Saturday, April 28, 2007

Waiting for the Love to Come

Things have been pretty settled lately. I made a major turn around the corner last week; I had my first formal meeting with my new employers on Monday. As I got onto the elevator, I was the only male out of about 8 people occupying the large mechanical lift. We were all going to the 8th floor. I felt a vertigo like flirtation. I was super aware of myself. Again, the realization about my choice as an educator and writer conjured up a million question. The most paramount of which is, why does it seem that only women and gays read? If Bush had picked up a few books before he invaded Iraq then this terrible war would not have happened, but that still does not explain Condoleeza Rice. I will have to revisit issues of difference as outlined by Derrida at some point for my own sake and the country’s.

Anyway. Sexist and heterophobic . . . I know, I know.

Alas! Viola! The doors opened and I walked out into a more even crowd of fellow nubies.

My new employer is paying for a second Master's so I have been trying to be as attentive as possible despite wanting to simply disappear for a couple of weeks to the woods of East Tennessee; or, in a crowd of drunken twenty and thiry-somethings, bar hoping from one juke joint to the next in Oxford, Mississippi or Austin, Texas (don't sleep, me and Wine Tasting Lesbian are two coloured folk that wouldn't think twice about pulling that stunt off); or, follow some band through the deep South sucking on Coronas and swallowing raw oysters on the half shell. It must be the bottled-up frustration from the mini-construction site that my basement dwelling has become. But I always count my blessings . . . things could be much worse.

So language acquisition is in and history dissertation is out, at least for now. And blog wise, the last three entries took a bit out of me to construct, but I am glad I did them. This blog is becoming my creative compass in many ways; I find that I can focus better now that my professional future is a bit more decided. Lately I have seen that others have been blogging about poetry. Jstheater comes to mind instantly. I contemplated a poem, but since I went to the Gender Amplified Conference a couple of weeks ago I have decided on a video yet again. This one has been the constant backdrop of all my mental ramblings and internet navigations. But in the meantime I finished On the Road and have started on Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in the Cathedral. I have been surfing myspace like a basset hound listening to much contemporary Haitian music and wondering about this coming summer. Two graduate courses and field work. Plus this need I have to complete a creative mission and live a bit of the good life. I have been a miser for eight months, and it will last a little bit longer. Oh, boy! I am wondering what kind of fruits these seeds will grow. Man!, what a mélange.

Get at me!


Monday, April 23, 2007

Lady Beat Makers Black Mambo Masala

The Author verses the Auditory

As an artist I find that I vibe with photographers best, but somehow I am always surrounded by musicians. I get along with photographers because I am a real aesthetic kind of guy when it comes to what I write. I feel as if I am constantly trying to play with ‘style’ the same way photographers play with lighting or Photoshop. I want there to be some sort of ultra-violet landscape in my prose that is bumpy and grainy, making one’s mind’s eye trace a barren backdrop or lush foreground only to focus in on some delicate flower, or brown skinned woman with one unexpectedly cold gray pupil, or a certain fowl's shade of blue that has ringlets of white. When I look at a book of photography or talk to my friend Lenny (the photographer), I feel equal.

As far as musicians go, I am unequal. I am a perpetual groupie, a hanger on. Part of it is due to how music makes me feel, and part of it is my jealousy of how they create – writers must face the page alone, while musicians all live like Robin Hood and his Merry Gentlemen. Or, maybe they are more like Shaolin Monks, practicing their craft in an isolated and tormented bliss, and then assembling themselves into a fortified fighting group – symbiotic duos, funky trios, uber-melodic stringed sextets – that practice their craft in a mystical one mindedness. My best friends overseas are all ex-patriot singers who are adorned, loved and fetishsized in a way that makes you think of Jimmy Baldwin and Bid Whisk on the Riviera. As friends and artist they are demanding because their bodies are their instruments and they do not shy away from the spotlight in their art or in their every day interactions. Pops Wilson once told me after I joined the choir: "Once you say that you are a singer, you must be prepared to perform at any time." Funny, even my male church going ultra straight friends, who are vocalist, are divas, grabbing the mike and rushing the band along at frantic speeds to get to that one special note that allows the audience to float back down to earth. ” To be professional”, as my friend Michael has told me many times, “is to deliver the exemplary notes exactly the same way every time.” It is the demands of zero mistakes, which accounts for the madness. It is also the illusion, the performance, the band, the key, the leadership, the divvying of the pot, the wardrobe, the connection to the audience and required nakedness of any performance artist that reminds me of what a turtle I really am. I do not envy being “present” in order for others to experience my art. I relish the written word. My body is not there to be picked over by malicious critics. The page is my physical emissary; I would rather they chomp over my sentence splices than to chop me up physically and emotionally. The advantage of being a writer in the face of the critic is the rebuttal, there is no such advantage for the performer. But, whom am I fooling; I am the critic in many instances -- the lofty loner intellectual who writes about My Chemical Romance, Dreamgirls and Whitney Houston, picking over their full red wine bodied whole notes and personal lives without acknowledging what my musician friends have taught me about deliverance.

