Thursday, February 16, 2023

Playlist Project: Steppin' Out

Last year on the Facebook page, I promised that I would share this rather unconventional playlist on behalf of those for whom Valentine's Day is celebrated on someday other than February 14th. I got inspired to do this by a song that my friend and de facto music editor RC posted on his personal page, one that I had never heard, but was very familiar with the song that inspired it. Then a few Saturday mornings later, I was minding my business and heard a crazy song called My Side Piece (2016) on the radio...also for the first time. Later that same weekend, I saw a thread on Twitter about the meals that had been used to lure folks in and well, I took that as a sign.

But here's the thing--I never published this piece. Days turned into weeks and by the time I realized that I had moved on several times to write about other topics, this project languished in my drafts. Recently when I noticed the calendar, I wondered if anyone would recall that I had promised, but never got around to posting this...well, here it is for those who have been waiting. 

Now let me say this at the outset, the Busy Black Woman is NOT judging anybody, which is why this playlist is called Steppin' Out. I won't be resorting to name-calling or blame-gaming since it takes two to tango and much like the it's complicated relationship status category that used to be a feature on Facebook, nothing is ever as straight-forward as most of us would like to believe. And since I am not calling names or passing judgment, it is entirely your choice to continue reading to see which songs made the list...

We begin with the most iconic of songs in this category, a staple of bid whist in the basement/old-school Saturday morning R&B radio, Me and Mrs. Jones (1972), by Billy Paul. Because if you are of a certain age, you grew up hearing this song and had no idea what kind of thing they had going on "every day at the same cafe". I mean, until I gave more thought to the matter, I often wondered how wrong it was just to meet for coffee with an old friend until I realized that the lyrics were winking at us. This was a subtle nod to stepping out, unlike that other basement classic by Johnnie Taylor, Who's Making Love (1968). I think it is fair to say that Taylor's version is definitive because the Blues Brothers (1980) aren't really singing. Mr. Paul's triumph has been reinterpreted a few times, most notably by The Dramatics (1975) and more recently by Michael BublĂ© (2007). And though I could not find a stand-alone this clip of this song on YouTube, I must give an Honorable Mention to the waiter in the Walter and Jaleesa Anniversary episode of A Different World (you can watch the entire episode here). 

In this same vein of songs from the 70s, ain't nothing subtle about If Loving You Is Wrong (1972) by Luther Ingram. He admits to being a married man, but apparently that didn't deter Millie Jackson (1974) or Barbara Mandrell (1978) from stepping out with him. When the Manhattans sang Kiss and Say Goodbye (1976), I'm betting it was because old boy knew he was about to get caught, so in order to avoid the inevitable third degree from the wife and her crew, The Pointer Sisters, inquiring How Long (Betcha Got a Chick On the Side) (1975), he just called the whole thing off! Not sure if it was a similar preemptive strike happening in this 90s version by N-Phase, but it is kind of ironic to think of Beyonce Knowles-Carter channeling that same get-to-stepping energy from 2006 on Irreplaceable now (put a pin in that because you already know). Lest it be thought that married men were the main ones doing the stepping out, Bill Withers made it clear that he was suspicious of his woman on Who Is He and What Is He To You (1972). Nowadays since love is love, we cannot assume that a man would be the only partner asking that question because in 1996, Meshell Ndegeocello wanted to know as well. 

Not everybody can hide their tracks, thus when Betty Wright caught Richard "Dimples" Fields in the bathroom singing She's Got Papers (1981), we can all guess how that went down. Well as it tuns out, he landed on his feet according to the song that inspired this playlist by Barbara Mason She's Got Papers (But I Got the Man) in 1981. However, the original response was recorded by Jean Knight, but was called You Got the Papers (But I Got the Man); before that, Ann Peebles released a different song You've Got the Papers (I've Got the Man) in 1979. That's a whole pile of messy papers all over the place 😩! As an aside, and I hope Ms. Mason doesn't take this the wrong way, but she also sang a cover of If Loving You Is Wrong as well as I Am Your Woman, She is Your Wife (1978), so I have to ask if this woman had any friends? Or were her only other girlfriends the two women from The Soul Children, who sang I'll Be The Other Woman (1973)?

So that no one gets the impression that people only began singing about stepping out (and getting caught) in the 70s, I found quite a few gems from some of our favorite jazz vocalists, beginning with The Other Woman and You Can Have Him, both recorded by Nina Simone in 1959. Another classic comes to us from Carmen McRae's Guess Who I Saw Today, a song I often hear on the Sunday jazz programs that she recorded in 1957. This video interpretation offers an interesting twist using Nancy Wilson's classic version that was released in 1960. Wilson also sang an emotional rendition of You Can Have Him in 1964, but perhaps the most dramatic version came from Dame Shirley Bassey in 1966. There is something so dignified in the way these women sang about their hurt. I feel like throwing a martini!

(Random sidenote: two of these songs came from Broadway musicals, this song had been written in 1949 for Miss Liberty by composer Irving Berlin and was initially recorded as a duet between Dinah Shore and Doris Day.) 

