Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Writer is Born

I was on the verge of a major depression in third grade until my teacher helped me see the light. Failure, at that time in my life, was unknown to me. I was the best at all subjects, so I thought, and official teacher's pet. But I realized my streak of perfection was quickly coming to an end each time I compared my drawings with my classmate Angela's. My family had lied to me, well misled me and I was devastated. I had proudly taken home my artistic renderings;self and family portraits, nature drawings but my specialty had been sunrises, crayoned the ideal mixture of orange, red and yellow in order to replicate that same ripe mango coloring that I saw in the morning sun. Various family members, mostly my two grandmothers, had delighted in my art work and hung my masterpieces on refrigerators, kitchen doors and bedroom walls. I was convinced I could do anything. Then I saw the perfect life-like images that Angela drew of our classmates and her family members and suddenly I saw the dog that I drew actually resembled a cow with four chicken's feet. No matter how I tried to improve, when I would look at Angela's drawings and her dog with actual paws it distressed me. My good life was coming to an end. One day after school, Mrs. Burgess noticed my distress.

"Alright kiddo, out with it. I don't see that sparkle in your eye. What's going on?" She had a way of getting the truth out of us and she always answered a question with a question. She wasn't ancient like most of the other teachers. It was the seventies and she wore bell-bottomed pants and funky, rainbow-colored toe socks. She frosted the tips of her dark hair, wore lots of mascara and pearlized, champagne-colored lipstick that matched her nail polish. Plus, she could pop her gum louder and blow bigger bubbles than anyone I knew and frequently asked for pieces of our Bubble Yum. She didn't even care that we knew that her first name was Vickie and not Mrs. like all the other teachers insisted. She was third in line of the people that I wanted to be, right behind Pam Grier and Thelma from Good Times(minus the living conditions). If her class had been televised weekly, in a motion picture, or I was confident that I could get her type of hair into afro puffs as fly as Thelma's, then she would have been first choice, hands down.

"Out with what?" I kept clapping the dust from the erasers like a dutiful teacher's pet volunteering after school, hoping she'd think the chalk dust and not my wounded pride caused the fat tears forming in my eyes.
"Did you know that I have surgical tools in the trunk of my car? Do I need to go and get them to operate on the cat that has your tongue?" The tears escaped, crawled down my face and plopped in the chalk dust beneath my feet.
"I can't draw," I blurted and began wailing.
"Say's who," she asked, the pop of her gum like punctuation.
"Says me," I moaned hiding my face in the crooks of my arms. She lowered my arms and lifted my face towards hers, her speckled green eyes flashing with concern.
"Why would you say such a foolish thing?"
I explained to her about Angela's beautiful people and my chicken-footed cow dog and she started laughing.
"See even you know it," I whined. She laughed more, asked me if I was done feeling sorry for myself as the tears slowed and handed me a tissue and a flyer.
"Aren't you glad you don't wear mascara yet? If you did you'd look like a raccoon right now." I smiled weakly and read the flyer. It advertised a writing contest. Top prize was a gift certificate and a live reading of the story at the public radio station's.
"I won't win. When they see my pictures to go with the words they'll laugh," tears flowing again.
"You silly girl. Do you know that my husband looks forward to reading your spelling word sentences each week? Don't you see? You draw just beautifully except you do it with words."
"What do you mean?"
"That means go home and figure it out. It's no fun when I give you all the answers. Get to work on your story and lemme have a piece of Bubble Yum before you go."
I went home and began work on my story though still perplexed by her words. I weaved a tale about a little boy having a nightmare and being chased by a huge ten-eyed monster. He runs into a cave and eventually into what he thinks are the monster's arms. As he is trying to break free of the monster's grip he wakes up and realizes his mom is holding him and it was all a nightmare. I submitted my story even after Mrs. Burgess nixed my idea of letting Angela draw pictures to accompany it.
"Don't need pictures," she insisted.
I won first prize but still wasn't clear about what my teacher meant.
On the day that I went to read, the station manager gave us a tour and showed us where we'd be reading in the sound booth. After I read my story, she congratulated me.
"I loved your story and your descriptions made me see that little boy and the monster just as if you'd painted a picture."

