Black History Month Profile #28 Series Finale: March 2, 1941 – One Sunday in Savannah

One Sunday, in March of 1941, a child was born to sharecroppers in Savannah, Georgia. They named her Rosemary, and the whole of creation shouted, “praise the lord!” for she was a godsend, like all children.

She was a dutiful child, toiling beside her parents in the cotton fields, learning the ethics of hard work and reward, or lack there of, that would define her entire life.

Sunday mornings found her in Sunday school, afternoons she sat listening to scripture in the church and Sunday evenings might include a ride to town to see Uncle Rooster and Aunt Mary. Rooster would always have some catfish he’d caught and Mary would have fresh peppers from her garden. It was a good life. A quiet, humble, predictable life.

That is, until her father deserted the family for the greener pastures of another woman leaving her mother bitter and lonely. She began to drink and when she did she also took to bingeing, gallivanting for days at a time leaving Rosemary to her own devices. And when she returned she’d become violent, for Rosemary reminded her so of the man who left her behind. By her teens Rosemary had grown tired of the abuse, and rambunctious in her desire to be free of her mother’s tyranny and the yoke that constrained her to the bucolic life in a rural southern countryside.

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Rosemary, beautiful and self-sufficient as the flower she is named for, longed to have her blossoming womanhood acknowledged. And at 16 she did just that when, in a visit up north with family, she took a man and found herself with child.

She returned to Savannah in this delicate condition, as they say, but decided that Savannah was not the place for her child to grow up; not with her father up north and a bitter grandmother who spent to much time with spirits. So she packed her belongings, kissed her mother goodbye and sadly left Savannah and its lovely Sundays behind.

She travelled to New York where she stayed with family, her brother Big Man and his wife, Julia in Brooklyn.

She gave birth to a daughter and this child brought her so much joy with its arrival that she named her Joy. 20130303-231227.jpg

But Joy’s father, George, she would learn, was not the settling down type. He had goals which required him to be freer than fatherhood would allow.

So, Rosemary, like her mother before her, found herself on her own with a child. And she, too, took to hanging out in the big city of dreams hoping to attract a man of substance.

Around this time she met her Ella, who would become her closest friend, her touchstone and counselor for years to come. Ella was streetwise and savvy, and showed young Rosemary the ropes, for she was adept at navigating her way around. Brooklyn was both dangerous and extremely exciting for this country girl straight off the turnip truck from below the Mason Dixon.

Pretty soon, she hooked up with a singer of some renown, by the name of Charles, and he wooed her like she’d never been wooed before; gave her a taste of a lifestyle she never knew existed.

Charlie, as he was called, liked Rosemary quite a bit as well, so he stuck around a lot longer than George had; long enough for her to have two sons by him. Then he too moved on like a rolling stone. With his band, he hit the road to pursue his dreams and all the women scattered upon it.

Eric and Michael were his son’s names and, with Joy, that now made three hungry bellies to fill…once again on her own.

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So Rosemary decided it was time to take her growing nest and fend for self.

She and Ella remained very close and supported each other through these tough times. Ella helped her get settled into a little apartment on Prospect Place near where she lived with her man and her two sons, Omar and Randy.

Rosemary met Ronald one night at a party, and he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. She fell madly in love with him, and he with her. Though he was clealry a smooth operator and a playboy he was also an intelligent, hardworking and responsible man. Despite the three children she had from previous lovers, his love for Rosemary and the responsibility he felt once she’d gotten pregnant prompted his proposing to her.

They were married soon after.

That’s about when I met Rosemary for the first time, face to face.

It was in late June of 1966 when, with the help of the medical staff at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, I was yanked from her inner world into this outer world. She cried and held me to her bosom to ease my cries for the outer world was no match for the inner. She was the best thing about it.

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We were very close, Rosemary and I, as were Ronald and I.
I remember his laughter, and his joy that I was a boy. He’d had a son previously with another woman in the south but from what I’d learn years later, his son was not born with all his faculties intact. I became proof that he was capable of making a man intact.

ronny and me
And together, Ronald and Rosemary made sure we had everything we needed.

We moved to a lovely brownstone on Decatur street in Bed-Stuy and there we lived for years.

A family.

