Sunday, July 15, 2012
I went down home in 1970. It was the year I turned four. I wasn’t the only one traveled with them that night. My cousins who lived next door went too. Like so many other Black folks of that time had learned to do we left the house late at night (or early in the morning depending on your view) after the chicken had been fried and wrapped in foil, after the drinks had been placed in a cooler, after I had been awakened from the sleep they made me take at around four p.m., and after everyone had made at least two trips to the bathroom. Maybe it wasn’t the year. Maybe there was still something left over, some memory of slavery and simultaneous breaking away into freedom. Only we were going the opposite direction from the north star. We were all going to Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Just about as deep south as any of the enslaved persons would ever go.
I don’t remember getting into my grandfather’s deuce and a quarter. I know that a few times I woke up, in between the two of them in the front seat, and was told to go back to sleep. I remember the smell of the packages of fried chicken being passed around in the backseat. My boy cousins, Michael, Michelle, and Jesse (the youngest son who was selected to be the one to carry his father’s name, we called him Jr. And here’s something curious. I had another cousin named Jr. so the difference became Jr. Sharp and Jr. Staples). When I woke up good we were driving down a road which was single lane, one way on each side. I was scared of the shapes the kudzu made. I saw a man way, way, way up in the trees. He had some kind of belt around his waist. “Look grandmamma, Spiderman!” Everyone in the car laughed. With a breakfast of good fried chicken (I didn’t care if it wasn’t hot anymore) and a rare bottle of soda all to myself (I was only allowed to drink soda water on holidays and I never got the whole bottle. My grandmother thought soda “made kids bad…”). I know I had to have had some kind of fruit too. She was always going on and on about a clean colon. My grandmother and grandfather were ahead of their time. He was the first person I ever knew who went on a diet. He went from six foot one and 250 pounds to a slim 200. She decreed that we all have roughage. Oatmeal. A relish tray of cucumbers, tomatoes, and some other stuff I can’t remember. Today, I know why I eat it but back then I just ate it. I was a very good eater.
We were driving and I was telling my grandmother what I saw in the colossal, light-obscuring kudzu formations. I saw an elephant. I imagined another one to be a dinosaur. Another one looked like Mother Newberry turned around (Mother Newberry was known far and wide for her Xhosa styled figure. Her rear was so prolific that you could actually see it from a forward view). Again, they laughed at my observations. It was my first time seeing kudzu and although many children are afraid of the swamp water fed foliage, I was not. With the sun shining our path to Mound Bayou, my grandmother teaching me, and my grandfather at the wheel, there was nothing in the whole wide world to fear.
I saw the homestead from the road. “What’s those, baby?” My grandmother saw the white animals in the pen before I could register, in my mind, what they were. I had no frame of reference. To my mind, a pig was a pork chop, a rib, or a hamhock. A pig was a cute pink thing with a squiggly tale and only inhabited my story books. So, I answered the question with timidness, “ponies.” “Naw, gal. Those is hogs.” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what a hog was. More importantly I didn’t know that a hog was a pig. I figured I would find out later.
We drove up that dirt road and all of the Irving family, the land owners, came into view. Each one wore the biggest smile. Several of them clapped their hands. “Praise God” were the first words my great Uncle Joe said or the first words I ever heard him say. I was home for the first time. I was touching the land my great grandfather worked. I was walking in the same steps my grandfather took in 1934 when he started to court my grandmother. I was re-united with the land.
I found out what hogs were when my cousins picked me up and held me over the pen. This amused them but not my grandfather. He got them. That same day I was terrified by animals once again. I was standing below the house (it was set up very high probably because of floods) and I started to pet a chicken. The chicken didn’t like it. She pecked me on the arm. She took off after me and I started running. The other chickens joined in. Some puppies joined. I kept running. I don’t know how many other small and baby animals were chasing me. I was running for my life as fast as my round brown legs would carry me. The entire procession of young life went around the house once. As we started the second leg of the race my grandfather stopped laughing with everyone else. I had given them the best entertainment ever! He reached his long body over the porch and just as I was about ten paces into the first curve he reached down (“retched down” as my grandma would say) and plucked me from the lead. He held me. I was crying. I was out of breath. It was my first experience with chickens and I have been getting my revenge on these birds ever since.
I saw so many things inside that house. I saw a real wood burning cook stove. Outside of the house there was a still working outhouse. I don’t remember using it. Away from the sanctuary of Mound Bayou, in some town untold to me, my grandfather and I were walking. My grandmother was always a lady like stepper and she was in her place behind us. My grandfather stopped and I stopped too. He faced a sign. He said nothing. I read the words on the rusty metal plate leaning against the brick wall of a dilapidated building, “Whites Only.” I was home.
Friday, July 13, 2012
I am the person who exists, breathes, acts and responds when no one is watching or when there is someone in my presence who I feel cannot harm me. Whether the person is too small, too young, an outcast, or someone from whom I have taken power, how I comport myself around them is actually the real me. When I walk out of church and people have complimented my speaking or my shouting or my dance of praise and I start to hurriedly run to my car in order to avoid some poor soul who is on the busline. I am not the good Christian woman. I am the person who is not thankful for the blessing of God.
