Spencer and the Technicolor Afro

February filled every classroom and hallway at Norman Avenue Elementary School with red, black, and green.  As the month’s end approached, the colors blossomed in the school auditorium in preparation of the annual Black History Month Dance.  Parent volunteers filled red, black, and green balloons with helium and tied similarly colored streamers to their tails.  A few adults grumbled as some balloons escaped their handlers and floated high up to the vaulted ceiling, where they danced The Bump in the breezes supplied by open doors and the half-working ventilation system.  The more obedient balloons remained firmly in hand to be guided to their final decorative destination.

After a month of programs, essays, and speeches by distinguished visitors, the students looked forward to strutting their stuff at the dance, drinking punch, and eating cake and cookies.  The schoolyard reflected anticipation with the usual gender cliques huddled in discreet corners far apart from each other, each hatching plots.  The girls discussed dress colors and hairstyles and which boy was cutest.  The boys one upped each other by showing off their dance prowess and smooth talking skills.

Spencer fretted.  He observed the cliques from his 5th grade teacher’s second floor classroom, a momentary distraction as he awaited his doom.  The girls sashayed and the boys moved in struts.  Circles and sticks.  Spencer felt at home in neither camp.

Doom arrived by escort.  Vice Principal Kennedy opened the door for Anthony, who slinked into the room at a snail’s pace.  A grimace lurked under his curly hair.  Mrs. Kennedy watched as he sat next to Spencer.  She stood by the door, arms folded.  Spencer felt heartened.  Mrs. Kennedy had a strong presence.  If she stayed, then he knew nothing bad would happen.

“He scares me, Momma!”

“Leadership is a necessary attribute, Spencer,” his mother replied.

Each student had to write at least one essay about an important African-American in order to attend the dance.  The best essays received top billing in the Administration Building’s big display.  Spencer wrote three, and all were included in the display.  His subjects were Carter Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Mary McLeon Bethune, after whom the local library was named.   Spencer’s “reward” was to help Anthony with his essay.

“So who do you want to write about?” Spencer asked tentatively.

“I don’t know.”


“I believe Mrs. Hamilton assigned you to write about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Anthony,” Mrs. Kennedy’s Wagnerian voice boomed.

“Everybody wrote about him,” he complained.

“Well, if you cannot chose your own subject, then you must write about Dr. King.”

Spencer tried to get Anthony focussed by laying out the who/when/what questions Mrs. Hamilton gave to jumpstart the essay.  Then a commotion from outside distracted them.  Mrs. Kennedy walked towards the window and saw the usual pattern below on the basketball court, a growing maelstrom of bodies circling two engaged in mortal combat.  She rushed out of the room.  “Continue working on the essay,” she boomed as the door closed behind her.

Now Spencer was nervous again.  It wasn’t that Anthony had ever done anything to him, but he had a rough reputation.  His face, though as young as Spencer’s, looked hardened, chiseled like the bad guy from a B-movie.  In third grade Anthony once gave Spencer the mean look and everyone thought that he was going to beat him up after school.  But nothing happened.

They looked out the window.  The fight had migrated away from the basketball court towards baseball diamond.  Mrs. Kennedy rushed to join a couple of teachers who were trying to break it up.  The plexiglass window muffled her booming voice.

“Wonder what started it,” Spencer said.

“Probably Blake, showing off.  He’s a punk,” Anthony said.  “He always thinks he’s something.”

“He does?” Spencer muttered.  He figured that his standing as the “teacher’s pet” probably condemned him to punk status, too, and probably Blake’s fate, eventually.

“You ain’t no punk,” Anthony said after a while.

“I’m not?” Spencer said, startled.

“You mind your own business.”

Spencer felt a little less on edge.  He turned back to the table.  “We should probably get back to the paper,” he said.

“Write it for me.”


“You heard me.  Write it for me.”

“I can’t do that,” he said, fearing the consequence of disobedience, either from Anthony if he didn’t or from the teacher if he did.  “Dr. King is easy.  Everybody knows about him.”

“I don’t want to write about Dr. King.”


“‘Cause I don’t,” he said.  “Who wants to go to the dumb dance, anyway.”  He stared out the window.  “Looks like Mrs. Crooked-Titty stopped the fight.”  He glared at Spencer.  “Why you look like that?  You know that’s how she look.”

Spencer’s face loosened, revealing a smirk.  He didn’t suppress giggles well.

“See, they are crooked, aren’t they?” Anthony said.

They shared a smirking giggle.  Mrs. Kennedy took both boys to the Administration Building.  Mr. Hall got the boys to start playing basketball again.  Spencer thought about the one time he made a three point basket.  Thank God he had a witness otherwise no one would have believed it.

“Write about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” he said suddenly.

“How do you know about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?”

“Everybody knows about him.  My brother really likes him.”

“For real?  Your brother play basketball?”

“A little.”

“So, what do I say about him?”

“Just say who he is and why he’s important.  How tall is he?”

“Seven feet, two inches.”

“OK,” Spencer said.  “Write that down.”

They continued with the stats.  Anthony could rattle them off without blinking.  He wrote slowly and in big letters.

“How come you don’t want to go to the dance?” Spencer asked.

“I just said that.  I don’t know.”

“I don’t like going, either.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t dance.”

Anthony sucked his teeth.  “Everybody can dance.  You don’t have to think to dance.  You just do it.”

“I don’t know how.”

Anthony looked at him and couldn’t believe it.  The smartest kid in school, and he couldn’t dance.  “Maybe you think too much,” he said.

“Maybe,” Spencer said.

“Come to my house after school.  I’ll show you how to dance.”


“Yeah, really.  But help me finish this paper.  What else I gotta write?”


Anthony lived at the end of 47th Street that Spencer’s mother told him to avoid while walking home from school.  Bad actors lived there, she said.  He didn’t know why he agreed to meet Anthony at his house, still wondering if he was gonna beat him up like he promised two years ago.  But he told his mother that he was going to help him with his essay.  Not a total lie, but not the full story, either.  She was proud that he overcame his fears to help a fellow student.

They met in the garage in the back.  Anthony said his mother was inside sleeping.  “She sleeps a lot,” he said.

The garage had all sorts of stuff in it, but in the middle was enough space for them to dance in.  Anthony put on the radio.

“93 KHJ!”

The Jackson Five came on.  Anthony’s body went loose.  He spun around on the ball of one foot.  He shuffled and slid.  His hands waved in front, then on the sides, then over his head, and he spun around again.  He saw Spencer staring at him, motionless.  He put his hand on his hips and cocked his head.

“No girl’s gonna wanna dance with you looking like that.  Come on.  Stand next to me.”

Anthony did a step with one foot to the side.  Spencer copied him.

“Good.  Now do this.”  Anthony moved his hand in and out.  “Be like the folks on Soul Train.  You ever watch Soul Train?”


Feet shuffled against the floor, moonwalking.  Bodies moved robotically, locking.  Hands shuffled against pants legs rhythmically.  They did the whole dance line in an hour, until they both got tired.

“See, I knew you could do it.  Everyone can dance.”

“I didn’t think I could. I don’t know.  I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right.”

“You’re fine.  You’re good.  You just have to do it, and don’t think it.”

“I don’t have an Afro,” Spencer said.


