Friday, January 29, 2021

In Gratitude: Cicely Tyson

There is never enough time to process or comprehend what it means to lose an icon in those initial moments of notification. So I'm not sure that I will be able to string together the perfect combination of words to express what it feels to learn that Cicely Tyson passed away. So I think I will use just one word: Grateful.

I received a text from Ol' Hobbs and because I was driving (and reading it at the red light), my immediate reaction was to recall that Tyson was supposed to participate in a virtual book chat with a local indie bookstore that evening about her recently released memoir, Just As I Am. And then to curse the fact that I had forgotten to register for the event, and then to curse the errands that had caused me forget, but then to wonder if the participants were told on Zoom that she wouldn't be able to make it (I learned later that the event was pre-recorded). Or at least that is as much as my mind could process in the interval between reading his text and the light changing. At the next light I responded with a rather irreverent nod to the fact that she lived long enough to see a certain orange stain removed from our lives...

And then it dawned on me that perhaps it wasn't a mere coincidence that Hank Aaron, Cloris Leachman, and Cicely Tyson would all transition within days of each other--all from natural causes in a phenomenal last curtain call kind of way amid our superstitions that celebrity deaths occur in threes...(but then there was also Larry King, so not exactly in threes), but still, definitely in a pattern of sorts. In the circle of life, elders become ancestors to make way for future generations.

So we are grateful that we were blessed with her presence for more years that we realized (because I had no idea how old Tyson really was until it was revealed that she was 90 a few years ago). And like every women of a certain age, we all looked in the mirror and sent up a silent prayer to look that good at whatever age the good Lord blesses us with, because Mother!

And yes, we began to call her Mother once we knew better than to settle on something as pedestrian as Ms. As much as folks like to throw around Queen, that didn't feel quite right either, although not because she didn't earn it. I called her Mother because the body of her work had never been about people who were of royal birth. Whenever Tyson was on screen or on stage, she represented all of our Mothers, Grannies, and Aunties--women who worked hard, loved hard, and in her words, did their best. 

Her best was to master her craft. Her best was to articulate our humanity at a time when Black stories were finally being told. Mother Tyson was our fearless Harriet Tubman, our courageous Coretta Scott King, our humble and dignified Rebecca Morgan in Sounder, our straight woman Ms. Perry in Bustin' Loose, our defiant Jane Pittman, and finally, our determined Carrie Watts in Trip to Bountiful. Even when she was not the star, she transformed the insubstantial into unforgettable. The first role I remember seeing her in was as Binta, Kunta Kinte's mother in Roots. That was 44 years ago, and she must have been on screen for all of ten minutes. In her later years, she appeared in several Tyler Perry movies, and again, even if for a brief flash of brilliance in a mediocre melodrama, Mother Tyson was always outstanding.

Grateful. That she kept working because there were stories to tell. She had a tireless work ethic. She upheld a standard. She was a survivor. She was humble. And those were the qualities that became the accolades that she received belatedly because Hollywood rarely acknowledges the contributions of its working class until the end. In the 45 years between her nomination for Best Actress and finally receiving the Lifetime Achievement Oscar as a consolation prize, Mother Tyson never chided the Academy for the snub. Instead, she thanked them for correcting that oversight...

Grateful that while tributes and remembrances are finally forthcoming from the mainstream press, she knew to tell her own story in her own words. Grateful that she had plans and didn't even see Death waiting in the wings for her, so absorbed she was in the work. Grateful.

Grateful that one of her most memorable performances wasn't even a scripted role, it was the dramatic recitation she gave at the homegoing for Aretha Franklin a few years ago. We were all so absorbed in that hat...

Do yourself a favor and pay close attention to Mother Tyson, small in stature and slight in voice, and witness how she commands that space behind the lectern. Watch and listen to her transformation from elegant mother-of-the-church to the back-row gossip, all without a costume change or props to set the scene. Then close your eyes to see it more clearly.

Although we joke about wrapping our elders in bubble wrap, it is because we recognize both the fragile and time-limited nature of life. This pandemic has numbed us to death, but not to the sense of loss. So many lives have been lost, yet I don't know if I would characterize Cicely Tyson's final bow with any regrets for not having packed her away to be protected from what was surely thunderous applause in Heaven.