I remember picnics in prospect park, frisbee throwing and fried chicken and potato salad munching. I remember bunk beds and enmeshed togetherness, laughter and music! Ronald was a guitarist with dreams of giving up trucking and going professional. He taught Joy how to play the guitar and had Eric and Michael taking karate lessons.

Yes, we were a happy family!

Soon another child was born, Nicole.

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And now with 5 children and a wife to boot, Ronald began to feel more poignantly the burden he’d taken on. His smile began to vanish along with his increasingly insufficient paychecks, replaced by bouts of anger and violence. A happy family began to deteriorate. Before long he transformed from a permanent fixture in our home to a mercurial one.

Then one day he, too, was unceremoniously gone.

I was almost too young to miss him.

But, I had Rosemary. We all did. And she alone made sure we had everything we needed.

It was around this time that Rosemary’s friend, Ella, a pretty radical sister, introduced her to the Pan-African movement. Ella had enrolled her two kids in a school that promised to make sure the kids were prepared for a world dead set on making negative statistics of them.

She encouraged Rosemary to do the same.

At 6, Rosemary brought me to this school and, for perhaps the first time in my life, left me in the care of complete strangers. I cried and pissed my pants. But, just as I was about to die of despair, there were Ella’s kids, Omar and Randy, who I called my cousins. I was so happy to see them. I cried some more before I settled in.

Soon all of my brothers and sisters were also enrolled in this experiment in community and family schooling.

It was about this time that everything changed. I now had a new family, with more mothers and fathers than I could count, strong black men and women on the frontlines of the Black Power / Pan-African movement.

And my immediate family, we all adopted new names.

Joy became Faraha, Eric became Changa, Michael became Sekou, Nicole became Iisha, and I chose the name Baye. Ella became Kiunga…

And Rosemary…

She became Waridi, gave up her perm for some dreadlocks (way before they were in fashion), gave up her skirts for clothing only a woman from West Africa could look as natural and comfortable in, and, most disturbing of these changes, removed Christmas from our lives and replaced it with Kwanzaa.

I asked Waridi why we had to change our names to these African names.
“Because we’re Africans,” she explained patiently. “And African people need African names. Those other names? Those were slave names! And we’re not slaves now, are we?”
“No…” I replied, pensively. “But everybody else has slave names…and they wear regular clothes, and…”
“If everybody jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you jump, too?”

She always got me with that one. I always wanted to sass her and say, “it depends…”

A few years later, from another boyfriend who Rosemary would send packing when he proved to be a jerk, there came another addition to our clan, another boy named Babu Juba. He would be the last.

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We bounced around Brooklyn and Queens for a while before settling in an apartment meant for rich white folk but once whites had abandoned Brooklyn, it became ours and we would live in it…and live nicely!

Here was the first place Waridi kept us long enough to call home. It was on Eastern Parkway. The place where Waridi would come into her own.

She kept our little abandoned palace glowing like it was intended to glow. She had a great eye for interior design and decorating as well as one for finding a bargain and diamonds in the rough. She began making collages that would stun the viewer and even built a thriving hair braiding business that drew people from all walks of life to her home salon. There these customers would sit before her in a hydraulic salon chair and look out on a beatific view of the Brooklyn Museum and the lush green trees along the promenade of Eastern Parkway, as Waridi, with her skilled fingers and creative mind, made them look 10 times better than they had when they arrived.

These enterprises of hers subsidized the government assistance that sustained us.

Soon, Joy would disembark for the west coast, in pursuit of her own dreams, reducing our number to five.

Changa and Sekou would be sucked into the street life and fall into the hands of the criminal justice system from time to time. Waridi fought fiercely to keep her children out of the penal system, or to gain their release once apprehended, but the streets and courts were an even fiercer opponent. She lost these battles as often as she won. Going before judges begging them for leniency for her boys took a toll on her.

Boyfriends came and went, but no one stayed around long enough for her to claim as her own. But she fought on, poorly educated, poorly skilled, but rich in love, ingenuity and an sage understanding of humanity. I watched her through all of this and sometimes would climb into bed with her and hold her. My hugs became hey joy and I would give them gladly, rocking her when I knew the world was rocking her, threatening to shake her loose.

