Like It’s Still 1999 . . .

prince r.i.p.Let my elementary and junior high school friends (and mom) tell it, I once had a rather unhealthy infatuation with the legend and genius we have come to call Prince.  I stopped adoring celebrities in that kind of way long ago but I have always been someone who would ride or die for everything before Purple Rain (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy) + “If I Was Your Girlfriend” + “Adore” + so much more.  At eleven years old in 1982, Prince’s 1999 was the first vinyl album I ever bought for myself, by myself, with my own money earned from babysitting. No borrowing or asking adults when it came to this album! The track, “Lady Cab Driver,” was my ultimate center of gravity though I couldn’t possibly have understood what that song was talking about (see the music player above).

“Purple Rain” seems to be literally playing in homes, cars, stores— all around me— right now, a song whose coupling of deep sadness and triumph I am only now appreciating. It had never occurred to me that I would take Prince’s loss this hard, though the OldSkool block parties here in my hometown of Brooklyn sure do make the mourning so much sweeter. There will be memorials and tantalizing stories of Prince’s death in the days to come, I am sure. During all of that (pending) mayhem, I’m going to just sit with my 11-year-old self and the woman I am now who understands “Purple Rain” so much better.

(Re-Blogged) Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

mothers-day-poetry-2015After my mother lost her job in the recession crunch a few years ago, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out. And the older I am and the more older sistahs I know (who remind you to count the blessing of your mother’s time with you), I realize that every moment counts since having lotsa time with your Mama is no longer something we can take as much for granted.

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?”   I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.

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The Price(s) We Have Paid: Happy Juneteenth!

tpMy father and his closest friend, a man I call an uncle, discovered an easy way to save money: always wet your toilet paper and paper towels.  Apparently, once these rolls dry after you have wet them, they no longer roll as easily because ripples have been created.  This will slow down your roll, LITERALLY, if you take too much toilet paper when you are on the throne, for instance.  People use less paper products, the fewer paper products you need to buy, the more money you save: it’s all a vicious cycle.  I hover back and forth between two adjectives for this practice… CHEAP…and… RIDICULOUS.  It does, however, offer me endless opportunities for shit-talking with my father.  I could tell any array of such stories to convey how frugal my father is, but I hope this lumpy toilet paper saga will suffice.

Unlike some of my peers, I was never the type of child to be embarrassed by my father’s frugality, not even them $2 grocery store sneakers.  I think a lot of people could use the character building that comes from building a real sense of worth rather than buying labels as the sole sign of worth. Given the high price African Americans have had to pay for every advancement we have achieved (think back on the parents who sent their children into the terrordome of Central High School in 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas as just one example), paying yet another high price for something as insignificant as a clothing label seems, at best, redundant for us. Continue reading

Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me (re-posting)

mD2014Many already know that my mother lives with me now.  After she lost her job in the recession crunch, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out (which, for my mother, also means eating my dessert.)

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I know Mother’s Day can be mostly a Hallmark invention, but I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.   Continue reading

The Last Day of the 2013 Winter Solstice!

SolsticeI have fond, childhood memories of this time: the kitchen of the aunt who helped raise me and the joy and laughter everywhere when we were stuck inside in the Ohio, winter months. I have memories of my cousins, the single mothers, who always talked to me like an adult even when I was really young, explaining how they planned and saved money for their children’s gifts beginning in July and August.  They were all struggling in all kinds of ways but always saw to it that their children would smile every Christmas morning (it was only as an adult that I figured out that my mother was doing the same.)  It wasn’t about the gifts ever, just surrounding their children with the kind of wonder and awe that poor people are not supposed to experience. The financial planning that working class/working poor single mothers did back then during the holidays (no one I knew had credit cards) represents a financial genius that could re-organize our collapsing economic system, if that was what we really wanted!  A working class, single mother who is doing it all on her own, without the social imprint of needing male (sexual) attention or patriarchal protection, has a formidable skills-set, at this time of the year and every other time. So every year around now, I especially remember these women.  I certainly see and appreciate all of the listings of suggested eco/cultural/conscious gifts to buy during the holidays, but I also remember an anti-capitalist analysis of the greatest ploy in the Western world to keep today’s working class in debt.  It was young, working class black single mothers— my very own cousins who made me into the little sister who would carry their heart’s torch— who gave me this political lens.