Trepidation and The Women’s Hip-Hop Invitation/Innovation

Two Saturdays ago I went to the Gender Amplified: Women and Technological Innovation in Hip-Hop conference sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard (sorry for the late entry but I was flooded out of my basement abode in New Jersey right after the festivities at Barnard). The title alone reminded me of how different hip-hop and my Gospel/Broadway/Funk/Soul/Boss nova experiences have been. I have not been in such a hip-hop inspired discussion for a long time and the parts of the conference that I did attend were a reminder of my truncated digital life. I have been one of many performers on stage when it comes to voice, but when it comes to hip-hop, I have only been the critic and many times it has not been the music I dissected, but the culture.

On that Saturday evening, I debated whether I was going to go to the conference or hang out at a bar and have a beer. I guess my hesitation about going to a conference that was focused on women was because of what it means to me. In terms of participating high academic theory, the knot in my gut is the equivalent of sitting in on my older cousin’s tea party. I was allowed in but there were internal and external voices asking me why I was not playing with the boys. I always get that feeling in these groups, because participants start talking about women and men from a vantage point that reduces being male to some essential and oppressive element or set of prototypes. I agree that our socialization, standing in society, markers for professional competency and ways of communication are different but what about when we lay down our swords? Can we have a conversation with one another that is not politicized? If we are in love, or choose to love, must it be a battlefield also? Maybe I do not get the female perspective, then again I sometimes marvel at all of the supposed networks and infrastructure I am suppose to access effortlessly because I am male. These assumptions do not call for questions concerning race or sexual orientation? And if we were to tackle those assumptions, then we would also see the horns of the black male Mandingo and faggot rear there ugly heads. But enough, we could start unloading from there, but I am not in the mood, and I swore off theoretical double-speak and Newport Lights around the same time.

In the end I decided to go. After I got off from my job, I walked from 59th and Lexington to the 1 train station stop not far from Carnegie Hall. My sojourn to Barnard included a discussion with a tall brown skinned middle aged man from Milwaukee who has been in NYC since 1970. "I have witnessed a great transformation", he said concerning the city. As we left, he gave me his card then walked up towards Harlem. With all the young college kids running around me, on a clear cool spring day (hours before the Nor’easter’s merciless deluge), I felt optimistic and reminiscent. A friend housed me in his dorm for months at Columbia University during the winter of 1995.

So, I missed Tricia Rose (who people said was dynamite) and Spinderella. Rose spoke sometime around lunch time, I am not so sure about Spinderella. I got uptown around 5:30 pm, in time for the “Gender in Real Time: Tracing Women and Technology” panel’s question and answer period. By the time I got there it had turned into a discussion of the Imus Affair. It was interesting listening to the female students talk about the “nappy headed” problem. Very interesting comments were made by one student about how women are boiled down to a sort of currency, devoid of personal power, but regulated to a sign of men’s power. At times, I had that childhood feeling again. I did not really know how to hug, introduce myself, talk or gauge relationships. Who I thought were sisters were mother and daughter. Who I thought female lovers could have been business partners. Who I thought male and female lovers could have been artist and producer. To top off this lack of sexual radar, all codes of hip-hop are confusing to me, because the facade of being hard is always with in reach with the turn of a baseball cap or the donning of a coat. Who is what, is never clear, but that did not hinder me from meeting new friends and people that were asking the same questions about hip-hop as I am. I also meet people that had stayed in the game longer than me, and it was refreshing to see grassroots organizing happening in the genre. I have been divorced from it because of location and in hip-hop location is everything (Brooklyn, Bronx, Uptown, the dirty South, ATL, Cashville, etc. . .).

When I was 21, studying at NYU I remember how much all of this gender based agitation upset me. The assumption that I was somehow going home to some bastion of power was an opinion held by several instructors and not just by fellow students. Part of it was the condescending voice of a new New York liberalism that assumed I needed to be educated about the plight of women despite being raised in a household consisting of three generations of women in one house. The other part was simply how I perceived gender specific arguments in my 21-year-old mind. Where most of my male friends from Hampton University were off to work for television stations, computer companies or entering law school, to be nurtured by male mentors; I was a singular male in many groups and discussions, and mentorship was coming in a haphazard way. Despite all the time I spent in Africana, it was the Latin American department that took me under there wing. In the end it made dating impossible and professional relationships with my age group tempestuous. First because the age difference between a 21 year old male and a 28 year old woman is probably more like 15 years than seven. And second, because the language that was being used in class was coming home to roost.

Me (21-year-old): "God he . . ."

The Girl/ (Wo) man (28-years-old and fucking me): "(eyes slightly crossed). . . God is a female, at least in my mind. But God should be referred to as 'It', because 'It' is a higher form of he or she because 'It' does not denote gender."

Me (the kid): "It" is an inanimate object. A higher form of he or she is "we" or "us".

The Girl (the grown-up): I am tired of playing games.

And that was what my whole undergraduate relationship to black women was to a certain extent. "Why is he so resistant" one woman would ask of another, and the answer became "because he is so young." I just felt like they were playing word games, I wanted to get to know someone, not fight. But then again, I made bigger mistakes, in my skewed notions of what honesty and fairness was, but I shy away from mentioning them, partly because they embarrass me and partly because in the end, my mistakes in relationships do not denote a position taken in the gender argument. Many times love was lost from this oil slick of love and identity politics -- for me gender distinctions and roles were always soiled, in the muddy waters of being a 20-something (at least until graduation).