She trusted me and, like her mother had done her, often left me to my own devices. So I did all within my power not to betray her trust and break her heart by forcing her to stand before a judge ever again and beg for the life of her children. I stayed on the straight and narrow for her as much as for myself. The streets called me, as well, and I answered, but always cautiously, with her fragile heart informing all those crucial decisions I had to make.

This kept me from dropping out of high school, though very little education was going on in there, and eventually prompted my taking on the challenge of higher education.
It was all worth it to see her face on my graduation day.
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Waridi looked at me that day and said, with tears of pride, “thank you, Baye.”
I said, “no, thank you…I couldn’t have done it without you.”

She didn’t believe me. She believes I’m a self-starter, that I would be anything I want to be with or without her prompting. She can’t grasp how a woman of modest education, none of which was higher, could bring into the world and raise children who would value education. 20130304-000846.jpgShe doesn’t get that it was her choices in life that made my life possible. That she was the one who chose Kiunga as a friend, and who let her friend guide her towards choosing an institution that would instill within us the things she (and our fathers) could not. She doesn’t take the credit for that; the credit that is due her. She thinks she did the best she could. She doesn’t know she is the best! That she is the same godsend she was that Sunday in Savannah 73 years ago.

I tell her these things but I struggle to show her these things til this day. My heart is overflowing with gratitude but I feel inadequate to express it. Maybe because I was buried in the middle of 6 children, some of whom were inordinately taxing, so I had to rely on and fend for self much more than I would have liked back then, and perhaps it has made me a selfish person. Maybe the scars I’ve accrued from troubled times affected me much more than I’m consciously aware of. I’m far from perfect. But, I know, in my soul, that I owe everything to Waridi’s sacrifices, for her giving of herself so that I could have what I needed to build up the wherewithal to live out loud as I do now.

And, after all the years of giving, with very little recompense to speak of, the Creator sent her the love of her life, Jason.

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A man who would not run and leave her behind. But would stay by her side through thick and thin and give her the kind of love she always wanted and needed, as Etta James sang A Sunday kind of love.

Who would allow her to drag him to her country home in Georgia to walk hand in hand along those dusty roads lined with mossy trees and memories…

One Sunday in Savannah a living legend was born, the strongest woman I know, who still tries to teach me, by example, how to love; a lesson I struggle with but know is possible thanks to her!

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…while the congregation says “Amen!”

Black History Month Project 2013

In honor of black history month, this year I will be doing a post a day spotlighting the 28 black figures in history who have inspired, influenced, impacted or I have admired the most.

I’m still putting together the list. I’m gonna try and avoid covering folks I profiled last year. And I’m going to try to keep it personal if at all possible, so it won’t be a series of profiles you can get anywhere on the net.so even if I do cover some of the black history go to guys and gals like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, they’ll be a story attached that you can’t get anywhere but here (-; ambitious ain’t I?

Stay tuned.

Some Superfly Bad Mother(shut your mouth)ers

In recognition of Black History Month, I want to talk a little about a couple of cats who put the “bad motherfucker” in blaxploitation, and left an indelible impression not only on me and my generation, but on the entire film industry for generations to come.

Like most writers, I suspect, my love of writing began with a love of the written word, whether it be in book form, on stage or on the big screen.

I remember one of the first books (and films) I ever fell in love with. The name of the story was: “J.T.” The film was about an hour long, one of those Afterschool-type specials for kids, and, since it was essentially a black story, my school showed it to us several times.

***Spoiler Ahead***

It was about a shy boy living in Harlem (played by a young Kevin Hooks, who would grow up to be a hell of a director and actor) who’d found a crippled, one-eyed cat in an alley and decided to nurse it back to health. His family was poor but he would buy tuna from the local grocery store on his mother’s credit and feed it to the cat. He made an eye patch as well as built a home for it in an old stove in an abandoned lot. He had gotten in trouble previously with a couple of neighborhood punks, named Claymore and Boomer (appropriately) when he stole a radio that they’d wanted to steal. And, eventually, they caught up with J.T…and his cat. They’d followed him to the home he’d built  for the cat, as a shelter from the snow, you see, and…

Cat's home that J.T. built

Well, suffice it to say the ending was both heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time. I bet you can see how this story could have had even the most cynical viewer reaching for Kleenex, right? And, me, well…put it this way: Even recounting the story just now for you guys made me misty. And I haven’t seen or read it in at least 25 years.