At this time of year, I also turn my gaze to the Winter Solstice, thanks to the help of a college friend a few years back who has shared some of the most significant spiritual insights with me. Now, let me be clear. I am no Solstice Purist, Expert, or ardent Practitioner.  There have been times when I try to get out of Solstice work by seeking an astrological reading.  The results usually tell me that I’m stubborn, stank, and sometimes rather unyielding, things I already know.  I don’t get much from this information other than, perhaps, a justification for why I have a tendency to yell at folk in the NYC subway: “get…YO… a$%… out… the… way!”  (I mean, really, you canNOT stop and answer a text message on a subway stairway when 50 people are coming full force behind you!)   I have, thus, figured that I can’t really replace the opportunities that the Winter Solstice provides with an “astrological reading.”

The Winter Solstice takes place this year for four days and four nights, December 21 to December 24 (according to nautical calendars), the time when the sun is at its southernmost position. This is that time when the sun rises at the latest in the day and sets at the earliest of the entire year. The day is shortest; the night is longest. For the Ancients in Kemet, enlightenment is literally written into the cosmos, in this very movement of the sun and stars. Light gradually increases in the winter sunrise, hence, offering a kind of spiritual rebirth. This means that you can use the time of the Winter Solstice to discover your purpose and realize true spiritual power, but only if you slow down and tap into it.

9067250My ideas are shaped mostly from Ra Un Nefer Amen who makes a plea for intensive meditation during the Winter Solstice when the gates between the spiritual realm and the lived world are open (by spiritual realm, he means spirit, subconscious, or even what Jung called unconscious.)  Though I am not following his prescriptive formula for meditation at the Solstice, Ra Un Nefer Amen’s teachings seem invaluable, namely that we often live out a toxic program that we intentionally create for ourselves.  We are not passive onlookers of our own lives and instead invent and design our own programs of stunning self-destruction with the choices we make: how we spend our money, who we choose to have intimate relationships with, how we treat our bodies/our health, and how we approach or stall our work/career.  Since spirit carries out the behavior that manifests these negative things in our lives, then spirit is what we need to work on.  What makes ancient cultures important here (Amen’s focus is on Kemet) is that they believe the Winter Solstice was the time that the spirit could receive a new message and, therefore, discard old, toxic programming.  Getting rid of a toxic program is not an easy thing, a feat few people ever really achieve (and spend a lot of money on therapy for), hence, the importance and weight of the intervention of the Winter Solstice. These are all, of course, very simplistic lenses into what Kemetic philosophers like Amen believe and say, but you see where I am going here.

My Christmas TreeMy ruminations here on the Winter Solstice might seem strange or even offensive to friends who are, on one side, atheist or agnostic, and, on the other side, deeply committed to their specific church or religious doctrines.  I myself have not been fully acculturated into these belief systems and do not go any deeper than what I have said here. I intend no disrespect to anybody, only the suggestion that the ways the Ancients saw these coming days, the axes of the sun, the value of deep meditation, and the general process where you slowwww down can’t be all that bad.  I can’t see a more pressing need for exactly such a practice when all anyone seems to be doing now is spending money, accruing debt and interest on charge cards, running around frantically, or being angry at hyper-consumerism.  This seems like the best time for me to be tapping into who I am and all that I can still become.  Though I couldn’t articulate it back then, I now see the working class/working poor single mothers who cocooned my girlhood as women who must have been able to tap into a powerful site where their spirit resided.  Yes, they used their youth, radical black female subjectivity and working class consciousness to read their political environments brilliantly, but they also lived their lives from a powerful center/spirit.  There is just no other way that you can move the kinds of mountains they did without that.  As I finish my last days grading and work towards the challenge of reconnecting with my own spirit, I’ll be thinking of them.

For All Black Angels

washington-cherry-treeIt was a fellow second grader who first told me that Santa Claus was not real.  I remember coming home with many questions, not about Santa, but about everything else I could think of.  The tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the talking animals in my children’s books, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and EVEN Wonder Woman were not real.  That’s a lot for a child to ingest in one day. There was one fiction that I never questioned though.  It was a story that a family friend, who I think of as an uncle, told me.  I had come home excited from school talking non-stop about what I had learned about President George Washington.  My uncle told me to rethink my excitement because the Big G.W. wasn’t all that.  According to him, GW chopped down momma’s cherry tree, lied about it, and so my uncle had no choice but to whup dat ass.  I told everyone about my amazing uncle after that, despite the naysayers and player-haters who insisted that my uncle was not old enough to know GW.  My uncle IS old was my vehement response.  Plus, my uncle had animatedly replayed the whole conversation for me.  You couldn’t make up something like that as far as I was concerned.  I offer this story not to highlight my eventual discovery of my uncle’s age and tall-tale-telling but as a way to counter a problematic Christmas book about African American children.  The fact that my uncle, a man who cannot read and write, replaced white greatness with people who look like me in an everyday children’s conversation is a kind of love and political capacity that escapes far too many.