If you think only city folks engage in stepping out, I'm inclined to believe it is a regular theme in country music as well. If Dolly Parton was worried about losing her man to some chick named Jolene in 1973, by 2021, Sis in Chapel Hart had decided You Can Have Him. Carrie Underwood was over her man too, but she made sure he knew how trifling he was in Before He Cheats (2005). And while this takes us off topic a bit in terms of songs that tell the story, check this 2018 video for Yola's Ride Out In the Country...

As D'Angelo said Shit, Damn Motherf***er

We all know human emotions and interactions are complicated. A change in routine got Stevie Wonder wondering on Lately (1980), although he was the one Creepin' in 1974 (oh wait, that isn't what he's singing about, that's what Luther Vandross was doing in the coda to If Only For One Night in 1985). Or was that Jodeci in 1993, begging for forgiveness clad in leather on a desert set on Cry for You after the tables were turned, once they too, realized that Lately things had changed? In 1985 Stevie sang about having a Part Time Lover (with Luther singing backup), so that's an easy mistake to make. However, there was no mistaking what Shirley Murdoch was singing about that same year in As We Lay and how she tried to warn Kelly Price from making the same mistake in 2000. For years, I could claim naivetĂ© while singing along with Whitney Houston to Saving All My Love into my hairbrush, but not so much when I was singing along with Stephanie Mills to Secret Lady in 1987.

Babyface and Pebbles offered an interesting perspective on how people got caught up in Love Makes Things Happen (1990) because sometimes things do just happen. Unless you are taking your partner for granted, and she decides that Ray Parker, Jr. was right in 1981 when he sang A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do). It could be the chance encounter with an old flame, as was the case with Rick James and Teena Marie on Fire and Desire that same year (and they clearly got consumed in the moment). It was loneliness that propelled Jeffrey Osbourne into the arms of a Stranger (1979). For Jill Scott in 2004, it was flirting with temptation on Cross My Mind while Philip Bailey was singing about all the Reasons in 1974 why he couldn't resist. Karen White enjoyed the thrill of the nonstop Secret Rendezvous (1988). For Cherelle, the other man was giving her Everything I Miss At Home (1988)...so Joe was right there promising to do All of the Things (Your Man Won't Do) in 1996. And in 1970, Gladys Knight was making a strong case for herself on If I Was Your Woman

Sometimes, the other person doesn't know all of the facts of the situation. For instance, I don't think Vesta Williams had the slightest clue in 1988 that she was the other woman until she happened upon the man's wedding! It took a minute for Shiley Murdoch to figure out that her man was somebody's Husband, and Jocelyn Brown was also in deep with Somebody Else's Guy (1984) before she learned the deal. Luther Vandross knew from experience not to get mixed up in a Secret Love (2001); meanwhile Stokely from Mint Condition questioned What Kind of Man Would I Be, and then chose not to yield to his desires in 1996. Ultimately, one would hope that when faced with temptation, most people assume like Toni Braxton did in 1992 that Love Shoulda Brought You Home.

When love doesn't bring you home, well that's how we end up here, like the couple in Atlantic Starr's Secret Lovers (1985). The ladies of TLC were singing Creep out of a mix of loneliness and revenge in 1994. Carl Thomas regretted his feelings for someone's wife in I Wish (2000). In 1983 when Klique found out that his woman was stepping out, he begged her to Stop Doggin' Me Around (taking his cues from Jackie Wilson in 1960 and Johnnie Taylor in 1972). Meanwhile the O'Jays, upon having learned about the state of things at home, were also attempting to work things out in 1976 on Your Body's Here With Me

By the way, when I said I wasn't judging anybody...I lied. I am judging how we refer to the participants in these liaisons because the evolution from being referred to as The Other Woman (Sarah Vaughn in 1958) to being called a Side Piece (Julia Cole in 2020) seems like quite the misogynist twist on how we regard stepping out. Property was the rather impersonal double entendre used on Naughty by Nature's O.P.P. from 1991. Homewrecker was the term used by Gretchen Wilson in 2004 to describe women out there with no shame, like Evelyn "Champagne" King in Betcha She Don't Love You (1982). Would the same be said for men waiting in the wings like Tyrese on The Other Man (2002)? What would you call someone like Bobby Womack who sang how I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much (198)? Is there a derisive name for a Mister-Too-Good-To-Be-True who is offering the world to someone's unhappy woman like Babyface was in 1989 on Soon As I Get Home? Men get just as caught up in these entanglements as the women do, like Mtume on You, Me, and He (1984). 

Now if you find yourself in one of these complicated situationships, try not to end up arguing like Monica and Brandy on The Boy Is Mine in 1998 (ditto for Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney in 1982 because that was whack too). Hopefully, you aren't the reason why Usher was dropping bombshell revelations on Chili in his multiple Confessions (still not sure why he needed two songs when he offered up the details in the first part). Nor would it be cool to roll up like Meshell Ndegeocello, confronting the rival by telling her If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night). I remain un-convinced that ultimatums are ever the move like Today demanded on Him or Me in 1988, because even if it did work for Prince on The Beautiful Ones in 1984, there is always the possibility that it might backfire. 

