Missing You

Day 24: Something you miss

Wow.  There are a lot of things that come to me.  Perhaps I need to make a list rather than try to put one topic into paragraphs.

  1. My grandmother: her voice, her giggle, her food, her unconditional love, her advice.
  2. My dad: there’s so much I never said and I’ll never have the chance.  I have to live with that, and it hurts.
  3. My babies: mind you, they still live with me (for now — one’s off to college soon), but I really miss them as babies.  I know babies are labor intensive and exhausting, but my kids were beautiful and amazing and I wish I’d enjoyed that time with them more.
  4. New York: yes, I’ve been saying that for over seven years, ever since we left.  The New York I moved to in 1990 no longer exists.  Hell, the NYC I left in 2008 no longer exists.  I miss the raw energy of the City, with all its creativity and crazy.  I miss the feeling that making it there was the end all and be all in the life of an artist.  Now it’s just an expensive and sanitized Disneyland full of chain and big box stores.  The little businesses and restaurants are closing.  People in other parts of the country don’t seem to understand that NYC had its share of mom and pop stores too.  They’re gone now.  It’s so sad that it makes me cry.
  5. My hair: this always happens after I cut it short.  It’ll pass. I’ll grow it long again and then cut it all off again, all in 7-10 year cycles.
  6. My friends: my social life here in Ohio is very different from the ones I’ve had pretty much anywhere else.  I miss the closeness I enjoyed with my neighbors in New York, and with my colleagues.  People keep to themselves and their families more here.  It’s hard for a person like me who’s used to creating her family wherever she calls home.
  7. The over 40 family members and friends who have died since 2008: among them were my colleagues and mentors from my NYC music scene days, along with treasured members of John’s family and my own.  It got so bad at one point that folks were passing away in groups of three within a week for a while.  There’s been a lot of loss.
  8. Ethnic diversity: I miss riding the subway with Orthodox Jewish diamond merchants, Mexican mariachi bands, old ladies in saris, and Korean restaurant workers who smell like kimchee.  I miss that feeling of each subway car being a mini United Nations.  I miss living somewhere where catching a cab is a magic carpet ride that might take you to the middle east or sub-Saharan Africa.  I miss readily available sushi delivered to my door so many times that the restaurant sent me not one but two Christmas cards.  What I really miss is that Arabs are just another group of people in NYC, and not viewed and talked about with suspicion and trepidation.  In NYC, folks were folks and we all lived, worked, and co-existed without too much trouble most of the time.  I’m not that dark, but I’m often the darkest thing in the room around here.  It’s gone from being annoying to being just plain infuriating.
  9. The ocean: I’m an east coast kinda gal.  I need an ocean.  This Lake Erie beach shit is NOT cutting it.
  10. Cheese steaks, hoagies, bagels, (real) pizza, pastrami, egg creams, and Sabrett’s hot dogs: ‘nuf said.
  11. The feeling that my entire life is ahead of me: at nearly 48, that’s not really true anymore.  Sure, there’s a lot of life left for me to live, but I’m rapidly approaching the time where I will have lived more than half of my life.  I may live to be 96, but I doubt I’ll live to be 120, if you catch my drift.  I’m not 40.  I’m not 30.  I’m definitely not the wide eyed 24 year old I was when I last graduated from something (Juilliard in 1993).  More than ever, the phrase life is too short is becoming truly meaningful.
  12. My uterus: another odd thing to say, but still true.  We parted ways nearly two months ago.  I don’t miss how it was in the final days, but I miss feeling like I’m whole.  I miss the possibility of having more babies.  My two are awesome, but I have always regretted not having more children.  Having my hysterectomy ushered me into a new stage of life that there is no way to prepare for — very much like becoming a parent or losing a parent.  There’s no way to explain how it feels.  It’s just the new normal.  Most days it’s okay, sometimes even great.  Then someone brings a baby into the room and I start to cry.  It’s hard to change how I see myself, but I’m trying.

I miss you all.