How the Ladies Schooled the Pimps On Laying Down Green, Hot-Fire, Hip-Hop Tracks

My hesitancy about going to the conference was this feeling that I was slipping away from the all male road trips and beer binges to an afternoon chat with five women working on their PhDs and being completely lost in confessions of chauvinistic abuse by hyper-masculine signifiers; or being literally trapped in the middle of a debate on George Lamming and his portrayal of women in his novel Castle of My Skin. I wanted to desperately receive new information, but I was not sure about how I should behave as a male in one of those spaces again.

Lady Beat Makers vol. 1 directed by Tashelle "Shamash" Wilkes was an amazing movie experience. It chronicles the experiences of 5 women music producers: Josie Carr, Laticia "T.C. Lewis", Shakti, Jewel Brown, and Stephanie "Diverse" Whittaker. All five of these musicians/producers were totally different and fluid in their art form. In terms of shattering the gender myth, I reached an epiphany through the movie about God given affinities and life's passions as being totally different from gender. I was rocked out of my socks and had the feeling I had heard something that I had never heard before. And like a faux country and western television jingle, "I was very happy that I came."

The movie did not talk so much about their lives in a male dominated art form, but showcased their work and distinct backgrounds. The movie is actually several exposes stitched together in succession. It gives the feeling that you are actually taking a stroll through one single neighborhood, peeking into the windows of 5 extraordinary homes since many of the featured producers include footage of their family and parents. And it is the individual input of each artist that makes the film, since the director shots footage on their blocks, in their studios, and in their family rooms. You get a concrete sense of their lives in one moment in time, instead of a biography that tackles their lives from birth to final edit. This makes the film very fresh and new, and gives the viewer more time to actually "listen" to their music instead of ruminating on how hard it is to be a female hip-hop producer. That point has been made, though that film has yet to be made. The irreplaceable circumstance of viewing Lady Beat Makers is a chance to partake in the audio cacophany of Josie the Rock Star, T.C. the Soul Gifted, Shakti the Sweet Star Feminine, Jewel Brown the Self Invented Uptown Electro Beat Box Girl or Diverse the Street Blessed Warrior who seems ready to compete with any of the guys at the drop of a dime. In fact, all of them do. Behind their smiles, at the panel following the screening, it was a sight to behold -- all of these producers staring out into the crowd with a serene sort of battle raging in their eyes. They all seemed ready to fight and defend, their eyes all glared outward as if they were trailblazers in a dense forrest with no time to waste, they were all of few words. Their work speaks for itself.

Goddess From the Machine

The after party included 3 sets by DJ Ayana Soyini, DJ Sparkles (scratching behind her back) and DJ Rehka. There was more conversing and more personal flashbacks as I watched all these young people congregate on the edges of a dance floor in the middle of Barnard. It made me aware of the constant need to create and re-create places of culture. But it also made me aware that some people jump into the stream, some wade by the pool, and some refuse to take off their clothes. But as always, this did not mean people were not having a good time.

So, it turned out to be a good thing. Especially with all this stuff swirling around hip-hop today. Funny, just as French hip-hop is the center of social rallying calls and the anti-libretto to the French elections, the long view towards 2008 is bringing hip-hop into our political focus. But for us, it is not as vanglorious as the French hip-hop scene that reminds me of all my days listening to The Poor Righteous Teachers and Public Enemy. Our political discussions surround language and its devolution. Our political discussions challenge our communities' visions and views of itself. Does hip-hop really represent the people that Russell Simmons says it represents, or only a part? And, if it does not, then what about the people that are shut out of the game, may they be musicians, producers, rappers, writers, journalist or photographers? Is there a litmus test that countervalences the past Imus public relations test concerning content, language and artistic privilege? The gansta is dying in our mist, and when the bullet plugs are pulled out of the holes, hopefully we will begin again.

Gender Amplified (more pictures)did much in showing me that another community exists outside of the multi-media world I consume (but not always volunterialy) . Maybe these 5 producers and 1 film makers are the superwomen ordained to rescue us from the mediocraty of hip-hop and its money making complex. It is amazing what hip-hop has gone through in the last 15 years as it rose from a grassroots social and party anthem generator stretching beyond the 5 boroughs, to a megaplex of instant stars racking in the cash. Sometimes I am lethargic about it, like the bitter end of a relationship with someone I must see everyday. And at other times I look at it like a giant mammal stuck in a desert. It just needs a little resissitation. Lady Beat Makers vol. 1 made me believe that help is on the way.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My Darling Sugar Cube

Today I received my old immunization card in the mail. I have two of them. One is from when I was a toddler in the seventies and the other is from when I first arrived in New York City just before my 22nd birthday. Due to my new gig, I have to provide proof of immunization and/or booster shots for a host of maladies that were eradicated in the last 50 years. I called my mother and asked her for the New York card since it is the most recent and I had mailed it to her for safe keeping over a decade ago. Since then, I have lived in so many different apartments and countries I am extremely proud of my forward thinking.