Going further, if I should kiss a man who is not my man then I am not what I present. I’m a cheater. I liar and a thief. If I am a man and I go off to kiss and hug, secretly, in the dark, with another man then I am who I am in those moments and so very far from the creation I’ve crafted for the world to see. If I go off by myself and consume food which is bad for me, drugs which will kill me, liquor which can cause me to take another’s life; I have no excuse. I am an addict who will go to any length to protect the image I am desperately trying to see. And the lack of this image will cause me, every time, to turn away from my own reflection in the mirror. The mirror has no time for lies.
They say that the love of money is the root of all evil. I believe that the love of money should move over and make room for the need of acceptance at all costs. This singular issue baffles me and I have spent weeks, cumulatively, wondering why people do what they do when there is no conceivable material gain. Rather, in many cases there is a loss of gain. A co-worker who crafts lies against another worker who could possibly be the key to mutual success. A husband who tears down an ambitious wife. A wife who misleads a husband into a state of security when he should definitely have been alerted, concerned. Yes. I confess to being intrigued by people who throw away material success in order to reach an unattainable state of constant satisfaction.
I want to be a woman who can “hold her head while about” her “others are losing theirs.” I read those words for the first time in 1974. I was eight years old. The book of Rudyard Kipling’s work was in my grandparents’ library. I read it. I have ignored it but I have never, ever forgotten it. Likewise, I have never forgotten the words of Maya Angelou who told me not to reject what a person says about him or herself. I believe you when you say you are this or that. It’s much simpler that way. But I will continue to treat you as I want to be treated. With love. Up close. From a distance. I may cuss, yell, scream and holler but rarely will I commit any creature to a permanent status of exile from my heart. And when I do so, it’s for the protection of us both.
I have spent too many years riding in the comfortable boat of the crowd. I’m tired of that. I have jumped into the waters of solitude and at times I have found myself so bereft of human company that I no longer wanted to swim, let alone tread water in this weary land. I have fallen. I have risen. I have looked all around me and seen a precious few regarding me with eyes full of love. On this day, it’s alright. I could not say that in days before but I can say it with casualness and comfort today. I lived to see this day. You will too. I have every faith in the intangible supernatural Creator who knows the number of hairs on my head as well as He knows the number I have cut off of my head.
He knows me. I am learning to know me but that knowledge can never be concrete because as I meet you and get to know you I cannot help but be changed. It is said that no man can step into the same river twice. I say that no woman can reach the understanding of a few days and expect that understanding to be unchanged. I must endeavor to know myself AND my evolution. Appreciate how far I’ve come. That’s the work of solitude and isolation. That’s the work of a lifetime. I must be who I’ve become without fear. For if I change who I am to suit you, then I’m a liar. And a liar will steal. And a thief will kill. Know this as surely as you know your own name. I must kill that liar, that thief, and that murderer within myself. And that is the work of a lifetime.
Thank you for the compliments and I don't mind answering questions.
I do not condemn interracial relationships. Some of my best husbands were White.
I do, however, ask that people examine the psychology of choice. Does the Black man you're with castigate Black women in favour of White women? If so then you have to look down the road and visualize the implications for your bi-racial daughters and sons. What kind of attitude will a man who has a prejudice against Black women bring to the table?
If you're a Black woman dating a White man you have to ask yourself if you're an experiment, an experience, or if this is a man who is looking for a woman who is "lower" than he sees himself.
My comments are also ONLY cogent to the racial environment in America. I'm sure Leopold Senghor's wife loved him very much.
In the end, there is also the external. When you're married to a Black person you must be aware of the implications with police, job, social settings which these relationships still bring. You almost have to make a pre-game plan for how you will respond. There are things which happen to Black folks that almost never happen to White folks. The White spouse cannot be so naive as to say, "if you didn't do anything wrong then why were they following you? You must have done something (just an example)."
The White spouse must also learn what White guilt is and isn't. There are also Black folks, specifically Black American men, who play the, "I'm a victim" card and manage to cause so much financial upheaval that the judge shows will never run out of guests suing for bail fees, cell phones, apartment fees, and credit card charges.
Again, I believe that if you are fortunate enough to find someone whose crazies fit with your crazies - strap them to your side and never let them go. Just be aware of why the person chose you and what you will come into contact with because of your choice. You must be forward thinking with your children. I have a very good White girlfriend who is married to a Black man who just isn't nice. My girlfriend is from a town where she had no contact with anyone but other Whites. When their children asked (they have two boys) what a nigger was she gave them the dictionary definition. One of the boys called a White child a nigger - oh my God! Anyway, she told me and I told her my true opinion. My friend is the type of woman who details every conversation to her husband. I am no longer allowed to speak with her or call her house. That brings the total to two. I'm not allowed to speak to or call or even have a meal with two of my White girlfriends who are married to self-hating Black men. The second one is being taken terrible advantage of by her husband who had nothing but bullshit and attitude when he "caught" my girl. She's the goose who lays golden eggs with great regularity. Her husband has managed to run that, "it's a Black thing" con on her for years. And it's always on something financial. "Are you going to be like those Black women and not support your man? If I'm going to get this treatment I might as well get me a sister." And my friend came out of her pocket over and over and over again. She also details every bit of her conversation with her husband. He called me HIMSELF and told me to stay out of his business. I was never in. His wife came to me.
Now Mario. I hope you see my point
What's the next question?
