Here’s my one-minute memoir which appears at 28:44.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is so adored because it captures the veiled, nearly imperceptible smile of its subject—the wife of a wealthy, silk merchant who lived in sixteenth century Florence. When I saw it at the Louvre two summers ago, I didn’t think much of it. Granted, I pivoted along the velvet ropes that separated the crowds from the masterpiece and took selfies, jockeying for position with everyone else, but after ten minutes, I carried on. And today, when I think of my time in Paris, rare is the moment when I find myself reflecting on this famous Florentine.
Yet at the funeral, when someone handed me a program, I saw “Mona Lisa” anew, this time as my late great-grandmother. On its cover, captured on what I suspect must have been Women’s Day, she is seated in all white, her torso slightly turned away from the camera. A white flower is pinned to her lace sheath and a string of pearls is draped around her neck. Her face was much fuller then and bore the regal air of a woman who had been made a grandmother many times over. What struck me most about it is her sly, suggestive expression, one that revealed the restraint of a secret, or an off-color joke, or an unsolicited critique that made us cringe. It was perfect, a masterful reflection of the whole of her complexities. At once surly and silly, reserved and open, she was truly a joy to be around except when she wasn’t.
The image brought me back to the time we shared this past summer when she revealed herself to me through story after another. There was the one of her grandmother, a Cherokee Indian who would lecture about those common girls who passed the time on porches while she puffed on a pipe. There was the time that she stormed off her job because her boss, a Jewish doctor, made the mistake of asking her to spray their office building with a hose, and she “read” him as she liked to say. “Didn’t that man come in here and ask you the other day if you wanted that done, but you got the nerve to ask me?! Not me honey!”
And then she got to talking about race, which wasn’t surprising. “I don’t care if they are a white baby in the cradle. I hate ‘em,” chuckling, with no regard for shame. “Pastor Brandon used to always tell me that hatred would destroy me…” and she swallowed her words into a shrug that seemed to say, Well, I’m still here.
And she was, as forceful and as lively as she had ever been. Her smile was open and unrestrained. Her words, declarations, fixed and rooted in truth. “You got to hold your head up to any white man. Don’t be afraid. Stand flatfooted and tell any of ‘em that need to be told,” and then she paused for emphasis. “I might be afraid of a bear or snake maybe, but a human being, not me.” So satisfied was she with the absolute certainty of her words, her smile unrelenting.
I had heard parts of these stories many times before, but it’s likely that I felt them differently because of why I was in New Orleans. I had returned home to see the monuments and the remains of those that had been removed. You wouldn’t believe how mad those white people were when we took down their heroes, their Confederate granddaddies and segrationist kin. I hadn’t seen them fall firsthand but I came home as fast as I could to bask in the victory. And maybe because I already was hunting history, visiting each site around the city, looking for portals to the past, my senses were primed when we spoke.
As she went on, it didn’t take long to see how the stories overlapped. The monuments were erected to intimidate her specifically, for she had lived during the time when they rose, and I began to see her legacy, our legacy, the injuries we’ve all felt via the hands of white supremacy more vividly.
Often, I was repulsed by her stance on white folk, how she would randomly scream “cracker” at the television, but this time it seemed that I was hearing something I had missed, and listening for it intently, hanging on her every word, had me captivated. The ease with which she recalled the minute details of her story became a performance, the exact years and locations and descriptions of the people from her past just sitting there on her tongue. It was incredible.
Eventually, she came to story of her grandfather, one that I’m sure you’ve heard. He had set out from Natchez on his way to visit family in a neighboring city, but like many black men of his time, he disappeared until they found his battered body on the side of the road, discarded like trash.
“Can you believe it? For five dollars? That’s all he had, and to think, I never got to know the man!” When she said this her face tightened and froze for a beat before it receded to a faraway expression. For the first time, after all these years, I finally saw the contours of her sadness. Never had she revealed herself to me so vulnerably.