These immunization ruminations have made me realize that one of my earliest memories is that of my beloved polio sugar cube in Durham, North Carolina. The memory starts with my mother walking through automated doors; I am hanging onto her left hip, with my feet secured around her lower belly and her left forearm hooked midway under my backside. My mother had already obtained some sort of registration card. I was aware that there was an assembly line like quality to this doctor’s visit, and I must have been drawn to the number of children running around me. Also the array of children's furniture, the orange sherbet color of the sheetrock and the light yellow pastel color of the wood panels that stretched from the floor halfway up the wall like giant flatten reeds alerted my senses to the fact that this place was a sanctuary for kids. There is also the possibility that my mother told me what was going to happen. She had a knack for giving clear instructions to me, even though I was barely a toddler. I believe it was due to her being a graduate student. Her thesis concerning the Black Church was the pinnacle and homage to the type of activism that my grandfather had done in Anniston, Alabama. She has always been extremely conscious about not "dumbing down" any of her children and demanded clear speech from me at all times. This was balanced by her over-protectiveness which was so sublime and ready made I had made up a totem for my mother before I was in kindergarten. I have always imagined her as a deer.

A female doctor or nurse approached my mother and told her what I already knew, which was that I should congregate with the other children sitting at a large plastic table. The table to my mind's eye and bodily proportions was like a miniature round table in King Arthur's court. My only concern from the point my feet touched the floor was the snack I was about to receive since everyone else seemed to be having something to eat.

Now that I think about it, my mother may have been checking me in while I went to this waiting area. I don't remember her coming with me to the table, what I do remember is my mother whispering something in my eye before placing me down. She re-assured me in someway, but she was nervous about my eagerness. It was as if my slightly hyper-anticipation without the fear of being separated from her stuck in the back of her mind. Now and then we joke about my first day of pre-school at North Carolina Central University -- the picture shows me waving with my lunch box and backpack, while she is busy crying behind the camera -- it should have been the other way around -- at least it was for the other kids who I consoled at my table on the first day, but that was sometime after my polio sugar cube. Plus, I do remember crying later at the table because in all the mass hysterics I thought there was something to be afraid of, maybe school meant I would live here all the time and just visit home.

I remember walking, with this woman sort of guiding me from behind. She wore a white coat and had long red hair with big shaggy winged curls. I don't remember her face, but I remember her presence, she felt like some sort of teacher or coach. It was also odd because I sensed that she was very nervous about loosing me, or maybe she had not been around kids and was too apprehensive about the entire situation. I must have been taught to follow instructions very well, as I mentioned before, because I did not contest. Plus, I was in a trance; a table with kids meant a snack, which I always appreciated more than actual lunch or dinner.

Once I got to the table, I remember seeing a boy with black curly hair get up and walk away. It must have been his mother that got him. He had on a gray sweater, a white shirt and slacks. He was a bit older than me. And across the table, I remember seeing a dark haired girl in a dress. The exact color of her corduroy dress escapes me, but it seemed to me we were about the same age, which means I must have been sizing up all the other kids according to age and their abilities to communicate, which I believe most toddlers do. I was not intimidated, but I do remember feeling a little bit humbled because I did not really understand what we were suppose to do. I was awaiting instructions very patiently as my mother and grandmother probably drilled into my head by that point. I do not remember saying anything, but I remember the longing to communicate and ask questions. And, I remember being happy to be away from adults and being with others my own size. At that time I was an only child in a world of graduate students.

Immediately after sitting down in a hard plastic chair, I remember wondering if someone had wet their pants in the seat before I sat down. I must have had an experience where I had sat in some other kid’s cold piss, and it alarmed me that the seat I had chosen could have been a booby trap. I also remember looking at the red seats to my right and left, wondering if they had puddles in them too. I surmise I was starting to make judgments about things, because I have the faint recollection that depending on the condition of the seats I was going think the place a total unsanitary dump or I was going to get on with the wonderful meal I was anticipating while my mother was away working on the paperwork . . . whatever that meant.

I remember thinking that anytime my parents were at a counter, that I was suppose to be quiet and not interact with the person they were talking to, nor was I to interrupt them directly. I remember thinking, well if it is an emergency and I don't say anything she is going to ask me why I didn't speak up, while if I interrupted her transaction with something I deemed important and she did not, I would receive a verbal lashing. So, sitting at the table, I was glad to be away from that moral dilemma.

I also had an awareness that I was at a doctor's clinic (I don't think I understood the concept of a hospital until my sister was born), which meant that I had been to enough by now to know what was going on. I did not have white coat syndrome, and doctors did not mean anything particular to me. It was like I was going to get a bunch of task to do. Sometimes they were mental, like responding to auditory stimuli; and sometimes they were physical like looking into a light that made me tear-up, which really proved to be a test of nerve. I remember my father in these instances, and not my mother, giving stern instructions to look into the light, not to blink and implicitly somehow ignore the strange white man who was breathing heavily through his nostrils, with intervals of vulgarly heated air tickling my upper lip. I remember wandering what is this guy thinking so hard about, but I interpreted the test as a sign of strength with a reward at the end.