It was around that time, three decades back, that I started wanting to make stories of my own. Stories set in places I knew, populated with characters I could identify with. Stories that could move, and inspire.

The film/book was written by Jane Wagner and, if you can see on the book cover above, beneath her name it reads, with pictures by Gordon Parks Jr.

Gordon Parks Jr. did not direct J.T., however. His photographs- taken during the shooting of the film- were used for its novelization. He would go on to direct his own films, though…and how!

This book was the first time I saw the name Gordon Parks, and I never forgot it. Even though it was actually Gordon Parks, Jr., who pays attention to the Jr? Who calls Martin Luther King, Junior? It’s not necessary, right? If Martin Luther King Senior were a world renown civil rights activist you might have need to, but he wasn’t. It would take many years before I realized that there was not one but two Gordon Parks’, a father & son, working not as a team but separately, running around the world with cameras (both movie and still) and using them to tell stories.

Fast forward about 15 years.

Spike Lee & Bill Lee

I was an undergraduate student at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus, a Media Arts and English major, taking a film class being given by the man himself, Spike Lee, and his brand spanking new production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which he’d just opened a block or two away from the school. Spike grew up in the neighborhood around LIU so occasionally he’d use the school’s facilities for editing, etc…

Members of his production staff taught different aspects of the film industry. From costumes, to cinematography, to casting, to makeup. Soundtrack and Scoring was naturally taught by the man who had done the scoring for some of Spike’s earlier films: Mr. Bill Lee, Spike’s Dad.

Mr. Lee spoke about everything involved in scoring a movie and selecting tracks for the soundtrack, the advantages and disadvantages of using previously published music versus original music, and how to use music to establish the emotional core of the film and capture the essence of scene and character. His knowledge was extraordinary and impressive. You could readily see where his son Spike got a lot of his traits and knowledge.

After the lecture, I was out front of the school having a smoke and kicking it with one of my classmates, a cat named Paul, about film scores and soundtracks. He was a film buff like myself with an impressive catalogue within his mnemonic grasp.

For scores, he antied up with John Williams.

“Williams??” I almost screamed. “Are you mad? Everything the man makes sounds the same…Superman, Star Wars, what the fuck was the difference? He just does re-mixes, that’s all…”

“Who you know that’s better?”

“Ennio Morricone, of course…”

Morricone??!!” he snapped. “Get the fuck outta here! ”

I whistled a few bars of  The Good, the bad and the ugly. He was not impressed.

“Bubblegum scoring for B-movies,” he laughed, contemptuously.

I didn’t let his words faze me. Anybody that knows film knows Sergio Leone was the genius behind the best westerns ever made. I’ve argued John Ford fans to their ears bled too many times. So, I whipped out the big guns, and whistled a few bars of Cheyenne’s theme from Once upon a time in the West. I had Cock-eyes’s song from Once upon a time in America in the bullpen warming up if he snubbed that. But he didn’t.

“Ok, ok, you got that one…” he said, nodding.

We worked our way through compilations around to original soundtracks. A much more difficult call…at least for him. For me, it was a no-brainer.

“I’m gonna go with Shaft,” he said. I was impressed. Issac Hayes certainly did himself proud with that one…

“…but that ain’t got shit on Mayfield’s Superfly, come on!” I said, thinking ’nuff said. “I mean, can you even name another song on that soundtrack besides the theme song?”

He actually tried, god bless him. But, failed.

“Every song on the Superfly soundtrack was a bona fide classic,” I said.

“So, why didn’t it win the Oscar, then? Huh? Shaft did!”

“The Oscars??? Are you kidding?”

“Yeah, I was just fucking with you,” he laughed.

“Mayfield was cheated, plain and simple…” I said. “Politics. Racism. Call it what you want. He got cheated. Spielberg films’ scores can win year after year, but put a black director in there and…it ain’t no surprise.”

“What?” Paul said. “Shaft and Superfly had the same director?”