That year I learned one of my greatest life lessons. We all have a unique paintbrush and a story to tell.

Monday, May 25, 2009


The season had changed though it wasn't quite summer but it was warm. It was 2001, commencement season. We saluted the graduates during Sunday service. After church, people were hanging around and reminiscing.
"Girl, I can remember when your Mama was carrying you in her stomach. Now look at you, grown and graduating from college," many spoke those words or something similar, followed with a hug that had come across generations and carried friendships, and communicated pride and hope for what lay ahead.
I embraced the young man graduating from high school, with the wide, white-toothed smile that lowered your defenses and made you want to listen to what he had to say. He was one of the 'good kids' which had sadly become the buzz phrase, more so than describing the virtues of the actual youth, for a Black boy on the threshold of manhood, who we could feel confident would make the transition to responsible adult, without ending up in prison or dead.
"So what are you gonna' do now?"
"I'm going to enlist in the army and do some traveling, earn a little money, for now," he answered proudly.
"Well it's good that you have a plan and the military isn't a bad thing anymore. You'll make a great officer since you're already a gentleman." We laughed.
'It's not like back in the day when we had to worry about you going off to war."
He nodded. Two years later, ARTIMUS BRASSFIELD was killed in Iraq.
We're supposed to take a break today at 3 p.m. from grilling and enjoying a 'free' day to remember what this day is really about. I'll be thinking of Artimus and all the people, old and new, who serve in the military. They're all appreciated. Who will you be remembering?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Happy Birthday El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

May 19, 1925

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain - and we will smile. Many will say turn away - away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man - and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate - a fanatic, a racist - who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.~Ossie Davis


Sunday, May 17, 2009

B*****S Books Does Not Care about Real Women, just Men and Boys with Advice for them

It’s nearing the end of April and I leave the house one morning and I'm feeling like Katrina. Not that Katrina but the one from back in the day, that was walking on sunshine. I was enjoying that gorgeous spring weather in Texas that's the perfect mixture of sunshine and humidity and makes you fall in love, like it’s that cute boy from ninth grade, before its true nature shows up when the summer comes and the relentless sun heats up and breaks your heart if you don't die from a heatstroke first. Anyway, I head to the bookstore that I shall not name, before work. I was overdue for the book that I wanted by a couple weeks but I have been in self imposed book-buyers rehab, and grateful for the library privileges that come with my job. My library card is like the American Express Black Card. Books are my crack and like Erasmus, I'd rather buy books than food. I've been swiping the library card like a fiend and saving my money. But some books are must-haves. So I pull up to the still unnamed book store with my music pumping and Ledisi singing my morning anthem. In my mind I'm already enjoying lunch with iced tea, in one of those cozy outdoor spots on campus so I can simultaneously enjoy the weather and read my book. I look at the table of best sellers. Don't see it. Look at biographies. Don't see it. Every where I turn though, I see Steve Harvey and all of his perfect teeth grinning at me like 'come on girl, you know you don't have no man and I can teach you how to be a lady and rec-ti-fy all dat cause even tho' I been married a coupla’ times, at the very least, I can show you where you been going wrong and what to look out for when dealin' wit the opposite sex.’ I smile, politely, tight-lipped back at Steve because a thought is sneaking into my consciousness, the book that I want to buy, may not be in the store. And Steve’s throwback message doesn’t interest me.
Noticing me wandering, a clerk approaches. "Can I help you?"
This Child Will be Great is the title of the book that I’m looking for,” but no recognition registers on her face. While she types, I spot the political books with several images of President Obama and think, relieved; she’s probably over there as I dash to where they are. Nope, not there either. Now I’m concerned. Lightbulb. I smile. The clerk smiles back. “It's sold out, right?” That's great, I think. I want this book to sell out and be number one on the bestseller’s list.
Clerk is still smiling and points to the image on the computer screen. "Is this it?"