So, staring at the young girl across the table, I wanted to ask her something, and maybe I did. I remember a boy that was maybe three and a half or four sitting next to me on my right, and then there was another kid a few places to my left at the three or four o'clock position that started to cry. I expressed to the kid next to me, in a manner that I forget, that I had no idea what was going on because a crying kid is not a happy kid, and a happy kid has food. All I remember is him looking at me weird, and then swallowing a sugar cube in a small white cup. He looked at me with minor disdain that made me feel strange, but I somehow surmised that he was not in charge so who cares about his approval.

Now, I believe I have this as an early memory because I had not seen a sugar cube before that very day. It was in a little paper white condiment cup, and a nurse passed them out. In fact there were two different nurses hovering around the table at the seven and eight o'clock positions. Both had dark hair. Both had completely different temperaments. The larger of the two had short cropped hair and was working at a stainless steel cart with two or three shelves. I imagine she was placing the cubes in the cups, and then soaking them with an eye dropper. She seemed to be fairly excited and smiled throughout her task and I vaguely remember her smiling at me. The second one was skinny and looked a little like Linda Carter, but this vaccination was before the Wonder Woman series. I think I remember the women more so than the men because I was paying attention to long hair. Even men with long hair seemed to fascinate me, like the hitch hikers on the road in the 70's. I remember watching them from the car, totally spellbound by how their body sizes and figures changed according to how far away we were. As soon as I got a good look, I wondered how good a look it was; their perspective must have changed three or four times from the vantage point of a moving car. I vaguely remember the car seat, but I do believe my father and mother took me out of it early, as well as my baby stroller. My mother and father carried me everywhere.

So, I received my sugar cube and stared at it. The child that was crying was being taken away by his mother, and the tall skinny brunette looked at me unlovingly, and told me to eat it. That is all I needed to hear, I was there waiting for instructions, so I chewed it. I remember the less-than-child-loving-nurse looking over me while I felt this grainy block of sand disintegrate, making sure it went down. I did not turn to look at her. I was still staring at the girl that had caught my eye with her black hair. She was rushed off with her mother, her face without any emotions; she was in this confusing and crazy race of life just like me.

The number of children at this fair was enormous, because as I finished the flavorless morsel of sugar, I remember a feeling of disappointment that this was not going to be a real dessert or even a freakin’ meal for that matter. Somewhere in my brain I remember thinking it an injustice and that somehow my mom would make it right. Maybe it was the sense that my mother could go ask the evil nurse to bring her son out a tray of food like she was suppose to.

To be fair, the mass of kids and parents coming to this event was also the reason behind the nurses running in a mind numbing stupor of limited joy. They were probably scared they would loose an independently minded toddler or were fed up with dealing with literally hundreds of little temperaments, possibly having to force feed a sugar cube or twenty.

I don't remember much beyond being summoned from the table. I believe it was my mom who came and got me just as I had finished my cube. She smiled and grabbed me by the wrist. I don't remember turning around all the way, I kind of knew she smiled and I knew it was her automatically. But my eyes were fixed on the table and the kids coming to take my place.

This fair went on for some years because my younger sister Rosaline who is three years and eight months younger than I went to a similar set up. I remember that either it was not my turn or I was too old to participate when they dragged us back behind a curtain in assembly line fashion again and a nurse stuck a thermometer in my sister's butt like she was changing oil at Jiffy Lube. My sister screamed and cried and refused to smile at any one else that came into that little curtained off area. I remember that the curtain was not closed at first, and the nurse ran and partitioned my sister's bare buttock off from the rest of the public while she was screaming and kicking to high heaven. We were causing a scene, which my sister’s yelling did on many occasions. There was something visceral and revengeful in her tantrums and as she has matured to a woman I am slow to anger her because I don’t want to deal with the torrent of her rage, that remarkably out trumps my own calls for battle.

I was so shocked to find out from my childhood immunization card that I received my sugar cub on November 23rd 1973 a couple of days after my father's 29th birthday. I was not yet two years old, I was 21 months old. I was given a series of 4 different immunizations from birth to 21 months and this was the last one. I do not remember getting another shot until I was in my 20’s. I asked my mother if I was walking then and she said yes with a motherly giggle (I don't know too much about baby development). I don’t know why, I asked, I remember walking. I guess it just seem impossible and implausible that I was already a real person. I remember the beginning of that doctor’s visit so clearly, it is the rest that escapes me.

I don't think my vocabulary was very good because I remember wanting to say things, but not being able to, and I remember observing intensely everything going on around me. I guess it was partly because it was a new experience, but I guess it was also just mother nature -- some vestigial awareness that made me suspect of any possible dangers.

Until the revelation of this date, my mind had a slightly different picture. I thought I was older and I thought that I was bigger. Maybe I had an Afro, because I do remember it, but maybe it was just not as large and round as I had thought. The hair cut I had from pre-school until I was in the 3rd grade was called a New Yorker, because it was round on in the front and then completely square in the back with a thick kitchen. I remember my father picking that part out and me kicking and screaming to high heaven.