If you find out that your partner is stepping out on you, there are multiple ways of letting them know you Heard It Through the Grapevine, and most of us think of Marvin Gaye's classy heart-broken confrontation ballad from 1968. I had always assumed that Gaye was just putting his spin on the funkier up-tempo Gladys Knight and the Pips version from 1967, so I was surprised to learn that this song had been originally recorded (but unreleased until later) by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966. Motown was good for having multiple artists on the label cover their hits, and this song made the rounds because it was also recorded by Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers (1968), The Temptations in (1969), and The Undisputed Truth (1971). However, this song belongs definitely to either Gladys or Marvin, depending on your mood, which is why this joint live performance is such a gem. When Credence Clearwater Revival recorded it in 1970, it was a nod to both of their iconic Motown arrangements. Roger & Zapp took a completely different approach in 1981, with the talk box and the beat making this sound like dance battle at the club.

Speaking of public confrontations, this scene from Mo' Better Blues (1990) is probably how most men try to play off getting caught in the act and hope that the women respond without making a scene; I suspect Beyonce's rage on Hold Up (2016) is how most women really feel. Since Beyonce can afford to pay for all of that property damage, confrontations are more likely to resemble the Sunshine Anderson approach on Heard It All Before (2001) than Jazmin Sullivan's Bust Your Windows. Men get hurt too based on Oran 'Juice' Jones' low-key stalking then humiliating eviction of his girlfriend In the Rain (1986). To be honest, I remember hearing this song by Al Hudson and One Way when I younger in 1979, but now that I'm older I find it hard to believe that some dude is just going to Toast to the Other Man...

Which brings us to the penultimate song on this playlist, brought to us courtesy of Shirley Brown making that Woman to Woman phone call to Barbara in 1974. For years, I've tried to understand how Barbara was to blame for Shirley's man stepping out on her (given that they only just met if her number was still in his pocket). It also seemed like a weird flex to fight for a relationship by claiming that your significant other ain't shit without you...sounds more like a deflection. And that was exactly how Barbara framed her response on From His Woman to You in 1975. 

However, the fact that 'Barbara' is the same Barbara Mason who made a whole singing career of being the other woman (and was the impetus for this playlist) is both ironic and my cue to turn up the lights to send everybody home. The brown liquor is all gone, and somebody is probably waiting up for your response to a WYD or WRU text. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s listening to urban adult contemporary radio (i.e. The Quiet Storm) or watched music videos on Saturday night, then you probably know most of these songs. By now, you've also figured out why we were admonished to stay out of grown folks' business. Relationships are complicated, period. I don't have any profound observations or parting words because I'm not judging. Beyonce is still with Jay. This is a playlist reflects that reality, so if there is any lesson to be gleaned from any of this, it is to keep your eye on any woman you meet named Barbara...

Friday, February 10, 2023

The Rise and Fall of Great Race Men

This should have been published a month ago, the weekend after that insanity over the election of a new Speaker of the House. So, in the spirit of believing that just because you missed your intended stop the first time, that doesn't mean you can't go back, or keep riding until the train turns around, I decided to publish it now. Something about the start of Black History Month and watching the State of the Union address brought this train back around:

Now that the fun of electing the new Speaker of the House is over, we need to have a serious talk about a few matters. MLK weekend just passed and February is here, so we're entering that zone of time where folks need to be reminded that having Black friends and rooting for Black ballplayers is not a license to say anything to or about Black people. So for my second PSA in this new year, the Busy Black Woman has a few choice words of warning. If you read this piece or my initial commentary on the Facebook page, then you might know the matter of Rep. Byron 'not Brian' Donalds (R-FL) being trotted out as everybody's Black friend bothered a lot of us coming so soon after y'all tried it with Herschel Walker.

Our ancestors are displeased, and if you think it was hard work just to convince a handful of zealots to end their second insurrection attempt in two years, just try that so-and-so was a Republican and that makes us not racist schtick again! Y'all think this is a damn joke???

Don't play with us, and don't mock real American heroes for your political shenanigans. It is bad enough having to hear y'all misquote MLK every January because you think it deflects from the fact that you're still saying/doing something offensive. It only gets worse when you send in clowns like Byron 'not Brian' Donalds who allow themselves to be showcased like some Pet of the Week. We are neither amused nor persuaded to join your ranks because you happen to know a little Black History trivia, as if we don't have access to the same information. Google is free. 

Furthermore, Black folks don't need to be reminded or told about Abraham Lincoln, our past allegiance to what used to be the Republican Party, conservatism, or any other topics you feel compelled to educate us about regarding politics. We're not new to any of this. I keep telling you that some of our roots are deeper in this country than yours, so we know American History. Despite what some of you were taught, our stories are integral to this country. So to every twit who jumps onto my TL to 'teach' me that the Republican Party freed enslaved people in 1863, according to my calendar, this ain't 1863. In Washington, the Lincoln Administration also authorized reparations to be paid to their former enslavers for the loss of their human property. Unless you are willing to confront hard truths, then I don't owe anyone political loyalty for emancipation since my people never should have been held in bondage in the first place. 

But let's be exceptionalists and act like the point isn't whether American chattel slavery was ever right or wrong. Instead, let's continue to promote this idea that Black people (along with our Indigenous siblings) are perpetually indebted to the same folks who believe it is their burden to tolerate us since they couldn't totally annihilate us. 