Losing the Race

I have struggled to write anything coherent in the last few days. I’ve started and choked on a few posts that never made it off the ground. I’ve become self-conscious as a writer and made the mistake so many writers, artists, entertainers, and performers make — I worried more about pleasing my audience than telling my truth.

Not today.

A few nights ago, out of nowhere, I found myself in an argument on Facebook with someone whose friendship I had recently been questioning. This person sent me a private message regarding a post I’d put up earlier in the day about the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland. Without thinking that someone might take my comment in any way other than what I actually said, I posted that his death hit me close to home because he was 12 and my son was almost 12. Apparently, that comment was a problem.

The message to me said, and I’ll paraphrase, that I didn’t have to worry about my son because he looks white and the police wouldn’t shoot him.

Gobsmacked. Completely. Gobsmacked.

I’m still not really sure where this came from, but I know it floored me. Is Tamir Rice’s shooting supposed to matter less to me because my son is light-skinned and therefore “safe”? Is the racism I face, or the racism my kids face, somehow less valid because of the lightness of my skin? The conversation that ensued left me feeling damned if I do and damned if I don’t. All my life, I’ve dealt with people of my own race pushing me aside because I wasn’t Black enough, or saying that I was turning my back on my race if I didn’t say or do things in a way that met their approval. Somehow some folks with darker skin assumed two things about me: that I thought I was somehow better because I was lighter, and that my experience in the world was so different that I could not possibly understand what really being Black meant and that I should just keep my mouth shut and enjoy the privileges my skin color bought me.

Bullshit. I’m calling bullshit. And the bullshit is flying from all different directions, from people of all colors, and hitting me square in the face. I’m sick of this shit and I’m tired of having to deal with any of it from anyone. Enough is enough.

Will my son experience the world the same way that boys with brown skin will? No. I never claimed he would, nor should I. Does this mean I can’t be upset that young Black boys and men walk in fear in this country? Does this mean that I think my son is somehow at an advantage to these other boys? Black lives don’t just matter to me because I’m Black. They matter. Period. All of them — mine and my children’s included. Black people’s experiences of racism are different based on skin color and I would be a damned fool not to acknowledge that. However, just because it is different doesn’t mean that it’s better for me.

Here’s a news flash: White people say dumb shit to me too. In fact, I think they say dumber shit to me because to them I don’t look, talk, act like, etc. the Black people they think of as Black. So, in acts that they either think of as compliments or don’t think about at all, they strip me of my Blackness, absorb my identity into their own, and assume that the lives of my darker brothers and sisters are meaningless to me. Then, when I bristle at this or say something that pointedly reminds them of who and what I really am, I am branded: angry, defensive, sensitive. I become confusing to them because they, like so many people, make the assumption that lighter skin, “good” hair, education, and exposure to “culture” make me less Black. So, I gain the world and lose my soul and become a part of the white wash and I should be happy to be a part of this little club of acceptable Negroes.

In short, I’m not Black enough to be Black, but I’m definitely not White. I am clearly losing the race on both sides.

Black people, haven’t we been divided long enough? Isn’t it time we stopped making assumptions about each other and came to the understanding that our experience of racism is multi-faceted and deeper than most people know and understand? Isn’t it time we stopped invalidating one another’s experience of the world based on skin color? Surely, we need to put down the color distinctions imposed on us from the outside with the express purpose of separating us and causing dissent among us to weaken us. Surely, we need to stand together because we will all surely hang separately if we don’t. We need to listen to each other. We need to be able to speak our truth to each other freely. We need to stop blaming and shaming each other. As Wanda Sykes puts it so well, “White people are watching us.” And they are laughing. We are the same to them — NOT White. The distinctions we draw for ourselves don’t help us. They hurt us. And our pain doesn’t matter worth a damn to anyone else if we don’t make it important to ourselves.

