Thursday, January 30, 2020

Playlist Project: Civil Rights Movement

On January 15, we acknowledge the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on the Facebook page that day I posted this playlist of songs and other resources that paid homage to his work and legacy. In the midst of a week that also celebrates the founding dates of three Black Greek Lettered Organizations for women (sororities), it presented me with the opportunity to acknowledge his widow, Coretta Scott King as well. She was a member of one of those illustrious organizations, and in my opinion, she is one of the many unsung sheroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Without her tireless work to commemorate her husband's birthday, MLK day would not be a federal holiday.


More significantly, the efforts of so many unsung veterans of the Movement would go unrecognized if it had not been for her push for a federal holiday. Although February is formally designated as African American History Month, there is only so much history that can be taught and illuminated in 28 days... And while the MLK Holiday does center our attention on his life and work, the Civil Rights Movement was never about one man.

Thus, this playlist offers a glimpse into the many ways that music served to sustain the energy and spirit of the protests. I have expanded on what was originally posted on the Facebook page by offering more versions of the selected songs, additional songs, and other resource material. Like every Black History program you recall from school, we start with the  Black (Negro) National Anthem:

Lift Every Voice (1900) - The national anthem that only Black people know (all three verses). The words were written by James Weldon Johnson, the music by his brother J. Rosamund for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. The traditional arrangement is how most of us learned it, including this memorable collaboration that used to air on public television in the 90s, as well as this inspirational video that was produced for Barack Obama's 2009 Inauguration. In the past ten years, I have heard this stirring anthem version more often, arranged by the great Roland Carter. Here is a performance at the Kennedy Center with the 105 Voice HBCU Choir (which will give you chills).

Celebrating MLK

Happy Birthday (1981) - I'm not sure why we even bother to sing the traditional arrangement of this song since inevitably, Black people will sing the chorus to this Stevie Wonder version by default. I just read this article about how most people were unfamiliar with the origins of the song, so along with a deep sigh and an #OKMillennial eye roll, if you didn't know the back story, now you do.

Pride in the Name of Love (1984) - I sometimes forget about this song because I was raised on urban radio, which doesn't play much U2 (and I admit to not knowing about this other MLK song), but this is kind of why we think of Bono as the Irish Stevie Wonder.

King Holiday (1986) - The mid-80s were big for artist collaborations and what I noticed for the first time in all these years of watching this video (which I do every year) is that almost all of the featured artists were young, up-and-coming talents. From the rappers to the boy groups (Menudo y'all) to Whitney Houston getting the coveted feature solo--folks that have most recently been featured on Lifetime biopics and Unsung...and I also just learned that the song is not called Sing Celebrate.

A Dream (2006) - I did not remember this song at all, but it features will.i.am and Common, two artists who would collaborate again on Yes We Can (2008) to support the candidacy of Barack Obama for President. And while this list is supposed to highlight songs about MLK, in these troubling years since Obama left office, we need to be reminded that yes we did and yes we can do it again!

Glory (2015) - From the Selma soundtrack, this song written by John Legend, also featuring Common, will prove that both of these brothers are the Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott Heron of our times.

Movement/Protest Songs

We Shall Overcome - Folk singer Joan Baez sang this at the March on Washington in 1963, and though it was popularized by Pete Seeger, another folk artist, his version is an adaptation of a work song that was based on a hymn written by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. What is so unique about this song is how it can be a gospel song (as sung by Mahalia Jackson), a folk song (as performed by Bruce Springsteen), but also always a communal protest song. In recent years, the song was at the center of a dispute over its copyright (now resolved), so it is now in the public domain.

We Shall Not Be Moved - This is a 2007 release recorded by Mavis Staples, but it was a well-known protest song. It was performed at the March on Washington in 1963 by the Freedom Singers, a choral group from Albany State University (GA) that included Bernice Johnson Reagon (who later went on to found Sweet Honey in the Rock). It was also recorded by Pete Seeger, as well as an Australian folk group called The Seekers in the late 1960s.

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round - This version was recorded by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. I found mostly contemporary recordings of this song, such as this clip from the film Selma, Lord, Selma, featuring a young Journee Smollet and this jazzy version recorded by The Roots for the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution. Finally, here is a gospel version performed by the Mass Choir of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Oh Freedom - People sometimes forget that Harry Belafonte was a singer and an activist who was heavily involved in the Movement, so finding this 1960 recording was a pleasant surprise. I found this 1997 a cappella recording by The Golden Gospel Singers, and several of the comments referenced American Horror Story, so while I try to process that scene...I saw a passing nod to Black folk singer Odetta. Opera singer Shirley Verrett also released a version in 1966.