“All the boys have Afros.  I don’t have one.  My hair doesn’t grow like that.  It stays short or it’s uneven.  I don’t look like the other boys.  I don’t feel like them, either.  That’s why I don’t want to go to the dance.”

Anthony looked at him for a moment, taking in what he just said.

“Just a minute.”

He got up and went into the house.  Spencer sat alone in the garage, listening to the music.  He didn’t even know the names of the songs or who sang them, though he could hum the music note for note.  He felt so different, like he didn’t belong.  Anthony came back with a wig, an Afro in multiple colors.

“Put this on.”

“A technicolor Afro? It’s funny looking.”

“You sure know a lot of big words.  It’s just a clown Afro.  Put it on!  You can be the Dancing Clown.  Put on these glasses.”  He gave him some dark sunglasses.  “See?  You look cool.”

“I do?”

“Yeah.  Just pretend like you’re someone else.  Then you can dance.”

Spencer felt a bit silly at first.  But then he really got into it.  TSOP, Soul Train’s theme, came on and he began to groove with it.  Anthony began to laugh.

“See?” he said.

“Boogie Bozo!” Spencer said, spinning on his heels.

“You ready, Cuz!”


The same cliques that filled the schoolyard now inhabited the auditorium.  Girls on one side, boys on the other.  A few dared to commingle, eating their cake and ice cream in close proximity.  They were the first on their feet when a slow piece came on.

And they call this puppy looooove

Spencer sat in a corner next to a group of boys making fun of the slow dancing.  Like them, he wasn’t ready for that, so he felt comfortable with them.  But otherwise he was a bundle of nerves.  He wore some nice gray pants and a white, long-sleeved shirt.  But in a bag in his locker hid his secret identity.  As the slow pieces dragged on, he slipped out the back of the auditorium, unnoticed.  He went to his locker.  Fumbling fingers could barely remember the combination.  After a few tries, he got it opened.  Then Anthony appeared.

“Where’s the wig?”

“Right here.  I was gonna put it on.”

“Well hurry up.  They’re about to do the line dance, like on Soul Train.”

“I don’t know.  All those people watching?”

“Pretend like they paid money to see you.  You have to give them a show.  Give them their money’s worth, right?  Go on!”

“OK.  I’ll be inside in a minute.”

“You better.”

Somehow, the warning tone in Anthony’s voice didn’t bother Spencer.  In fact, it sort of jelled him to go through with it.  He put on a grey jacket that went with the pants and buttoned it up.  Then he slipped the wig inside the jacket, making him look fat, and he put the sunglasses in his back pocket.  He closed his locker and went back to the auditorium.

Just as he reached the door, the kids were lining up on the dance floor to begin.  TSOP began.  Spencer donned his technicolor Afro and whipped out his sunglasses.  He then sashayed down the stairs, twisting his little hips and snapping his fingers.  By the time he reached the dance floor, everyone was looking at the kid in the clown wig.  His moves were wild, erratic, but he didn’t stop.  His feet slid here, his shoes shuffled there.  His arms did waves with fingers locked, and stretched out on either side.  Then he spun around on his heels, and the everyone went wild.

“GO GO GO GO GO GO!” they chanted.

Anthony laughed and clapped.  He didn’t think Spencer would do it.  But he did, and Anthony was impressed.

Mrs. Kennedy liked it, too.  She clapped along with everyone else.  But Mrs. Waggoner, Spencer’s old first grade teacher had had enough.  She marched her squat body to the floor and grabbed Spencer by the outstretched arm.

“Come on!  That’s no way to look for Black History Month!  You look like a clown!”  She marched him off the dance floor, to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.

She took him to a corner and bawled him out.  “This is a disgrace, Spencer!  Look at you!  Who told you to dress like that?”  She told him to stand in the corner, snatching off the wig and the glasses.  He stood there, while everyone else danced behind him, squeezing his eyes shut as tears formed in them.  He didn’t want anyone else to see him cry.  “I was having fun!” he muttered through his choked up throat.

Eventually, Mrs. Kennedy walked over and patted him on the shoulder.

“I talked to Mrs. Waggoner,” she said, “I told her that it’s alright.  Everyone should get to cut loose once in a while.  But let’s leave the wig and glasses for another time, alright Spencer?”

He nodded.

“Go on now and have a good time.  I’ll give you your things after the dance.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Kennedy.”

Spencer shuffled back to the dance floor, relieved that he no longer had to stand in the corner.  He gave Mrs. Waggoner a look, which she returned in kind. He still felt like he got the last laugh, having been freed from the corner.  He walked to the punch bowl where Mrs. Rubinstein gave him a glass.

“Nice moves, Spence,” she said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Rubinstein,” he said, smiling.  He liked Mrs. Rubinstein.

He went to a table and watched the others boogie away.  Eventually Anthony joined him.

“Want some cake?”  Anthony cut his piece in half and gave part to Spencer.

“Thanks.”  He took a bite.  “I did it.”

“Yeah, you sure did.  Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Really?  I got in trouble for it.”

“That’s why they’re talking about it.  You should hear them.  ‘Ooo!  Spencer never gets in trouble!’  You got creds now, Cuz.”

“I do?”


Spencer smiled and took another bite of cake, a big hunking bite, and savored its flavor as he leaned back against the table with his legs stretched in front of him, as Anthony sat at his side.  For the first time in his life, he felt macho.

Ask the Question – Question Bridge, An exploration of black males

While bounding down the corridor carrying a US mail container, I’m stopped by someone who asked me if I was picking up the mail.  I explained pleasantly that no, I wasn’t.  The person grew indignant and insisted that I do pick up the mail, and that she saw me do so the day before.  I didn’t bother explaining that I worked in a different unit and that the mail guy is the other African American man on staff.  I just walked on.

Generally speaking, there are not many instances in my day-to-day life where I’m reminded that I’m someone else’s “other,” a featureless being with no identity or a feared mongrel possessing an identity foreign to my own.  There are others who fight these battles on a regular basis more than I do.  But events of the world and a curiosity for things often force me to reflect on my station. Identity is a serial number branded on the soul.  As such, it will dictate the terms of one’s life, whether one wishes or is able to acknowledge that fact or not.

Question Bridge – Black Males, currently on exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, presents the viewer with five video monitors mounted on five evenly spaced, black columns arranged in a semicircle in a darkened space.  On the screens are various African American men from all walks of life holding a conversation.  One man asks a question and others respond, one by one.  The men are not filmed together, but are linked by the topic discussed at any given time.  One question that came up was, what is common to all of us that we can say makes us who we are?  Most reflected on how their identity causes others to treat or perceive them in a negative light.

Perception from others, mostly white folks, formed a common theme in many of the conversations, sometimes with humorous effect.  One brother asked if anyone else had a problem eating watermelon, chicken, or bananas in front of white people.  Most laughed.  Several brothers said that they didn’t like watermelon, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this distaste came from social programming rather than their taste buds.  Maybe.  But then again, though I’ll eat watermelon in front of anyone, I can recall times when I felt odd that food vendors offering samples always seemed to offer me chicken.  My indisposition did not stem from my vegetarianism.

I loved how this question used Chris Rock-like humor to discuss the very real issue of how others see us, and what steps we take, sometimes subconsciously, not to meet stereotypes that we perceive might hurt us. W.E.B. DuBois, in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folks, referred to a veil of invisibility that separates the black world from the white.  It prevents those outside the veil, white folks, from seeing the true nature of those living within the veil’s confines.  And it is confining, a prison, preventing us from seeing our own true selves.