Bravo, Mother. Rest well.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Playlist Project: Mary J. Blige

When it dawned on me that 2021 would be another big year of music milestones, I had plans...but as you probably know by now, I am easily distracted. And my good intentions to pull together several significant playlists for the Facebook page went the way of that well-worn road to hell because there was an insurrection in my city (and I needed to do something in response). But then the big day of transition came, and now that my blood pressure is starting to go back to normal and there is indeed light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel, I can turn my attention to the really important work of reviving my #PlaylistProject.

And the first artist to receive the comprehensive playlist treatment this year is none other than Mary Jane Blige (born January 11, 1971), the Queen of Hip Hop Soul or of Hip Hop/R&B or maybe both depending on who is issuing the decree. But more important than what specific title she holds, it is necessary and proper to highlight and pay homage because this is Queen Mary's Golden Year!

As is the case for several of the artists whose work I can induct to that that Soundtrack of My Life category, these next couple of years mark that crucial milestone for those of us born in the early 70s, God willing. We survived turning 40 without too many visible bruises, but 50 becomes the point of no return--it is that more than halfway point where we stop and marvel at how long we've been lucky to live and pray that we'll get at least half as much time to keep on living. We look in the mirror and see our younger selves, but through eyes that are framed by wrinkles and magnifying lenses. We see those disrespectful gray hairs that differ in texture from the rest, so they stand out in defiance of whatever hair products we're trying out this week. We take medicines and try new regimens to control conditions that we used to roll our eyes about, because now we must manage them or confront mortality.

Approaching 50 means we become the age now that our parents were when we first heard Mary and declared her our Queen. Ironically, that is the same age that some of your kids are now (I was 19). Blige's debut album, What's the 411?, was released the summer of 1992 between my sophomore and junior year of college. If memory serves, EVERYBODY on campus had that album in some form. My friend JAW, who was the trendsetter in our little clique had it on CD, which was the new way of playing music back then. Compact discs meant uninterrupted continuous play with the ability to skip and choose songs without having to rewind or fast forward or turn over a cassette tape. And because JAW was that friend who would play the same set of CDs everyday, What's the 411? grew on me, in spite of my initial lukewarm reaction to it. (Silly me, I preferred CeCe Penniston because hers was a club music/dance album, but the trend had begun to shift away from up-tempo, feel good party music to the slowed down, bass heavier tracks that were Mary's signature.)

Looking back, it makes sense that Mary ascended to that exalted place in the pantheon of artists whose music gets that unique Soundtrack of My Life designation. Unlike the other prominent artists from that era (all late-born Boomers), Mary is a Generation Xer whose life closely tracks the peaks and valleys of our journey from young adulthood into middle age. All of Mary's songs are autobiographical, whether she is singing about searching for a Real Love or swearing that she's Not Gon' Cry over some trifling dude she should have never hooked up with. Perhaps with each new love she falls 25/8 into him, because like so many of us Mary loves hard, so if she's singing Be Without You we turn it up and listen without judgment.

Because she is also that cool ass friend who brings the party with her, so it is always a Family Affair.  She is the fashionista of the group--we watch her videos and Reminisce about our 90s French roll hairstyles, the Mac makeup, and the combat boots. We hear You Remind Me and think back to watching the Arsenio Hall Show, Showtime at the Apollo, In Living Color, and special guest performances on New York Undercover.

There had been hip hop collaborations before Mary and Method Man teamed up on You're All I Need in 1995, but theirs is the one that stands out. All That I Can Say sounds every bit like the kind of great music Lauren Hill was writing and producing in her 1999 prime (inspired by Stevie Wonder), which is why that song works as an unforgettable duet in this live performance. We know that One was a major hit for U2 in 1991, but when they teamed up with Mary and re-released it in 2005, it became something altogether different. Sam Smith's song Stay With Me was good as a solo effort, but we first took notice of it as a duet because of Mary.