I talked to my father last night asking him what date we exactly moved from Kansas City, Kansas, where I was born, to Durham, North Carolina. He said it was September of 1973, so I guess that would make sense. I think I remember the drive from Kansas to North Carolina because it was such a long trip. I vaguely remember the change in landscape and watching the mid-day sun turn to twilight. I also remember a sense that we were not coming back to Kansas, or maybe my memory was sparked by the change in my total environment. In the recesses of my mind, I remember my yellow stroller with blue, red and white asterisks that spun around, and I remember the beaded curtain that hung like a veil before I walked out of one room into the hallway. It was like a shower of amber. But I surely remember the highway and traveling. My mother said that I did not make a sound during the whole trip and that they had a great sense of pride traveling with me. Then again it could have been a drive to my grandmother’s that I remember, crossing the Grandfather Mountains and my mother talking about the mountain range in very clear sentences telling me to look out of the window. “Aren’t they beautiful.” she would say.

The date also rings true in the practicality of me getting immunized at this fair. My mother and father must have felt a sense of relief that this fair was going on. I needed my last course of shots, and being new to Durham and balancing commutes to Raleigh, the event must have been an easy solution to a possibly stressful time in our young family’s life. Both of them started to teach in the university and there must have been a rush to figure everything out at the beginning of the semester.

My father answered the question, but there was also this sense that so much time had elapsed, and such a bold faced question about dates made me feel aware of my lifetime, just as it must have made him aware of it also. I wish I could find the proper way to end this entry, but I can’t, I just feel like explaining more about this time in between, especially the woman that kept me sometime after we arrived to the Southeast. She was a sweet elderly lady who cooked all day, keep a scant distance to me, but could make me fall a sleep on her big quilted and afghan covered bed in a ritualistic fashion. I remember getting up and wandering around from room to room, every wall was a freshly coated blazing choice of white. She was clean. She sometimes kept more than one of us. She set up a gate at the kitchen door. She was so slow, and seemed all knowing and totally trustful of me. I remember playing in her back yard full of crab apples, then coming in, to eat chicken and rice. I miss women like that, this calm, gardenia perfume smelling breed of women. You know the ones that only made cake out of Swan brand flour and hand picked walnuts from their sister’s backyard. Or received visitors from next door, but took the time to introduce you to a feisty eighty-year-old like you were an adult yourself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pop Gun

Half German

Big Brother: Für welche Klasse hast du eine Aufgabe?

Little Sister: For English Class.

BB: Ist es einen Aufsatz oder eine Übung?

LS: It is an essay.

BB: Was ist das Thema?

LS: Uhhhh?

BB: Was ist das Thema?

LS: I don't know what Taahma . . .

BB: 'Thema' means theme. What is it about?

LS: The day I was born. I have to interview my mom and tell them about it. We are writing an autobiography this semester.


BB: Did you download any of Parliament Funkadelic?

LS: Gross.

BB: Why is it gross?

LS: They are gay.

BB: Why are they gay?

LS: Anything from the 60's or 70's is gay.

BB: But you love Carly Simon.

LS: Look they are gay because they wear make-up and those high heeled shoes and tight pants that show their . . . ugh! . . . it is disgusting.

BB: But . . .

LS: . . . Carly Simon has class.

As I get ready to move out from my father's basement (thank you Jesus, I just need to get a definitive plan off the ground) I realize that I am going to miss my youngest sister. I have not spent this much time with her since she was 5-years-old. And now she is in the 7th grade, a year ahead of everybody and heading off to a model government program for one week in DC this summer.

Before our brief run in at the computer was over, I gave her more details about the day she was born.

And now, I am getting ready to leave, and maybe life won't bring me back to her until she is full grown. I wonder what her taste will be like then. I wonder about me too. I wonder how one can explain black men in tight clothes and glitter. Is it safe to say they were not sleeping with one another? I won't bring up George Clinton again until she is 18.

Alyce brought up the point that gay is a negative word and I should ask her where those connotations come from. I know that that is part Jersey slang; kids in the suburbs call anything "gay" from commercials, to restaurant hang-outs, to television shows. It means it is old, weird and out modish.

Sometimes I wonder about such conversations with my young sister. Do I wave a flag and bring up those connotations when she uses the word? But what about subsequent generations that have experienced the ultra-masculinity of hip-hop and the UFC, can they interpret the signs, symbols and signifiers of George Clinton, Prince and David Bowie in any other way? Maybe not.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

St. Landry

Grifs (Me)

The job search is continuing. Yesterday I had an interview, which puts me in this pattern of meeting and talking to people at the beginning of the month, with my job search and resources waning by the end of the month. The past two weeks have been no exception due to my visit to the doctor for my diabetes and getting over my inflamed tonsils and stomach flu.

Yesterday before my interview at a marketing company -- where everyone seems to be 24-years-old and first generation American -- I kind of knew that I was going to get the gig. The interviewer was from Hungary and we spoke a little German. I told him that I want Portuguese and French to be next on the list and was very much interested in the traveling and international aspects of the job. I applied for the 10 month manager training program and was called into the office for the second interview on tomorrow. I am not so sure about the legitimacy of this "online" marketing team, there is much I need to research concerning their background and if they are registered with any nationally accredited association of marketers . . . and such and such. But screw it, I will check it out tomorrow, the job market has changed rapidly, so traditional avenues in business may or may not work out in every situation. Plus if this second day is too Cousin Vinnie-esque then I am out of there a pinch the wiser.