“Yeah…damn don’t you know shit? Gordon Parks was the fucking man!”

“Nah, young blood, you got it wrong,” came a familiar voice from a bench near us. We both turned. It was Bill Lee, sitting alone, same wizened face, grey bearded “been to hell and back” look to him, rifling through what looked like sheet music, not even looking at us. We both glanced at each other in stunned silence, and waited to be taught some more from this exceptional musical mind. “Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, Senior, and Superfly by his son, Gordon Parks, Junior.”

I didn’t say anything but my mind was racing. There’s two of them??? Get the fuck outta here!

Bill Lee didn’t elaborate. In fact, he didn’t say anything else. It wa as if he’d forgotten we were there…

Gordon Parks Jr.

I had both films on videotape at home, and as soon as I got there I rushed to my room and scanned the boxes. Sure enough, Bill lee was right on the money. Not only that. Until that day I had been thinking that Gordon Parks was dead, died in a plane crash in Africa, as I recalled.  But, I would find out, through a visit to the library, that it was Junior who had passed tragically before senior, and the father was still alive and kicking and exposing injustices and inhumanity around the world through his photographs.

It had been a blow to my ego. Among my friends, due to the education I had received in a very afro-centric private school, I had taken great race pride in being more knowledgable about black culture and history. In most cases it was true. There simply wasn’t much of it going on in the Public School system, hence the need for a Black History Month.  But, I found out that day, as I gagged on a large slice of humble pie, that I had better be more mindful of what I thought I knew.

 

Later that semester, for an assignment in my writing class, I wrote an essay comparing and contrasting the differences between the father’s Shaft and the son’s Superfly. Though both characters are held up as heroic figures in black cinema by most African-Americans I know, they said something about the vision either man had of the world. On the surface, the difference between John Shaft and Superfly’s main character, Priest, are clear-cut: One solves crimes and the other sells drugs.

Gordon Parks, Sr.

But, on closer examination of the characters, we can see where their methods, aims and visions converge. Shaft was a man who, fed up with the politics, racism and legal impotence of the police force, decided to take matters into his own hands and become a private detective, operating virtually outside the law, only to find himself enlisted by criminals to do their bidding. Though his soul is essentially good in the heroic sense, he spends the film walking the line between the criminal underworld and the morally compromised law enforcement world. While Superfly, a lifelong hustler, realizes that what he believed to be the American dream was really a nightmare and that if he wanted to survive he’d better turn his life around, but ironically it is the police who try to force him to keep funneling drugs into the community in order to line their pockets. Both stories were ultimately variations on the same theme. The system is corrupt and the only way to survive with some semblance of your soul intact is to understand that corruption is virtually inescapable, so one must operate accordingly.

Some hellified life lessons from two superfly bad motherfuckers, Father and Son…You might call their wisdom cynical, and in a way you’d be right. But time and time again, from the flooding of New Orleans, to the economic meltdown on Wall Street, we find that corruption is something we have to be, not so much paranoid about but on constant vigilance against.

To the Parks’ (as well as the Lees’,  Bill & Spike) thank you for sharing your gifts and visions with us, and for allowing us to see the world through your eyes via your photos and films (and music), and inspiring me to do the same.

All of you will always be a part of  Loco’s Patronus!

Loco

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If he hollers…

In recognition of Black History month, here’s another person that inspires me:

When I was a University Student, I studied Creative Writing. My professor, Lewis Warsh (who I’ve spoken about in my Racism series), read the essays I’d written for his class and recommended several writers that he felt I should read.

“Why these writers?” I asked.

“I think you are a talented writer,” he said. “Yours is a voice the reader wants to hear.”

I remember his words exactly but I don’t remember exactly how I initially reacted to these words. But being that I was a student with a chip on his shoulder and unaccustomed to praise for anything I’d created, and being that he was a professional writer and educator, I probably took him at his word.

“Your style is very hard-boiled,”  he added. “Very raw and emotional yet tough and edgy. These writers I believe represent the different journeys a voice like yours can take. Check them out for yourself and let me know what you think.”

I told him I would.

They were just names written in red on the cover of my most recent essay. I didn’t recognize any of them but I remember them all.