I don't know much about Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), but after I listened to the entirety of his floor speech when he nominated Rep. Byron 'Not Brian' Donalds for Speaker, I decided to give Rep. Roy the benefit of the doubt by assuming that his intention was not to mock us. However, I fail to see how alphabetically picking the first Black guy on your side's roster wasn't intended as some kind of see, we've got Black people too stunt. Sure, for a brief moment, everybody in that chamber applauded, but then someone scrolled down that same roster to later nominate Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), presumably to keep the game going by having two Kevins on the subsequent ballots. If Rep. Donalds' nomination really was about judging people by the content of their character, then support of Donald Trump was based on what, his hair?

No sir, we are not fooled. We know our history, but more importantly, we know yours.

We know that there have always been members of our community who were misled into believing that by aligning with certain interests, it would improve their individual/family condition. Just as long as they didn't agitate for more, some benevolent boss would gladly hand down their used clothes and leftover table scraps. In exchange for a more dignified job guarding the door instead of plowing the fields, this would allow them access to see all of the nice things they might eventually deserve. All they had to do was remain loyal servants with modest ambitions. 

Now the issue has never been whether one should remain loyal (because that is a personal choice), but rather if one should regard kind treatment as anything other than basic human decency. That should be expected, not earned, so the lie has always been that we had to be deemed worthy of respect. Think about that for more than a moment--how we are expected to prove our humanity to people who sold our children away like cattle. Lest we forget, white people passed all kinds of codes and laws to control every aspect of our ancestors' lives, all the way up to a Supreme Court declaration that we had no rights. This notion that it will be different now, as if we never had to fight for every single inch of ground, that we ought to trust the same forces that have subjugated us for centuries?

Miss me and my people with ALL of that nonsense! It is 2023.

Great Race Men made that same mistake too, such as Booker T. Washington, whom conservative Black leaders love to point out was practical, honorable, and misunderstood. At the turn of the 20th Century, he was definitely one of the most well-known and respected. A formerly enslaved man who literally pulled himself Up From Slavery, Washington had become a national figure after he gave an address to the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. His powerful speech, often referred to as a Great Compromise, was in fact, a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality based on his lived experiences. 

See, Washington had witnessed Reconstruction as a student at Hampton Institute in Virginia. When the federal occupation of the former Confederacy came to an abrupt, but politically expedient end in 1876, he was working as a teacher in West Virginia. He was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama to lead a new school in 1881, where he served until his death in 1915. The time period of Washington's formative education is a significant one during which Black men figured prominently in the social, economic, and political reconstruction and reunification of the former Confederacy with the Union. Yet, these men, all Republicans, lost their positions through Redemption tactics that ran the gamut from intimidation to political maneuvering to outright disenfranchisement. The Grand Old Party opted not to fight for its rightful place in Southern politics until nearly a century later.

Thus, by the time Washington was sent to Alabama to found and lead Tuskegee Institute in 1881, its lone Black representative in Congress, Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL), had lost reelection and the others would eventually lose their seats as well. Washington, the honorable, pragmatic Race Man must have thought he had received some long-awaited sign of approval from heaven when he was given a primetime speaking slot on the program. So he did what any intelligent person would do when trying to make a favorable impression on those whom one feels needs to be persuaded. He read the room and gave the kind of speech he believed would reassure those in power that the Black community knew and understood its place. 

The speech was a success, but his words didn't result in long-lasting change. Washington's prominence as a Black leader in what we know of as the nadir of Black life in this country, didn't shield Black bodies from the noose, the chain gang, or other exploitative forms of labor. Although he didn't publicly condemn white mob violence like his peers, he worked behind the scenes to support education and Black entrepreneurship. Yet, when he was invited to the White House as a dinner guest of President Theodore Roosevelt (R) in 1901, just six years after the address, it caused an uproar. When Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913 and ordered the segregation of civil service jobs, I'm sure Washington was not on the invitation list for the screening of Birth of a Nation (1915) at the White House. Ten years after Washington's death, how many of those same men who applauded the speech at the Cotton States Exposition borrowed their wives' bedsheets for this March on Washington in 1925?

Here is where some of the amateur Twitter historian would declare that political party affiliation matters since Roosevelt was a Republican and Wilson was a Democrat. And those identifications are indeed true and reflective of the ideologies of both parties a century ago. However, fifty years after Wilson left office when John F. Kennedy was President, the ideology of the Democratic Party had continued to shift in favor of civil rights. And this is the part that is conveniently forgotten or intentionally misrepresented, but it simply proves how some of us are much better students of American History than others. Or why some people are so insistent on shielding their children from the facts that don't flatter their grandparents.

Therefore, I have a few words of warning to these modern-day Race Men like Rep. Byron 'not Brian' Donalds, because I would hate for him to suffer the same fate as most of his ideological forefathers. It won't end well for you, bruh...it never does. And you're no Booker T. Washington.