Eyes on the Prize - I thought this had been a song that was written for the 1987 documentary of the same name, but in fact it was recorded by Pete Seeger during the Movement, and later by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mavis Staples, Joss Stone, and John Mellencamp.

Woke Up This Morning - That is the voice of activist Fannie Lou Hamer, from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)who is not usually remembered as a singer because she is most commonly known as the woman who declared that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. The Freedom Singers also sang this song, and you can hear Bernice Johnson Reagon's booming voice on this recording with Sweet Honey in the Rock for the film Freedom Song. John Legend offers this soulful version for Soundtrack for the Revolution.

This Land is Your Land - Having mentioned his name in connection to several of the aforementioned protest songs (because he performed and recorded them all), it is only fitting to mention another song that Pete Seeger didn't write, but that he gets credited for popularizing. Woodie Guthrie wrote this anthem in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America. In some ways, this is an odd choice for inclusion on this playlist, since it is rarely included on most programs that feature Movement music. Yet, whenever it is included, we sometimes get treated to something special, like this upbeat take offered by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

March On Washington (1963)

In my research, I noticed that several of the performances featured white folk singers...so I did some probing and learned that might have been intentional to send the message of interracial unity. The words to some traditional hymns and spirituals were changed to become more ecumenical. Typically, the music provided at most protest marches would have been led by locals or a group like the Freedom Singers, but this March was a huge production. High profile entertainers were brought in such as Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan and folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. This next section will highlight their performances as well as other protest/movement music they recorded.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Camilla Williams (1919-2012) and Eva Jessye (1895-1992)
Two classically trained singers lent their voices to serenade the marchers. Marian Anderson sang He's Got the Whole World in His Hands because she arrived too late to sing The National Anthem. Instead Camilla Williams sang the Anthem. The Eva Jessye Choir (chosen by MLK) performed We Shall Overcome and Freedom Is The Thing We're Talking About.

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)
Mahalia Jackson has been hailed as the greatest gospel singer of all time (so she definitely will be featured in her own #playlistproject). She also receives the great honor and distinction of being the only woman onstage during MLK's Dream speech. In fact, she catches the spirit and shouts at him halfway through to tell the crowd about his dream...and the rest is history. During the March, she sang How I Got Over and I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned. Growing up, I was taught that MLK often asked her to sing If I Can Help Somebody, although at his funeral she sang Precious Lord (and as my Daddy would say, I bet there wasn't a dry eye in the church).

Joan Baez (1941 - ) and Bob Dylan (1941 - )
These two singers are synonymous with 60s era protest music, so it is no surprise that they performed at the MOW. As mentioned earlier, Baez sang We Shall Overcome, but she also sang Oh Freedom. She and Dylan sang When the Ship Comes In but I wasn't able to find any audio or video of that, so here is a duet of them singing Dylan's anthem Blowing in the Wind in 1984. Dylan performed Only A Pawn in Their Game, his song about the murder of Medgar Evers.

Peter, Paul and Mary (1961-2009)
The folk trio of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers (1936-2009) performed Blowing in the Wind and If I Had A Hammer at the MOW, a song that was written by Pete Seeger.

Odetta Holmes Gordon (1930-2008)
The Black folk singer known by only her first name, Odetta, sang the spiritual I'm On My Way.

Other Popular Songs 

When I pulled together the original playlist for Facebook, I chose a sampling of songs that also included popular releases that were not specifically connected to MLK, but definitely acknowledge the turbulence of the times:

Let There Be Peace on Earth (1955) - I learned this song as a child, so I wanted to start by sharing this beautiful version sung by the Harlem Boys Choir. I was taught that it was an MLK favorite, so of course that means there is a Mahalia Jackson cover too. Many great artists have interpreted this song, but some stand-outs were Gladys Knight and Wintley Phipps.

Fables of Faubus (1959) - There are two versions of this Charles Mingus protest piece against the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who was in office at the time of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. The version with lyrics is, ahem colorful...

Alabama (1963) - This haunting piece was released by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, three weeks after the March on Washington. If it reminds you of another Coltrane piece, it is probably A Love Supreme, released the following year.

Birmingham Sunday (1964) - Here is another song that was written in response to the horrific church bombing of September 15, 1963, performed by Joan Baez (written by her brother-in-law Richard Fariña). Rhiannon Giddens also sings a beautiful version.