  1. Dashiell Hammett
  2. Elmore Leonard
  3. James Ellroy
  4. Raymond Chandler
  5. Jim Thompson
  6. Chester Himes

Though I read a lot, I was mostly a biography, auto-biography and sports book guy. I got most of my fiction through film. I was a movie fanatic, Still am.  So, my initial research into these guys garnered names of stories I knew well from films I’d seen and dug. Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Leonard’s 52-Pick up, Chandler’s The big Sleep, Thompson’s The Getaway…(Ellroy would later have L.A. Confidential)

Then there was Chester Himes.

As I researched Himes, the only black writer on the list, naturally I recalled a couple of the movies that were adapted from his books. The first, a film I remembered from my childhood fondly, was a movie called, “Cotton comes to Harlem.”

Yep, it was some campy blaxploitation from the early 70’s that used to find its way to television on the Late, Late show occasionally, and TV Guide devourer that I was I never missed it. Then there was its “sequel” “Come Back, Charleston Blue.” More of the investigative hijinks of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, the two black police officers enforcing the man’s law by any means necessary.

Some funny shit.

And, before I sat down to actually read Chester Himes, I wondered just what Professor Walsh had had in mind when he suggested I read the works of a man who created  these two clowns. What did he see in my writing that lead him to believe that I could benefit from reading novels about corrupt black police officers who, though they didn’t take no shit from White commanding officers, colleagues nor criminals, acted like hard-nosed buffoons and ran around Harlem kicking every ass in their way?

My local library didn’t offer much. Those other author’s works were in abundance but Himes…there was only one. A book called: If he hollers let him go.

Naturally I borrowed it.

And read it.

When I finished, and I did so damn near in one sitting, I read it again…immediately. I spent a whole weekend reading this book.

And, I understood, with unadulterated clarity, why Professor Warsh had included Himes on that distinguished list: Himes was me!

Furthermore, Himes, or should I say Bob Jones (what a name), the main character of the story, was every black man. Bob reiterated everything I’d ever heard about what it meant to be a black man in a white world…though Jones was from a different time, the World War II era to be precise, his experience with  race was not so different from the experience of black men of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  The battles he fought, both internally and externally, wage on even til this day. Even more so for me now that I live in Japan where I’m dealing with some of the same psychological struggles as Jones such as my vulnerability in a society that remains exclusive and the necessity to restrain my urge to assault while I endeavor to understand the nature of the force I find so disturbing, how much of it is within my control and how much outside of my sphere of influence.

Even his relationship with a white woman mirrors my relationship with white women back in the US (especially my relationship with Maggie) and even with Japanese women since I’ve been living in Japan. At the time I first read it I had recently broken up with my first white girlfriend and the book helped me to understand what I couldn’t quite get a handle on at the time. The knot that I had twisted myself into so tightly, imagining the pressure would only find relief through the use of drugs and by way of the sexual subjugation of women.

Also, his eventual self-exile, expatriating to Europe, as had many black artist of that time (James Baldwin and Richard Wright did the same) due to the lack of acceptance of his humanity in the States and an open armed acceptance in Europe. So, my having done similarly, in my case Asia, has allowed me to see Himes in a way I think someone who hasn’t had the experience of living outside of one’s country for an extended period of time can fully experience and appreciate.

The book struck home and continues to do so when I re-visit it as I do occasionally…when I can take having home struck so mercilessly as Himes does.

And, after that weekend, I wanted more. This was pre-Amazon, click and ship, so I bounced around the city until I found a number of his other books including the Harlem crime/mystery novels, “Cotton comes to Harlem,” and “The real cool killers,” and my biggest Bonanza, “The collected stories of Chester Himes,” which included all of the short stories he’d written while in prison for a number of magazines.

Yep, I said prison.

Eventually I’d get around to his autobiographies, “The quality of hurt” and “My life of absurdity” but not before I’d checked out the other writers on the list my professor had furnished.  By the time I had gotten through  them all I understood why he’d included Himes in this group of rather distinguished authors. Simple. For quality of writing and pure storytelling, character & plot development, suspense, action and hard-boiled hard-hitting dialogue, he was as good or a better writer than those others.