Yes, I say, that’s her. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.
“You'll have to order it.”
“Wow, you sold out then? I’m impressed.”
“Oh no, we never had it in the store.”
Blank Stare.
furrowed brow.
The smiling clerk next to her shrugs and chimes in, "I don't know why we never had it but you can order it."
"I don’t want to order it. I want to purchase it and read it at lunch time, this afternoon while I sip tea. I mean, she's ONLY the first elected female president on the continent of Africa, but you NEVER had it?"
They both open their mouths to respond but I quiet them with the hand and walk away. There is nothing they can say. I march out of the store, indignantly. It never occurred to me that President Sirleaf's book wouldn't be available.
I walk around the outdoor plaza and calm down and convince myself that I’m over reacting. This isn’t sexism or internationalism or racism or anything like that I tell myself. The other book store will have it. Ledisi is still singing but not as loudly as before when I pull up to the next book store. All the way there I am preparing myself for disappointment because I was expecting to find her book in the first store. The first female president ever, democratically elected, on the continent of Africa, that’s major. Right? I park a distance and walk towards the store and before I get close I see Steve Harvey, larger than life grinning that toothy grin from a poster in the front window advertising gifts for mother's day. I give him the finger.*
As soon as I open the door the lil toddler, ok I’m exaggerating, but he’s just a kid, who was all over the morning shows giving advice on how to talk to mom's and sharing fascinating discoveries like if you want more soda ask dad but if you want to make mom happy say you’re sorry. His previous book, how to talk to girls, was a best seller and this new book is stacked from floor to ceiling, greeting me, when I enter the store. He's just a precocious kid so I stick my tongue out at his books. I find a computer and look up the book that I want. It says they should have a copy in the store. I head to biographies. Not there. I go to the help desk and state the name of the book and that I can't find it even though there should be a copy in the store. While the clerk is typing, I say softly, "she's the first female elected president of a country on the continent of Africa," in case that matters. He snaps and nods.
"Oh yeah like Sierra Leone or somewhere?"
"Yeah well I knew it was one of them," I tell that little girl who lives in my head to calm down. At least he can name an actual country in Africa, he has an idea of who she is and they have the book in the store. I follow him to biographies. We still don't see it. He goes back to the desk and returns.
“Maybe it was filed under Johnson,” I suggest. He is looking in the S's and just as I am about to give up there she is. He hands her to me and I smile and hold the book close as though it is a sibling that was given away at birth and I am finally meeting her.
"Hmm, I thought it was a paperback," he says. I give him the evil eye and turn and walk quickly to the counter to pay, resisting the urge to smack him with the book. He should know newly released writing wouldn’t be paperback in the third week. However careless with his mouth, he has been helpful.
As I'm paying, he marches his pear-shaped body to the counter.
"How's it going for her?" he motions with his head towards the book and reaches for a bag that he hands to the cashier who is checking me out.
“Well they’d been in a civil war for so long she has so much to do to stabilize the country, it’s got to be daunting, but I’m sure she is having some success.”
I'm thinking: I don't know?!Do you want me to whip out my cell phone and call her and ask? Duh, why do you think I'm buying the book? But I act like a lady and smile and say thanks when he tells me to enjoy my reading.
And it is a compelling read. Maybe it should have been called, ‘This Child Will Be Great Even Though She Didn’t Act Like a Lady Nor Think Like a Man Because She Was Too Busy Being a Woman and Changing the World to read books by boys and men advising her how to act'. Sigh. Maybe Steve should have taken a break from giving advice to those sad Strawberry Letter writers and had Pres. Sirleaf on his radio show and he could have been named a chief like Jon Stewart. Tavis Smiley had a great interview with her as well.Anyway, that’s what I’m reading along with Half of a Yellow Sun and Without Lying Down.What are you reading?
*no hate for Steve he's a funny guy, sometimes,and if you were doing this, shame on you.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dear Mama

Dear Mama,
we started planning for this day, some years ago, when you were close to 90 years old and we felt secure that you'd make it to your 100th birthday. Probably the only time we considered that you might not survive was when your children agreed, after a 'discussion', to let the doctors insert a pacemaker. You had nixed the idea when you were in your 70's, still driving, eating bacon and eggs every morning and too fly to "be setting off alarms and worrying about the microwave electrocuting me" which was the idea that you somehow had in your head about the gadget. "When it's time for me to go, I will. I'm not eating no special diets or letting them put any electronics in me." You always did what you wanted and that was that.