Some brothers spoke from prison.  The most powerful that I saw during my time at the exhibit talked about how crack was nothing but evil, that with it he ruined lives and ultimately it ruined his life.  Crack, he insisted in increasing decibels, his image flashing from screen to screen, is definitely not cool, in response to the question, what’s so cool about crack?

The questions and conversations run the gamut.  House nigger or field nigger?  Why use the N-word?  Do you feel free?  Much to my delight, questions did not shy away from the gay.  One man asked if any of the straight brothers in the conversation felt threatened by their gay brothers.  One brother, neatly dressed in pinstripes, said no, but that he was tired of gay men trying to “convert” him.

Question Bridge acquires its power from allowing its subject, the black male, to explore himself.  In this setting, those of us watching the conversations get caught up in them.  We begin to supply our own answers and explore ourselves, a phenomenon not limited to black males.  Others watching the screens with me at the time, some female, some white, some Asian, some Latino, were as rapt as I was.

In answer to the question about commonality among black men, one man answered simply that we are common because we are all black and we are all male.  At the time, I identified strongest to his answer.  On one level, I felt that it appealed to my sense of universality.  But I’ve since come to recognize that the answer, like a poem, has many layers, many of which my mind continues to explore even now.  None of the questions had wrong answers.

Do yourself a favor.  Become a part of this conversation, regardless of who you are.  Visit this exhibit if you get the chance.  It is the scissors that cuts the veil to ribbons so that those outside can see in and those trapped inside can see ourselves better.

To the Great State of Washington, With Love

Dear Washington,

Congratulations!  After much civil, heart felt debate you have swiftly adopted marriage equality for your citizens.  This is a wonderful moment, and you should be rightly proud.  You have now joined an elite club, though we both know that history is on our side and this club’s exclusivity will not last.  In time, “marriage equality,” the very term, will be viewed as a quaint anachronism, sort of like the buggy whip or 8-track tapes.  Why?  Well, because the thought of lesbians or gay men getting married will be as shocking as grass growing or trees bending in the wind.  In other words, it will simply be part of the landscape in the United States.  No drama, no outrage, no indignation.  That day will come, Washington, and your actions help to bring it that much closer.  Bravo.

Of course, until the day comes when we can banish the idea of unequal under the law once and for all, we both know that you are vulnerable.  I applaud your legislature for having the moral courage to pass marriage equality for a governor who is very willing to sign the bill into law.  However, there will be those who will openly scorn and oppose you.  Believe me, I know.  So as your neighbor down south, as a fellow traveler who has been there and done that, please allow me to give you a few words of friendly advice.

Those opposed to equality have already announced their intentions to challenge this historic decision in the polls.  They will collect signatures, however many it takes, to get it done.  Take my advice.  Don’t assume that they will not be able to get it on the ballot.  They will.  Just be prepared.  Start planning the campaign to repel their efforts now.  Do not wait until the petitions are filed and certified.  Gear up.  Do no hesitate.

As for the fight itself, make it the mother of all fights.  Be fierce.  Be real.  Do not fight off their initiatives from the closet.  Trust me, Washington, it does not work.  Avoid ambiguous buzzwords divorced from the issue, words such as “fairness” or “equality for all.”  They sound nice and are nice, but devoid of context, they are as useless as the word “nice” itself.  And you know what Strunk and White said about the word “nice”:  “A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly.”  Be direct.  In your radio and TV ads, it’s OK to say “gay” and have your thespians say “lesbians.”  They are not dirty words.  Similarly, and most importantly, show the families directly affected by the marriage equality vote.  Show the straight brother who cries when he realizes that he can now have the double wedding with his gay baby bro that he always dreamt of having.  Show the lesbian couple whose children happily plan their parents’ big day.

Yes, Washington, show the children.  We both know that the opponents will pitch all that “it hurts children” and “they’ll teach it to them in the schools” business in their ads.  We both know it’s hateful hogwash, but if you don’t address the issue of children and how they are positively affected by marriage equality, if you remain silent, then you let them define the issue.  Big mistake.  Do not let them own this issue.  Show how equality bolsters healthy, happy families.  And show how the absence of equality can lead to bullying and hatred.  Make the case that equality leads to tolerance, which means less bullying, not more.  Equality means less hurt and less pain for everyone.

Marriage is about love.  And that is what needs to be shown.  Now, I know that the new equality law will not go into effect for 90 days after the governor signs it.  And that it may be further delayed should an initiative to overturn it qualify for the November ballot.  So, no, you probably will not have the opportunity to show people getting married the way we did (and didn’t).  However, I’m sure you can easily find lots and lots of happy couples planning to tie the knot.  Talk to them.  Show them.  Show their happy parents, who want nothing more than their children to be happy and in love.  Show their siblings who want the same.  Show their friends and coworkers, who promise to throw bridal showers and stag parties.  Show all the love and smiles and tears surrounding folks as they imagine a day they never thought they would see.  Show the love.  That should be your campaign:  Show the love.  Don’t be afraid of the love.  Embrace the love.  Love, love, love.  As someone once wisely said, it’s all you need.

Take care, Washington.  And congratulations again for your wonderful achievement.

With love,

The Great State of California

P.S.:  Be sure to show this, too, over and over.

Oakland is not the problem

I was trying to think of words to describe my feelings about last weekend’s Occupy Oakland demonstration, where protesters broke into City Hall and smashed things.  But I think Robert Gammon at the East Bay Express pretty much captured it all.  Check it.

Some commenters to Mr. Gammon’s piece are trying to argue that it takes a variety of tactics to make a movement, that it does not always have to be non-violent in the mold of Dr. King.  Then Malcolm X is predictably trotted out as an example of other protest models.  This of course is a gross simplification of both Dr. King and Malcolm X, one that is made quite often.

But beyond any of that, my problem with last week’s demonstration is the target:  the City of Oakland.  I’ve lived in Oakland much of my adult life.  Trust me, Oakland is not part of the 1%.  The walls of Oakland City Hall do not hide some secret cabal plotting out ways to screw folks left, right, and center.  It does not have a direct line to the Koch Brothers for guidance or money to fund its evil schemes.  City officials do not go on retreats at the Bohemian Club to hobnob naked in the forests with millionaires and billionaires.

For all its problems and flaws, and I do have my gripes with how some things are managed, the City of Oakland is not a major oppressor of the masses.  Quite the contrary, Oakland is a cash strapped town trying hard to meet the needs of its citizens by keeping the roads paved, the libraries and parks open, the streets clean, the lights lit, the fires put out, and the populace safe from crime.  It is a municipality with limited resources trying its best to get by.  Inflicting even modest damage to the city further complicates its mission because its limited funds are diverted towards repairing the damage.  And if services do get cut as a result, like libraries, senior centers, and youth centers, it will be the 99%, not the 1%, who will suffer most.

After the original crackdown on Occupy Oakland, where the Oakland Police engaged in what I called an obscene overreaction, a follow-up demonstration brought literally tens of thousands in the streets in one of the most effective and positive Occupy protests in the country.  Union workers at the Port of Oakland blessed and participated in a blockade of their work site.  Sympathy was on our side.  I would say that that demo did much to further the Occupy cause nationwide.