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Telling someone to forgive and forget, when you aren’t present for their nightly parade of memories of the past, is sometimes another blow on the back of a wounded soul. I don’t know how, but I have learned to forgive and I hope I learn this mythical thing called forgetting. The human mind is designed to have survival tactics imprinted within higher and lower brain functions. You learn how to walk, in part, because you look up from your crib and see everyone walking. The images are frozen into your mind until one day, you pull one leg to the front into a lunge position. Your hands are on the floor. You pull the other leg forward and now you’re in a four point stance. And, somewhere in your mind, you tell yourself that now is your time. You push off of the floor with your hands. The first time you fall backwards. On a subsequent attempt you might fall to the side. On still other attempts you fall forward. But you keep trying and the victory of a moment in time is claimed by a tiny creature. You can walk. You arrived and you studied and you remembered and you imitated and you won. Memory is a thing which must be honoured for its ability to be utilized before there are words to order the thoughts. I ask if anyone ever forgets anything? Even if a memory cannot be immediately summoned it is still there, locked away, waiting to erupt at a visual, tactile, or olfactory prompting.
I’m a solitary person. I do not run from company so much as I desire to be alone. It is my natural state. I know how to amuse my own self very well. At times, I access this memory voluntarily and at times it is an involuntary action and it can be as pleasant as other involuntary actions such as breathing. I like to breathe and I’m glad it’s not a thing I have to decide to do. But I really wish I could elect what memories come to mind. One particular makes me shut the door, quickly, so that the monster hiding in the dark does not escape to wreak havoc upon the tentative peace I’m learning, each and every day, to keep.
I was chosen to be the narrator of the school play when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, thought I had the best speaking voice. I could read with great fluidity and since she was the only member of the audition panel, I was chosen. I went to rehearsals. I told my grandma and granpa about it when I went to church. I told the mailman and I told Mr. Johnny at the corner confectionary. I told the principal of Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary school, Mr. Acme Price, II and he gave me a dollar! I experienced an ebullient state of joy over being chosen for something important.
It seems as if I had been in training for this honour for some time through Easter speeches, Christmas plays, and Christmas speeches. In those days, so long ago, children were trained in church to read aloud, memorize Bible verses, and to speak in front of people. My granma was very precise about words. I was reprimanded for saying, “make me something to eat.” Rather, it was, “cook me something to eat.” My granma informed me that dinner was not made, it was cooked on or in the stove. And finally, “man don’t make no food, God does.” Her teaching was the beginning of my lifelong adoration of the use of words.
I lived with my mother, brother, and sister in a huge house in the very mouth of the school. I told my mother about the play. It annoyed her when I would come home late from rehearsals. I had to rush home each day to relieve the babysitter. I think I was about ten at the time. Had she known about the audition I would have never been allowed to tryout (perhaps this is the beginning of my ability to hold what must be held). It is far easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I didn’t tell her until I was picked. She was so very conscious of what was thought of her outside the house that she was not going to have me tell the teacher I couldn’t do it. She wasn’t about to tell the teacher herself.
The night of the performance came. There had been a rehearsal after school. Afterwards I walked through the cold home. I crossed the corner of Caroline and Hickory. I walked past the iron works plant. Past Mr. Mahone’s house. And then past the home which Red the photographer shared with his mother. I walked past Mrs. Sullivan’s Soul Food Café and then I crossed over to my house at 3128 Hickory (I learned recently that Maya Angelou had lived for a short time at 3126 Hickory. Maybe there was spirit of intertwined genius and struggle which existed before the bricks of the two homes were set into place). I put my key in the lock and walked into a home only incrementally warmer than the air outside. I didn’t have to call out. I knew no one was there. It didn’t even register to me that she would respond to my night by leaving with my brother and sister. How could I know that on this great occasion that I would be all alone?
It was about five in the winter evening. The sun had already started to go down. There was very little light in the house. The play was maybe an hour, perhaps two, away from opening. There was no one to fuss over me. No one to fix my hair. No one who had already laid out my clothes. The year before would have seen a difference of dessert and fjord. My granma had gone and taken the sun. I was on my own. I shaped rather than combed my long coarse, thick hair into place on top of my head. It was still the seventies and an afro puff was entirely acceptable. I stuck a barrette on each side of my head. I put on my cleanest pair of socks and underwear. I put on the dress I had word three years earlier at my aunt’s wedding. A pink maxi dress with a hood. It fit. My granma had taken her complete bounty. My cheeks were no longer so round that they obscured my vision when I smiled and my collarbones were visible at all times. The formal dress of a seven year old still fit although it was no longer a maxi.
I had been making notes, through the time of rehearsal, on the pieces of white thick paper which all pantyhose were wrapped around my mother queen-sized panty hose. I gathered these notes. Put on my scuffed shoes. Walked out of the cold into the cold and headed back towards the school. There were refreshments back stage, Mrs. Schmitt had assured us before we left. She was a White woman from Canada but she knew our situation. She knew many of us went home to stare into an empty lit white space wishing that there was any old thing to eat.