Years later, the doctors questioned why you'd never had one inserted and lamented that you probably wouldn't live through the surgery because you were just too old, but Big Michael, your next-to-the-baby son, said "then there is nothing to lose" and was adamant that trying to keep you alive was a better choice than just waiting for your overworked heart to give out. We waited for you to come through the surgery but prepared ourselves before you went under that this might be goodbye. Most of us were there at alternate times, five generations of your offspring, friends and church members hoping that love would be stronger than a weak heart.

"If she wakes up it will be a miracle," the doctor warned,impressed with all the love and hope surounding a little old lady but trying to keep everyone realistic. He didn't know that you always did what you wanted to do.

Hours later, you woke up ordering people, including the doctor, around, and removing tubes, more talkative and stronger than you'd been all year. Even the doctor said it was a miracle that he hadn't really expected.
Party plans for your centennial went into full effect. It never occurred to us that you wouldn't make it to 100. June 1, 2005 you slipped away during the night. No warning, no ambulances, attempts at resuscitation or illness signaling the end. You went quietly, just like you'd always wanted. Right after the holiday and before your grandson's birthday so those days wouldn't be 'marked' by your death.

Today, the occasion of your 100th birthday, a part of me still wishes that we'd had a party celebrating your life but it's painful, though unspoken, the emptiness that Mama's like you leave, even when they have lived 96 years and go peacefully in their sleep. We are supposed to feel grattitude that you are in a better place and we had you as long as we did. Still, I miss you.

I have been re-reading Sula because it always makes me think of you. Do you remember when I found her? In elementary school I was reading faster than everyone and my teacher would let me go and roam the library while she taught the other kids so that I wouldn't get bored. 'Sula' was waiting, sitting on the shelf like she knew that I was looking for her, knew that I was searching for something more than Nancy Drew and other childhood staples. Ebony Jr. had beautiful pictures but I wanted a book with those shades of brown images drawn in words. I read the first paragraph and I knew that it was a story about Black people but there was no picture of the author and Toni Morrison was a racially ambiguous name. I followed my instinct and checked it out and had read nearly half of it by the time I ran in the house after school, thrilled because one of the characters lived in our city, Flint, Michigan and Eva spoke the greeting I loved to hear coming from your mouth. "What you know good?"
I was out of breath because I ran all the way to tell you about this book I'd found and I risked your wrath because I interrupted your one guilty pleasure, General Hospital. But Luke and Laura could wait. This was important and I was curiously disturbed and wanted you to answer my question.
"What kind of Mama chops off her own leg and sets her son on fire?"
"Say what?" You turned to me with a worried expression, the dishtowel, ever present, across the shoulder of your daily uniform of plaid dresses.
I handed the book to you like we were in court and it was exhibit A. I had dog-eared the section where Eva pours kerosene on Plum and lights the fire. You answered my next question before I could even ask.
"Colored woman wrote this book," you stated using language from a time gone by that we teased you about.
"There's no picture and I'm not sure," I said. "You ask the teacher?" you asked me. I hadn't even asked my beloved teacher because she had explained to someone the week before that Malcolm X was a bad man who hated white people and that's why we didn't talk about him. I knew better and I loved my teacher and it was mutual on her part so I decided to leave race issues out of our conversations because I couldn't afford to find out that she disliked another Black person that I admired.
"Don't matter. I know a colored woman wrote this," you said matter of factly and you kept reading and never looked at the tv again that afternoon. I heard you shouting, "yes, yes" like you did when the pastor said something that you agreed with on Sunday mornings, while you were reading. I didn't even ask for the book back that night. The next morning you instructed me to "see what else she has in the library". I brought home The Bluest Eye but I hadn't read any of it afraid of what the Mama's in this book could do to their children. You gave Sula back to me and told me to finish it. I heard you having your daily morning coffee with the neighbor explaining to her what the story was about and you both agreeing that children never understand what Mama's have to do to take care of them. You even lamented how you felt for Eva having to end Plum's suffering because he was an addict.
"I don't blame her. I don't know how folks get dressed on Sunday mornings, go pray and sing songs, shout and carry on and then come home to chicken dinner and your child is who knows where. After drugs get them, they never right again anyway," I over heard you say. But I disagreed with you then. How could a mother do something like that? You read many books along with us over the years but the one's by Black author's, especially women, were your favorites. Still, you would revisit your beloved Sula from time to time.

