The Dragging of Dr. Bill

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Bill Cosby, once lauded as America’s dad, and revered as the pristine embodiment of purity (“I will not curse in my routines”) was given a sentence of 3 to 10 years for the sexual assault of a college administrator. She and dozens of others told, tearfully, of being “drugged” with a substance that left them virtually unconscious, unable to defend themselves against Cosby’s advances. There were traditional and social media formats spilling the story. By way of six degrees of separation, someone knew the details; hopefully the truth. Although he adamantly denied the many allegations leveled against him and, with the exception of one, contends that he did nothing wrong, the pressure-packed voices and ravenous want for justice loomed large and effective.  Any persons who found the matters of Cosby’s impropriety questionable did so, it seems, out of an effort to hang on to the 50 plus year image of the man they really, for the most part, never knew. He became the first; he would not be the last.

According to testimony and reports, the incident occurred several years ago. The allegations erupted into an immediate divide, cuffing the country in a gender and, in many unfortunate ways, racial headlock. Regardless of the seething universal familiarity of men taking sexual advantage of women, the color of Bill’s skin played a role, if subtly. Historic lore painted the Black man as a sexual pariah, insatiable, sexually ravenous, especially for white women (Bill’s accusers and victims were of all races). It was a stigma that has existed for several hundred years as an attempt to further denigrate and dehumanize the Black male, building fears of a virulent caricature. It worked, to a degree. Even to this day, the presence of unfamiliar Black men encourages white women to clutch purses, speed walk to their destinations, or engage them in meaningless conversation to keep their minds off of a certain, as they see it, genetically programmed assault. Although this is applicable across the racial divide, Black men are the principal wearers of this disparaging veil.  Because of the social stigma, whether admitted or not, Bill Cosby was no longer Bill Cosby when the accusations flourished. He became the stereotype.

known Bill

Bill Cosby was accused of drugging his victims and sexually assaulting them, usually in his home. There came an almost immediate outcry. African Americans huddled together reminiscing about what this man, this icon, meant to them, appalled by the act and then by the dragging of Cosby. We felt, at that moment, sorry for him, his wife, and their children. We were a part of them, invited into their quiet public lives, breaking bread when they did. We were certain that there must have been some mistake. But reality has a way of awakening even the deepest of truths.  After a while, there was no more denying. William H. Cosby, America’s Dad, was found guilty. He was a sexual villain.

poor bill

Looking back to the early years, listening to his squeaky clean routines, Cosby gave the image that America needed. Alas, there was a Black man who was lauded by a racially diverse public and did so with minimal buffoonery. His characters, even those that were over the top (see Uptown Saturday Night), bought us comfort. We knew that in the end we would laugh and quote his lines as if we had written them ourselves. He sold us Coca-Cola, Jell-O Pudding and Pudding Pops. He epitomized style and the unique jazz infused coolness so large it couldn’t be duplicated. We loved him, and we believed, he loved us back. But, as the Spinners sang, “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”

 

The end result of this decades-long egregious infraction was already known.  Beyond public shame, beyond the portrait of an old man with an unreliable gait and fading eyesight was, in the antiquated shell, Bill Cosby. What was happening to him began as a downward spiral long before the flurry of accusations, as his crown began to tarnish with African Americans. He crowned himself, perhaps with the best of intentions, the self-appointed spokesman for Black correctness; focusing on a community whose circumstances were dire, criticized and generational.  His book, “Come on, People!” written with noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, met mixed reviews and an outcry from those portrayed in the book and those learned enough to understand the underlying reveals. We understood what he was trying to do, but the adage of airing dirty laundry was gospel, still, the dirty laundry was aired from every bookstore in the country. Sadly, Cosby was right. The Black community was viewed through a cameraman’s lens, only able to capture the mired images, broken dreams, poor schooling, emotional indifference, impoverished conditions, and despair. He and Poussaint felt that the existing circumstances could be altered or altogether changed. They had the theories but they didn’t provide the foundational methods.

The MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, herself a victim of sexual assault,  brought women out of their unspoken place and into the spotlight, unified for justice against men who violated them. The movement was founded to empower women at a time (and decade) when empowerment shouldn’t have been a necessary issue.  A barrage of men, mostly white, were accused, shamed and judged. From immature politicians to actors, musicians, law enforcement, and corporate executives. There were no surprises. Some of the accused and accusers were believable and others were questionable. Were women seeking revenge against men who had done them wrong? Were the actions of these men simply a case of the ridiculous but acceptable ideology of ‘boys will be boys?’ Was Bill Cosby the sacrificial lamb in a cause célèbre? The answer to each question is a resounding ‘no!’ He became the first; he would not be the last.

bill court

Women have fought for decades to be heard, to be recognized. Finally, by way of the MeToo movement, their stories became a fortified web, boldly told and universally heard. Bill was ensnared in this web for reasons that only he and others accused of this heinous violation would know; entangled so completely that his fans and admirers hoped that the punishment he would inevitably receive would be merciful. Mercy was not in the cards, and at 81, a frail William H. Cosby became the first for lacking control of his, let’s say, pudding pop.