At school I sat and read for about an hour. When I read a book everything outside vanished. I was in the world of the writer and it was far more pleasurable than any day’s reality. The big kids were in charge of backstage activities. A girl with a headband wrapped around her afro took me by the hand and guided me to my position at stage left. The curtain rose and I smiled. My smile was met with a mouse squeak at laughter. I knew it was over my clothes and hair. I went on with the smile and I spoke. I heard someone say, “she talk white.” And then there was another sentence of rudeness from the front row, “she always be talkin’ like that.” Mr. Price heard it too. He stopped it. The play went on. For an hour I recalled my lines from memory. My toe nails were happy. My follicles were over the moon. And the tips of my ears were very pleased.
Backstage I ate more cookies. I drank more punch. I picked up my coat and my notes and walked home. They were there. No one asked me anything. I went to bed cocooned in the night.
The next day at school brought back whispers of the first few moments of the play with great volubility and loquacity. No one spoke to me on the playground. They spoke about me around me. I felt the tears well up and I went to stand under an awning by myself. A few boys walked up with a small kindergarten girl. I remember her. I can’t forget her. She had good hair, big eyes, and a perfectly round face. One boy spoke to her and then he spoke to me, “go and hit her dead in the stomach,” “you better not hit her back or we all gon’ kick your ass.” The little girl changed from angel to demon. She relished her work. She stepped forward to hit me. I pivoted. She tried again, this time a slap. I blocked it. She attempted one more time and I pivoted in the opposite direction. The bell rang. The crowds which gathered for the execution of my sentence for the crime of talking white was to be denied.
I went through the day and didn’t think about the little girl. What was an attempted beating, really, when juxtaposed with the weekly beatings I received at home? And after school I walked home, alone as I always did to the infrequent music of children walking behind me talking about me but not to me. When I got to my house one boy came running up from behind. At the same second he punched his fist through the air and it connected between my eyes. It would have connected with my eyes had I not been wearing glasses. Everyone laughed and dispersed. The proper talking girl had once again been humiliated in exchange for the honors she received. I had been knocked off of my pedestal physically. I got to my knees, found my door key, and walked into the house with my broken glasses in my hand. When my mother arrived I received more blows. And later on, with no tears in my eyes, I found some grey tape and repaired my glasses. Knowing, instinctively, that there would be more ridicule in the morning.
Over the years I have seen the names of those boys in the crime papers of St. Louis. One was sentenced to death and another was sentenced to life. I don’t know what happened to the third one or any of the other followers. What’s more is I don’t care what happened to them. They do not occupy the active space of my memory. I do remember Mr. Price, the third grade, I still use the British spellings Mrs. Schmidt passively taught me. She encouraged my writing with Mr. Price and his successor Mr. Boyd. When third grade ended I mourned her as she left the left L’Ouverture to teach in another place.
I cannot close the door on the bad memories as I would no longer have the ability to access the compassion and kindness which proceeded and followed. I do not have the ability to forget that moment of standing on that stage and using the experience for the rest of my life. Human animals remember as an act of self-preservation, to recognize good as well as evil if an appearance should be repeated. So I will remember the sound of those voices pronouncing my speech as white. I will remember how I got up not knowing if another punch or kick was to follow. I will remember what it felt like to walk into a cold house and look into an empty refrigerator as those moments may come again. I may have to do as I did that day in December: go on.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Africa? Where did I meet her? I first heard of her from a real live African when I was in the fourth grade. Our teacher, Mr. Driskill, thought it would be a learning experience for an African to come and talk to his class. I attended Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary and I have to confess that there wasn’t a single painting or representation, or even a story told about Haiti or the Revolution which would create the first independent country of Black people in the western hemisphere. In 1977, in those urban classrooms of St. Louis, we weren’t taught about Haiti. We had no lessons whatsoever regarding Africa. It was as if our Black teachers as well as our White teachers had met and decided, in unison, that they would allow us to believe we were the only Black people in the entire world. That’s hyperbole of course but the results of the truth are the same. I don’t recall if Africa was ever pointed to on a globe or a map.
The man who came to speak to our class was from Nigeria. I don’t remember his name. I remember he was a man who didn’t possess one more pound than he truly needed. Not skinny. Just compact. I can’t tell you if he was tall or short. He didn’t really sear himself into my memory. I can tell you that the entire class was an embarrassment. I felt it then. I feel it now. All we did was repeat the same lies and myths about Africans. We asked, “Do you have more than one wife?” We asked, “Do you live in a house?” We asked, “Do you got a lion?” He grew frustrated. Mr. Driskill didn’t stop us or reprimand the class for the crazy-house laughter that filled the room each time our guest would attempt to answer. Our visitor attempted to show us different views of African cultures. When he started to dance, the laughter of arrogant ignorance escalated to a raucous cacophony. No one was without guilt. We all laughed at this man. That African man who wore African clothes, ate African food, and spoke and African language. We, Black American children, believed that he was ridiculous in the definitive sense: subject to ridicule. I don’t know if any of the other students remember that day. But I have always remembered it with shame, guilt and regret. I owe him a fervent apology.