The Times They Are A-Changin (1964) - Bob Dylan wrote this anthem for the 60s, and it makes sense that it has been recorded by nearly all of his contemporaries--Joan Baez, The Byrds, Nina Simone, Simon & Garfunkel, Keb' Mo', and of course Bruce Springsteen. But even I was not ready for a Burl Ives cover...

A Change Gonna Come (1964) - Let me say at the outset that I always get emotional when I hear this song because Sam Cooke can sing anything. ANYTHING. So when other singers record or perform this song, I need them to bring it, like Otis Redding did and Aretha did and Al Green did. I will accept covers by Anthony Hamilton, Leela James and Seal because those are all solid. But if you can't bring a tear to Denzel's eye like J. Hud did in this mic drop version, then you need to get back in your lane.

Mississippi Goddamn (1964) - The fact that Nina Simone makes only one other appearance on this playlist is a curiosity, until I learned that this was her first political song (and we'll need to do a deeper dive on her #playlistproject). Meanwhile, I'm still trying to decide how I feel about this tribute by Andra Day.

Film Resources

These are both dramatized works and documentary films that offer background and context to frame the events, as well as to introduce some of the ordinary people who participated in the movement:

King (1978) - This miniseries airs every year (all day) and offers the most comprehensive dramatization of MLK's work in the Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Memphis Labor Strike.

Roots: The Next Generation (1979) - A couple of years ago, I had a chance to watch this ground-breaking miniseries again for the first time in decades. The story in the second series starts after Emancipation and works its way through to the modern era when author Alex Haley begins tracing his family history. Of course, Roots isn't autobiographical as we once were led to believe, but it does offer an engaging dramatized historical narrative that tracks with actual events.

Eyes on the Prize (1987) - This documentary offers the most comprehensive collection of personal accounts offered by various Civil Rights Movement veterans chronicled twenty years after the assassination of MLK. I haven't seen it in quite a few years and now that many of the participants have passed away, it is an invaluable historical resource.

4 Little Girls (1997) - This Spike Lee documentary is unflinching and haunting. On YouTube, you will find several other videos that have a similar title and while they each cover the same event, the common thread among them is how catalyzing this tragedy was in changing the mood of the country. However, with respect to the other works, I am particularly intrigued by this trailer for a dance interpretation of the bombing.

Selma, Lord, Selma (1999) - I've only seen this movie one time, years ago...but it is one of several made-for-TV films that were released in the late 90s and early 00s that offered dramatizations of specific events from the Movement. From what I recall, it was told from the point of view of the young people who participated in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights protests, so it might be a good starting point for introducing these events to children.

Freedom Song (2000) - I have never seen this movie, but as I was doing the research for the playlist, I kept coming across its soundtrack, which features Sweet Honey In the Rock (the song you hear in the trailer is Song of Freedom, written by the phenomenal Carole King).

The Rosa Parks Story (2002) - This is another made-for-TV movie that doesn't air often enough; however, it stars Angela Basset and was directed by Julie Dash, so those are two good reasons to hope that it gets shown again soon. Another reason is that while it dramatizes Rosa Parks' life, it offers more context to dispel the myths that we were taught about her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Soundtrack for a Revolution (2009) - Somehow I missed seeing this documentary about the music of the movement when it was released, even when it aired on PBS in 2011. Most of the artists featured here are the usual suspects like John Legend, Wyclef John, Angie Stone, Anthony Hamilton, and The Roots, and if you've clicked on a few of the links above, you know they brought their A game.

Selma (2014) - This film is Ava DuVernay's powerful dramatization of the story of the pivotal Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965. The uniqueness of this film is the moment it captures, which is after the celebrated March on Washington and King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, we find King at the crossroads of his career--an international figure whose involvement in local issues carries greater risks and challenges. Is he an asset or a liability, and how does this portrayal square with King the martyr and icon?

Finale

This project is another example of how the adjunct history professor in me still seeks every opportunity to impart knowledge. I wanted to bring this effort back to where it began with a nod to Coretta Scott King. She was a classically-trained singer when she met MLK, and a crucial yet lesser-known role she played in support of his work was to give concerts to help fund the efforts of the Movement. I found this single clip of Mrs. King performing, but more importantly, I wanted to acknowledge the admonishment their daughter, Rev. Bernice King, issued not to overlook her mother when honoring her father.