Refugees of the Union Army (My Mother)

The other thing that happened was a leap in my genealogical research. I have been doing this for a couple of years, but it has again been put on hold due to money, health and family issues. I have been concentrating on my mother's side of the family for years now. From what I can tell, my ancestors were enslaved outside of Atalanta, just south of the city, in Forsythe County. Then, sometime during or after the Civil War, my ancestors moved from that area and settled in Clay County Alabama, which was cut out of a portion of Talladega and Randolph counties by the Union Army during Reconstruction. This had to have happened sometime before 1870. Interestingly enough, my ancestors seemed to be living on different plantations in Georgia but kept in contact enough to put the family back together after emancipation (just a hunch). In fact, we stayed together as family unit in Clay County Alabama until 1923 when Clay County’s economy started to decline rapidly due to the lull in demand for graphite after World War I, its. Then the family moved to Anniston, Alabama.

I have a clear view of what happened to my mother's family's world after the Civil War, but very little concerning the time before. My oldest known maternal descendant is Neal Willoughby. He is my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was born in 1807 in the state of Georgia, just before Alabama became a state in the union. According to the census taker in 1880, Neal did not know the origins of his parents.

There are a lot of interesting possibilities concerning Neal's household and the people who lived in it. He lived with his daughter Clarry Mann, and his two granddaughters Adeline and Ollie. Both are listed as mulatto, a distinction that will be erased from the American census by 1890. Adeline is 11 and her younger sister is 9 their younger brother Bait is not mentioned. They live next door to a woman named Harriet Jenkins, who by some sources is related to us (an older sibling possibly of Adline and Ollie), and by others not. Of course these sources are oral. And when I drove to the area where they settled after leaving Georgia, the cotton fields were shockingly dry and delicate, like puffed icicles on sticks. The sky was gray and the mountains looked uninhabitable. It was both beautiful and demanding.

I am going to ask my cousin Stan if he wants to drive there one day when I go visit him in Atlanta. I know that their graves have no stones anymore, and I want to see the church where they were members. I hope it is still there. According to a first hand account of life in Clay County, the black church was where the first generation of free children went to learn to read, and there was also only one recorded lynching in that small area in 1888. Even today there is no railroad pass that goes through that section of Alabama, and you can't take the main interstate to get to the county set of Lineville. It is also a dry county, so you can't drink when you get there. The library where I picked up the first person narrative is a white one room house. The stone courthouse where I picked up the marriage certificates still feels like a place where you make arrangements to relinquish livestock to the bank. Funny, I don't know why I miss it.

Abandoned on Dauphin Island (My Father)

So, my father's family is a far greater mystery to me, I know few of family members and even fewer family stories. My mother's family is a progression of family names, that included ministers and wayward black sheep that would go on to put their oratory skills towards secular educations; and, soothsaying women that could crunch great amounts of numbers and forms in their heads (on a spring day in 1908 my great-grandmother Ola received a dress for her 12th birthday that she didn't like, she took it apart overnight and resewed it into a new dress by the next morning).

My father's family is born with a great one sentence fable: "Our family starts with a mother and daughter named Mariah and Mirandi coming off a slave ship." Springing from this utterance are other chance sentences. Like, while driving on summer afternoon, when I was probably around college age, I asked my father of our origins. Without batting an eyelash he said: "You see, back in the 1830's they decided that blacks had souls. So we took our last name from the Quaker missionaries that baptized us." And most recently my grandmother told me at her birthday party very proudly, "My grandmother was one hundred percent pure African, she had no white in her." I have been reading and searching through all those that have my last name for pieces to the large puzzle. Our migrations between Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Our acquisition of a great track of land in 1950. Our farms. Our scandals. Our tempers. Our bluesy accusatory creed: "You want other people to do for you, but you ain't willing to do anything for anyone else." And the question is still out. Are we a splintered branch of a larger Creole past, pure Africans, part Creek Indian, saved or conjurers? I am pretty sure about which traits I inherited.


My parents drive me crazy and over the past 2 years I have had to find things that help us communicate in a more loving and nurturing manner. It is not that we hate one another; it is because all of the rites of passage that come with marriage and parenthood are missing from my life; therefore, all things in my life are questioned. Personal progression does not register with my parents. Education is vocation. Relationships are to be affixed to the greater family unit. Personal experience (i.e. the search for some hot fucking) does not trump familial bonds and obligations (but it never has). The reason is that they were busy pushing further into America and assimilating to the mainstream world, while sexual exploration and the modification of gender specific roles transformed the rest of their generation (is this not the epoch of our parents' civil rights generation). Now, my mother is learning how to operate a computer as a 20-year divorcee, unaware of how life could have been happier if she had not taken so many things in the manner of a failed Ozzie and Harriet. She didn't look up to see that the social marker of divorce was melting away. My father is working in a cyber-world where all ideas of honor and decency no longer follow his John Wayne colorized world. He is raising a child and living his life as if he was 20 years younger, but every day he has to adjust to all the new stimuli that is pumped out of our media world. He is far from dazed and confused; he just etches out a world that is smaller -- working on the American Dream, which for baby boomers now means a world or perpetual unrest. As for me, I have come home refusing to drink domestic beer and watching soccer on the Fox soccer channel. I block out stimuli too. I am married to the road probably more than they would wish, but this is what I have always known. Custody meant time with my mother, grandmother and father. All were in three different places. School was always in one place, but life for me has always signified elsewhere. I had no family in Nashville; bonds of family have always been distant and transfered through second hand accounts about the past, like a hand-me-down that has surprisingly come back into fashion.

