I read a book a few weeks ago that reminded me of you. It’s called Negroland by Margo Jefferson and details the writer’s upbringing in the netherworld of the Black elite, where many of its inhabitants consider themselves better than most Blacks and long for white privilege. Their world is complicated in that it often maroons them on a no man’s land where a virulent psychosis ravages the community and inspires self-slaughter.
The author is of your generation, and when she described her admiration of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt, I remembered watching HBO’s biopic of Dandridge with you. I remembered the racism that she faced and the longing for white suitors and the despair visited upon her when her dreams were thwarted. I remembered not understanding all of the cultural references, but I mostly remembered the gleam of your focus. I remembered your exuberance. You delighted in her story.
I miss your train of thought in this state, when the passion thick in your voice would envelop me. You would have loved the book, I’m sure, and I would have loved to hear your thoughts about it. I would have loved to ask you why you sent your son away to a boarding school far from home, where the ultra-white sheen of his teachers and classmates must have been blinding. Were you seeking his entry into the white populace, hoping to secure his footing among the Black elite?
I would have admitted that I had enrolled into this tradition, at least in part, when I transferred to Morehouse. I had consciously sought an escape from the working class, but too focused on what I was running from, always peering behind myself to mark my distance from the past, I neglected to survey what I was running toward—the suffocating mores of the Black upper-class. So many times I felt faint of breath as I tried to keep pace with speed of Black privilege, the ready access to money and opportunity. After awhile, I accepted defeat and stopped running. But I gained something invaluable from the race, grandma, something that’s hard to come by. I gained the self-awareness that I’m nobody but myself, however offensive my Blackness may be to my wealthy brothers and sisters, however offensive it may be to the white world at large. I’ve come to love all that I am.
And yet the insult of my Blackness is rather ridiculous when compared to the white man’s offenses. There has been no shortage of his evil since you left. Donald Trump, the same, self-serving caricature of yesteryear has become a demagogue, no less conniving and duplicitous. And in a way, he represents how uncomfortable America has become. The freedom of speech that he’s afforded, that we are all afforded, has conflated in every direction and political correctness is pejorative, not that I particularly cared for it anyhow. Whereas political correctness suggests that a white man not wear a shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag in my presence, I’m more concerned that he wears it in the company of anyone. I’m more concerned with the sweatshop conditions wherein it was made, the material ethos of production, labor, and compensation. Most are unconcerned with truth, however, and prefer the illusion of democracy so that whosoever can offend the largest number of non-white, marginalized people, whosoever can convince the most unthinking people to embrace the worst of themselves, this person wins. It all seems as foolish as cheap magic.
Although nothing is cheap about the political process anymore. You saw this much with the birth of superpacs and the humanization of corporations. Who would have thought that the brick and mortar boardrooms and articles of incorporation and material goods would one day learn to eat, steal, and vote? Because I have never had much money, as you know, I’ve become jaded.
Forgive me for saying this, but I don’t want to vote anymore. Now, my intention is not to upset you nor disregard all of the years of service you gave to the polls. It’s just that I’m uncertain that my vote is worth anything. Each candidate will visit our churches, mouth “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” hire a person of color to stand beside them, fix their lips around Black Lives Matter, and promise to end mass incarceration. But when my vote is cast, I’m still the underemployed, over-incarcerated eyesore whose desire for clean drinking water remains insecure.
This year I want to know the value of my vote. I want to offer it to the highest bidder, available for purchase from every retailer that will have me—Craigslist, Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—any marketplace with traction and high visibility. I want to get the most that I can. I’m even willing to scrub my Blackness clean, remove all of its insouciance and unbecoming, shiftless stereotypes, dress in my finest suit, shave the grey from my face, and present myself as a dandy nigger worth buying. I want to solicit myself in the waiting areas of as many polling stations as I can and promote my intentions with two, large placards draped around my neck: one would read “Shirley Chisolm was misguided,” in bold, black letters, the other “Buy my vote!” in matching type font. I bet I could get beaucoup paid.
You would caution me otherwise, talk some sense into me, remind me of hope. But I’m not without it actually. I’m reminded of it every time I hear the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” You would have been moved by it, I’m sure. It’s become a Black anthem of sorts as so many of us have been moved by its texture, one that weaves our spirituals with the legacies of resistance and community. No more dirge-like supplications of “We shall overcome.” “We gon’ be alright,” instead, with middle fingers raised high.
The chorus opens with a jazzy, doo-wop harmony that seems to levitate Lamar words: “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga/Alls my life, I/Hard times like God/Bad trips like: ‘God!’/Nazareth, I’m fucked up/Homie you fucked up/But if God got us then we gon’ be alright.” Then the bass drops like a cathartic blow, and another vocalist repeats the theme, “Nigga, we gon’ be alright/Nigga, we gon’ be alright…”
Every time I hear it, a familiar chill sets upon me. It’s like hearing that brass sound of marching bands assembled from St. Aug and Carver and Read and John Mac and 35 and Kennedy and Fortier. It’s the blare from all those adolescent musicians who provided the soundtracks of my youth as I stood along the neutrals grounds and watched the Endymion and Bacchus parades pass. It’s the last selection before the sermon that pulses through the pews, when the organ recedes and the choir is accompanied by the drumbeat alone, when the baritones give way to the tenors and then to the sopranos and then to the altos and then they alternate on cue before returning in unison, and the whole church gets to rocking, swaying and sweating. That’s what I feel when I hear it.
A few days ago, when I played it again and that chill that warms to a buzz about my skin returned, I thought of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and the words of Sophia, the character whose declaration opens the chorus. And somehow I got to thinking about Shug Avery, and then I found myself thinking of you. The actress who played Shug has always reminded me of you, not that you two were doppelgangers. It’s just that I have always associated her aura with your image. You did have her high cheekbones and long, graceful neck and medium brown skin that would bronze and glow in the sun. Your smiles, too, were both alive and honest and unrestrained. And then, while reveling in your memory, I realized that I had never read the novel. I had only associated you with Spielberg’s Shug.
I had read some of Alice Walker’s other works—In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Living the Word, By the Light of My Father’s Smile—and had even taught her short stories, but the novel lived on my shelf for years, unopened. It was a yellowed, mass-market paperback, torn at an edge along the back cover. I had acquired it from a thrift store many years ago. When I finally opened it, I found a photograph of two, smiling white women seated at a restaurant table. Fresh into their twenties, one more boyish than the other, they could have been friends, colleagues, or lovers. Both became my bookmark.
I hadn’t traveled too far into Walker’s imagination before the tears came in waves. The novel’s deep repository of love and heartbreak and hope inspired many episodes. The others emerged from hearing your voice. I began to feel you again as I read each letter and remembered those you had written to me. It seemed that you had led me to the book so that we could communicate again.
In one of Celie’s last letters to her sister, she questions the reports of Nettie’s death, and in her questioning, I heard the echo of my sentiments:
And I don’t believe you dead. How can you be dead if I still feel you? Maybe, like God, you changed into something different that I’ll have to speak to in a different way, but you not dead to me Nettie. And never will be. Sometime when I get tired of talking to myself I talk to you.
My tears began to soak the page then and I had to place the book aside.
In another passage, I heard your voice again, this time transmitted through Shug Avery:
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, and a big rock.
Well, I don’t have the power to corral all of the world’s resources nor the wherewithal to proportion the parts into nuclear warheads. But I do have a pen, and it’s going to keep on conjuring.
I’ve attached the essay about writing your obituary published in the Killens Review of Arts & Letters so that you’ll have your own copy.