Finally, these last clips are sentimental nods to MLK's alma mater, Morehouse College, from where he graduated in 1948. It is tradition that Morehouse men lock arm in arm to sing the words to Dear Old Morehouse at the end of a gathering, so for a project on one of her most prominent sons, I could not omit that hymn. However, my choice to end this playlist is another spiritual (performed with the Cornell University Glee Club) that symbolizes MLK's life and dedication to social justice--Got A Mind To Do Right.

Monday, January 27, 2020

An Ode to Daddy's Girls

I never knew Gianna Marie Onore Bryant (and didn't even know her name until this tragic moment), but I mourn for her today. When we first learned of the crash, in our collective shock we sent up prayers for her father and the four daughters he left behind. Then when we learned that she also perished in the crash, we cried. We've been crying since we learned that seven others were also lost in this tragedy1qw``.

GiGi Bryant at 13, had her whole life ahead of her. So did her famous father, who at 41, could have been my younger brother. One truism about life is that all of us believe we have a lifetime ahead of us, but in reality, we only have the time we get. There is no rhyme or reason to any of this. Death doesn't discriminate.

There will be plenty of tributes offered to the great, but complicated Kobe Bryant in the days and weeks to come, and most will mention his daughter. Of course, she wasn't really famous except for the fact that she was his child; nevertheless, she was a young basketball phemon just like her Dad. She might have been the third coming of the Bryant legacy on the hardwood, begun by his father and her grandfather, Joseph 'Jellybean' Bryant who played in the 70s and 80s. Apparently, Bryant had hoped that would be the case as he was her coach, and they died while en route to a basketball camp.

From every picture that has been posted, it is obvious that Gianna was a Daddy's Girl. Not every little girl has the blessing of having that kind of relationship with her father. As a Daddy's Girl myself, I am a testifying witness that there is nothing like that unconditional love from the first man in your life. NOTHING. Therefore, I will leave it to the obituary writers to properly eulogize Kobe Bryant (warts and all); I will do my best to pay tribute to the little girls like his precious GiGi.

Since I didn't know her, I have to use examples from my own life to frame this. I am a Daddy's Girl, as are my Nieces, and my daughter. I went to school with a bunch of Daddy's Girls, have worked with several in various capacities. As I've grown older, I've learned it isn't something we outgrow. And we are very easy to spot. Usually at some point in a conversation, we will reveal a Dad-specific detail about our upbringing or perhaps, we will mention something that we need to do with or for our Dads. There may be other anecdotal character traits that we all share, but all I know is that we are all unshakable in our love for him.

Our bond is symbolized by that mythical ring that folks say adorn our little finger, and it's true, our Dads are devoted to us. All over Facebook and other social media, I see all of these burly tough guys who are just head over heels in love with their daughters. I see all of these proud peacocks who brag about their baby girls--with toothy grins and chests poked out, they recite all of our accomplishments alongside their dreams and hopes for our bright futures. Our Daddies are our biggest fans.

We are our Daddies Daughters. We tend to like the things that our Daddies like. His favorite music and his favorite sports teams are likely to be our favorites as well. Where our interests diverge, our Daddies' enthusiasm will never betray him. We tend to look like our Daddies, even when we look just like our Mamas; we become chameleons in their presence, sometimes reverting to being little girls, even when we are grown ass women. But we are also fierce Warrior Princesses, so nobody better mess with our Daddies! Because we regard our Daddies as larger than life, no one can compare to him. None of the dudes that we date, not even the ones who convince us to marry them...NOPE. That's why some Daddy's Girls never marry because no other man can measure up.

The Hub and I have had discussions about this over the years, and my retort is now and forever shall be, well now you have a daughter...and it was me thinking about how my world would implode if I ever lost these two that compelled me to write.


So it doesn't surprise me that Gianna Bryant loved basketball and that her father was her coach. It saddens me that they died together, but it is also comforting to know that they were together. That doesn't make this tragedy any less devastating, because there is a mother and three sisters and extended family in mourning right now. Not just for the Bryants, but also for the Altobelli family, the Chester family, Ara Zobayan (the pilot), and the Mauser family.

Last night before he went to bed, I overheard the Hub listening to Dear Theodosia from the Hamilton soundtrack. It is one of the tunes he and the Kid sing to each other, and so if there was ever a moment when I could read someone's mind, that was it. Similarly, I was not surprised to the see my social media timeline flooded with messages from dozens of doting Daddies. My Dad called me this morning just to check in.

Rest well, GiGi. You made your Daddy so proud.