Callers to “For the Culture, ” Morgan State University’s (WEAA) radio program had varying views. One caller referred to the incident as “cannibalistic racism,” a term he coined to describe how rich Black professional (athletes and others) prefer white women because they have the financial means to “chose.” The caller attempted to parallel the issues of the many white women accusing Cosby of inappropriate physical behavior (remember, the accusers were of all races). It was obvious what he was trying to project but in his attempted verbal acrobatic feat, the point was lost, although the potential to make a pivotal and provocative abstract was looming. Few callers defended Cosby, expressing disappointment in the man who was a familiar voice on their early lives. There was a Cosby who was ineluctable. Ultimately, the only escape necessary was from himself.

“How well do you really know anyone; really?”

Disappointment became the running theme with mortality a close second.

Disappointment was met with anger. Cosby became a hypocrite. “What would Cosby say,” became the buzz.

THEORETICAL COSBY: “Are you STUPID? What in the hell were you thinking? I don’t think you were thinking, at least not with your big head. This is the dumbest and most ridiculous thing you have ever done. Haven’t you learned that NO means NO?!”

These were words he couldn’t hear and actions he couldn’t control. His warm smile, sure stroll, and inviting demeanor were reduced to a pale facsimile; a man with a cane timidly stop-stepping as if the world was moving unsteadily beneath his feet. It was. 

Bill Cosby was iconic, and for several generations will always be viewed sans the accusations and consequential sentencing. He was for decades, an “asexual” demigod, a fatherly figure, a moral protector, if only in our memories. He was our childhood, growing with us, embracing our dreams and coaching us through our difficult decisions. He has suffered a plethora of personal blows, certain to be overlooked because of the waltz of his personal demons. We cried at his loses, reached out trembling hands to grasp at his aging fingertips and heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry.” We will miss that Bill. I think we already do. But we cannot dismiss what we didn’t know or the man behind the curtain.

no words

So, now the years will pass slowly. Those three to ten years will feel like another eighty-one. It pains us to silence, but years of silence was what kept Cosby safe. We pray to the God of our understanding that he will one day be forgiven. We pray that the Bill we knew can one day forgive the Bill he really was.

Monday’s Not Coming: A Review

 

In 2012 I worked in Washington DC. Amidst the chaos, omnipresent politics,  and scurrying of residents and visitors toward an unknown end,  something clouded the purpose, redefining the mood. DC was, and remains, an enigma; the best and worse of the best and worse.

Four hours into my first day I was told the story of four children. It seemed to be a required post-employment discussion. My career as an educator was filled with stories about abused children and homes unfit for the rodents the borrowed beneath the planks.

My orientation guide said, “No one even noticed that they were missing. I don’t know; a lot of time. I think they were withdrawn, at least one of them. I don’t know. That happened in 2008, maybe 2007.”

Officials were notified. Visits to the home netted nothing. An unanswered door, even when noises were audible inside the home, resulted simply in a taped notice to appear in court or notify the school. Follow ups were rare.

“The system dropped the ball, and now, four years later, we’re paying for it.”

On a cold January 9, 2008 morning, CBS news reported:

“U.S. Marshals delivering an eviction notice Wednesday found the decomposing bodies of four youths, probably female and ranging in age from 5 to 18, inside a home in one of this city’s poorest areas, authorities said. A woman who answered the door at the small, two-story brick apartment building where the bodies were found was taken into police custody for questioning, authorities said.”

The story got little coverage beyond DC, overshadowed, perhaps, by the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.

Four years after the incident, DC remained shook. DCPS Central Office personnel with direct school and student contact were given a new charge; visit the homes of children with excessive absences, although for many the task was not an official part of the job.

So when Tiffany Jackson’s novel,  Monday Isn’t Coming, was released shortly after her heavily lauded novel, Allegedly, the story was immediately reminiscent of that conversation in 2012.  Ironically, Monday Isn’t Coming follows the story line of the DC reports although it is believed that the book is based on the disappearance of young women and girls in DC. The setting, actions, coincidences and outcomes align with the four children. I am going with that.

Inseparable friends, Monday and Claudia, spend the summer away from one another. Monday stays in DC, Claudia goes south.When Claudia returns to DC  she immediately searches for Monday, anxious and excited to tell her about her trip but more so because she misses her. Closer than sisters, Monday and Claudia do everything together.