The loss of any one Black boy or man should matter because a life has been taken. I wish the world were that simple, but I’m not naive enough to think it is or ever can be. The loss of so many Black males is a tragedy, and it should be everyone’s concern regardless of color. White mothers don’t worry that their sons are targets for the police because of the color of their skin, but I am overjoyed to see that some of them are standing up for the value of the lives of the sons of their counterparts of color. Their concern is no more or less valid because they are White. It’s important because Black lives should matter to us all. Because Black people — men and women, boys and girls — should matter as much as anyone else to everyone. All our children should be precious to everyone. This is why I get pissed off watching the news about yet another (innocent, sweet, etc.) little white girl who’s been abducted, raped, or murdered, but all I see of my own people are criminals who are big scary monsters to the “respectable” world. Where are all my little sisters who’ve been abducted, raped, and murdered? Why don’t we hear about them? Why don’t we see their parents clutching photos and pleading for the lives of their precious children? Why? Because we don’t matter. How do I know that? Because the media tells me so.

Blacks lives matter is more than a cause and far more than a hashtag. It’s the truth. Our lives have always mattered. They didn’t begin to matter when White people came around to believing it. If we think that way, then we will cease to matter as soon as we are no longer the cause that is en vogue. We must not lose focus on what is really important: the importance of Black lives is about human rights. This cannot become a fad or a fashion. We are fighting for our lives. That is serious business.

For Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and all the other boys who will never become men, I say enough is enough. None of us win this race as long as we see it as a competition. Either we all win, or we all lose.

Lord have mercy.

Micro-aggressions

“But, I don’t think of you as being Black. You’re just Lisa!”

Yes. That’s been said to me, more than once by more than one person. And I’m supposed to smile and let it go. Heaven forbid I verbally challenge someone who is already challenged by my very existence. I don’t fit their understanding of what it means (to them) to be… you fill in the blank, so I’d better start explaining myself in a hurry. It is imperative that I make sense to them or else they won’t know what to do or say.

That simple phrase, “I don’t think of you as (again, fill in the blank)”, is not a compliment. Do you not think of me as Black because you like me but you don’t like Black people? Do I not look or act like the Black people you’re familiar with (like the criminals, gangsters, rappers, or welfare queens portrayed in the media)? Are you afraid that knowing me will cause you to have to readjust the way you see the world? Saying that you don’t think of me as Black, or anything else that makes you uncomfortable, says less about me and more about you. It tells me you live in a very insular world that doesn’t include people that aren’t like you. It tells me you’re afraid of certain groups of people. It tells me that you enjoy a certain feeling of superiority because you aren’t like “those people”. It tells me that you are not only ignorant, you are willfully ignorant. You don’t get it and you are totally okay with not getting it.

It also tells me that I’m the one who has to change or conform in order to be okay with you.

Why? Is that fair? I have to contract myself into a little box rather than your having to expand your understanding to get me, and that’s okay?

I’m not claiming to be perfect, not by a long shot. I have character flaws that are mine to deal with, but they come from my being human and not from my being Black, female, etc. There’s stuff I need to improve — just like there’s stuff you need to improve. We are connected by our humanity. In that, we are the same.

Perhaps it is naive of me to believe that the world is a better place because we are all different. I for one can’t imagine a world that is all one race, one gender, one religion. I love this beautiful world of ours because it is a many colored quilt. We are better for our differences, not worse. The variety within human existence should serve to broaden our acceptance and understanding, not to narrow it. I believe we are all God’s children. Perhaps we don’t all understand each other, but God understands us more deeply than we know ourselves. He draws no comparisons and sees no distinctions. He loves us perfectly and accepts us completely. We have much to learn from that example.

So why can’t we accept each other as we are? How can one group of people justify calling themselves correct and condemn everyone else to either a life of conformity or exile? Who are we to do that? It’s not a question of right or wrong, moral or immoral. It’s about being secure enough in ourselves to believe that there’s room for many points of view. It’s about not being threatened by the “other”.

When you tell me you don’t think of me as being Black, you deny a huge part of who I am. I am a Black woman raised by Black people. My experience of life has not been one of membership in a privileged majority. Even the most economically challenged and uneducated White person can enjoy the privilege of being White, while there are Black men with PhDs who still can’t get a cab in NYC or face violence or death at the hands of the police. Don’t get it twisted: I am a highly educated person, trained to play an instrument at a level achieved by only a very small percentage of the population. Yes, I speak like an educated person and not in some stereotype of Ebonics that you’ve seen on TV. As a Black woman, I have learned to live in and navigate the world of the so-called majority. As comic Dave Chappelle says, all Black people are fluent in two languages: hood and job interview. I am of two worlds by necessity. But I am a product of the people and culture that nurtured me.