When I returned home to Brooklyn, my emotions were difficult to harness. She had bared her soul to me and I struggled to reconcile the newness of her image. You and I were closer than anyone in our family, and I had stored all of what we shared in my heart until it was full, leaving little space for anyone else. But when you passed, I had to let you go and make room for the living. I did what what I thought we must when those closet to us die. I forged new bonds and strengthened those already there in order to make myself whole again. When we had grieved you enough and emerged from our depressions, we looked to each other and found reasons to be happy. But I never looked to her, and this failure was a heavy burden to bear. It saddened me more than I expected. For so long, I had overlooked her.
The truth is we had probably overlooked each other. By the time I entered the world, she had already compiled scores of grandkids and children and friends, so many that I maintained a lowly position within the hierarchy of her affection, a position that suited me just fine.
But I wasn’t fine after we spoke, and one night, as I relayed my feelings to my wife, I was overcome by a violent bout of tears. Not since you passed had I cried so hard. She was still alive then, but I was crying as if she wasn’t. I had waited so long to see her, to really see her and understand what she meant to us all, and the time wasted left me ashamed.
I cried because I was anxious about the little time we had left. Of course, I had no idea when it would happen but I knew that her death would visit us sooner than later. After ninety-seven years, she had entered into realm of lived life that most of us never see, that you never saw.
I cried because I was proud. The reason I loved you so had so much to do with her. And while this seems obvious, that mothers exert incredible influence in the equation of who their daughters become, I never reconciled the difference between your warmth and her hardness. How could your personality stem from hers? The inner workings of our characters are more complex, I know now. She was only harsh to me and her other grandchildren because that’s the way her grandmother had been and mostly likely the way hers had been before her. That’s the way she coped with so much trauma, the way she ensured that we would survive.
I cried because I couldn’t stop the flood of regret from washing over me. I wanted to know so much more, to hear all of her stories, to document the defiance and resolve that she embodied to make a way for herself in spite of all of the forces of prejudice that would have rather seen her defeated. I count two lives that she lost to hate. The other, as you know, was her sister’s who died after being denied medical care, but there were certainly others. I get it now.
If being a black woman is the most revolutionary act there is when all the forces around you seek your physical and psychic demise, how she survived raises her in the ranks of all the women who’ve ever lived.
I cried because I felt the significance of your decision to name my mother Nancy after your own, for she had named you after her mother, and I felt the inextinguishable character of our lineage, where she sat at the head of her progeny as “Mama Nancy.” In other traditions, when men attain acclaim, they are titled Sir or Lord or Baron or Chief or Baba, but for black women, Mama is the highest there is. While Auntie conveys similar degrees of respect, Mama goes further and evokes the wisdom and omnipotence of a prime mover, a goddess who walks the earth ready to smite anyone and anything that threatens her offspring.
I cried because in your words, which still echo in my ears, I hear hers, and because your language has become my own, I hear her words speaking through me. It’s clear to me now that the source of my obsessions about race and our standing in the world spring from her.
After I had expelled all of my tears and bathed in my emotions, I committed to doing better, to probing her story further. I had even purchased a DNA test to determine if her grandmother was actually native. Sadly, the test revealed no evidence to support her assertion, but I still believe her. Many of us do. Passed on through generations as myth to disavow the systematic rape of our mothers by white men, we align ourselves with native ancestry to rewrite history.
But then she died, and I never got to ask her how she felt about the results. Fortunately, Pastor Square did get a chance to interview her a month before she passed to document the life of the church’s oldest living member. I haven’t heard it yet, but when I do, I’ll be certain to share and keep writing her story, for it has taken me too long to realize that it too, is mine.
March 14, 2017
Today has been a slushy one here in New York as we braced for a blizzard that never was. But thankfully schools were closed which gave me ample time to reflect. During this solitary day, I returned to my thoughts about our relationship, part of which I shared with my students last night. Before I asked them to write a letter to a family member or someone close to them, I shared the story of the letters we had exchanged over the years and how each had made me feel. I confessed to them that I planned to write you a letter today on what would have been your birthday, that it was annual tradition that I have come to embrace. So here I am.