She entices us with innovative samples on such tracks as You Bring Me Joy built around Barry White's It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me. I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled off a song based on Cotton's Dream (Nadia's Theme), better known as the theme song from the soap opera The Young and The Restless and then name it No More Drama...but somehow Mary did. She didn't just remake You Are Everything by the Stylistics, she rebuilds a more modern classic with her version of Everything. But then to keep things interesting, she does a straight remake of Rose Royce's classic slow jam from the Car Wash soundtrack, I'm Going Down, and makes it her own.

Like her predecessor, the late incomparable Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige was crowned a monarch early in her career, and it has proven to be a sage pronouncement. Queens have to work, and Mary has been putting in the work in the studio, on stage, and on the screen. She has earned every award, every honorific, and every laurel that we have bestowed upon her, with more to come. Simultaneously regal and real, Mary is a survivor, a genuine sister-girl who hasn't held anything back: not her insecurities and vulnerabilities in Take Me As I Am; not her yearning for love as heard on I Can Love You; not her ride or die devotion on Don't Mind; and not even her public heartbreak on U+Me

So in this Golden Year of life as she embarks on new business ventures, more acting, and hopefully releases some new music, we salute our Queen Mary. She's doing Just Fine.

PS: You can access the Spotify Playlist here.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Till Victory Is Won

BLACK LIVES MATTER is the unequivocal declaration that I will continue to make until my dying day. That isn't a slogan or the name of a bunch of young idealists who go around marauding after another Black man/woman/child is killed or maimed by a vigilante/rogue police officer. Black Lives Matter is a fact that some people either choose to ignore or intentionally denigrate...until we started affirming it louder and unapologetically with self-assured defiance.

Black Lives Mattered when you brought those 19 African indentured servants to help settle Jamestown. Black Lives Mattered when it became profitable to kidnap more Africans, pack them into the cargo holds of ships, and sail across the Atlantic Ocean to a New World where you sold their bodies for profit. Black Lives Mattered when your lust drove you to commit rape and incest, and greed compelled you to enslave your own mulatto and quadroon offspring. Black Lives Mattered when men who had escaped bondage donned blue uniforms and fought to preserve this Union and defend its ideals, even though the rights and privileges of citizenship were denied them. Black Lives Mattered because rich Southern planters needed under-compensated labor to turn profits, Northern industrialists needed workers to cross Unionized picket lines, and everyone in between needed racism to feel superior.

Black Lives have always mattered, even though it makes you squirm with discomfort when we say it aloud. You recoil and respond with All Lives Matter because you claim that we are elevating our lives above your own. No, we're just emphatic that our children, our parents, and our communities deserve better than the scraps and crumbs left on the table. Our whole lives have the same value as yours, and we are more than just bodies to exploit for our labor and loins at your pleasure. So if that offends you, that we see the beauty in our hair, our skin, our sorrow, our hearts of compassion, and especially our intellect, then that is your problem.

In the past whenever Black people came to realize the fullness of our power and beauty, it triggered the same retaliatory violence that occurred this past week. It came in various forms and was effective in burying our spirit. But only for a time, because our ancestors sowed prolific perennial seeds of self-awareness and strength. You may have killed David Walker and Nat Turner, but we grew back stronger to help save this Union multiple times. You may have disenfranchised Black men through Redemption and Jim Crow, but we grew back strong in enough numbers to send Rev. Raphael Warnock to the Senate. You may have exhorted the Black women who marched in the 1913 Suffrage Parade to go back to their kitchens, but now you must refer to one of us as Madam Vice President.

If you were horrified by what you saw this week, you should be. It was disgraceful, as was the Trail of Tears (1830-1850); Red Summer (1919); race riots in Tulsa OK (1921) and Rosewood FL (1923); the Zoot Suit Riots in California (1943); the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1963); the Oklahoma City bombing (1995); the shooting rampage at Mother Emanuel (2015); the clash at Charlottesville (2017); and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue (2018). All of those incidents are examples of the anger and rage that come in response to our self-determination. You will kill anyone to maintain your supremacy, including innocent children. You claim to be believers in God, but have desecrated houses of worship. You demand respect for the flag, but also revere the banner of insurrection. This time, your tantrums led you to march on Statehouses, to burglarize and ransack the U.S. Capitol. 