In one of my all-time favorite movies, Glory (1989), there is a Black character named Thomas, who had grown up in Boston with Colonel Robert Shaw and Major Cabot Forbes. When Shaw receives his promotion to command the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Thomas is there to celebrate the news with them and volunteers as the unit's first recruit. During basic training however, Shaw becomes cold and detached from his childhood friend. This is demonstrated in two powerful scenes: one where Thomas is chastened to mind the proper protocol for addressing a superior officer; and another encounter with a fellow enlisted man who mocks Thomas for thinking that he was still 'friends' with Shaw. 

Your gambit to align with the Insurrectionists got you noticed, and now you have a new position on the Republican Steering Committee. And that is quite the come up from obscurity, so you must feel honored, much like bearing the regimental colors in battle. It is certainly symbolic, but meaningless if you don't ever become more than just the Black guy who guards the door. When McCarthy goes down, what do you think will happen to you?

Black conservatives have argued for over a century how just being in the room was progress. But we've always been in the room, but how much advancement occurred by following the go-along-to-get-along approach? Not much if individual accomplishments only rewarded those deemed exceptional, but never paved a wide enough path for others to follow. We've adhered to the conservative rules of respectability--we got educated at HBCUs; our grandfathers and uncles put their bodies on the line for this country through military service; we established Black businesses; and we worshipped the same Jesus who promised to wash all of us white as snow. Yet, it took agitation, not accommodation before we could even eat at the lunch counters where we cooked the food but were not allowed to be served. 

Rep. Donalds, you got on national television to denounce what you deemed was disrespect from a Black woman because she didn't celebrate the Faustian deal you struck. You're both in the same congressional class, and in the time that you've served together, how many times has she been attacked and been able to look to you as her defender? You know as well as the rest of us that you weren't brought into the GOP leadership because they hope you will recruit more Black voters to their side. They have made it abundantly clear that they would rather suppress or delegitimize Black votes than win our support. So how dare you even suggest that your triumph ought to be celebrated when all you've done is rise to the top of a trash heap? 

Your name shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as Frederick Douglass, let alone in the same sentence as Booker T. Washington. You will not be vindicated by history for siding with the Insurrectionists. Even with your new position, I don't see you becoming the first Black Speaker of the House, ever. I am not hoping for your demise, but as I have seen how prominent Black conservatives tend to fly head-first into that concrete ceiling...you might want to buy some insurance. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Dear Black Mothers

A few years ago, I attended a rally in downtown DC against police misconduct and brutality, shortly after the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. This was sometime in the fall of 2014 following the death of Michael Brown. As a veteran attendee of these kinds of events, this was the first time I went as a soon-to-be mother...I was a couple of weeks pregnant.

Here's the thing, I would have gone anyway, but I was definitely more motivated and compelled to attend at that early stage of my pregnancy. It was still too soon to learn the gender, but my rationale was that in a family with one granddaughter and another one coming, both the daughters of my brothers, surely I could expect to bring forth a boy. (Of course, I was wrong as you all know, and for that we can blame my Dad for not passing on his mathematical genius to me, the Hub for his contribution of that second X chromosome, or my pregnancy hormones.) Nevertheless, the point of going was to stand with the other Black mothers, in solidarity as one of them with the same fears and anxieties for my unborn Black child. As I stood in the crowd and put my hand on the not-even-there-yet poof of a baby bump, I was overcome by tears. 

How can I protect this child from a system determined to regard him as guilty from the moment he enters the world?

Since I opted not to learn the gender of the baby in advance, when I gave birth to my daughter, I have to admit that I let out a brief sigh of relief. Sure, there are anxieties attached to raising a young Black girl in this society, of which I am most keenly aware as she heads into puberty. However, I don't have to set as a goal seeing her live to the age of 18 as a measure of my success or failure as a parent. Sadly, that isn't something that Black mothers of sons can assume is guaranteed. 

I became painfully aware of that fact just a few years earlier when Trayvon Martin was killed and his murderer was acquitted. The entire encounter hinged on the right of a self-styled neighborhood vigilante to determine whether the young Black man he saw was legitimately in his own neighborhood. The fact that the killer made the assumption that Martin did not belong is precisely the moment their fateful encounter derailed. I read so many opinions that framed what happened as a cautionary tale about how young Black men ought to conduct themselves. And no matter how many details pointed to what we knew was obvious, none of it mattered. It was somehow the fault of the 17-year old child who was profiled, stalked, attacked, and then killed to have acted in some way to overcome the presumption of his guilt for merely existing.

Since 2012, this pattern has been repeated too many times. There are too many names we vow never to forget, too many Black mothers in mourning. It doesn't stop. Every death renews the need for The Talk, but with constant caveats and revisions. Don't wear hoodies because you might look suspicious. Don't play with a toy gun because it might be mistaken for the real thing. Don't make any sudden moves that might be misinterpreted as threatening. Don't disclose that you are legally carrying a weapon with a permit. Don't make eye contact with the officers. Don't ask why you were stopped even if you didn't break any laws. Don't try to drive to a well-lit area because then you are leading the police on a 'chase'. Don't hang anything from the rearview mirror, not even a rosary or your graduation tassel because you might get stopped. Don't reach into your pocket for your license and registration even though you were ordered to provide them to the officer. Don't get seen smoking or drinking water in your own car. Don't assume that your good credit rating, advanced degrees, military uniform, or fancy zip code will exempt you from mistreatment. 