Last weekend’s protest?  Not so much.  What was the aim?  If, as Mr. Gammon writes, the aim was to provoke the police to misbehave, then yes, that goal was achieved, but to what end?  Police brutality towards demonstrators, rather than the core issues of movement itself, too often becomes the focus of demonstration movements.  I would hate to see Occupy’s Oakland chapter descend down this path, because, as last Saturday’s demonstration showed, it leads nowhere.  Noise is made.  People get hurt.  But the issues get lost.  And what’s the point of that?

Last Rites for Mr. Cuddles

Grease splattering, water boiling, pots and pans clanking, bodies moving and shuffling, and layered above it all were the voices of the too many chefs against a backdrop of old school blues moaning its heart out.

Crissy got annoyed.  She always got annoyed.

“Can’t we play something more upbeat than this?  When I’m cooking I need something to help me moooove through the kitchen!”

No one responded, including Ted who sat hunched over a table in the far corner, chopping things up.  His large kitchen never seemed smaller than when the whole damn bunch of them came over.  But his sister begged him, and he relented.

Crissy walked to him.

“Can I put something else on?”

“Yeah, put on whatever you like,” Ted said, not looking up.

She pranced to the stereo, wiggling past the two bodies at the stovetop and the three around the island and switched off the CD.  She hunted the radio dial until she found what she was looking for.

“That’s more like it.”

“You ready for your burner yet?” Jessie asked with a thud in her voice, hoping the drama was over, at least for now.

“I’m always ready.  I just needed something more upbeat in here.  Felt like a funeral parlor or something.”

Bodies stopped moving.  Pans stopped clanking.  Even the splattering grease and boiling water stilled for a moment.  Jessie glanced at Ted, who remained hunched over his chopping.  That’s Crissy, never knowing when to shut the hell up.  She felt the pause and avoided eye contact by staring at the food she was preparing.

LB stood in the doorway, a witness to the whole scene.  She wanted to smack Cousin Crissy.  Jessie noticed her daughter standing there.

“Lillibeth, where have you been?  No, don’t tell me, I know.”  Sweat running against tanned skin marked her defiance to the Thanksgiving gender roles, but it also marked her Guilty as Charged.  She meant to come in sooner to see about her uncle, but got carried away as usual.  Her face dragged along with her feet.  “Why were you out there playing basketball when you know I need you in here?  Wash up, please.  Then go over there and help your Uncle Ted with the chopping.”

LB went to the small restroom off the kitchen to splash water on his face.  Just as she opened the door to leave, little Saffron came up to her.  She showed LB her elbow.

“How’d you do that?” LB asked.

“I fell.”

She closed the door again and put the water back on, then took off Saffron’s dress and lifted her to the sink to clean the wound.

“You know you shouldn’t be playing like that in your nice clothes.  Your mother will get mad.”  She lowered Saffron and toweled her off.  “What were you playing, anyway?”

“Tag.  How come Uncle Ted gets to stay here?”

“Why wouldn’t he?  This is his house.”

“It is?  I thought it was the white man’s house?”

“You mean Carl?  That’s his name, you know.  Anyway, it’s both their houses.  Here, sit down.”  She sat her on the lowered toilet set cover to put a bandage on the scrape.

“So Uncle Ted doesn’t have to move?”

“No.  If you daddy died, would your momma have to move?”

Saffron didn’t say anything.  LB helped her put her dress back on.  She skipped out of the little restroom.  LB washed her hands again and re-entered the kitchen.  She saw Saffron over at the table with Uncle Ted.

“Where’s Mr. Cuddles?”

Ted looked up at her small, round, young face and thought how unblemished it was.  He could feel the newness of her skin without touching it.

“Oh, honey, Mr. Cuddles is gone.  He disappeared.  He just went away one day and didn’t come home.”  He paused and tried to smile.  “Sometimes cats do that.”

“Oh,” she said all wide-eyed.  Then she scampered away, out the patio door where the little kids had a field day in the backyard.

As LB took the chair opposite her uncle’s, their faces met for a brief moment.  His eyes were wet and beet red.  Ted quickly looked down at his chopping again.

“Damned onions,” he muttered.

“You want me to chop that?” LB said.

“No, honey.  You do the carrots, OK?”


After several sleeve wipes, the wetness vanished as did the lump in the throat, which he cleared it with a couple of small ah-hems.

“So, who did you beat outside?” he asked.

“Everybody,” LB said, shit-grinning.

“You know it ain’t fair.  Against you, they need to play two against one.”

“Their egos won’t let them.  Anyway, I’d still beat them.”

“You think you’ll get the scholarship?”

“I don’t know, we’ll see.”

“Don’t be like that, LB.  It’s yours.  Just attack it and take it.”

She smiled.

“Lillibeth, where have you been?” her mother called.

“I’m chopping!”

Jessie walked over to the table.

“That’s not what I asked.  I know what you should be doing.  Where were you?”

“Saffron fell and scraped her elbow,” she said.  “I washed it off and put a Band-Aid on it.”

“She fell?” Aunt Ursula called out.  “Fell where?  Where is she?  Is she outside playing?”  She went straight for the patio door, her voice trailing behind her.  “Saffron!  Saffron, don’t mess up that dress, now!”

Jessie’s face lightened.  “Alright.  Let me know when you’re done, OK?  I need all that for the stuffing.”

“OK, Momma.”

With a knife she felt awkward.  And the carrots, slipping and sliding on the cutting board, seemed to have minds of their own.  Finally LB’s brother Jerome popped in, still sweaty from his hoops game out front.  He snatched a soda from the ice chest in the breakfast nook and noticed his sister struggling.

“That ain’t how you chop it.  Here, you cut down the middle first, then a cross cut like that.  Then you start slicing it up, see?  That way it comes out in little pieces.”

“Why don’t you finish that up,” Ted said, “and let LB do the celery.  It’s easier.”

Jerome didn’t like being called into duty, a fact he tried to communicate with his angular body language.  LB passed the cutting board to him.

“Here,” she said.  “You ain’t doing nothing but losing outside, anyway.”

He sucked his teeth, but relented and cut the carrots while standing.  He made short work of it.

“You want me to do that last onion, Uncle Ted?” he asked.

“Thanks, Jerome.”

“What happened to the food processor?”  Jerome said.

“Cousin Crissy broke it,” LB said.

“Again?  Ain’t that like the third one?”

“That’s why I keep mine hidden,” Ted said.  “That one was Ursula’s.”

LB snickered, which caused Ted to do the same.  Jerome let go of his macho enough to sweeten his smirk into the soft smile he tried hard to conceal.  But he didn’t stay long.  He finished with the onion then swaggered into the living room where the men watched the games on the big screen.


The cowbell rang several times, in the front, the back, and the middle, until bodies finally moved into the dining room.  The little kids had a table to themselves, as did the jaded teens.  This year, LB joined the adults around the big table.  She sat next to Uncle Ted.

Folks wondered if they would hold the family Thanksgiving at Ted’s again, as they had for so many years, largely because of this moment.  Before the prayers were spoken and the food divvied up and passed around, everyone was invited to share a brief remembrance of a loved one who passed on during the year.

JB and Jerome’s parents fought over how to deal with it.


“Look, Jay, it’s his house!” Jessie said.  “If he wants to remember Carl, then that’s his right.”