What follows for over 400 pages is a maze of confusion, deception, and secrets so deep the reader has to reread lines just to make sure they actually read what Jackson had written.  Claudia begins a search that becomes a crusade after being told that Monday, who lived in low income housing with her mother and siblings, went to live with other family members. Claudia’s every search for and inquiry about Monday is fruitless, a maze that has no beginning nor end, and this makes the story a little heavy as it progresses.  

Claudia’s insatiable need to find her friend leads her on a persona crusade, from Washington DC to Maryland and back. At times the journeys are surreal, beyond reality, especially considering Claudia’s age. After several hundred pages of empty promises, unreal visits, dangerous leads, and endless dead ends the revealing of Monday’s  whereabouts are finally emerging.  The story felt rushed at times, slow dragging the next. Unfortunately, this becomes distracting, forcing the story to lose some of its focus, but this is only one reason for the lapse.

Tiffany Jackson, whose work blurs the line between realism and horror (see her YouTube short films), Monday’s Not Coming takes an unexpected and believably awkward turn. It is as the book approaches its conclusion that the Jackson trademark become apparent. The final chapters left me saying “I wasn’t ready,” but equally disillusioned because it felt as if Jackson just wanted to conclude this novel, as if she was a modern day Sophist. That aside, Monday’s Not Coming is an interesting read. YA audiences will be thrilled with the language, settings, plot, and twists.

I will away read new releases by Jackson. I only hope she doesn’t rush her amazing skills for profit.

QUEENS: A MEMOIR for AUNT PUMPKIN

20 MINUTES AND COUNTING

As little Long Island boys, New York City Saturdays couldn’t come soon enough, and the anticipation of the series of events for the next two days ate away at us like necrotizing fasciitis.

I can’t remember if we went to Astoria, Corona, Long Island City or someplace entirely different, I only knew we were going to Queens, to my aunt’s house, and we were getting close. We waited for the unmistakable identifiers; the patented indicators that always told us when Long Island faded and Queens came to life; landmarks that verified our transition; the huge metal globe, the ominous pavilion, and rockets that seemed to sprout from underground bunkers; relics from the 1964 World’s Fair.

QUEENS WORLD'S FAIR

The Queens of our destination was dramatically different from the manicured grass and single family homes of central Long Island. Once we exited the highway, we’d snake through neighborhoods where two-story homes with tiny lots stood mere inches from one another. A block or two from those homes were brique blanche low rise apartment buildings, no more than four stories high, misplaced among the marigolds and gardenias but fitting, somehow, among the splendor. They looked inviting and warm, yet not exciting or telling, not like my aunt’s building, which stood twice as large, full of fantastic tales, and was still several hundred driving yards away.

I found myself, even as a child, awestruck by the architectural majesty of the edifices that led to my aunt’s place: Italianate, Neo-Classical, and Victorian. I’d trace the outlines; the smooth facades, and curvy beams, the jaunting slabs and recessed windows of the early 20th century homes. There was also a unique beauty in the design of the convenience stores and the numerous carry-outs that peppered the next several blocks. Each was pristine; white, clean, notifying passersby, on sidewalk A-frames, of the sales and special edibles with fancy names sold in their markets. Their customers smiled, held conversations, petted each other’s dog, or gestured like royalty.

THEN the dramatic and immediate change, both apparent and unapologetic.

Whitewashed walls turned a mild shade of grey and darkened as we gradually motioned closer to my aunt’s neighborhood. The stores suddenly morphed into worn and depressed concrete slabs, hoping, perhaps, for a solid, strong, and unmerciful wind that would level them. Merchants didn’t appear as lively or inviting as those just a few blocks away. Along this path, the accents and complexions were different. The street, one block to the next, grew darker, from European white to Middle Eastern brown, to African Black.

produce market 2

Despite this, the sweet scent and attractive colors of fresh fruit and flowers poured invitingly from beneath green awning, and offerings of Jamaican beef patties, knishes, bialys or massive green pickles wrapped in wax paper pockets were sold alongside beef hot dogs, quarter pound burgers, Chinese food, and jumbo slices of cheese pizza. I learned that the name of the store was moot. Who stood behind the counter was how each was identified: the Arab or Spanish store, or just, ‘The Deli.’

Within minutes we arrived in the ‘projects’: that magical place where secrets were born. Finally.

And butterflies fluttered in our bellies.

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Dad maneuvered his well-detailed, ’74 Caprice Classic slowly, tip-toeing over hole-filled asphalt and shards of shattered liquor bottles, in search of a parking space close to the building. He grimaced, frowned and cursed as we coasted further from Aunt Pumpkin’s. Growing frustrated — and Dad being Dad — he created a space made of sidewalk and grass.