Friday, January 17, 2020

Playlist Project: Aaliyah

On January 16, we remember the late R&B singer Aaliyah (Houghton) on the date of her birth. This is a somewhat delicate choice as I am not revisiting her entire career, particularly since she was an early protege of R. Kelly. In other words, she was one of his original victims...so instead of highlighting that first album, I wanted to focus on her collaboration with über producer Timbaland. (Not that he doesn't have his own baggage with respect to his inappropriate feelings towards her, but we'll address that at another time.)


At the time of her tragic death, Aaliyah was 22 years old, and possibly on the precipice of an extraordinary career. She had a string of hits and had even performed Journey to the Past from the movie Anastasia at the Academy Awards in 1998 (the youngest singer to do so), so for many of her fans, the what-ifs remain these many years later. While revisiting her catalog, her influence and legacy are evident in the work of her peers, most notably Ciara and Mya, as well as newcomers like Normani (who must have been all of five when Aaliyah died).

The late 90s was the high water mark for big name music collaborations, with Timbaland serving as the production Godfather for many of those hits. He produced Aaliyah's sophomore album, One in a Million in 1996, along with Missy Elliot (who has a cameo in the video for the title track). In fact, these two artists are inextricably linked as Best Friends, a song from Elliot's debut album, Supa Dupa Fly (1997). Their bond was fondly recalled in this remembrance of the late singer. Here are some of Aaliyah's notable hits:

One in a Million (1996)
If Your Girl Only Knew

Hot Like Fire

Soundtracks/Collaborations
Up Jumps Da Boogie - Timbaland and Magoo (Welcome to Our World ~ 1997)

Are You That Somebody? - Dr. Doolittle (1998)

Try Again - Romeo Must Die (2000)

Aaliyah (2001)
More Than a Woman

Rock the Boat

And as we know, Aaliyah and eight members of her entourage died in a plane crash after she shot that video. Thinking back to the what-ifs...it is hard to say. The music business is fickle and while solo women singers are again having a moment (with Ella Mai, H.E.R., Ari Lennox, and SZA holding it down), most of Aaliyah's contemporaries have reached that point in their careers where we are wondering what happened. It's hard to imagine how a 40-something Aaliyah would fare in Beyonce's music business. The fact that we remember her proves that her impact was significant, so it is fitting to end this tribute with a nod to her posthumous album, I Care 4 U released in 2002. In addition to this hot title track, it featured the single Miss You which I posted to the FB page back in 2011. Indeed we do.

Playlist Project: Sade

The work I do on this platform continues to evolve. On the Facebook page, I have been posting tributes to various artists to celebrate birthdays or other significant life events/transitions. The search function allows me to refer back to old posts, but it made sense that I would try to capture some of those external links in an index. Hence, the Playlist Project.

Our first artist is Sade (Helen Folasade Adu), whom we salute on her birthday, January 16.

Although I was pretty sure that I had posted a playlist in honor of her 60th Birthday last year, I had not; instead, I had posted this playlist last summer in honor of the 35th anniversary of her debut album, Diamond Life (1984). Therefore, to keep from reinventing the wheel, here is an index of all the songs that were posted to both lists, as well as those that were suggested for inclusion by RC, my music editor.

If there was one word that I would use to describe Sade, it would be timeless. Her iconic look hasn't changed in the 35+ years of her career, and which according to this article from Vogue, has had the somewhat mystical effect of making her appear ageless. And her music, which I have been listening to since middle school (not at all aware at the time that her lyrics were well beyond my understanding) is as smooth and comforting as a silk robe, a cozy lit fire, and a glass of wine. So as you enjoy this playlist, I hope you've poured a good one.


Diamond Life (1984)
Smooth Operator

Hang Onto Your Love

Your Love Is King

When Am I Going to Make a Living

Promise (1985)
The Sweetest Taboo

Is It A Crime

Jezebel (live)

Never As Good As the First Time

Stronger Than Pride (1988)
Stronger Than Pride

Nothing Can Come Between Us

Love Deluxe (1992)
Cherish The Day

No Ordinary Love

Pearls (live)

Like a Tattoo (live)

Lovers Rock (2000)
By Your Side

King of Sorrow

Soldier of Love (2010)
The Moon and The Sky

Flower of the Universe is a bonus from the A Wrinkle In Time (2018) soundtrack, which she wrote and recorded at the request of director, Ava DuVernay. Reportedly, Sade is back in the studio, so this nugget certainly has us eagerly anticipating her next project.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sisterhood is a Verb

There are a lot of people who will come into your life, and as you try to figure out how to define them, I want to issue a few words of caution...