Africa hid from me for many years. I didn’t consider her and she didn’t present herself to me. It wasn’t until I was 21 years old and married. My husband Jack met a man named Nassir. He was from Nigeria. Jack and Nassir became great friends. So much so that Nassir became my oldest son’s godfather. When we moved from our apartment across the street from Nassir to a townhouse about 60 miles away we missed him. But not for long as he moved next door to us after a few months. Once we no longer lived in the city and had the ability to walk in the suburbs, sit by the man-made ponds, and spend long nights around a backyard fire Nassir began to teach me about his particular African culture. His mother was Fulani and his father was Hausa. They were from Northern Nigeria. They were Muslims. They were also a family with four mothers. Nassir’s father was a polygamist. Here was an opportunity I wasn’t going to let go by. I was quiet and let him slowly teach me about his life. He told me how he left his mother’s house at 12 and learned to take care of himself. He told me how his father’s first wife (his mother was the fourth wife) was given the title of “Mama” and how he called his mother by her first name. He had 26 brothers and sisters. All very well educated. All very happy with each other. I saw their photos and I don’t think they were faking for the camera. I would learn, later in life, that African culture dictates that children are precious. I would also learn, in more than one political science course, that there were cultural aspects of Islam which gives the birth of sons, the gift of a son to a father from a mother, an especially blessed event. Before I read one book I knew this from Nassir. Our second child, Jack and I, was also a boy and he weighed nearly ten pounds. Nassir came to the hospital before anyone else, held my son, and said his name, “Grant, Grant, Grant.” He rolled the r’s off of his tongue. He pronounced the “a” with an “ah.” Grant is 21 years old and I’ve never heard his name pronounced with such abject elegance and meaning. Nassir and his wife never had any sons. Not then. Not now.
I think another decade passed but I’m not really sure. Many things happened in my life and most of them were not good. Since I never graduated from high school I took a high school equivalency examination (the GED). I know I was 31 when I took it and I scored so high that I was given scholarship funds for college. I started at community college and then I bounced around, never really declaring a major. Along the way I met Africa in my macro-economics professor, Dr. Remigius Onwumere, a cab driver from Ethiopia named Allilinge Mulat, and also a math teacher named Dr. Lateef Adelani. East Africa and West Africa now had faces and names. I was Dr. Onwumere’s best student. Possibly because I was very polite and most likely because he noticed I was non-verbally upset with people who came to class late and asked, “what I need for my grade” and “what’s gonna be on the test?” I was Mr. Mulat’s favourite face at the Red Sea (the only Ethiopian restaurant in St. Louis at that time) because he knew I was going to listen, intently, to how hard it was to get a job in his field. He drove cabs because his degrees weren’t accepted by United States institutions. I re-met him many years ago at the department of motor vehicles, we were both renewing our driver’s licenses, and he was once again Dr. Mulat. He was always Dr. Mulat to me. I remember he would tell me all the wonders of American citizenship. He told me and not the other way around.
Dr. Mulat told me, while we were waiting for our numbers to be called, that he’d spent eight years driving cabs at night and attending university courses during the day. He earned an American doctoral degree and re-joined academia. Through all of his struggles he never forgot me. He knew me as soon as he saw me. He was very happy to give me an update on how he brought his wife and children to America. He had never given up or turned away from his dreams or goals.
I was 36 when I enrolled at the University of Missouri at St. Louis in spring 2002. I might have possessed about 60 credits after four years of part-time community college study. I had met Africa in hair-braiding salons along the way. The city in which I reside is not a popular destination for African immigrants. I had yet to have any prolonged contact or relationship with Africans living in America. I had yet to have any real conversations (real conversations being those not in a school or a bar) with an African. I did have conversations with those who were African American and lived in Africa. Accra, Ghana to be specific. Two men who were callers to my radio show (I never said I had a boring life) would brag on and on and on about their other “homes” in Accra. Where, they claimed, that “the Black man is king” and anyone could “hire young, pretty girls to clean house for about 10 dollars a week.” They would also, when they came to the radio station, whisper to the men about what else they would do with these housekeepers. Of course the men would come back and tell me what they said. I ended up feeling very disgusted with the Ghanaian women for allowing this treatment. I didn’t know anything about GDP, living standards, and I didn’t stop to think that the men more than likely were lying on the Ghanaian girls. You see, I had no frame of reference for the things I’d heard.
I never even had a class on the subject of Africa until fall of 2002. I enrolled in “Africa to 1800” with Dr. Adell Patton, Jr. He told me his story. The next semester I enrolled in the successive course. My African inculcation continued when I took the graduate level form of the course as a student in the graduate history program. I also took a course called, “Energy in the 21st Century” and wrote my research paper on the effects of petro-chemicals and liquid natural gas on the ethnic groups of Nigeria.
Thinking deeper, it wasn’t even my idea to write about Nigeria in that energy class. It was Dr. Hsieh’s idea. He was interested in China’s involvement in Nigeria’s oil markets. I went to him for research paper ideas. He offered Nigeria. I took it. That was how I learned that a Nigerian wasn’t just a Nigerian. I read about Yoruba and Igbo long before I met the family of Dr. Valentine Ojo or Idika Agwu. I read about Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people. I also read about the Ogoni Nine and Port Harcourt and pollution and burn-offs, and every type of capitalism despotism that befalls a people who are cursed with petroleum without power.