We stood outside the car turning our heads left and right, taking in the wonder, familiar with the unfamiliar. We inhaled the Queens air deeply, filled our lungs with invisible compounds created by transient mad scientists and released into the open environment. But the air in Queens wasn’t what we were breathing on Long Island. It was thick with the signature (and welcomed) odors of diesel exhaust, incinerator smoke, stagnant river water, collard greens, vinegar, fried chicken, onions, and garlic. I grew to love that odoriferous symphonic blend because combined, it produced nostalgia. Even to this day, any similar smell sparks immediate memories: some of the best times of my life.

THE RIVER BENEATH US

Behind my aunt’s apartment building there flowed a vast and murky river. It glistened at sunrise and again at sunset like tea colored diamonds cascading down a ten-degree incline. It was most beautiful at night, when the lights from the buildings on the other side of the river seemed to dance on waves that rose and fell like the notes of Bolero. When the sun eased beneath the horizon the pungent scent of day thinned, leaving that familiar oceanic essence that made lovers swoon.

We played on an island where the river met the brick wall intended to keep residents and fury separated. The island, made from compressed trash, was created in 1968 during the New York City trash worker’s strike. Within days, garbage consumed the projects, snaking along walking trails and leaving a putrid, sticky slime. Complaints to the management, mayor, and resident rights associations, garnered nothing except larger piles. After several weeks, with no resolution and an infestation of rats and mice, the residents made a decision that changed the landscape and seascape.

trash

Residents — men, women, and children — donning gloves and homemade masks soaked in perfumes and disinfectants, gathered together and begin the task of moving the trash.

‘If the government doesn’t care about us, we will get their attention on something they do care about.’

And with that, for several days an army of Corona, Astoria, Long Island City residents carried leaking, germ-filled bags of trash to the river.

When agreements were met between the government and the strikers, the trash strike ended. Building management (who also participated in “the great dump”), hoping to regain authority, posted notices that spoke of hefty fines to anyone caught dumping, but people ignored those warnings and continued, for two generations, tossing trash over the railing. Soon, management stopped trying.

By 1975 the island grew into an uneven twelve foot semi-circle that sloped into the stagnant river. We would stand with other kids, bouncing on the hard funky mass, with no fear or regard to the possibility of irreversible consequences.

toxic river

With about ten of us gathered on the relatively small mound, vying for position and trying to avoid taking a fall from which we didn’t know what may result, the viscus, egg-smelling river water splashed a few inches from our feet. She played with us; teased as we flirted with her, and sang to us a beautiful aria, promising that if we hopped on her back she’d take us on an unforgettable journey and return us home safely. Her song was intoxicating, magnetic, and comforting. But there was a longing and loneliness in her tone that appealed to parts of us we never knew existed. Although she was hypnotic and alluring, her uncertain but apparent danger kept us at bay. We were tempted, as children usually are, but too afraid, as children usually are. We wanted to ride and to feel the salty, putrid mist kiss our faces. We wanted to scream, laugh, wave, and be admired. We were just too afraid.

The neighborhood kids trusted her. They were lured by her song. They stepped into the water, positioned on her spine and journeyed a distance nearly beyond our view, waving excitedly to us and their image drifted further and further until it became an unidentifiable speck, and then, quietly, very quietly, they disappeared.

“The Island” became a generational contribution to adventures, like a candy store or a secret garden. It was an amusement park death trap, far more dangerous than the emerging drug dealers and known molesters who roamed the projects when the sun went down. Throughout the years many children disappeared. Many mothers and grandmothers begged God for mercy. “The Island” grew. It aged and blew steam from a collection of pores from January through December. Children took a ride and never returned to shore. Perhaps this was His being merciful.

THE RESIDENTS

There were a half-dozen morning nomads playing on the winding path that led to my Aunt Pumpkin’s building. It was 8:00 in the morning and they looked as if they had just awakened. A group of men with crudely drawn caricature-like faces leaned nonchalantly, but confidently, on cars talking fantastic shit about nothing. They were sharing a Kentucky breakfast from a brown paper bag, hiding their obvious concern as the Lion (my Dad) and his two cubs (my brother and I) got closer. Their scowl deepened. Their boisterous chatter turned to murmurs and the murmurs to deafening silence. Every eye eyed Dad suspiciously, focusing on his height, his width, and his prideful gait. The men rolled their shoulders back, expanding their chests, bore brown teeth and folded their arms over malnourished bodies, attempting, we guessed, to intimidate, until Dad nodded and greeted them loudly, with a bottom-hammer toned: “Good morning fellas.”