“In front of the kids?  Are you crazy?  What is he going to say, I lost my sex partner?”

“That’s cruel, Jay.  And you know he and Carl never flaunted themselves in front of the family!”

“Well, I don’t want him to start now!” he said, folding his arms.

“And I don’t want him to be alone, Jay!  He is my brother!  He needs his family around him.  And anyway, he’s opened his home to us every Thanksgiving for over seven years, ever since the folks passed.  This is not the time to abandon him!”

“I’m still not comfortable with it, Jessie.  Not at all.”


“Would it help, Jay, if we skip the remembrance?  If we just don’t do it, would that help, Jay?  Would it?”

He kept his arms fold and his face drawn tight.

JB and Jerome heard the whole loud discussion downstairs in the kitchen.  She nearly snapped a plate she was drying in half, while Jerome’s movements slowed.  A part of him faded away, like a ghost.

“That’s just wrong,” she spat.

Jerome nodded while putting away the pot roast he cooked to perfection.

Eventually, cancelation of the annual ritual became the accepted compromise among the adults.  No one had to say why.  No one had to explain.  No one had to go there, and no one did.


From her place at the table, JB stared at her brother as he sat at the teen table.  He pretended not to notice, making only furtive eye contact.

Deacon Tyler, her father’s older brother, rose his great girth to his feet, the usual signal that the prayer was imminent.  Folks stilled, ready to bow their heads.  Then from the little kids’ table up popped Saffron.  She clutched a sheet of paper containing words written in her own hand.

“I have someone to remember!” she cried.

Everyone turned their heads.  Deacon Tyler smiled at her.

“Who do you want to remember, Saffron?”

“I want to remember Mr. Cuddles!”

Some folks snickered.  The teens grew restless.  They thought the end of the ritual meant that the food would come sooner.

“And who is Mr. Cuddles, honey?”

“The cat,” LB muttered.

“He’s the cat that used to be here, but now he’s gone away.”

Awwws filled the room.  A few even came from the jaded teen table.  LB took her uncle’s hand.

“Well now, you go right ahead, Miss Saffron, and remember Mr. Cuddles.”

She cleared her little throat as officiously as she knew how, and read.

“Mr. Cuddles had brown fur and white fur.  Mr. Cuddles used to sit on my lap and I would pet him and he would purr because he liked to be pet.  When he purred it was like a big smile on his face, because cats can’t smile.  We always played hide and seek and when I found him, he would start rolling over and over until I started rubbing his belly.  Mr. Cuddles was a pretty cat and a fun cat.  I will miss Mr. Cuddles because he made me smile and he never scratched me or hurt me.  God bless Mr. Cuddles.”

Everyone clapped for her.  Saffron walked over to give her little speech to Uncle Ted.

“Thank you, honey, that was beautiful,” he said.

He stared at her young face, then took the paper from her.  She went back to the kiddie table.  Deacon Tyler stood once again.

“Family and friends, let us bow our heads now and give thanks.  Thanks for this beautiful, bountiful feast set before us.  Thanks that our Savior graced us with another year together.”

Ted couldn’t sit any longer.  He abruptly rose during Deacon Tyler’s prayer and hurried from the room.  Folks hear him go up the stairs in heavy steps.  Then a door slammed.  LB moved as if to follow him, but her father’s eyes sat her back down.  Deacon Tyler continued.


Carl used to rally the guys into the kitchen to do the clean up, leaving the living room to the ladies.  His voice rose above all the loud post game analyses and told them what went where.  They were an obedient troop.  Thanks, Carl.  Thanks, man.  Alright, then.

LB took his place.  That goes in the top cupboard.  That goes in the drawer.  No, the dishwasher is full, don’t force anything else in it.  The men obeyed her, but without the usual rowdiness.  Voices normally at a Spinal Tap 11 lingered at a 4 or a 5.

When it looked like the kitchen was nearly ready, Jay went to her daughter.  His hands fidgeted with a dish towel and he spoke in hushed tones.

“Look, LB, do you think you can hang out with your uncle tonight?  Make sure he’s OK?”

“If he wants me to,” she said.

“I think he does.  Your mother thinks so, too.  She went up to see him.  I think it would be good for him, alright?”


“Call me if you want a ride home, alright?”

“I will.”

She started to sweep the floor, when Jerome came up to her.

“Tell Uncle Ted I’m sorry about Carl, alright?  Can you tell him that?”

He almost looked like he had been chopping onions, though he kept it real for the sake of keeping it real.

“I’ll tell him.”

“You gonna stay the night?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll see what he says.”

“OK,” Jerome said, walking away.


Ted did not come down until all the cars had long since driven off.  He used the back stairs that went directly into the kitchen and saw LB sitting at the breakfast table, reading.

“You don’t have to stay, baby,” he said.  “But thank you.”

“Are you alright?”

“No.”  He went to the counter to make some coffee.  “I shouldn’t have left the family like that and not see everyone off.  That wasn’t right.”

“And it wasn’t right that they all tiptoed around here and pretended like nothing happened all day!”

He walked towards LB, who stood and gave him a hug.  He still clutched little Saffron’s eulogy.

“You know how the cat got its name, don’t you?” he said.

She nodded.

The Jazz Journey

In the numbing haze in which I found myself on that fateful day in June 1996 when Mom died, I managed to focus while packing for the trip to L.A. to join my family on that which was most important:  Music.  In those pre-MP3, pre-iPod days, I carted about a dozen or so CDs with me.  I can’t remember all the titles, but it was a fairly representative mix of stuff I grooved to at the time, including Al Green and Beethoven — we played part of the first movement to Beethoven’s Sixth at the service.  Up to that point in my life, the master composers of Europe were my main sherpas.  We were on a first name basis.  Ludwig.  Wolfie.  Felix.  Dear Antonin.  Johannes.  Camille.  Classical music became a mainstay in my life during and after college.  It provided comfort during the emotional turmoil of my coming out.  Mozart’s Requiem was a particular favorite during that time.

But coming out was a cakewalk compared to losing Mom.  I’ve since compared her passing to a 9.0 on the Richter scale and like seismic events of that magnitude, it had its share of equally strong aftershocks, each arriving as unannounced as the main event, each causing its own set of turmoil to an already unsettled existence.  After the 1994 Northridge quake, Mom said it felt like the house just kept shaking, slightly, with strong jolts occurring every now and then.  But there were always vibrations, movement.  Things did not settle down for a long time.

So it was when she passed.  And one of the major manifestations that I noticed by the end of 1996 was that the music which had become my mainstay, a molding, shaping force in my life, part of my daily existence, since I played it in the office all day, everyday, the classical music I shared with my mother no longer brought me joy or peace.  In fact, it had become part of the disquieting vibration that disrupted my world, for I linked it so very closely to Mom.  It was her music before it became mine.  She and my father shared a love for the Russian composers, as well as the usual suspects noted above.  She delighted when my classical vocabulary grew.  She even credited me with helping her to appreciate chamber music more, because I loved it so.

The price, though, of having this music so closely linked with Mom was that after she died, I found I could not listen to it without reliving her passing.  Vaughn Williams, Debussy, Hovhaness, and particularly Brahms were all highly problematic.  I stopped listening to the Bay Area’s classical radio stations and bought no more CDs from my friends.  We had to part for a bit.  But music is such a healing force and such an integral part of my being that I had to have something to listen to.