It is amusing to me that folks think that I am some sort of anomaly. Nope. There are tons of other folks like me, more than you would think. We read Shakespeare and enjoy the creative and scientific disciplines, but we also enjoy the ways and traditions of our people. I love Beethoven and Brahms and Bach, but I also really love Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. I have a Masters degree from Juilliard, but I can still appreciate the creative artistry of Usher, Pharrell, and Beyonce. I love ballet. I love Klezmer. I love African dance. I love the music, art, and scholarship of the whole world because I am a citizen of the world. My vision is broad and all encompassing and none of it frightens or threatens me.

I only fear evil, and that can be found anywhere at any time. There is no one culture or tradition with a monopoly on evil.

So, don’t tell me you don’t think of me as Black. It only makes you look bad. Expand the way you think to include all that you don’t understand. Believe in people, not in stereotypes. Look for the good in everyone, but don’t look for everyone to be like you in order to be good. Embrace me as your sister and don’t ask me to be anyone other than who I am. Don’t try to “figure me out”. Just accept me and love me. It’s just that simple.

Mary, Michael, and Edith

Last night, I did not do a blog entry because I was completely exhausted and in desperate need of sleep. An email I got late last night kept me from getting that sleep, unfortunately. I’m not sure this entry will be in English or gibberish, but I’ll give it a shot.

This is what I would have written last night:

Today (11/5/14) is my aunt Mary Ann’s birthday. Even though I call her my aunt, Mary Ann and I have always been more like sisters than aunt and niece. My grandmother (who isn’t even biologically my grandmother, but that’s a REALLY big and complicated story!) adopted Mary Ann when she was a baby. Mary Ann was the child of my grandmother’s niece (confused yet?) who was unable to care for a baby at the time. So, Mary Ann joined the family as younger sister to my dad (20 years older) and my uncle Vincent (9 years older). I asked her once when I was about 4 or so if I should call her “aunt”. At 13, she shut me down pretty quickly. Mary Ann was an aunt, but not an aunt — a relative, but not a relative. Despite what the relationship looked like “on paper”, we maintained a really close bond that is still going strong.

As a small child, I thought that Mary Ann was the most beautiful girl in the world. Anyone from a black (yeah, I still say black, because African American is so awkward sometimes) family knows that there are often issues surrounding color that have their roots in slavery’s “house nigger” and “field nigger” divide. (N.B. If you are bothered by the word nigger, please understand that its use is not the same for blacks and non-blacks. That is a conversation for another time, but it is a word that will appear within a certain context in my writings from time to time. It is not meant to shock or cause debate. Please read everything rather than being repulsed by a single word.) I was a light skinned kid which brought with it the taunts of so-called friends and family alike: lite brite, high yellow, uppity, etc. Mary Ann is the most luscious shade of dark chocolate. I wanted that gorgeous dark skin! My family, on the other hand, made sure to remind her every day that she was ugly and unworthy because she was dark. Light skin and “good” hair (holy shit, I HATE that term!) made me the favored child. Mary Ann, by all rights, should have hated my guts. Instead, she loved and cherished me like no one else in our family did. We shared a bond no one else understood, and there was a lot of time and energy put into breaking it.

Epic. Fail.

I once alluded to the fact that I saw more violence in a day than Law & Order showed in an entire season. It’s true. A lot of that violence was right in my own home. I’d rather not share too much about that out of respect for my relatives, but I will say that an inordinately high percentage of that violence was directed toward Mary Ann. I used to cry when I heard, or sometimes saw, Mary Ann get her ass beat. Even after it was over, I was an inconsolable mess. How could anyone want to hurt my beautiful beloved Mary Ann? What could possibly deserve such a beating?