This meme came to my attention when one of my FB groups made it the profile picture. I downloaded it to my phone last month and have been waiting for just the right moment to share it. January 13, which marks Founders' Day for my sorors of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. seemed as good a day as any, but to be honest, any day within the last couple of weeks would have been sufficient. This coming week as the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (January 15) and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. (January 16) celebrate their Founders, it is entirely fitting as we recognize the illustrious women of those organizations. Back when I was all aglow while celebrating my 25th Reunion at Spelman or perhaps at some point in the coming months when I prepare to celebrate my 30th high school reunion, this meme is just as relevant as I commemorate my grounding in institutions that were founded to educate young women.


Sisterhood is an action. I know this in my bones and in my soul. I know it because for the past year, God has been showing me just how blessed I am to be called a sister/soror/friend by so many women. It is something that becomes clearer and more poignant in moments of grief, but it is similarly intense and beautiful in everyday moments. Sisterhood is the unexpected invitation. It is the out-of-the-blue phone call. It is the just because text or card in the mail. It is love, which is another action verb that we all need to learn when and how to use more appropriately.

And let me emphasize that part--sisterhood requires love. In spite of the coordinated colors and oaths and candle-lit ceremonies, without love most groups are only able to provide you with affiliation. Your political party is an affiliation. Your membership in most civic activities is an affiliation. Your job, your school, and even your church might be affiliations--places where you work, where you earned a degree, or where you show up to worship on special occasions. The transformation of these spaces depends a lot on the relationships you establish there.

Therefore, sisterhood is a choice. At a key moment last year, I am forever grateful to have realized the difference between what I was choosing and what I was obligated to do. I had invested a great deal of time and energy into an effort, but at a certain point it became evident that it was more draining than fulfilling. Walking away left me with mixed emotions, but ultimately it brought me peace of mind especially once it became clear that my presence would not be missed. I was not meant to find sisterhood amidst that group, and that has been just fine.

Sisterhood is showing up. It is standing up. It does not back down in the face of obstacles. Sisterhood is not symbolic, which is why some of us are dubious of safety pins, little black dresses, and co-opted slogans that only seem to work for those who are only invested in their own liberation. Sisterhood is hard work, not an adjective that can be applied to every group of seemingly like-minded women.

My sincere hope this week as thousands of my sorors and women from two other Black Greek-Lettered Organizations celebrate the establishment of our sororities, is that we take time to reflect more on what binds us in the larger purpose of serving our communities. I know why I chose Delta, but that choice does not preclude me from celebrating the work of my AKA sisters in their support of HBCUs. I have been anticipating the centennial celebrations of my Zeta sisters because I recall how exciting and overwhelming it was seven years ago for us. I am intrigued to see how my SGRho sisters will catch the spirit in preparation of their centennial by honoring their firsts. Enough of our Founders lived long enough to see the evolution of what they started blossom into something much more profound, so we honor that legacy by respecting and supporting each other.


Of course, this topic has emotional resonance for me in light of my friend's transition. She facilitated my membership into Delta, sat through my initiation, and was a model soror for others to emulate. Thus on Saturday for the first time ever, I experienced an emotional reaction during our ritual (also later while singing the Spelman Hymn) because in both moments, I had another epiphany about sisterhood. It lives...eternally. When we memorialize that connection, we aren't severing a bond--we are immortalizing it.


I recall a conversation I had with my now-adult nieces about the pitfalls of living with other young women, and it saddened me to learn that they were so wary of developing bonds with their peers. To them, the prospect of betrayal was too great a risk (as if other kinds of relationships aren't susceptible to the same fate). Of course, we've all learned that lesson the hard way--sisterhood can be imperfect, petty, and superficial. And? Get over any hang-ups and disappointments you have with individuals who are human and fallible, as if you haven't ever fallen short. Sisterhood begins in the space where you leave behind any expectations of proportionate reciprocation. All things may never be equal, but how many relationships in your life truly are? Heck, some of your relatives are just people you know.

Having grown up without biological sisters, it has been fortuitous to find myself in spaces where women gather. From the deaconesses who brought me into their circle as a teenager to the matrix of seasoned sorors who mentor me now to the crowds of eager young ladies I have recruited for Spelman, my life has been enriched by their presence. This is why I can attest that sisterhood is more than membership in a clique. Sisterhood is like the compound interest we earn on our investments. The deposits might be small, but over time the value increases. It deepens the more time you commit. Sure there are years that are better than others, but that is the natural ebb and flow of life. It flourishes, it might languish, but like a plant it can be revived with the right amount of care and attention.

