that goddamn cotton.” Mr. Graham went on with his story. “All a sudden there was a boom and then came a long drawn out scream like it came from inside some animal. I ran in the direction of both of ‘em. There was mah lil cousin. On fire! We tried to put him out but he had that diesel all over him too. Seems like that fire just wouldn’t stop jack.”
I sat across from Floyd Graham as he told me his story, or the story of how his cousin got burned, at Bob Puryear’s real estate office. I think we were alone. I don’t really recall anyone else being there. I can’t recall the walls. The phones. Or the computers. All of it just faded away. He took me to those fields in Sunflower county Mississippi and he left me there with that memory. His memories of the screams. His memory of the sights of a cooked human being. His memory of the smells of that flesh. He couldn’t describe it. He tried. His attempts only made me wonder if he had ever, truly, released his anger and hurt from that day.
Mr. Graham and his kinfolks put the young man in the truck. He was burned everywhere not one of his body was untouched by the flames. Burned past the skin and down to the white fat meat underneath. Down to the yellow fat oozing out of his legs and arms. Burned to the red underneath the brown of his cheeks. No one could look at this boy and not fall to their knees and beg God for assistance in calming the malevolent storms which twisted his once unmarred face into a death mask of agony. No one if he had been White.
They arrived at the hospital and Floyd told me, “I knew they didn’t take colored folks. But I thought that there was no way they would turn him away.” Mr. Graham was wrong. They did. Not with any other words except for threats to call the police. They didn’t even look at his cousin or put a temporary dressing on the wounds. Hippocratic oaths, in those days, didn’t apply to burnt up little nigger boys.
“I thought about Mound Bayou. Those Black folks there had built they own selves a hospital. Had doctors from Howard or Meharry, I don’t know which one. So, my cousin had passed out and we decided that the only thing we could do was try to get there. It was about an hour away. Lemme tell you something. The drive there might as well been to the other side of the world. “What happened next was their arrival at the Taborian Hospital. The cousin was taken inside by Black nurses and was seen by Black doctors. “My cousin lived.” Mr. Graham stopped talking for a spell. He sat back in that chair. It was an ordinary chair but it could have been a throne for a weary king or warrior. Mr. Graham’s face shone with a brilliant light and a quiet determination. “The man didn’t get that one. No. The man didn’t take one of us that day.”
Whether it was in the fields, the jails, or the hospitals Mr. Graham, taking me inside the daily routine of Mississippi let me know that a Black man’s life was worth less than nothing. Not even the time to cool a wound, give a quick kind word, or show the compassion necessary to load a gun and extinguish the pain of a lame horse. He started talking again, “But in Mound Bayou, where yo people came from? A Black man could stand upright. That much I know for sure. In Mound Bayou a Black man could stand upright.”
Mr. Graham is a tall, husky, beaming brown man. The same mix as me. Africa. Native America. Some Europe. Just enough Europe to thin the lips and narrow the nose. But not enough to gain access to that hospital. Not enough to not have to stoop. Not enough to avoid Korea. Not enough to stay on his family’s land. Just enough to propel him onward to community college, university degree, and life in St. Louis. You see, it’s not the lynching ropes. It was and it is those hands attached to minds which oversee the eyes. The eyes which view color as some sort of system of hierarchy. You don’t have to feel if you see black skin. That line may never have been said but it was done every day and every hour.
Mound Bayou might be the only authentic Black town created during the aftermath of the Civil War. Whatever was its raison d’etre in 1887 it served to save the life of one boy on a summer day. And to all others it became a symbol of how life should be lived. Not shuffling, groveling, and in fear. But upright.
Before my grandmother was a grandmother she was an aunt. She had older brothers but she was the eldest sister in her family of ten or eleven children. If we’re speaking of titular longevity it would be more correct to call her Aint Bessie. Later on, moving northward and when her sisters had children, there would be variations of Aunt, Auntie, and Ant. But the one which resonates most in my memory is hearing the children of my Aunt Herbie (who had one child named Lawrence) and my Aunt Teench (her real name was JonEthel and she had a crew of daughters – Gail, Carole, La Joyce and Sandra). They all called my grandmother Aint Bessie at home but I recall that they would codeswitch and use ‘Aunt’ in front of folks.
My grandparents had seven children with only one being born in the south. Percy Daniel Staples, Jr. lived and died in the breadth of a precious few months. When her child was born, tiny, sickly, and fretful, there were even some who dared to speculate that she had to get married. Sadly, this was not the case. My oldest uncle died while his parents watched him take his last breath. They were sitting together and he was sleeping peacefully on their bed in a room of a their home, built by hand with the help of the Staples and Irving men. She recalled, “yo daddy had his ahms around me. Chile we was so relieved that the po’ thang had gotten him some rest. I put my hand on his leg. He gone.” My grandmother knew when the last breath had left her first born son’s body. I don’t know if my grandfather knew it himself. He wouldn’t speak on it. They were together in all things so I’m assuming that he knew it too.
My great grandfather Jim came to the house after my grandmother’s women folks had gotten the baby ready for the grave. He took the baby and put it in a wicker basket. My grandmother got ready to go to. She had just turned 20 and had been independent, teaching, on her own at school for some time before she married. Great grandfather Jim touched her shoulder, “Naw. It’s too much.” And my grandmother stayed on the steps of that cabin and watched as he, my grandfather Percy, some of his brothers (there were sixteen all together) and a few mourners carried the child to the impotent. yard of Wondrous Home Baptist Church. The plot had already been dug. He would have company. My great great grandfather, William Watson Staples, who spent the first thirty-five years of his life as a house slave on a small farm in French Lick, Mississippi was already resting there.
Great grandpa Jim lowered his huge body to the ground after the preacher had preached, the verse had been read, and a pitiful song had been submitted to that impossibly dreary day in the early summer of 1938. His body flat against the ground and his arms reaching way down. All my people have always been taller than most but not so much that they don’t look human. His arms were long enough softly land the baby’s homemade casket into it’s space. The men covered the hole and left.
My grandfather walked into the house and there was no sound for many days to come. The two of them had been friends since the Staples first came over from Drew in 1921. The Staples were the epitome of rowdy. Full of life. Bustling. Hard drinking. Hard working. Adhering to a code unknown to them verbally but fully realized by their family structure. They were a clan in the truest sense. Disputes were settled by the elders. Big Jim, Ole Mane Warren, and until his death, their patriarch WW. They went from being ruled by the owners of the Dockery plantation to owning their own land, land tenure, in the early days of 1921. When they came into the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi all took note. An entire village of Black men ready to take wives, make children, and live a good life. It wasn’t long before family after family were absorbed into the Staples. Two sisters from the Townsend family. Several girl cousins from the Herrons and the Keys. None of them knowing that the death of this tiny baby would change all of their lives. My grandmother no longer loved her life in the historic all-Black town. She knew that if her baby would have been able to be put into an incubator, he would have lived. She was an avid reader, a fact of which my grandfather was always proud, and knew about such things.
Because of the death of that child he left Mound Bayou to make a place for them in St. Louis. Great changes came in that town over the next twenty years. The Black folks built themselves a hospital (the Taborian Hospital) and the White folks figured out a way to get most of them off of their land. They sprayed the crops from the air and suddenly the yields grew lower while the sickness of the people of the town grew higher. More men became slaves in the prison industrial complex. And there were tales of women who couldn’t get big after visiting the White folks hospitals and clinics. By then, the early 1960’s, my grandparents had been in St. Louis for over 20 years.