Involuntarily they nodded back, still silent, perhaps unsure of next steps, but alert, giving us an unspoken okay to be in their camp. Their approval wasn’t necessary. My Dad was big and confident; an unmovable Super Alpha male who was in immediate command of all packs, and they knew it. Their shifting eyes said they knew, as they kowtowed (actually dropped their heads submissively) until we passed. They understood, just by scent, that a jump-up guaranteed a beat-down. So, to protect their reputations, they boasted when we were a safe distance away, testing the waters, only to realize that it was deeper than they initially assumed, and waded in the deep end until we were out of their sight. We had no concerns, Dad’s waistband partner, Roscoe, was keeping stride.

“Y’all McGuire family?” asked one of the older 8:00 kids. She lookedhi familiar.

“Yeah,” I replied, looking at them side-eye.

The biggest kid, a girl who’d later tell me her name was Natalie, nodded at us like the men had done my father. She was tall and thicker than the rest of the kids frolicking on the ground playing skullies. She was almost a woman (physically) with a little girl’s face. A perfectly straight line separated her afro-puffs into equal symmetrical orbs, exposing big eyes, a wide nose and protruding lips that shined under the rising sun. I could feel her eyes on us as we walked toward Aunt Punkin’s building. We’d later become friends but at that moment I realized, at that very moment, that I was not yet an Alpha.

THE BUILDING
Along the winding concrete path, colored over with spray-painted hieroglyphics, to the building that looked identical to a dozen others, we walked. We continued our trek through the intense but invisible cloud of garlic gas, inside the dimly lit building, to the elevator and pressed the number of the floor to my Aunt Pumpkin’s home. When the elevator doors opened there was a short distance, a path along the hard tile floor between stone grey walls, to her apartment. Those moderately polished floors would make the rubber soles of our Pro Keds squeak echoing like trapped rodents in the hollow.
It was hauntingly quiet inside the hall, but whispers often ominously leaked from behind the locked doors. My brother and I, always game for a game, made a game of trying to decipher the mumbled words of the voices reverberating behind those creamy gray colored reinforced portals. I don’t know when we started doing this, but we always did. The voices were rarely loud enough for us to guess correctly, but wrongly repeating the assumed discussions of the unseen always entertained us, especially our Dad. That is until there was an argument or fight, and there were plenty of those, which rang as clear as the bells of the Catholic church a few blocks away. As the years progressed the once rare conflicts were no longer behind those closed doors but spilled into the hallways and stairwells as painfully contagious events.

BOOM…BOOM…BOOM… BOOM…BOOM…

Dad hammered his closed fist against the metal door of Pumpkin’s apartment. The sound echoed throughout the dimly lit curves of the hall and before the echo ceased he’d do it again, aggressively, with authority. BOOM… BOOM… BOOM…

Pause.

Someone in an apartment down the hall opened their door and peeked out, grunted and quickly retreated.

SLAP…SLAP…SLAP…

This time with an open hand and greater intensity.

A click sounded from the door that previously opened; it was locked.

“Who is it?!” My aunt playfully barked from behind her door.

“Who you think?!” Dad fired back, his face twisted into a youthful smile. “Open the door Punk…”

And that banter would continue for a few seconds. This was their game, I supposed. Big sister and little brother play. And when the door opened we were rushed upon by our cousins with hugs, laughter, and gentle taps. We felt, in that moment, like the most important people on the planet. When the door opened it was the official beginning of the some of the best times of our lives. … And doors opened.

INSIDE THE PUMPKIN PATCH

Aunt Pumpkin’s apartment was inconceivably spotless, smelling of pine or lemons and, for some reason, boiled pork shoulder and vanilla pound cake. To the left of the front door –where no one ever sat–was the sitting room, the color of pale green wasabi and resembling the waiting room in a psychologist’s office. We didn’t care if we weren’t allowed to sit on the plastic covered furniture, as long as we could kneel in front of the glowing glass box, filled with an animation that sparked our imagination. The box – -the largest fish tank I had ever seen — illuminated blue and was crystal clear. Inside were dime-sized guppies and other sea creatures that floated majestically from end to end in a ballet de poisson. Later that night we would sit in front of that tank as if it was a television and we were watching a three-dimensional episode of Jacques Cousteau.

It was by way of that tank that we learned the miracle of birth.

“C’mere! C’mere! I want to show you something!”

We rushed in, bags still clumsily hanging from our hands, into the sitting room and in front of the tank. A fat guppy with massive eyes and a large sweeping tail slowly swam from one end to the other. Her name was Polly. At the bottom of the tank was Max or Maximus, the grotesque, hanging lipped, tumorous male, and father, that stayed suspended within a two-inch radius waiting for the flakes of food sprinkled at the top of the tank to drop to within reach of his self-created cell.