So, even after being beaten half to death, Mary Ann would come and comfort me. She would do the funniest (I mean, really damn funny!) impression of Lily Tomlin’s character Edith Adams (I’m showing my age now… who remembers Edith Adams?). She would start in on that impression and slowly my tears would fade into peals of laughter. Without fail. No one made me laugh like Mary Ann. I wanted to be just like her.

My family did NOT want me to be anything like her. She was demonized by them for reasons I really can’t understand, even 40 years later. This is the kind of sick family pathology that psychologists get their PhDs on. I wish someone would explain this crap to me.

Some of my absolute favorite memories of Mary Ann involve music and dancing. She had an amazing singing voice and she could dance like someone on the Soul Train line (OMG, Soul Train… a moment of silence for the late great Don Cornelius, please). My Uncle Vincent was also an amazing dancer. If I can dance at all (which lots of folks say I can), it’s because I spent hours in rapt awe watching these two tear up the dance floor. They were amazing and inspiring, and these were the bright spots in a very scary and unsure childhood. These are the moments I hang on to.

I remember when Michael Jackson (another moment of silence, please) released his first solo album, Off the Wall. Mary Ann ran out to get a copy. She loved Michael Jackson! They were only about a year apart in age, so she was convinced they’d be married one day (no snide comments, okay…?). I ran downstairs to join her in the living room at my grandma’s house. There was a big old stereo console in one corner, more furniture than sound equipment as we think of it these days. I remember the album cover. I remember the centerfold. I remember the socks! I remember the sound as the needle touched the vinyl for the very first time and my life and hers were never the same. C’mon, y’all. Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. You remember what the first track on that album is…

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough! The force has got a lot of power. It makes me feel like… OOH!

To this day, I can’t hear that song without remembering the ecstatic dance Mary Ann did that very first time she heard it. I have always maintained that there are a few absolutely perfect songs in the world: Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Shout, Flashlight (y’all feel me, right?). Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is at the top of that list. Michael’s vocals and Quincy Jones’ production? Shut the front door! That shit is relevant, funky, and fabulous to this day — almost 40 years later. I dare you to find better arrangements than Quincy’s on that album and the two he did with Michael after that.

Go ahead. I’ll wait…

I didn’t think so.

So, flash forward to June 2009 when Michael’s great talent faded into his untimely death (I still get choked up thinking about that day). The very minute I heard the news, who did I call? Yep, you can probably guess that my Mary Ann got the first call. We shared that tragedy together and reminisced about all those dance sessions in Grandma’s living room, where we really did wear a groove in the floor. We talked about the late 70s and what life was like before Mary Ann had my cousin Vincent and moved out of my Grandma’s house. Once she was gone, life was harder for me. There was no longer that bright beacon of love and hope. My Mary Ann had moved on, gotten married to her husband James (an amazing man who loves her down to the ground), and had begun a family of her own.

Lots of life has happened since then. “Little Vincent”, who my husband once carried on his back across Tappan Square here in Oberlin, is now nearly 36 years old and big and strong enough to almost carry my husband! My cousin Melissa is nearly 30. I’ve been married close to 23 years and my kids are inching up on 17 and 12. Grandma’s gone now. So’s my dad. Mary Ann and her family are pretty much my last connections to my childhood home in North Philly. Little Lisa is little no more. I’m about to celebrate my 25th college reunion.

Time has flown. I’m edging up on 50 and Mary Ann on 60. Where did those years go?

No matter where they went or what happened in between then and now, Mary Ann still makes me laugh like no one else. I still think she is one of the most beautiful women in the world. Period. She’s built like an African fertility goddess, for crying out loud! And that skin is still the deepest, darkest chocolate. She still looks the same after all these years, and she says I do too (black don’t crack, honey…). We are still like sisters, and she’ll still do her Edith Adams impression for me if I ask her to.

On your birthday, my most marvelous Mary Ann, I want to wish you many more years of happiness and joy, and in the words of Mr. Don Cornelius himself — peace, love, and SOUL. I hope we grow old and keep keeping it real together for a long time to come. I will always love you. Always.