I took a course in African politics which really didn’t go so well. That low point was banished from my mind when I took a writing course with a Nigerian professor. A gigantic, booming, congenial spirit named Adeniyi “Niyi” Coker. If I had to pick a single person responsible for my creative writing, it has to be him. He is the first person to earn a doctorate in African American history from Temple Unviersity. The thought of reading, “Afrocentricity” by Asante never entered my mind ‘til Dr. Coker talked to me about perspectives in storytelling. Later on this perspective would cost me the loss of a few grade points when I took a course in African Anthropology. I undertook an unsuccessful argument with the professor regarding the climax of “Things Fall Apart.” The accepted climax is the murder of the station manager and not Okonkwo’s suicide. When I got through arguing I was still wrong. I earned an A- for the course. The only person who applauded my efforts was Dr. Valentine Ojo. Dr. Ojo had declared, on several occasions, that I had no right to discuss Africa. Great, in his words, was my ignorance. But on this occasion Dr. Ojo was pleased because I had argued the African side, the African story. I had learned one thing: that there was another story, waiting to be told.
My meetings with Africa became so frequent that there were barely any lines of demarcation. Each time we met, she and I, it became harder and harder to let her go. Each tiny piece of her, essence of her, became something like the panes of a quilt for me. I collected scraps and I cherished them and sewed them together into a body which only makes sense to me.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, Dr. Patton and his wife became kind of like academic parents for me. He guided my academic footsteps. He caught the African “bug” and had never been the same only child and single son of share-cropping parents from a past filled with racism, bigotry, and endless days of picking cotton in the Arkansas sun. After completing his doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin he took every opportunity to do research in East and West Africa. His wife told me all of her experiences traveling with her husband and children. They lived in a few West African countries as members of households. This information was invaluable to me. I was bound to each and every word. Dr. Patton also visited South Africa. Until the moment Dr. Patton showed our class his slides, I had never seen any other image of Africa except those on the news, in the papers, and in Black magazines such as Ebony, Jet and Essence. I sat in his class and didn’t sleep. I couldn’t take my eyes, not even for a second, from the mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. Some part of me won’t accept that Africa has such beauty until I see it for myself. I believe it exists but there is always the burden of what came before. The difference for me today is I desperately want those beautiful slides, photos, and paintings to be real. Everything “they” have ever said about “us” would be made into felonious lies. All of the images I had learned to accept without exception were all miserable. Famine, war, hunger, female abuse, and violence. How could I be anything if I my home was in such a state?
I did have occasional meetings with “happy Africa” outside of the university setting. Here and there I would see programs or events such as Budweiser’s “Great Queens and Kings of Africa” calendar series. I would go to poetry readings and drum circles. I think I recall meeting a few non-hair braiding African women, maybe, in the international grocery store or at the mall. I owned one lonely dance video called “Dances of Africa.” You know I never even questioned why there was a dance called, “Dhambala” on that video. Later I found out that Dhamabala came from Haiti and then I found out that it actually came from the Congo. But you see, we’re getting to the point in my story where everything starts to cross back and forwards. I find out one thing is one thing and later on I find out it’s actually another and later I find out it’s both. These are the greatest moments of my meetings with Africa. When I find out that something actually has a “home.”
At this point I have to do some serious review. I never met an African, in the flesh, until I was in the fourth grade. I think I said that. But I did see Africans on television, the evening news, news magazine programs, and there was an endless stream of African children on religious fundraising programs. All of them veiled in flies, crying tears which did not have an opportunity to dry, and their problems, we were told, could be solved for just 32 cents a day. Africa, from the beginning of my life, was a place where fat White people took the time to beg for money while children all around them expired from lack of nourishment. The brown children would crawling around on crippled hands, legs, and feet. Standing in doorways with helplessness and hopelessness in their eyes and playing in piles of trash, with no parents to be found. The Whites who came from America seemed to be their only hope (along with the 32 cents)
I always wondered why the fat White people didn’t give them some of their food. The commercials came on late on Sunday nights and sometimes on Saturday. I would ask my grandmother, “Grandma, how come they don’t just give the children some of their food?” She would tell me to turn the channel. And I did.
I tuned it out. There was poverty around me in my neighborhood. I never knew what it was like until I was about ten years old. That’s when I was in the fourth grade in Mr. Driskill’s class. It’s no wonder I was so cruel to the African man who came to visit. He was telling us how lucky we were and I didn’t feel lucky at all. I was abandoned by the only parents I knew when my grandparents moved and left me with my mother. There were no more tables, sagging with the weight of opulent dinners my grandmother would take days to prepare. I was in no mood to be sensitive of anything I couldn’t see. I couldn’t relate. So I laughed.
I’ve reviewed these images so many times in my mind. I don’t know how I kept running into Africa. Did other Black people have the same experiences? We never talked about it except to say how lucky we were that we weren’t starving over there with “them Africans.” Occasionally, I would see someone wearing ‘African clothes’ which was generally a dashiki. I never even saw someone wearing a boubou at home until I was over forty. You might think I’m being dishonest, obfuscating a truth to make a point. Unfortunately I’m opening my mind to you and showing you the images which have been locked inside for so long I had forgotten they were supposed to be secrets. Since I became acquainted with Africa I’ve been ashamed of ignoring her for so long. This is my root. This is who I am.
I never would have had to face this, I truly believe, if I hadn’t climbed to the ninth floor of one of the buildings at the university I attended and knocked on the door of Dr. Jean-Germain Gros. He let me in. We had already talked. I needed help teaching a course on sub-Saharan African history. I passed my classes with the highest grades (most of the time). I had done research. I’d written papers on Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal. Yet, when I looked around his office at all of the photos I still stopped at one and said, “who is this?” He said, “you’re joking.” My face told him I wasn’t. The man in the photo was Kwame Nkrumah. I could recite the years of each nation’s independence because it was part of the curriculum for the Cold War. I was trained very well but I had no experience and I had yet to gain a feeling or rather, an affinity, for Africa. I had no affection for Africa. I hadn’t yet found myself in any of the thousand faces in hundreds of books. My ignorance on that day, broke the bough, severed it completely.