” Look!” my cousin said pointing to the cotton-like speck that dangled helplessly from a tiny opening at Polly’s belly. We moved in closer, wide eyes and motionless as Polly lethargically swam in erratic patterns, dropping, one by one, a dozen tiny pale, big-eyed newbies; the fry. They struggled, swirling in rapid succession from Polly’s protruding underbelly, free falling several inches before eventually getting their sea legs and exploring their new world.

We counted twelve.

We gathered around the tank under a bright light and watched those tiny translucent orange creatures swim through the vastness of their unexplored world. It was amazing! I was in wonder, imagining myself a guppy, free, unafraid, and catered to. We talked about the new additions in the tank and I’d, a couple hours later, sneak back to the sitting room and gawk at the eleven…

ten…

I recounted, and though we agreed that there were twelve, there were indeed ten baby guppies. When we returned the next morning, nearly all of the fry were gone, victims, we learned, of Maximus, the large lipped, multi-colored, tumorous male guppy; the father.
Four remained, hidden in the slender crack of a rock, clustered closely together, traumatized by the horrors they had seen and the sonic fish screams only they could hear. But they too would soon meet a similar fate. I was devastated, vowing never to own fish of any sort. Against my better judgement, I’ve owned two, both of which, within five days, seemed to prefer to swim on their sides.

“Y’all wanna eat?” Aunt Pumpkin asked, her voice both animated and intimidating.

“Yes,” my brother and I sheepishly replied although we had breakfast before we left Long Island.

She went to the refrigerator, gathered a hand full of ingredients and from the drawer grabbed various culinary tools. She put canisters, cartons, and bowls topped with aluminum foil on the counter. In one hand she held a cast iron pot and in the other a knife in the shape of a scimitar. She filled the pot with water, sat it on the stove atop the flame and then, without missing a beat, cut away the plastic wrapping from a pack of sausages, placing them into the pot just coming to a boil. Oil from a tin can that sat on the stove was scooped into the cast iron skillet and heated to a moderate heat. It smelled of bacon and fried chicken. This oil would fry the eggs and sear and char the boiled sausage which would plump and explode through its casing.

Aunt Pumpkin and Dad talked while she moved about the kitchen with admirable precision and purpose, a grace-filled dance by a woman who grew more beautiful with each twist. Their voices amplified as they chatted, reminiscing, and laughing about matters and events we all were alien to. A cup of coffee sat in front of Dad, stream rising and swirling in a ghostly pirouette. In less than a half hour, the little yellow kitchen table would be covered with a spread rivaling most buffets, and we’d dine until our bellies stuck out so far we couldn’t see our feet.

There was no pork shoulder.

II — AUNT PUMPKIN

Aunt Pumpkin was born in the early 1940’s on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in a town formed from extreme heat and swarms of mosquitoes. It was named, possibly, for an annihilated Native American tribe, killed by brutal colonizers who escaped from their brutal colonizers to build themselves a better life , or the name derived from the town being the tenth railroad station from the Delaware line. Either way, it was home to her and Dad and their tribe.

There were fifteen brothers and sisters, cramped into a house that somehow accommodated them all. Pumpkin’s real name was Mildred, after her mother. In order of birth, she was number ten or eleven. They all worked in the fields of Eastern Shore Virginia, not in the capacity of chattel labor, but as a money-making force. I know nothing about her formal education, but judging by our collective attitude, education was a non-negotiable, as important as air. She was my Dad’s older sister, and based on their relationship, his protector. When it was all said and done, that was all that mattered.

My Aunt Pumpkin, Dad, and thirteen brothers and sisters resembled one another, all sharing distinct and unmistakable facial and physical characteristics that would dominate for generations.

Grandfather was dark and stoic. From him, my Dad, aunts, and uncles got their sloping foreheads, downward slanting eyes, full-ish lips and broad, muscular bodies. Grandmother was light, the color of buttercream, with features that were arguably Native American; the keen nose, piercing eyes, high cheekbones, thick hair, full-ish lips (also), and perfectly drawn eyebrows. They all were beautiful, strong, regal in a way that was achievable only through DNA touched by the spirits. And it was this combined genetic structure that dominated the features of every generation to follow like the smoothly carved lines of West African sculpture. I believe my grandmother’s genetics were most dominant and today her great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are mistaken for Dominican, Jamaican, Central African, Ethiopian, and Native American. Aunt Pumpkin, with skin the color of copper (perhaps this is how she got her nickname), represented both of her parents well.