Do whatever they tell you, even if it consists of 71 conflicting commands all shouted simultaneously while you're being beaten. The goal is to make it home alive. 

In the cinematic build-up to the release of this video of Tyre Nichols, I had already resolved not to watch. It felt wrong both to anticipate its release and to make every effort to avoid it, but I understand that the Nichols' family authorized the timing of the release so that the world could see it, unredacted and raw. And in my internal debate with myself about why I didn't need or want to subject myself to that horror, I kept asking why must we force Black mothers to summon the courage of Mamie Till-Mobley? Why don't we have the option to mourn our dead children without the gaze of the world looking on while offering no comfort?

Of course, that begs the question of why we put Black mothers in the position of having to grieve for our children in the first place. We are always told that it is unnatural for parents to bury their offspring, but life doesn't happen according to how we think it should. And Black mothers are not unique in experiencing loss. However, unless it is accidental or unavoidable, Black death is always political. We die under circumstance that are engineered to kill us, from chronic untreated health disparities to environmental racism to gang warfare to the kind of state-sponsored lynchings carried out by the police. Grief is a permanent reality for Black mothers.

And no one cares. There are excuses and bullshit explanations for every incident. Here in DC there was a debate on social media over the recent death of an unarmed 13-year-old child who was shot by someone who thought he was trying to steal a car. It was disheartening to see that folks had taken the time to type out how bad they felt, but...and you can fill in the blank of any number of mitigating reasons why it was not outrageous that another Black child had lost his life. 

I won't reiterate the very well-written points that have been made about the spectacle of Black death and how seeing such violence further contributes to our dehumanization. And it isn't just Black bodies because I felt a similar sense of disgust over the calls for the Uvalde, Texas parents to allow the bloody photos of their massacred children to be published. The way these mass shootings have been stacking up numbers and occurring indiscriminately across all communities, I thought it was particularly gruesome to demand to see the bullet-ridden corpses of those Latino children. As if the scene of their slaughter would finally convince America that our love of guns is literally killing us... 

Note how similar requests have not been suggested to the families of other mass shooting victims. Also note the contrast between the way accountability was swiftly meted out in Memphis by its chief but how the finger-pointing in Uvalde dragged on for months. I want to believe that the makeup of each law enforcement agency made the difference but having a Black/Latinx police chief or a force that demographically represents those communities didn't prevent either tragedy. Yet, what happened in Uvalde is the norm, and now the police chief in Memphis is under scrutiny for her past leadership of another specialized police unit. Furthermore, as long as we're caught up in a culture war that treats policing itself as its own demographic that exists apart and above the lives of those whom the profession is supposed to protect and serve, then true accountability is impossible.

Perhaps it is endemic in a system that was built on the mythology of Black inferiority, of bodies bought and sold at auction, that it is our utility that has the most worth, not our actual lives. What else explains the organized backlash against the simplest of statements, that our lives matter too? And what of the self-defeatist denouncements of Black culture that come from our own children? I was dismayed to read a tweet from somebody's Black man-child that there exists within Black culture a pathology that glorifies death. And that truly broke my heart because if he's barely 21 saying something so declaratively ignorant like that on Al Gore's internet, as are prominent Black pundits like Jason Whitlock, then is it any wonder why Black mothers cry out loud but find little comfort?

Our culture glorifies death? Meanwhile white families pose for these pictures and send them as Christmas greetings. No one would dare vilify this mother if something terrible happens to one of her children. Yet, the single Black mother of two sons who worked hard to keep them out of trouble; who sent her younger son to stay with his father (her ex-husband) to give him more structure and discipline; who had to endure watching her family being re-traumatized in the court of public opinion after her son's killer was acquitted--she's the bad mother, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. 

Here's the thing Mr. Jason 'Fearless' Whitlock et. al., it doesn't take a lot of courage to talk shit about Black women on a podcast. True fearlessness is standing up in the aftermath of personal tragedy to demand accountability and justice, not whining to the manosphere. In most of these cases, Black mothers are the ones who lead the transition from mourning to marching. In Memphis, it was another Black mother, the police chief you attacked, who took decisive action to ensure that these officers were held accountable. That was supported by more decisive action taken by an organization of real community-minded men, the brothers of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. And that must really annoy the folks who pay you to keep the focus on the games meant to distract us instead of the struggles meant to liberate us. 

Dear Black Mothers and Aunties, there is a Balm in Gilead, but it will not be prescribed by those who oppress us and kill our babies. Why should we believe that our families are doomed just because someone else's faith claims that the only proper roles for women in God's Kingdom are as servants, virgins, prostitutes, or widows? The same God who anointed a lowly shepherd boy and made him a great king also performed some of His most transformative miracles in the lives of women. Look at what He did for Sarah, Rahab, Ruth, Queen Esther, Elizabeth, Mary, Jairus' daughter, the woman with the issue of blood, the Samarian woman at the well, and Mary Magdeline at the tomb. Beyond procreation, every other gender-based restriction on earth is man-made and benefits those looking to retain their tenuous grip on power. 