And the next thing I knew I was angry. I was livid. I was horrified to learn that we had spent entire semesters on the Vichy government and not one of the books on my graduate list contained a single mention of the Congo-Brazzaville government under DeGaulle in October of 1940. There was no mention of any American involvement in the arrest of Nelson Mandela. There was no mention of Africa with the exception of the occupation of Northern African in World War II and the use of African troops (among other nations) in the Battle of Verdun during World War I. That’s all I was taught and until I walked into the office of the angry-looking Haitian professor Dr. Gros, that was all I knew.
I don’t know why he put up with me. If he and I were dogs I would be a golden retriever and he would be an undersized pit bull. Our personalities are completely opposite. If there were ever two people who were most unlikely to make friends on a deserted island – that would be the two of us. But there must be a reason in all of this because like Dr. Patton, Dr. Gros had also caught this wonderful African bug. I think for him it was in Cameroun where he undertook his research for his dissertation (something to do with cattle). He eventually made a second home in Ghana. Wherever he goes, he carries my gratitude with him. If he hadn’t shamed me and picked on me so very badly, I would never have examined myself. When I met him I wouldn’t even call myself an African American. Now? How can I escape it?
He came to my home once. He is a man with very few relatives. From the walls and the bookshelves and the tables my great-great grandfather, my great-grandfathers, my great grandmother, and my grandparents looked back at him. The first generation were slaves and they were as black as asphalt. Gradually we became lighter and lighter because of the addition of a Choctaw great-great grandmother and great-grandmother. It would be absurd to think that my great-great grandfather walked out of slavery and into freedom with a biracial child under one arm, now wouldn’t it? We started out as African as one could possibly appear to be and yet I wouldn’t admit that I was an African American. Can you wrap your head around that one? Unlike many African Americans I know who my enslaved relatives were. I know where they lived while in bondage. I know what jobs they did. I can go and hold my grandmother’s hand and touch a hand that touched the hands of the man who as a slave for 35 years and yet I wouldn’t admit to an African past until the day that grouchy little Haitian man confronted me.
At that point and after that point, I must confess to you that I cannot give you specific persons, times and places for African meetings. It seemed as if he had broken some kind of spell or curse because now my people were evident, abundant and at every turn I made. I loved it. I love it.
Eating African food is no longer a generic experience for me. I can choose East (Ethiopia) or West (generally Nigerian). There is no longer a such thing as ‘African clothes’ for now the daishiki has been joined by caftans, boubous, wrappers, head ties, and just plain old Black and beautiful. Wearing nothing more and needing nothing more than shea butter and earrings. You see, I’m free of something else. I’m free of the need to fit myself into a standard of beauty which is detrimental to me. I’m free of a standard that really has no place and is illogical. Before there was a blonde Marilyn Monroe there was Nefertiti and Queen Tiye and Nzingha and Sheba. There was also Sarah, wife of Abraham, so black and so beautiful that her husband never quite accepted that she belonged only to him. The first face to be called beautiful, the first feet to ever dance, and the first breast to ever feed a child were all the property of African women. What relevance does a decade have to hundreds of centuries? None. None whatsoever.
In accepting the acquaintance of Africa I have become familiar with all of me and I have begun a journey away from what I have been told. I experience Africa. I sit down with her. I talk to her. I gaze at her. I’m in love with her and in loving her, realistically, I’m also loving me. And that’s the point of all of this while she peeked at me, when I hid, when we met over and over again it was for the sole purpose of me. She has redeemed me and reclaimed me. I am no longer afraid. She is no longer a horrifying vision. She’s the place which used to be my home. I have gained a new feeling for Africa. I claim her proudly but with an onerous burden of sadness. Not for her. For me. She mourned my loss a long time ago.
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Only Heaven Can Hold His Heart: In Memory of My Grandfather, Elder P. D. Staples
by La Vonda R. Staples
by La Vonda R. Staples
Good morning. I've had my time of reflection. I've shed tears of grief, again, for the loss of my grandmother. It's time for some reality, deeper truth. I thought I could file her away in the back of my mind. I couldn't. I paid for that. As did my children in the days which followed my momentary giving up. Like any soldier I made a retreat from the battle. But like a great warrior determined, genetically coded with survival, I returned to the front. Stronger. Better. Wiser. And a little bit more magnificent to behold. She was placed in the earth on April 27, 20112. She had lived 96 years on this Earth.
This morning I cried for them. Honestly, I cried for me. I want to be like her. I want to be like him. I don't know how they started out since I met them in 1966 when they were both fifty years old. But I do know that they were ready for my birth. Had it not been for their dedication to each other my story would have included the Annie Malone Children's Home. Maybe I would have had a rougher time and maybe I would have had an easier time. We will never know because they DID take me in, take care of me, teach me, and try to make me into a lady. If you like my smile, my studiousness, or even my dogged attention to whether or not my booty shakes when I walk them aisles at Macy's or even my affection for make up. Thank my grandmother and my grandfather.