I most vividly recall the warmth I felt when around her, how she seemed larger than most men and twice as loud. Aunt Pumpkin seemed grander than life itself. But more than that, I remember how she laughed, big and joyous, with such passion and animation that she squealed long and breathless at the end, which made whatever she found funny even funnier. We loved that laugh. Without ever really knowing it, we needed that laugh. It was as much a part of the trip as the trip itself. And her eyes, squinting behind large octagonal glasses, danced delightfully, especially behind our childish stories and corny jokes.

The weekend stays at Aunt Pumpkin’s came with a single demand, that we go to church on Sunday. There was no way around it, but the difference between the church we would attend in Queens from the Baptist church I attended at home was welcomed and exciting. So we’d rise early, dress in whatever we could reach and saunter off to a large cathedral a few blocks away, slumber still pasted in our eyes. With pockets full of coins and the occasional paper bill, we calculated how much to put into the plate and how much we could buy from the Spanish or Arab store on our way home. We’d end up proudly toting five-pound bags of candy, cookies, and chips back to Aunt Pumpkins, assuring one another that, although we shorted the collection plate, God would understand.

GROWING PAINS… TRAGEDY … MEMORIES MADE

We were teenagers the last time we spent the weekend at Aunt Pumpkins. The faces in the neighborhood had changed and those who remained were not the people they once were. We had changed. My first Queens Grape-flavored-Now-or-Later kiss changed. I was 12, she was 14. I told her I was 15. She believed me, but I don’t think she cared. I met her years before at 8:00, while we were going to Aunt Pumpkin’s She the biggest girl in the group. Natalie. Her kiss, sloppy and wet made me sing: God bless you, you make me feel brand new. I hadn’t seen her for four years and she had gone from rough edge to smooth line, and… she now had children: two.

It was early evening. People gathered outside their homes to enjoyed the perfect summertime weather and the cooling breeze blowing from the river. I was leaning on the fence taking in the the scenery I had noticed years before. I couldn’t recall a day more beautiful.

The screams came rapidly. Out of nowhere. It’s happened before, but the timber of these outbursts curdled my blood. The night plague swept through the projects, had infected dozens. Pretty people morphed into leathery wrinkled beasts, bent at the waist, begging for forgiveness, while their children begged for food and guidance. They, too, would succumb to the serpent and become its spawn. Corona, Astoria, Long Island City had become an apocalypse. The serpent was growing restless. Today it would show its wrath.

“She on the roof of the 1-15 Building! Look!” the woman pointed toward the sun. ” what she holdin’! She’s holding something.”

All activities ceased. I walked up. The crowd was growing and conversations were drowned behind the din of multiple voices, a chorus of gasps. I was 16, my Alpha-ness was emerging. I worked my way to the front of the growing crowd. My face was now familiar. My movements were more deliberate. My size was almost twice that of the 12 year old that secretly kissed Natalie in the laundry room and felt her afro-puffs caress my forehead. You tell anybody and I’ll beat yo’ ass!, she promised.

… you make me feel brand new.

Teena Marie was playing fin the background: It must be magic…got me under your spell…

“That bitch is crazy. Ridin’ that horse. That’s what it is. She ain’t got no harness. I told them people she didn’t need that baby. She don’t need none of them babies.”

My eyes adjusted to the glare. I could tell that the body on the roof was naked, a formless silhouette moving like the wind. The crowd was forlorn. The lady on the roof was a shadow, a black mass dancing with a Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth. She looked down at the crowd. Afro-puffs revealed like Mickey Mouse ears. Natalie!

She walked, her plantigrade unstable, to the edge of the building, extending her arms away from her body, holding the Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth over the parapet, open to nothing but space and a 70 foot fall. Clouds covered the sun and Natalie’s face came into view. The smell from the “island” wafted around us. Everything became stagnant. She was smiling, yelling venom to the crowd, a white foam ran down the sides of her mouth.

“She gonna throw her baby off the roof.”

“She crazy, BUT SHE AIN’T THAT CRAZY!”

A roar rang from the ensemble and was answered with a greater roar. It was a call and response pastors pray for.

“She don’t love me!” Natalie yelled. “She evil. She the devil.”

There was no negotiating. No time to reason or reconsider. The decision was made, and the moment was irreversible. I stood in silence. The crowd hushed. My cousin grabbed my shoulder. I didn’t know he was there. I was frozen. Aunt Pumpkin trailed not far behind. The entire project was gathered at the mouth of the building. We were forced to accept what our teachings told us was wrong. We were never taught how to reverse the madness the night plague brought. Heroin was stronger than the God of our understanding. We knew this; we understood. We could only accept what was, and hope that we’d one day be forgiven.