If the patriarchy is threatened by strong women, then Black women, who have had to stand in the gap created by centuries of racist practices and policies that removed Black men as the primary providers and protectors, must be especially intimidating. Harriet Tubman didn't wait for her husband, who was not enslaved, to give her permission to escape, nor was she deterred when he didn't join any of her return trips. Mamie Till Mobley, a widow, was advised to bury her only begotten son quietly so as not to stir up trouble, but she had other ideas. Barbara Johns, Linda Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, and Ruby Bridges were children on the front lines of school desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Claudette Colvin was an unwed teenage mother, but her arrest nine months prior set the stage for Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So tell us again, Mr. Jason 'Fearless' Whitlock about who and what is God-ordained? Who are you to declare that Black women, who have lost fathers, husbands, and sons, ought not to take the lead in our families and communities as necessary? Just as our ancestors pieced together clothing scraps and rags into beautiful quilts, grieving Black Mothers have sewn together the remnants and keep their families together.

You write/talk about sports for a living...so maybe you need to stay in that lane.

I began with this piece by invoking the memory of a protest I attended back in 2014. It has not escaped my notice that Tyre Nichols must have been about 17 years old at that time (close in age to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin) and how his parents probably sat him down to have what was then, a revised version of The Talk to avoid meeting their same fate. Here we are ten years later and I cannot fathom the pain his mother must be feeling. I look at Mrs. RowVaughn Wells and see a lot of the women I know--classmates, sorors, women at my church, etc. Any one of us could be in her place, even me as I am old enough to have had a son the same age. 

Like this young mother, I am willing to face down tanks and police in riot gear to protect my daughter, but I shouldn't have to. I should not have to worry that in 10-12 years, my young nephews, cousins, and great-nephews will have to be sat down for The Talk, updated with a new set of prohibitions because some other Black mother's son didn't make it home alive. Nichols' own son will be receiving that same Talk around that same time. 

Dear Black Mothers, we must keep praying and marching for the lives of our babies. There is a parable of a persistent widow who sought to be heard by an unjust judge, and though he initially ignored her pleas, he eventually granted her the justice she sought. Keep the faith, my Sisters, because we are fighting a corrupt system, and if we don't keep seeking justice, who will? 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Dreaming in Full Circles

This Busy Black Woman is feeling old y'all. I recently participated in a few local MLK Day activities, culminating in the parade here in DC for the first time in 40 years! Imma need to rest up for February because I am not as young as I was in this picture (somebody is going to catch that :) 

We've been doing MLK Day here in DC since I was a child, which was a long time ago. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn't. It is still cold AF in January, but thankfully the sun was out and it wasn't below 40 degrees. The parade route wasn't that long even though it still travels through the 'hood along MLK Avenue (down the SE side instead of the SW side). The hood itself has changed--we passed by a Starbucks, and that wasn't anywhere near here 40 years ago, let alone 5. Maybe I wasn't all that observant as a kid, but there were as many white people on the sidelines as spectators as there were cops, so that was also quite the change.

I have a dream that one day...little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. (1963)

Of course, the biggest change from 40 years ago is that with MLK Day celebrated as a local event well before it became a national holiday, it was held on January 15, his actual birthday, as opposed to the third Monday in January. So I am old enough to remember a time when there were no Black federal holidays; furthermore, because I grew up in a Chocolate City, I had no clue that there were Confederate holidays. Who knew that just over the bridge in the Commonwealth of Old Virginny they were celebrating Robert E. Lee as some kind of American hero (until just a few years ago)?

Put a pin in that for now. When I sat down to write initially, I was motivated by adrenaline, nostalgia, and pride. Adrenaline from the two miles of walking; nostalgia from reflecting on my past MLK parade participation; and pride that I am now passing on that legacy to the Kid. My initial thought was to post a few pictures and offer some commentary, but then I realized how this felt like a larger full circle moment, connecting my childhood memories to something that might serve as a guide for my daughter in the future. Ironically, we were supposed to be marching in a different capacity and role, but that fell through. Instead, we ended up falling in with her Girl Scout troop, which was an even better way to mark the occasion, so that definitely got me all in my feelings. 

Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. (1968)

Our local MLK parade began in 1979 and it was considered a high honor for your school to be chosen to participate. From my recollection, most of the local high schools got to march, and a lucky few of the junior high and elementary schools were also invited. I do not recall the exact year that my elementary school was chosen, but it was a big deal. Our delegation consisted of the cheerleaders, pom-pom girls, drill team, and safety patrol. Now I have to be honest that technically, I was not actually in the parade that year because I wasn't old enough; however, I swear (and it is the honest to God truth) that I was at the parade! Not only was I there, but so was the King family, various local and national civil rights dignitaries, and a lot of celebrity activists, including the phenomenal Stevie Wonder*!

The official designation of the holiday was signed in 1983, and full observance began in 1986 when I was in middle school. It was only then that I began to understand that we had been marching and advocating for a lot more than just a day off from work and/or school. I had not realized that our annual MLK Day parade was actually a major lobbying event for several civil rights issues, such as calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa and for DC Statehood. When I started high school in the fall of 1986, it was an eye-opener to learn that implementing MLK Day into our school calendar had been a challenge, whereas tacking on snow days after a blizzard...