Enter jazz.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have jazz in the house while growing up.  Quite the contrary.  My parents, the young hep cats that they were in the 50s and 60s, had quite a collection of the latest and greatest by the time I was born in 1965.  We had all sorts of music in the house, including Indian classical (which of course I would eventually study and even attempt to play on sitar and tabla).  I remember the jazz, though.  The cover to Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life album stuck out in my mind.  For some reason, I was quite fascinated with the close-up of an ashtray when I was three or four.  Listening to this music after Mom died actually became a form of escapism.  Miles and Trane, Brubeck and Monk propelled my mind to a moment in time when both of my parents were alive, young, healthy, and happy together.  I listened to recapture a world I needed to cling to a bit longer.

In the process, of course, I was learning a new vocabulary.  At first, I did not know the artists or their music that well, just bits and pieces, snippets from early childhood memories.  I turned to KCSM, Jazz 91, pumping that into the office all day, every day.  By January 1997, I was so impressed with the station and grateful for the music that I became a subscriber during the winter pledge drive that month.  I asked for and received a “thank you” gift, a Duke Ellington compilation.

Ah, Duke Ellington.

Had I been paying attention many years earlier, I would have known I was a closet swing queen. My favorite scene from 1980’s Blues Brothers was Cab Calloway’s show stopping performance of his theme “Minnie the Moocher.”  I loved everything about it, including the all-white suites and mock 1930’s bandstand the musicians found themselves behind during the scene.  But no, it wasn’t time yet.  The world of swing and big band jazz had to wait in the wings before taking center stage.  Now I can see that this was all for the best.  I had secret reserve, a new musical direction to explore after Mom’s passing, one that I would not too closely associate with her.

I played that thank you gift a thousand times and eventually made it my life’s mission to find ever single album each track came from and purchase it.  The first was Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert album.  Johnny Hodges entered the house, and the love affair grew into an obsession.  I learned about Billy Strayhorn, my gay sistah.  Ah!  I hit a motherlode and mined it like a Horta.  Up to that point, Mozart took up the most shelf space in my CD collection.  Duke quickly surpassed Wolfie, with Johnny Hodges close behind.  All the while, listening to Jazz 91 opened up more new doors and discoveries and a new set of friends.  Billie Holiday.  Horace Silver.  Lee Morgan.  Gerry Mulligan.  Ella Fitzgerald.  Ahmad Jamal.  Marian McPartland.  Dave Holland.  So many more.  After a few years, I found myself returning to the land of the living.  The music, new to my ears and ripe for exploration, pulled me back from the brink.

This January I celebrate 15 years of membership to Jazz 91, jazz education and illumination, and the rebirth it brought.  The happy ending, besides all the “new” music, is that my old friends have reentered my life.  They all hang out peacefully together, the old and new friends, in my speakers and my soul.

The Pyongyang Boombox

(Ed.’s note:  This story is vaguely inspired by a dream.)

A motley group of Americans found themselves wandering around a rail yard in the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea.  They were captured and taken in for questioning.  They didn’t know how they got there, so the story goes, and they were anxious to get home.  It was an odd grouping:  an elderly couple, a black man and his sister, an aspiring dancer, and a kid just out of college looking for work.

It didn’t matter who they were.  In the eyes of the Democratic People’s Republic, they were all dupes sent to disrupt the flow of life in the Workers Paradise.  Yet none of them knew how they came to be in the rail yard in Pyongyang.

At first they were taken to a big white building with no windows.  All the halls and rooms were flooded with bright fluorescent lights which reflected blindingly against the white walls and floors.  All the guards wore sunglasses.  The prisoners wore none.

“When are you sending us back to America?” complained the old man.  “My wife needs her medicines.  Can you give us some medicines until you send us back?”

The guards never answered.

In the big white prison, they heard not a soul except for themselves as they occupied separate cells.  Nervous chatter.  Does the US even know where we are?  Will they send the Marines?  When the guards came, they stopped the nervous chatter.  Most guards did not talk to them, but they would grunt and point their finger at them when they wanted one of them to step back from the bars or to follow them.

Each one was taken one at a time for questioning.  It was the only time that they heard one of the North Koreans speak to them in English.  The Inquisitor, they came to call him,  asked them all the same questions:  name, place of birth, reason for being in the rail yard.

The black man got frustrated during his questioning and started to cry.  He said he heard that in North Korea, they shoot people that they didn’t like.  The Inquisitor did not respond.

The others also found that their questions to the Inquisitor went unanswered, except for the old man.   He asked about medicines for his wife again.  The Inquisitor said, in a perfunctory voice, that he would see what could be done.  Of course, he didn’t do anything, but his response gave the prisoners some hope when the old man related the story to them.  “He said he would try to get her some medicine,” he said over and over.

After a couple of days in the White Building, they moved the prisoners from place to place.  First, a barn, then a giant building that looked like a pyramid, then finally a low, two story building  with lots of windows which overlooked a rail yard.  They didn’t know if it was the same rail yard they had been found wandering in or not.  Rail yards tend to look the same to the uninitiated.

This place did not look like a prison or feel like a prison, most of the time.  At night, though, they could hear ghastly screams from downstairs which lasted most of the night.  None could sleep well under those conditions.

“They’re going to shoot us!  I just know it!” cried the black man.  His sister tried to console him.

In the new “prison,” they had the run of the second floor.  Each had their own room and they had a common room where they ate their meals.  A guard brought them food every day, though the offerings were often meager:  rice, some fish, or a broth.  At first the food bringing chore rotated among different guards, but eventually it was always the one.  He spoke a some English.  “Would you like some more rice?” he often asked.  He seemed very different from all the other guards they encountered.  He made an effort to speak to them, in his limited English, and he seemed to actually try to grant what requests he could.

“What about the medicines the man in the White Building promised my wife?” the old man asked him.  The guard said he would see.

The kid out of college seemed to be the closest to the new guard.  He even got his name out of him:  Kim Lu.  The college kid called him Luke by mistake, but Kim Lu didn’t seem to mind, so he kept calling him Luke.  Eventually they all did.

The kid’s fellow prisoners started to ask him to try and get favors out of Luke.  “He likes you!” the old man said.  “Try to get him to bring the medicines for my wife!”  “Tell him not to shoot us!” said the black man.

“I will not shoot anyone,” Luke said.  This greatly assured the black man, who stopped worrying about being shot in Pyongyang.

The dancer looked at the two of them, Luke and the college kid, askance.  “So that explains it,” she muttered.

“Who care!” said the black woman.  “Maybe he can help get us out of here.  I needed to get back to Brooklyn yesterday!”

In a week’s time, Luke became their only guard.  The other guards just concerned themselves with keeping everyone contained on the second floor.  The screaming continued from downstairs at night.  With the college kid’s encouragements, Luke was able to procure things for them out of the ordinary.  He started to bring them fruit.  Then he brought them little rice cakes to eat.  He tried to bring alcoholic drinks, but he said he could not find any.

Then one day, Luke brought in a boombox.  That lifted everyone’s spirits.  Even the dancer got out of her funk and showed them the latest moves from off-off-Broadway.  The elderly couple showed them the Charleston.  Luke loved the Charleston.  “Come on!  It’s not hard!” the old woman encouraged.  Luke tried it, and laughed at the results along with everyone else.  He was a natural at it.