There is so much to say, so much I want to share, but I’ll start with a passage that my students and I discussed last night. In it, the author, a philosophy professor, describes the challenges he faced with teaching a seminar on death, and quite naturally, your image emerged during the discussion. I had planned the syllabus in advance, of course, but in doing so, I hadn’t noticed that the reading would coincide with my annual meditation. Like most things, however, I considered it fortuitous.
In one of the more moving passages, the professor expounded on the fear the seems to grip us when we face death. Then he countered this fear with something I hadn’t considered: “We have nothing to fear in death because we need to exit our lives gracefully to leave room for the generations that follow us.” This statement served to assuage some of my sorrows, for you were keenly aware of our gifts and actively sought to nurture our talents. You lived so selflessly that I wonder if you chose to bow out in your sleep if only to offer a final example of your grace and encourage us not to mourn too severely. (more…)
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? (more…)
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he calls upon Jew and Gentile alike to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord. He challenges them further to embrace the teachings of the gospels and to disavow a strict adherence to the old laws proscribed by Moses and the Old Testament prophets. His tone does not chastise from the high-minded perch of the pulpit. Instead, he shows them his own human failings so that they understand his message as universal, one intended for all men. He too, is impaled by the sins of the flesh, and only through God’s forgiveness does he gain salvation. He writes, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
As I reflect on the year that has passed since your death, I find myself in Rome reading Paul’s words and remembering you. It has been a trying year. A friend was buried yesterday, and the black body has continued to be marred by death and destruction. In your time, you witnessed your fair share of the white man’s wrath, and his racist predilections haven’t abated. Just days before your death, you saw Michael Brown lying prostrate in the street for hours after he was struck down by an unrepentant cop. And the slaughter has continued. Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old, was slain for playing with a toy gun in a playground. There was no warning, only shots. Eric Garner was strangled to death on a busy Staten Island street corner. Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer as he ran through an open field, treated like one of those target practice silhouettes. Freddie Gray had his back broken for running away from the police. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after refusing to extinguish a cigarette. Samuel Dubose was shot in the face during an unwarranted traffic stop. Nine parishioners were killed in an AME church, including Clementa Pickney, an elected official and man of unquestioned faith and considerable promise. Kalif Browder’s death shook me the most. He was a young man who was wrongfully jailed for three years and who upon release was showered with attention from celebrities and concerned citizens in the hope that he would be able rise above his trauma, but he killed himself because the pain was too much. He could have been one of my students, anyone of the young men and women who are ensnared in criminal justice system. This year confirmed that death is all around us. (more…)
I met you in an auditorium at Columbia University after witnessing Kiese Laymon and Philip Lopate debate the genius of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. A line had formed of friends and others like me who wanted to wish Kiese well and express our gratitude, and when my time came, Kiese and I began discussing a question that I had posed during the talk. Then you walked up and Kiese asked, “You know Brook?” in a way that meant that I needed to know you. We exchanged numbers and you told me about the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony, the colony you curated. Whenever I texted you after that initial meeting, you responded, and a month later I had submitted my manuscript and been accepted as a writer-in-residence.
In the two weeks we communed in Warren, Rhode Island, in a home with six other creatives, a few blocks away from your brother’s home, you shared your life story with me, with us. You and your brother John had been inspired to create a space for writers of color by your late father’s passion for the arts. Your father had been a visual artist and art teacher who had always encouraged you to create. I also came to know your mother who was there to spend evenings with us over dinner and drinks during that first week. In short time, it became clear that your kind, selfless personality sprang from her.
After dinner one evening, we agreed to share how we became writers, and you offered the story how you began writing for Rolling Out. You had secured an interview with the publisher under the pretense that you were a writer. At that time you hadn’t been published and had no idea what the publisher desired, but you were confident and unflappable and brought with you the first short story you had ever composed, one that you had written in preparation for the interview. The publisher was impressed, but he needed it to be shorter. And over a series of weeks, you began submitting story after another, until the publisher was convinced that your writing could sell magazines. Your persistence led to countless articles and columns you would write about music, art, and culture. Eventually it led you to New York, where you would network and meet scores of writers, photographers, playwrights, and other artists to form a community. (more…)