But I also suspected something else, as I read Hammett and Chandler in particular. Himes was not quite writing crime novels. Nor was he creating fictional stories with the reality based backdrop of Harlem like Ellroy does Los Angeles or Thompson did Texas and any other hell hole he’s lived in. Himes was doing something different. I suspect his Harlem was more of a dream-scape, a metaphor or a caricature of Harlem, more representative of his idea of the world as a whole than of Harlem of that time. The world was a place where violence was carried out by the good and the evil, where no one was one or the other, where the comedy was not so much in the irony or in the wit, but in the absurdity of and utter chaos that some writers choose to give order to and rectify. He did not.

His comedy was painful, derived from a guilt-ridden numbness and that was what was missing from all those movies I’d stayed up  all night to see as a child and re-watched numerous times over the years.  And it’s something that film adaptations of his work cannot capture for the finished product would not be so much a black comedy as a black tragedy comical in its irreverence and lack of everything we’ve come to call humanity. Like watching a person holler in agony, helpless to do anything for your agony has you hollering as well, until you both breakdown into fits of hilarity.

My professor missed that I think.

But I could be wrong.

Thank you Mr. Himes for sharing your pain with me, and with the world, for through it maybe we can come to a have a greater comprehension of the true value and purpose of our pain. You have been a great inspiration to me as a writer and as a human, showing by example how to put pain to work at something productive and creative.

I’m not sure if you ever found your Patronus, but I suspect you did, probably with your loving wife, Lesley.

Regardless, I’m forever indebted to you for being a huge part of mine.

Loco

 

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A lecture to grow on

In honor of Black History month, which began yesterday, this month I’d like to talk a little about the African-American historical figures who’ve influenced and inspired me the most.

World-renown black leaders like President Barack Obama, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) actually come from a long line of inspired intellectuals and gifted orators. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington, from Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis to Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But, since childhood, my favorite has been a man who history has seen fit to record, but the focus of that record has been primarily on one facet of his life.

The man I’m speaking of is the great Frederick Douglass, and the focus has been, of course, on his considerable involvement in the abolishment of slavery in the US. All Americans owe Douglass a debt of gratitude, for while presidents ultimately make the final decisions (at least we like to think they do), it’s the advisors who guide them and Douglass no doubt steered Lincoln towards his “better angels”, often against his will, let the truth be known.

I learned as a child that Frederick Douglass, as a child and a slave, taught himself to read and write, taught other slaves how to do the same, and eventually used this self-education to escape from slavery. As he would later put it “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” And while the popular image of his time was of a slave getting his skin torn from his back by some sadistic overseer on some godforsaken cotton plantation, Frederick Douglass’ story also includes a fist fight with his master in which Douglass forcefully insisted that he never be beat again! And, after opening a can of whup-ass and coming out of the battle victorious, indeed he was never beat again.

It’s the kinda stuff urban legends are made of, right?

So, yep, I learned the value of reading and writing from studying about Douglass’ accomplishments. I also learned that, though the ability to find compromise is an admirable one, sometimes you just have to stand up and do battle, even if doing so will almost certainly result in an ass-whipping or death or worse. 

Here was a compelling story. I was hooked. He instantly became my first historical hero.  I read whatever I could find and comprehend about him. I’m certain my knowledge of Douglass, even as an elementary school kid, surpassed even my history teachers’ at the time.

About 8 years ago, however, I discovered a historical jewel. There I was thinking I knew essentially all there was to know about the man, when I stumbled upon this new bit of exciting information.

I was doing research for an editorial I was writing for a newspaper in New York that would run my stories from time to time. I had just returned from a three-week stay in Haiti, having gone there to visit a friend working for an NGO down there (Haiti being the island of NGOs these days) and witness the Bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution-the only successful slave insurrection in history, which laid the groundwork for the formation of the first and only Black Republic in the West.

Here was yet another little historical tidbit that doesn’t get the ink it deserves (I wonder why). While Haiti’s poverty, disease, political corruption and the recent natural disasters get ink by the barrel, not much is said about how Haiti came to be. Well, you better believe Loco gave it its due. (Here’s a link to the editorial I wrote for the newspaper) I’ve read that a movie is “in development” and it’s rumored that either Don Cheadle or Jeffrey Wright will star. I’m hoping both. There were enough heroes in the Haitian Revolution to go around, most prominently Toussaint L’ Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Petion.