Friday, January 10, 2020

I Hope You Dance

When daylight dies and o'er us calm is hovering
Come to us then and whisper words of peace...

Tomorrow will be one of those days when I will have to confront what I once considered unimaginable. I have to formally say goodbye to a dear friend, and if I am able to get through the day, then it will be the first of many unfortunate mid-life crises I will have to endure if I live long enough. Writing those words if I live long enough after having spent the last couple of weeks living in a haze doesn't bring clarity or comfort. It just allows me to express some of the emotions I have been holding inside since December 24.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that there are a few ride or die folks whom I call friends. These are a handful of people who have seen me at my best and my worst, and who still love me in spite of myself. Each of these people come from a specific time and place--family, Spelman, law school, Capitol Hill, Delta, church, or St. Mark's Dance.

Karen and I met as kids in dance. I've been wondering if I have been recalling my exact age correctly, but I was about eight or nine years old when I first met this very tall and aloof teacher's assistant at my first ballet class. The weird thing about memory is how some facts and details are inexact while others are crystal clear. In that vein, what is unforgettable about when we met is how I looked up to this nearly six-foot tall twelve year old. She had long legs, long hair, wore braces, and wore a black leotard, which in traditional ballet was indicative of maturity and skill level. As a late beginner, I wore a light blue leotard, so there was no way we could be friends even though we were only three years apart in age. She was already dancing en pointe with the teenagers in the Junior Company and with the adults in the Senior Company, so in hindsight, it is more accurate to say that I was a kid when we met.

By the time we were taking the same ballet classes and I had advanced to wearing a black leotard, she and the other Junior Company members were in high school. I was a nosy middle schooler who had to wait for my Mom or walk to my grandmother's house after class, so I only got to listen in for a few minutes while the older girls chatted and changed out of their toe shoes upstairs in the old dressing room between class and company rehearsal. I gleaned a few details about boys, hairstyles, and college applications, but I was still just an awkward kid who couldn't imagine that she and I could ever be friends. That belief didn't change much a few years later when we were students at Spelman together, only overlapping by a year because she graduated early.

Fast forward to us connecting at a local alumnae event and then again at the dance studio a few years later. By this time I was a young attorney; she was a college professor. I had been taking ballet classes off and on for about two years when it was suggested that I should join the Senior Dance Company. Again, the details might not be as exact, but when I was subsequently invited to a baby shower at the studio, we reconnected for real. We discovered that she had been one of my Dad's math mentees, which bound us closer. And over these past 15+ years, we became more than friends. We became sisters.

Crab Mallet from Karen's 40th Birthday Party

So tomorrow will be one of the hardest days of my life. I have attended the funerals of relatives, classmates, sorors, people from the dance community, folks who have worked with my Dad, and the parents of my friends. I have never experienced the heartbreak of losing a close friend, especially not the sister-friend whose life intersected with mine on all of those levels.

Hence, I don't know how I can say goodbye to the friend who was the preeminent storyteller. The friend who was good for talking a hole in my head while retelling stories that she had retold multiple times before. The friend who did everything right the first time while the rest of us stumbled and got sidetracked before eventually getting it together. The friend who was a prodigy who graduated high school, college, and earned her PhD all by the time she was 26. The friend who could be brutally candid and unconcerned about how her honesty might affect you personally. The friend who invented the word hangry. The friend who knew everybody I knew because they met randomly somewhere and became cool. The friend I referred to as my Dad's other daughter, the mathematician. The friend whom some people confused me for because we were both tall Black ballet dancers. The friend who taught me how to embrace my height. The friend who shares a godchild with my husband. The friend who could always pick up where we last left things, no matter how much time had transpired. The friend who tested me once...but it was all good. The friend who always had something going on, yet still managed to show up unexpectedly. The friend I admired so much because she lived on her own terms.

The friend whose living room I was in just a few months ago, trying to sort through the details of her sudden illness. The friend who assured me that she would be alright, before revealing the truth of her diagnosis, so I believed her because I know she thought she would survive this too. The friend who bore the painful loss of her father under similar unexpected circumstances just three years ago, so surely life couldn't be this fucking cruel.

The friend who was my Spelman Sister, my Soror, my dance partner, my three amusement parks in one day buddy, my co-conspirator, my girl-let-me-tell-you, my OG Busy Black supporter, my career counselor...my sister whom I will miss for the rest of my life. So instead of goodbye, I hope you dance.