After a while a slow number played.  The elderly couple slow danced and everyone else sort of chatted amiably.  Luke and the college kid sat off to themselves.  Luke asked a lot of questions about New York City, America, Hollywood, and cheeseburgers.  “Would you buy me cheeseburgers?” Luke asked.  “And the fries, too,” the kid answered.  Luke wasn’t sure what fries were, but figured it was a good thing.  Unnoticed or not, for it didn’t really matter which, their hands touched each other as they leaned against the table and watched the elderly couple dance to the slow music.

Late that night, Luke returned to the 2nd floor.  As he checked things in the common room, while everyone slept in their separate quarters, the college kid showed up.  He said he thought he smelled Luke’s presence.  Luke was amazed.  He said he was thinking about  the kid.

“If I can get you out of here and back to the US, would you take me with you and buy me cheeseburgers?”

“I’d buy you whatever you want.”

They kissed as the moon shined a spotlight on them through the window.

“But how can you get us back?”

“It’s a secret.  State secret.  But I know the secret now.  That is why I got the ‘boombox’,” Luke said, still stuttering over the unfamiliar word.  “Just get everyone in here at 8 tomorrow morning during breakfast.”

He made the kid promise to take him home with him and buy him cheeseburgers.  The kid promised then kissed him again before going back to bed.

The following morning, Luke returned to the common room at 8 a.m. sharp.  He dressed extra special in his best uniform.  There was also a duffle back with Korean script on it in the corner filled with other clothes.  The others sat waiting in the room, the elderly couple, the kid out of college, the brother and sister, and the dancer.  Luke told them to close their eyes and imagine themselves on an airplane.  A fast airplane.  A jet.  A big jet.  The biggest and loudest they could imagine.

Then they heard a loud roaring noise and the room vibrated.  Everyone thought that Luke put something on the boombox and just played along.  No one opened their eyes.  The roaring settled as did the vibrations.  By this point everyone had fallen asleep.  Luke rested his head on the kid’s shoulder.

After several hours of motionlessness, the elderly woman opened her eyes.  “I smell fresh bagels!” she cried.  They looked out the window.  It looked like Chelsea.

They went out into the corridor, which looked the same, and found no guards at the elevator or the top of the stairs.  They raced downstairs, except for the elderly couple who took the unguarded elevator.  They all went outside and it was a nice, spring day with the trees blooming and folks on the street.  They were in New York.  Luke looked in amazement.

“For years, I imagined this place.  I did not know if it really existed.  They never tell us anything in Pyongyang.  Dear Leader tells us that we live in paradise, but he never gives us cheeseburgers or good music or anything.  Just work and work and very little food.  I had no life there.  Now I have a chance of life.”

The elderly couple bought everyone bagels and orange juice.  The group reminisced about their bizarre trip to Pyongyang.  They did not reflect too heavily on how they got there or how they got back.  And then, one by one, they walked away.  First the elderly couple sauntered off, with the Charleston just a step away from their shuffling feet.  Then the black man and woman sprinted to the subway to catch a train for Brooklyn.  The aspiring dancer walked swiftly and disappeared in the flow of people.  Luke looked at the college kid.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“Upper West Side, near Columbia.”

“We go there now?”

“We?  Well, maybe for a little while, but you can’t live there.”

“But you said. . .”

“Look, it was great, really, just great.  You got us out of that hellhole.  But you know, I have my own life here.  Now that you’re in the US, you can get a life of your own, too.  Isn’t that great?  Here’s some money to get you started with.  Best of luck to you, now.  And thanks!”

Alone Luke stood on a street he had never seen with faces he did not know.  No music played on loudspeakers, like in Pyongyang.  But there was music.  No one stared at his bizarre outfit and he still had his duffle bag of clothing.  He called after the kid, but he was gone, just like that, in the crowd of folks walking in Chelsea with their bags and dogs and problems great and small.

Luke began to walk, wondering where he was and how he came to be there.  He wondered if he would be arrested or questioned or shot.  He wondered if he would wake up one day and find himself in Pyongyang again, guarding more prisoners.  Or if they would put him in prison, for fraternizing with the dupes.  Would they make him scream?

He passed by a place that sold cheeseburgers.  He wondered if the kid gave him enough money to buy one.  He went inside to see.  And he hoped they had fries, whatever they were.

Still Fighting After All These Years

From Digby via blue aardvark on Daily Kos:

Since 1986, the US has observed the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday of January, which typically falls within a few days of his actual birthday, January 15.  All 50 states first observed the holiday in 2000.  But in the good state of Arkansas, where Mark Martin is Secretary of State, they do a two for one, celebrating the birthdays of Dr. King  and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19.

How egalitarian!  A tittle for tattle!  A yin for yang!  A white for black!

My parents were hip Negroes with a wry sense of humor, or the absurd.  They married on January 19, 1951, hence they referred to their wedding anniversary as Robert E. Lee Day.  During the salad days of their marriage, I’m sure there were many locales south of the Mason-Dixon that celebrated the birthday of the Lee, a veteran in the “war between the states.”  Undoubtedly they had to read about it in the paper, see photos of parades, hear about the speeches, yada, yada.  An important day, indeed!  So why not name their wedding anniversary after Lee?  Why indeed.  But as I say, my parents, rest their souls, had a sense of the absurd.

Well, I’m a pretty hip Negro, too.  It says so on my birth certificate (the Negro part, anyway).  However, I don’t think I’m quite hip enough to understand the conflation between Dr. King and General Lee, at least in terms of equally celebrating their birthdays.  One worked tirelessly all of his shortened life to undo the harm caused by years of de facto slavery.  The other fought for “states’ rights” to maintain de jure slavery, even though Lee himself eventually felt that slavery was an evil and that its eradication was a good thing.  While Lee may well have experienced a conversion or may not have been that into slavery to begin with, the fact remains that when given the choice to fight for the Union or for Virginia as it seceded from the Union, he chose the latter.

The fact also remains that the main reason behind the Civil War continues to elude too many people.  Folks equivocate, vacillate, waver, or just plain ignore the issue.  Slavery remains the elephant in the room and year after year, a century and a half after the Civil War, this fact remains true.  Those who wish to redeem Robert E. Lee as a reformed person after the Civil War knowingly or unknowingly paper over the reasons for the war.  Thus, they see no problem or irony in celebrating Lee’s birthday in conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s.  But those of us who are paying attention see plenty of contradictions.

Pariah: Queer, no chaser

It’s depressing that queer storytelling is still regarded as something rare, unique, or extraordinary.  Even in an age where queer characters populate more films and TV shows, the voices from these characters are usually just a footnote rather then the main subject.  The film 54, from 1998, pops to mind.  Named after and set in New York’s legendary, disco era Studio 54, its story focusses not on the club’s flamboyant (though closeted) owner, Steve Rubell, or even on the club itself.  Instead, it focusses on the dreams and hopes of a fictitious cute straight boy, played by Ryan Phillipe, who works at the club.  Wasted opportunity doesn’t even begin to describe this movie.

Sadly, there are even queer folks who think that queer stories have been done to death, including stories about AIDS and coming out stories.  We can delude ourselves into thinking such things, until we remember that the boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-in-the-end storyline continues to thrive in endless variations and thus gets retold over and over.  Queer folks can tell their stories over and over, too, with equal variance and nuance.  There are many stories to be told.