But, that’s for another post.

As I was reading  through several books about Haiti’s bloody amazing history, I learned not only of the effect this revolution had on the French (having their chapeau handed to them by a well-organized army of fed-up slaves) but on the U.S., as well. In the U.S., VERY nearby and still growing by leaps and bounds on free labor stolen from the same shores these Haitian revolutionaries originated from, a tsunami of fear swept across the Caribbean and right into the heart of the slave-holding Southern States of America. Mind you, the U.S. was still wet behind the ears as a Republic- 20 something years old at the start of the Haitian Revolution.. 

Can you imagine the headlines on the tabloids? Overworked, Undernourished Slaves kick Bonaparte’s ass! Take island by force and rename it Haiti! Want to open talks and discuss trade with the US!

No wonder they didn’t want slaves reading back then, right? Hell, the US slave trade probably would have ended, in blood (as all successful Revolutions do) long before Lincoln pulled his head out of his ass and decided to do what was best to keep the union together.

Yeah, well, Frederick Douglas understood the reason for black illiteracy perfectly well, and it only motivated him to study harder. Once he’d freed himself, he became a great orator and proponent for not only the Abolition of Slavery but for Women’s Suffrage as well. I mean, the man was driven and relentless.

I was a little vague on what he’d done after the Civil War. That’s probably why I missed this jewel. I came across it, ironically, not in my study of Frederick Douglass but in my research on Haiti. It seems that in 1889 the U.S., in its infinite wisdom, named Douglass the Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti. A post he held until 1891 when he resigned in protest of U.S. policies concerning Haiti. Not quite an ambassadorship but nothing to sneeze at either, especially in them days. Well, turns out that in 1893 Douglass gave a speech in Chicago that would send a chill up the leg of even President Obama.

It has come to be known as:

1893 Frederick Douglass Lecture on Haiti at the World’s Fair in Chicago

Of course there’s no recording of this speech. But, if you read it, all 10000 words or so, you will understand not only Douglass, not only Haiti, but indeed the U.S. in a way that you’ve never understood them before. I mean, just when you think you know a man, you come across a lecture, and lecture is the correct word to describe this, that upon completion will leave you feeling like you’ve taken a course on the subject at the finest university money can buy.

Here are a couple of excerpts so you can see what I mean:

“My subject is Haiti, the Black Republic; the only self-made Black Republic in the world. I am to speak to you of her character, her history, her importance and her struggle from slavery to freedom and to statehood. I am to speak to you of her progress in the line of civilization; of her relation with the United States; of her past and present; of her probable destiny; and of the bearing of her example as a free and independent Republic, upon what may be the destiny of the African race in our own country and elsewhere.”

And,

“But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black [applause] or forgiven the Almighty for making her black. [Applause.] In this enlightened act of repentance and forgiveness, our boasted civilization is far behind all other nations. [Applause.] In every other country on the globe a citizen of Haiti is sure of civil treatment. [Applause.] In every other nation his manhood is recognized and respected. [Applause.] “

And,

“Yet, there she is, torn and rent by revolutions, by clamorous factions and anarchies; floundering her life away from year in a labyrinth of social misery. Every little while we find her convulsed by civil war, engaged in the terrible work of death; frantically shedding her own blood and driving her best mental material into hopeless exile. Port au Prince, a city of sixty thousand souls, and capable of being made one of the healthiest, happiest and one of the most beautiful cities of the West Indies, has been destroyed by fire once in each twenty-five years of its history. The explanation is this: Haiti is a country of revolutions.”

Yes, indeed, Brother Douglass brought the noise to the Chicago World’s Fair that April.

Thank you so much Mr. Douglass for teaching the power of the written and spoken word and for helping me not to take for granted education for it’s truly a blessing. By example, like those Haitian revolutionaries, you showed us all what even a slave could do if he doesn’t allow perceived limitations to rule his self-determination.

Whatever I’ve done and whatever I do, I hope it’s clear to you that it’s with gratitude for the efforts and sacrifices you’ve made.

Here’s a link to the complete lecture.

Check it out and see why he’s part of Loco’s Patronus!

Loco

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