To get through the numerous impasses that my disease, lifestyle and career choices have made between my parents and I, a couple of exercises naturally create a truce. My mother and I both love gardening and the sense of pride it brings to a home. For my mother it brings back memories of my great-grandmother, Ola the seamstress, and her beautiful azaleas, or my great uncle's roses and miniature citrus garden. For me it is the physical labor, which I crave. Teaching and researching dulls a part of me that longs just to move my body and literally see the fruit of ones labor. To labor and simply be finished with it, instead of agonizing over a project for weeks, is how I prefer to work. Gardening means maintaining your rewards by spraying after a rain to keep the fungus away, constantly planning what to do with the landscape, kneeling, alternating the menu for your roses with rock salt one week and bone meal on another, etc . . .

For my father I just discovered a way to displace our body armor and blunted weapons, which may be aimed at one another, but with an unintentional maliciousness. We are simply bumping through our respective years in a dark cave, grieving over false promises, trying to remember which path we took before the light a the end of the cave gave out. Yesterday I was reviewing the Afro Louisiana History and Genealogy website, when my father walked in and saw the result of my search. The website is the brainchild of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who for me is the most amazing academic in the game.

"Wow that is amazing. Those are all slaves?" He said, standing over me with another of his company's many administrative assignments for me to complete before his meeting and my interview in midtown.


My father stared. He wanted to stop and continue the conversation, but he clearly had something else on his mind. It felt vaguely like my childhood -- I would be busy doing a painting or cooking and he wanted to stop and engage me more, but he had to catch a flight.

He continued. "Where is that document located?"

"Louisiana, Dad. The Catholic colonies were far more meticulous in keeping records of conversions, deaths, births and marriages between slaves . . ."

He interrupted, "How much would someone pay you for that information?"

Nothing I thought to myself. That is my problem.

"Don't know?" I replied.

"Ten thousand?" he speculated.

I thought to myself again, "This is my problem the expectations from society that somehow my degree and skill set rewards me the same way it does his". But maybe I am just being too cynical. My paternal great-grandfather Willy Mills was a cynic. He was part Creek Indian and part black and shot at anything that came down his driveway. An aunt said that he spoke a language to himself that no one really understood.

Awkward silence followed a feeling that my father was generally interested. And I did not feel like raising my voice. Maybe the ancestors are getting us over this hill.

"Do you know where St. Landry is? That is where I found this document." I asked.

My father giggled and heaved a bit of air out of his closed mouth at the same time.

That meant no.

I saw my own name in the entry of slaves. I was overwhelmed with a sense of displacement -- it was a melancholy and flightiness that was not induced by ideas of pain and suffering, but by how easy slavery was in its actual facility and practice. At one point slavery was just that normal and common place bondage actually effaced itself. There was this great sense of mobility about that other William Mills, who was 25-years-old in 1806. This William Mills was sold by a John Foley to Alexander Mills sometime in August of that year in Orleans parish. Did he stay long enough to become an ancestor or did he float on? I wonder if he actually became me, the man I am today, taking on a wife or shepherding someone else's child. He probably did not see emancipation, that was 60 years away, but he would have seen a quadroon ball, the advance of the Americans, maybe Andrew Jackson himself.

The problem I have with this documentation and so many others is that it does not have any thing listed under the subheading 'Personality'. Maybe the note takers would only mention the bad. But there is something so crazy about all these transactions. Men and women are shuffled and with no fixed identity. You can just slip them in and out of towns, names, clothes, jobs, relationships, languages and other people's willed inheritances with little knowledge of who they are. Documentation for that moment is just a fixed point; William Mills could have just as well turned into a butterfly by the fall of 1806 and flew back to Africa against the Harmattan.

There are 49 Mills slaves in Dr. Hall's archive. There are no Mariah's or Mirandi's among the Mills transactions. There are a couple of grifs. Many 'pure' Africans. I can't tell who was Christian and who was not. For whom is conversion necessary? Probably for me, who needs to be converted from 'the road' in order to establish a élan in executing out my plans; and definitely for the true solitary Mills ancestor who I envision as a boy -- a Black/Indian mixed lot -- a maroon, outside of New Orleans, forced into a new life in the aftermath of the Seminole Indian wars. I get the feeling he had to become a Christian due to circumstances he could not understand or comprehend, binding his own Afro-Indigenous American liturgy to his inner thigh with a piece of leather binding and a little red gris-gris. What an ingenious invention.