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. (1956)

Fast forward to the actual MLK Day Parade where I have vivid memories of participating, when I was in college. In the early days of this blog, I wrote about that experience here, and a few years later, someone posted this picture to Facebook that proves I was there. Pull out your readers and take a look at the caption:

If you're squinting to see me, I am wearing the third set of white go-go boots on the left. Somehow, I had forgotten that this had only been the 6th Annual MLK Day Parade in King's hometown of Atlanta although I'm pretty sure that I must have told everybody in the band how DC had its own parade for years. In addition to the other reasons already shared here, this parade was memorable because my older cousin BCW also marched with his college band, and I was so excited to call our Grandmother afterwards to tell her that I saw him. (However, his excitement to see me was tempered by the sight of me in that outfit, so we'll just leave it at that.)

All of those warm and fuzzy memories aside, I think it is interesting how some of my articulated concerns from 2011 about MLK Day becoming this Day of Service have been picked up by others. Perhaps it was inevitable that after 40 years, there would be some backlash over what the holiday should be and what it has become. For my part, I have evolved to see the service aspect as a good thing, especially if we make it a point to teach young people why the work itself is about more than the photos posted to social media. Yes, we should collect toiletries, socks, gloves, and snacks for the unhoused. But then we should also advocate for policies and programs to aid people in that kind of dire need. A warm pair of socks is no substitute for a warm place to sleep every night. Sure, get people to clean up the public parks and the sides of the highways, but then make sure everyone understands how that relates to Dr. King's work. Make sure that they see the connection to community beautification and MLK's famous quote about street sweepers, or more significantly how his last public protest involved elevating the dignity of all work, especially work deemed hard and undesirable.

Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' (1957)

Before his stroke in 2016, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright had a standing engagement to preach at Howard University every MLK Sunday and I would take my Mom as part of our official weekend of activities. I recall one of his most poignant sermons centered on the annual ritual where certain folks would intentionally misquote Dr. King, and in that masterful way that Black preachers often frame prophetic truths, this theme has stayed with me: Do not allow yourselves to be seduced by the convenience of the soundbite, lest we allow MLKs legacy be reduced to just a soundbite. You can probably guess what soundbite he was referring to...

Therefore, while it was great to leave the house for that prayer breakfast; to engage in civic-minded activities such as laying a wreath at the Memorial; to collect and donate stuff for charity; and then to participate in the parade, the work of honoring Dr. King must evolve. It needs to become more than linking arms to sing We Shall Overcome, calling out hypocrisy on social media, or writing think pieces about why all of these gestures are superficial. Forty years ago, when we were lobbying hostile political forces to designate this holiday, it was not so that y'all could spend every year congratulating yourselves on that accomplishment. Yes, please dedicate your day off to doing something meaningful other than shopping and TV binge watching, but also ask yourself what would MLK be doing?

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. (1963)

Let's make a deal that if we keep the parades, peace walks, and the service component, we also must insist on more education and activism. There was a labor union marching behind the Girl Scouts and it was quite the moment when we were stopped in front of that Starbucks. Because we know the hood needs business investment, but must that also mean gentrification and displacement? In 40 years will my daughter be reminiscing about the neighborhood where the MLK Parade used to be held? And now that we've got elected officials throughout the country who are pushing back against inclusive curricula, will MLK Day become another culture war skirmish? Virginia may have abandoned its official celebration of Gen. Robert E. Lee and taken his statues down, but for how long? Because I predict the day will come when someone misuses a couple of King quotes to justify recoupling Lee and King for the sake of forgiveness and brotherhood:

Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude. (1962)
Hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. (1967)

Isn't that essentially the stance of some conservative commentators who argue that we have strayed far from their interpretation of MLK's dream? That they were only willing to go along with celebrating a gentle Black Messiah-like figure who forgave their parents and grandparents for their racism. Once we insisted on quoting the King who overturned tables in the temple by making demands for more than integrated coffee, we were asking for too much.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. (1963)

Mind you, that quote was taken from the same speech where MLK shared his prophetic dream of building the beloved community. That community isn't the one where we build walls to keep America exclusive to only the few. It isn't where we criminalize parents for allowing their children to explore their own truths. And it certainly isn't some colorblind utopia where people justify their racism by defining merit to maintain their advantage in society. 

The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts--in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one--a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. MLK to Caesar Chavez in 1966

When we say that things have come full circle, it is with the belief that we have come back to a starting point. It is not to suggest that there has been no progress, but to signify how lessons or experiences from the past often have parallels to what we are currently facing. I began this with the idea that I had come full circle with my participation in local MLK Day Parades by now seeing my daughter participate. It appears so has our country--back to where we were 40 years ago with many of the same arguments and debates over the meaning of racial justice and progress. Most of the people who claim that we've made enough progress or that we've achieved the 'dream' were and still are on the wrong side of history. That will never change, so we who believe in freedom cannot rest (not even on MLK Day) until:

...[J]ustice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (1963)

* This is not footage from the MLK Parade, but from the 20th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington later that same year.