That you would destroy your own house...all because our votes matter just as much as our lives. Just as much as yours.

This is your moment of reckoning. This is who you are. This is the America where you reside. These people are your racist Uncles that you tolerate because you say they're harmless. These are the cousins that you used to play with until they moved too far away to the exurbs when that one Black family moved in next door. These are the guys that were once the local town heroes, the ones who thought they deserved a career in the NFL but didn't make it because they had to compete with the Black guys who did. If you insist that you don't know those people, then here is a mirror:

Don't look away, especially not now. And don't argue that our protests for racial justice this summer were the same as your sour grapes over an election loss. One set of protests was against systematic injustice--the kind that deems our young people guilty without any due process. We took to the streets in desperation after decades of suppressing our anger over disparate treatment. Until we started to steal microwaves and flat screens from Walmart, no one cared to comfort the families whose loved ones had their necks crushed in the streets. In spite of the lie that all are equal in the eyes of the law, which is supposed to be blind, Lady Justice is an expert sharpshooter when Black people are in her crosshairs. 

What excuses will you offer to explain the mayhem inside the U.S. Capitol? How do you account for the behavior of the guy who thought he was within his rights to prop his dirty boots up on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's desk? Or the fool who walked off with her podium (a listing for which was posted on eBay) or the other electronic equipment that was stolen from other offices? What about the excrement that was smeared on the walls? All of this is justifiable anger because 81 million of us decided that our country couldn't survive another four years of Donald Trump???

I allowed myself to get drawn into a Twitter exchange with one of his supporters, and the delusion that Trump had made America greater during his tenure is real. I guess the Muslim ban, the children in cages, the piss poor response to the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico, the disrespect to Sen. John McCain and Gold Star families, and the 360,000+ people who were killed by COVID shouldn't have influenced my vote. He even suggested that I could learn the truth if I listened to Rush Limbaugh...

He also made a point to highlight the various ills that would come from Democratic Party rule: rising health care costs, abortion on demand, infringement of 2nd Amendment rights, disrespect for law enforcement, jobs going overseas, higher taxes, and more racism. And for a moment, I could see how with the right lighting, a little orange makeup, and the right pitch on that dog whistle, it could seem as if his points were valid. Perhaps voting for the reality TV show grifter has put us on the road to Oz.

But yeah, the Great and Powerful Wizard was a fake. There are five people whose names have been added to his death toll and he's run out of fingers to point.

What provoked that melee wasn't frustration over any of the issues claimed--it was the same shit that always riles up good ole American lynch mobs. It was the ascendance of Black people, women, immigrants, and other marginalized people to places that were built by them, but not for them. The rioters were deliberate in disrespecting Pelosi's office because they are offended by her presence in that position of power. They got riled up over the idea of a stolen election because it will install a Black woman within a heartbeat of the Presidency. When that rioter was seen patrolling the abandoned hallways with a Confederate flag like a sentinel on watch, it should have become crystal clear that this was a symbolic siege in the name of Redemption, the Lost Cause resurrected for the 21st Century. The MAGA slogan is the rebel yell, those red caps are throwbacks to the Redshirts, and Trump thinks he is the avenging General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Instead, he is the inept General Gideon Pillow.

Y'all are mad that Black votes matter enough to push the needle of progress a few inches forward. Y'all are mad because mediocrity doesn't measure up to excellence. Y'all are mad because getting out-strategized and out-organized by Black women who had time and resources to change the state of play is humiliating as fuck when the system was engineered to guarantee a different outcome. Y'all are mad because change won't stop with Georgia or the White House...

Black Lives Matter. We've said it for years, we've known it in our souls, but now you know it too. We won't win every battle, but we won't back down. We know how to survive as underdogs and how to persevere, so we can live with the setbacks and the pendulum swings that are inevitable. We will endure, and in so doing we will continue to perfect this wholly imperfect Union. Let us march on till victory is won!