Dee Rees, the writer and director of Pariah begins her story thus:  we are in Brooklyn in a dimly lit club filled with women, all eyes on the stage while a pole dancer does her thing.  The sound system blasts music with lyrics that focus unabashedly on the female anatomy.    There are no boys, cute, white, straight, or otherwise, to be found.  Instead, hidden in the back is the 17 year old protagonist, Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-ke), or Le for short, played by Adepero Oduye.  She is shy, very intelligent — she’s an aspiring poet and an A-student taking AP English — and has a very religious mother (Audrey, played by very effectively by Kim Wayans) who fears her tomboyish daughter might be too manly for her own good.  Despite her mother’s misgivings and harassment, Le is determined to explore her sexuality and hang with other lesbians, including her friend Laura, played by Pernell Walker, someone her mother particularly loathes.

I like the characters and relationships this movies offers.  They all ring true.  Laura has a tough, take-no-prisoners shell which masks various vulnerabilities.  Her most moving scene is when she passes her GEDs and goes home to tell her estranged mother, only to face rejection again.  Laura’s sensitivity to rejection leads to a strain in her relationship with Le, when the latter begins hanging with someone else.  But her love for Le means that she is willing to step back and give her space as well as be there for her when crisis strikes.

Le’s relationship with her father is the most interesting and satisfying in the film.  I had a friend in college who said that after she came out, she and her father used to cruise chicks together.  Le and her father Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, don’t engage in that activity, but I could see where it might be possible at some future point beyond the range of the film.  While religious dogma keeps Audrey from being able to love her daughter without preconditions, Arthur does not have this problem.  Though preoccupied with his own problems, including working multiple shifts as a police officer to keep his family in a comfortable setting, he places no conditions on his love for Le.  He has anxieties, mostly that his daughter lives a safe and happy life, but he does not allow his anxieties to keep him from expressing his love for Le.  They are able to communicate and their affection for each other means that they can also communicate without saying a word.

Le’s younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) also comes off as a real person.  The two bicker and snipe at each others, as siblings are often wont to do, but their affection for each other runs deeper.  As their parents fight downstairs (verbally, not physically, a welcomed relief), Sharonda goes into Le’s room where they comfort each other.  During this tender moment, Sharonda confides to Le that she’s OK with her.

This leaves Le’s relationship with her mother as being the most strained.  Wayans plays Audrey as someone who seems uncomfortable with everything around her, not just her dykish daughter.  Nothing ever seems good enough, though it is Le that receives the brunt of her displeasures.  She tries to remold her oldest daughter in her own image by buying her feminine clothing to wear and setting her up with appropriate girls to hang with.  Though in the end all of these efforts end in failure and further estrangement.  Le’s and Laura’s mothers parallel each other.  Both live isolated lives as a result of their rigidity.  Laura’s mother is seen hiding behind a door during her daughter’s visit.  Le’s mother tends to sit alone and apart from coworkers during lunch.  One wonders if her coworkers get as annoyed with her righteousness as Le does.

Isolation, rejection, finding oneself, friendship, and love without preconditions are all universally human themes.  One does not need to dress them up in a straight jacket in order to tell them effectively, something with Dee Rees demonstrates with her remarkable first film.  Pariah tells its story eloquently and unflinchingly.

Struggling Struggles in Shades of Black and Lavender

On Salon I found a wonderful coming out essay written by Jean Melasaine in which she recounts the multiple communities she has grown into during her life.  She was born to Samoan parents who immigrated to the US.  Her parents speak little English.  Her family was poor.  And they attended the Mormon church, where she quickly learned that her queerness, which she figured out at an early age, made her a bad person in the eyes of the church.  After going through a rough period, she ultimately came to accept her queerness openly, stating:

I knew when people made me feel bad for being brown, for being poor, for having parents who didn’t speak English, that life was going to be hard. Queerness was just another struggle.

I really like that last line:  “Queerness was just another struggle.”  Queerness should not be pitted against other identities.  Queerness, or more broadly one’s sexuality and gender identity, is simply part of the spectrum of one’s identity.

I contrast this way of thinking with Tara Pringle Jefferson’s essay on Loop 21 which asks in its title “Do African Americans Sympathize with the Gay Rights Movement?“.  The subtitle cuts to the chase:  “Some do, but feel it shouldn’t be compared to the Civil Rights Movement.”  Sadly, this is not an uncommon sentiment.  I should first say that I do not believe that Ms. Jefferson is coming from some homophobic place.  However, for me personally the very question is troubling, a divide and conquer of the soul.  By my way of thinking, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement is the radical idea that black folks are human beings.  Whereas the heart of the Gay Rights Movement is the radical idea that gay folks are human beings.  See the difference?  Good, neither do I.

The manifestations of and reasons for black oppression and gay oppression are different, but the outcome is the same:  dehumanization.  For different reasons, society at various points in history has labeled members of both groups unworthy of basic rights or dignity.  Slavery.  Jim Crow.  Separate but equal.  Profiling.  The first three have been outlawed, though their effects fuel the fourth and thus continue to be felt in a country still uncomfortable with meaningfully discussing its past.  Laws controlling sexual expression, largely aimed at queer folks in the form of anti-sodomy laws, were on the books in this country for a long time.  It is still legal in many states to fire someone for being gay.  And of course both blacks and gays continue to be the victims of violence.

So both oppressions have detrimental effects on their victims.  Put another way, during a violent attack I personally would not stop and deconstruct whether the blows I’m receiving from fists, boots, or bats are harder or more lethal because I’m black or because I’m gay.

But the saddest part of Ms. Jefferson’s essay is its assertion that to compare the Civil Rights Movement to the various gay liberation struggles that have taken place in the last 40 odd years is somehow insulting.

Preston Mitchum, a student at American University’s Washington College of Law, said he doesn’t believe the two movements can really be compared either.

“My role is dual, because it comes from being gay and black,” he said. “I can see both sides of the story, and people need to recognize that the struggles are different. It almost trivializes black civil rights in a way.”


Let’s go back and examine one of the major tools of the Civil Rights Movement:  non-violent resistance.  A young man by the name of Bayard Rustin, himself black and gay, brought the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attention.  Dr. King enthusiastically embraced it and contextualized it within his own theological training, famously declaring that non-violence is “a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”  So one of the major weapons of one of the major figures of the Civil Rights Movement was in fact inspired by a non-African American man from half a world away who had been dead for over seven years when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

Does comparing the Indian struggle for independence from the British to the African American Civil Rights Movement somehow trivialize the former?  Of course not.  Such an assertion would be ludicrous.  The fact is that both movements added to the vocabulary, richness, and history of the collective human experience.  The leaders of both movements are, in fact, world citizens as a result of their work.  We cannot and should not selfishly guard the legacy of Dr. King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond or any of the other leaders who sacrificed in the name of black liberation from others seeking liberation and dignity.  We must share this precious legacy with all those who appreciate their work and wish to follow their examples as part of their own struggle for personhood.

Is the struggle for queer personhood any less important than the struggle for black personhood?  I think not.  I cannot divide myself thus, nor do I have any desire to do so.  For to do so would mean trivializing part of my own soul.  Queerness is just another struggle, one which makes up part of the spectrum of my identities.