The story paralleled your life. The young woman, teenager in your case who had prayed for the death of a marriage to a mean, unfaithful, shotgun husband and had her prayer answered with his unfortunate illness and death. The house full of border's and children you took in and cared for. The necessity to steel yourself against judgment and sometimes chip off little pieces of your soul and do things to feed your children who kept coming even though you refused to marry again, and didn't want to leave them alone while you cleaned house for another woman. The adult children, well really your two daughters, my mother and aunt, who wondered, like Hannah, if you 'loved' them. You would only answer them with a question, "what do you think?" followed by indignant silence. It would be years later after the birth of my own daughter that you would admit you could have been gentler because affection hadn't been your way. But your mother had died when you were five and your grandmother, born a slave, refused affection because in her mind that would draw attention and you could be sold even though you were never enslaved. "I may not have given them hugs and kisses but I said I love you every time I fed them and they had a place to sleep at night. And wasn't no man here mistreating or beating us. Action speak more than words." You did your best. Still, you told me to do both with my daughter and I do. But I understand why you were that way.
Funny, all these years I always thought it was Eva you related to the most but maybe it was Sula who was a year older than you. You were older than she was when you read the book but maybe it took you to when you were her age and you too chose freedom as a woman. It was unheard of in your day but men always treated you with respect and you seemed to value that beyond anything.

I remember you asking me when my daughter was a baby if I now understood why Eva had taken Plum's life? I was still adamant. "No loving mother would do such a thing." You smiled.
"Okay, we'll see in fifteen years." It's fifteen years and on a trip home one summer, I saw a high school classmate walking down the middle of the street with just one shoe, mismatched dirty clothing and wild hair. She banged on the car window begging for money, talking gibberish with eyes vacant as a zombie's. She probably didn't even know what day it was, so I didn't expect her to recognize me from back in the day. It shook me and scared my daughter. "She's just on drugs," I explained. "More harm to herself than us." But I kept thinking about her weeks later. In high school she was a beautiful, lively girl with wild Chaka Khan-like hair and dreams of being an accountant. She carried a briefcase and dressed like a business professional. I kept imagining my daughter in her place and the words slipped from my mouth easily, "I'd rather see you dead than let you roam around like that." Is that love or control or lack of faith? I wish you were here to discuss it but I'll keep reading and figure it out.

I understand why you related to the book 'Sula' so much. General Motors bought the St. John area, populated by Black people, to build a highway and a vibrant community was displaced like the folks in the Bottom. Your life was not the norm and consequently you had to deal with living outside the constraints placed on folks to fit into society's definition of what is right. In some ways, we were like the Peace family, non-conventional(translation, not man-headed) with a strong matriarch who kept a 'friend' in her purse to 'help' people who thought they didn't have to listen to a little old Black woman, who enjoyed the respect of men but wanted to run her own life and household. You gave birth to twelve children and eight survived and you raised them on your own, with little money and they all thrived and respected you and others. You sacrificed much and endured barriers that I'll never know but you made it. Now they make statistics of families like yours and pronounce them doomed. I know better. I knew you.

Happy Birthday Inez Copeland. Rest easy, Mama.
We miss you, but we're fine.