She was the companion, close friend, confidant, teacher, mother to over 150 children, who in various forms, came from her body. But she had help. Today would be my grandfather's, Elder Percy Daniel Staples, 96th birthday. He went ten years before her. I can never remember the exact date except that it was the night of the last superbowl game between the Rams and the Titans.
PD was fresh to def! He didn't own a pair of tennis shoes. He had a personal shopper, Brother Ernest Greenlea, and I think he had a pair of denim overalls but I don't think he had a pair of jeans. He wore pajamas and a silk robe in summer and a flannel robe in winter. I never saw my grandfather's underwear unless they were hanging on the clothes line in the backyard of our home at 3128 Hickory. Yes. I remember my first address. I also remember the phone number started with Evergreen (it was a 367 number or I think it was a 361).
He shielded the helpless. When the mother of his young cousins Daniel and Catherine died and they were left alone. He drove all the way back to Mound Bayou MS to take care of them until a new Staples relative could come and take the children in. He is the proof of the words of Ezekiel, "blessed is the righteous man who shields...."
He had God's protection in the face of racial injustice. When he first came to St. Louis a White policeman knocked his hat off of his head. My grandfather grabbed the man's hand and pushed him. The cop let him go thinking that this Black man was either very dangerous or very much insane.
He proved the words, "your enemies shall be your footstool" when he died. Everything happens in God's own time. When he started work at National Lead the Whites would put a lynching rope in his office, a shed really, he was the handyman. He would take it down each time. Other Black men who saw that rope left the job. My grandfather stayed there 44 years. And when he transitioned, those same White men, surviving White men, came to his funeral and cried like babies and told us stories of his goodness. Yes. I've seen so many things and learned so many lessons and I would be very wrong if I didn't tell you, my children, as I claim you as mine, always.
He was also a man not to be messed with. At my Aunt Marva's sweet sixteen party, Joe Bean and his brother Coke came to start trouble. Before I knew it my grandfather was at my side and even more rapid had pulled out a pistol and within seconds he was in the face of the brothers. They never knew what happened. All they knew was it was time to go. He didn't announce that pistol. He didn't raise it in the air. He didn't do ANY talking before he pulled. To prove the blues song, my grandfather was a "mane mongst menz." How many men would have been willing to defend their homes and daughters in that manner? A minister risking jail for his little girl? Not many today. But then again, there are very few P. D. Staples walking this Earth today.
Two of your three sons are gone. They made a place for you before you left us. Your remaining son wouldn't raise a pimple of your manhood on your ass. I honestly don't know where you two got your children from. Your wife, my grandmother told me, "maybe I made too much of my children. Maybe I admired them too much." No you didn't grandma. They just didn't and don't feel the need to spread the goodness you gave them to their folks. It's a treasure to them, yes, I'm sure. But it's a treasure they hide away under a bushel basket which does no one, not even them, any good.
My grandfather was a philosopher. He told me, "the Lawd don't come to help these folks. These Africans, our folks, folks that's suffering because He made you. You gotta do the work." I have run and hidden from my own greatness for so long that I have compassion for my aunts and uncles. Everyone wants to know the secret. My grandfather gave us the secret. It is an onerous burden in this man's world. Easy to say. Almost impossible to put into action. Almost but not completely.
Your grandsons mourn your loss because you were the greatest man they knew. Your granddaughters mourn your loss because they, specifically me, fear that they will never meet a great man like you.
And finally, granddaddy, I have to tell you something. I believe in God and I believe in Heaven because of you. That earth that you're in, that filthy dirt, up on Lucas and Hunt cannot be the final resting place for a King such as you. Heaven is the ONLY appropriate resting place for one of your God given majesty. God is the only one Who could have made your heart. And Heaven is the only place to keep your soul.
I love you. You joked with me and told me that I should pay you rent money for my good looks. It's true. I do look just like you. You talked with me. You read the paper with me. You walked with me, up and down, and showed me every sight and sound of Soulard. And when I was four and the chickens, baby goats, lambs, and I think a puppy, chased me around the old homestead in Mound Bayou. You didn't laugh like everyone else. You leaned over that porch and your six foot one frame was long enough for you to stretch out your arms and swoop me up. Those same arms held me when I cried. And you called me your baby and your daughter.
I love you. I miss you. On this day I will keep you on my mind. But past this day I will try harder to be the lady you wanted me to be. I swear. I will try harder. I want to see you. I want to be with you and her and Him. In all of this world my desire is to be loved so well again. It will come on this Earth and one day I will walk with you and tell you how it came. One day. In Paradise is where we'll meet again. And we will walk around God's Heaven all day.
Elder Percy Daniel Staples July 3, 1916 to January 2000. You were loved. You are missed. You were the greatest man I've ever known. I will continue to wait, search, and make myself ready for one like you. When you have lived with greatness, nothing else will do.
Monday, July 2, 2012
Ashanti Proverbs from Ghana
Rain beats a leopard's skin, but it does not wash out the spots. (Ashanti)
The poor man and the rich man do not play together.
One cannot both feast and become rich.
The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.
What is bad luck for one man is good luck for another.
When a man is coming toward you, you need not say: "Come here."
When you are rich, you are hated; when you are poor, you are despised.
Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight.
When the fool is told a proverb, its meaning has to be explained to him.