116637200On Cyber Monday, I searched the corners of google and bing for multicultural Christmas books for children.  I wanted to especially see what African American children in such books did and how the idea of Christmas was depicted in black homes (I decided to save Kwanzaa for later which produces much more interesting books, quite obviously).  I purchased the 1997 text, An Angel Like Me by Mary Hoffman, because the illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu are just stunning. I was drawn to the text because it takes on the issue of why Christmas paraphernalia features white characters and not brown ones.  Everything that I read online seemed to offer a great review.  While I don’t agree with arguments that white writers can’t compose stories for black children, in this case, those arguments gain some validity.  The lack of connection to black families, black storytelling, and race pride distorts this writer’s entire ability to compose a narrative about black children and their families.

The story gets set off when a black family breaks one of its angel ornaments.  Tyler, the young protagonist of the book, immediately asks why angels are always white, blonde, and feminine.  No one can answer his question.   NO. BODY.  He even asks his mother why Jesus is depicted as white.  Again, no one has an answer for him.  Not a single adult can answer and most seem to say: hmmm, I never noticed that.  Really?  No single black adult in the book has ever thought about whiteness?  How on earth have these black folk survived slavery, Post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Reagonomics, post-racism?  Finally, at the end of the book, an art student who babysits for the family, who also couldn’t answer Tyler’s question about the prevalence of white angels, carves Tyler a brown angel that looks just like him and the story ends happily ever after. Now, for some folk, this story is not enough cause for disgust.  Well, they are wrong.  Get off this blog!  It ain’t for you or about you. Only someone who does not know black families and cannot sociologically imagine how they function in this world could write this kind of book.  Could you ever imagine me going up to my uncle, asking him about whiteness, and him NOT having any answer?  Do you really think that any child in my family who asks why Jesus, Santa, or angels are depicted as white finds people who are so stumped that they cannot provide any answer?  You think I ain’t got some answers that I relate in fantastically creative narratives?  Do you think that all we do is sit around and eat sweet potato pie over the holidays and never talk about anything?  What a stoopit book!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend recently suggested that I watch an interview with Marianne Williamson where she talks about love.  Now, some of that New Age spirituality gets a little weird to me, but, hey, to each their own. Some of it just borrows too heavily from Non-Western spiritual traditions and remixes all of that for American, bourgeois individualism.  Nevertheless, there are times when a definition or phrase moves me deeply.  In this interview, Williamson gives a definition of love that describes black folk beautifully.  She is not, of course, talking explicitly about black people, but about a kind of everyday practice that I attribute to them: “a spiritual, mental, emotional, personal strength that I develop in myself to refuse to see you as other people might have chosen to see you today.”  She calls this a kind of sacred, daily practice when you “give birth, rebirth, to [someone’s] own self-confidence, their own belief in themselves, their own strength and glory, because you see what others might not see.”  I get this kind of sacred practice and strength everytime I talk to one of my sistafriends and mentors who refuse to see me from the lens of a violating, white, dominant gaze.  I also get this every time I talk to one of my colleagues of color about something that has happened; they don’t ever act like I am overreacting or sweep everything under the rug like most white colleagues do— they have the ability to see and hear me and offer an alternative paradigm outside of white norms.  I can’t think of a better definition than SACRED to describe the teachers, mentors, parents, family, extended family, scholars, friends who see the beauty of black children and families, and choose to portray that back, despite the world that constantly suggests otherwise. I can tell you that it is ONE HELLUVA thing to step out in a world each day that tries to minimize my expertise, question my awareness/consciousness/ability… but then come home to a partner, sistafriend, auntie, uncle, pops, momma, or neighbor who tells me to keep on keeping on, moves me past the toxic energy of dumb folk, and reminds me of who and what I am.  One Helluva Thing!  Though this book ain’t worth the paper it is printed on, its ignorance did remind me to always remember what Black Love is and does.

This little children’s book simply doesn’t pass mustard for representing black children and families.  You need to see us before you can write about us.  There are authors who represent exactly the kind of love I have described and who do achieve a rewriting for black children.  I will turn my attention to them now.