I swear I hope there is a Heaven. Since we won't get to grow into know it/seen it/done it all old ladies together, I hope that when my time comes, you are standing there at the gates waiting to welcome me with a scroll of stories. I hope that in the meantime, you will watch over me, shake your head as necessary at the various mistakes you would have avoided, and that some of the genius you shared with the world will blossom into some magnificent gift. I already believe my long-legged dancer-in-training inherited some of your confidence--my reminder that a woman who navigates this world with confidence and self-assurance can do anything she sets her mind to accomplish.

And when life's race is won,
Thy noble work is done,
Oh God, forever bind
Our hearts to thine.

Rest well, Sis.

Fried Chicken Wednesday: Tyler Perry

Y'all...(and yes, I know today isn't Wednesday)


For what it's worth, I appreciate every person who reads this because I do not take it for granted that in the grand scheme of things (seeing as how the DESPOTUS came thisclose to igniting World War III and still won't be removed from office), you have better things to do than to read another think-piece by a wish-I-was-a-published writer about Tyler Perry. Especially as I too, have better and more important things that I could be writing about; yet here were are. Eating a whole bucket of Nashville hot fried chicken barely a week into the new year.

You know the background details, but in case you missed it, Tyler Perry posted this to Instagram earlier this week and Black Twitter responded accordingly with the requisite high fives (from his fans), and then dragging (from his detractors), while the rest of us in the cheap seats contemplated the direction our lives could have taken. Either way, we all broke New Year resolutions to stop cussing, lying, hating, gossiping, eating/drinking too much, being snarky, comparing ourselves to others, selling ourselves short, boasting, bragging, coveting, cheating--whatever promises we made to live our best lives in 2020.

And all because Tyler Perry thought he would impart some timely wisdom from the Gospel of Self Reliance, narrated by Madea. I'm sure his intentions were good. He wants us to succeed, just like he did by pulling himself up by Jesus's bootstraps (otherwise known as that time he asked his Mama to let him borrow her house dress and one of her wigs). He once lived in his car, but now his name is on a highway exit in Atlanta! Hellurr???

So what we're not going to do in the year of our Lawd 2020 is hate on the man who has The Oprah and Uncle Joe Biden on speed dial, as well as a payroll of enough hard-working blue-collar Black people to rival the postal service. All of my fellow starving artists take note--Perry built an entire empire from those one-dimensional church skits that Sister Mary Jenkins plucked out the week before the Easter pageant on her old Remington typewriter (the one where some of the letters didn't work anymore, so she hand-wrote in the Rs,Ts, and Ys). While we're broke and hungry for a Popeye's fried chicken sandwich, Perry is eating chicken cordon bleu every night. Why? Because of his work ethic.

The kind of work ethic that doesn't involve writing and re-writing or editing, outlining and researching to create unique plots and authentic characters. He doesn't have time for that shit. I mean, how long do you think it took for him to pen A Madea Family Funeral?

The kind of work ethic that doesn't have time to negotiate with unions, which is why it isn't all that surprising that Perry doesn't employ a writers' room or that he's shamelessly enjoying the perks of Georgia being a right to work state. In technical terms, one of the benefits of establishing a foothold in Hollywood South is exploiting the advantages of cheap labor and production costs with favorable tax incentives.

That same cocksure work ethic has provided opportunities to many Black actors, some of whom can say that a Perry written, produced and directed film propelled them into the mainstream spotlight, most notably Idris Elba and Tessa Thompson. For veteran actresses like Cicely Tyson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Alfre Woodard, Gabrielle Union, Sanna Lathan, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Jenifer Lewis, Phylicia Rashad, Thandie Newton, Angela Bassett, and Whoopi Goldberg (and I'm sure there are others), his films have provided solid in-between work. We're not mad...just relieved that none of them had to suffer the indignity of losing an NAACP Image Award to Madea.

Give the man credit for all he has accomplished and then recognize what he is and what he is not. Tyler Perry is a shrewd businessman, much like Byron Allen. He is a content creator, which is not a 21st century synonym for an artist, so his work product should never be compared to the brilliance of Kenny Leon, Ava DuVernay, Lee Daniels, or Suzan Lori-Parks. His chosen lane is quantity, not quality, which in turn has earned him more money, power, and influence than most of us could imagine. Greatness and excellence are too elusive and subjective; whereas mediocrity is more lucrative work, if you can get it.