Natalie raised the bundle above her head as if presenting a gift to the Gods. She was crying, perhaps thinking twice about what she was about to do. But her reconsideration was brief, as she tip-toed forward and without additional warning released the Cabbage Patch doll with a scream heard on the other side of the river. The swaddling cloth flapped in the free-fall like a malfunctioning parachute. Natalie was Maximus eating his young.
Natalie closed her eyes, raised her leg and silently followed, her rigid naked body dropping horizontally; belly down.
The concrete waited.
The crowd parted.
I will never forget the sounds of flesh on solid ground and how it made me feel

The police came five minutes later. The bodies lay on the sidewalk, bodies that formed the nucleus of a horrific painting. Five agonizing minutes, enough time for the crowd of men, women, and children to absorb the moment and become traumatized by images and memories years beyond the stain. But what was discovered in Natalie’s apartment, the police were not prepared for.

The apartment was hauntingly immaculate; feminine, picturesque. In the kitchen, spices and a large bowl of browning vegetal matter sat on the counter. It seemed that Natalie was in the process of making dinner when her crash happened. The place smelled of incense and burning pot roast, the officers’ report would later report. Satan sat at the kitchen table fiddling with a blackened silver spoon, bloody syringe, and a rubber tube.

The oven was still on but the apartment was empty. No sign of the other baby. Nothing was out of order. The police collected several items, took a few pictures, and began to tape off the apartment. One of the officers turned off the oven, checked the other knobs, surveyed the area again and began to exit. She reached the front door but stopped and doubled back. A burning pot roast needed to be taken from the heat, she thought. She walked toward the stove, opened the oven door and took out the large covered roasting pan. She removed the lid and yelped, alerting the other officers. In the pan, dressed in carrots, onions, and potatoes was the seared remains of the other child, roasted into a swollen mass, practically beyond recognition.

The other baby, less than a year old, was found.

FINAL CURTAIN… ALMOST

The Corona, Astoria, Long Island City phenomenon began to change as the years progressed. Time forced each of us into the covenant of our own design, often not including fish tank follies, bubble gum runs, and trash island adventures. Periodic visits kept us abreast of growth and personality. We were young adults, filled anew with thoughts that we weren’t going to share as freely as we shared fantastic stories doing earlier years. I was saddened when the communication eventually transitioned into silence, and when we met again, our once slender bodies were transformed into broad shoulders and shadowy facial hair.

In time we would be left with only the memories of how freedom felt and how death came without warning or fanfare. Thoughts of Natalie faded into legend, but other memories, just as tragic, were quickly made. There would be new discoveries in far away places and secrets we’d never share. Our little boy innocence would evolve and be deeply tucked away at the bottom of a secured footlocker. We had become men. We would become beasts and do beastly deeds, scaring colonizers and their children and confronting police who put our well being behind all others. Perhaps we had grown filled with the poisons from the toxic river. I think we just grew. My cousins changed their names, following a belief that believed in them. They found peace in Queens’ chaos and discovered the God within themselves. Queens made them Kings and I was not fully invited to their kingdom.

I discovered myself, my love of classical music, rap and jazz; of Monet, Ernie Barnes, Edmonia Lewis, Basquiat, and Jacob Lawrence; of photography, theater, and literature. I would journey to Manhattan and Brooklyn to meet the artists I’d, years later, break bread with in Paris and London. I went to college while my cousins went to life. I am not sure who came out better. I was taught about the ills of the world, while they combated those ills with weapons I believed came in books.

As it was God’s plan, my Dad and Aunt Pumpkin were reborn about nine months apart, leaving us to remember the love and promising that we would reconnect and reminisce about the joys of those early days. The process is slow but encouraging, and Queens, although now wearing an unfamiliar face, will always be ours. The years between our adolescent and adult selves have been a transformation. Our thoughts and recollections may have changed with time but our hearts will always remain untouchable; always a part of a greater universe, always a part of Corona, Astoria, or Long Island City.

(c) 2018 J. O Beckett for GrifBeck

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Review

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When They Call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir isn’t like most memoirs. The emphasis, despite the title, is not solely on the BLM movement, instead, it builds the reason for creation and existence BLM through the life experiences of the co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors.

As it is not my practice, commonly, to give a synopsis of the book or provide spoilers that may deter interested readers, I will keep it simple and to the point. Khan-Cullors approach to the creation of this highly respected and equally controversial movement (funny how hue-man movements for the amelioration of a people is tainted with adjectives of anxiety) is in direct response to injustices that span beyond the color spectrum. When They Call You a Terrorist is larger than a title, it touches, without apology or stammer, the core of discrimination, both riotous and subdued, that affects the lives of nearly every life, deemed different, on the tree of humanity.

It is said that we fear what we don’t understand. Since the 1865 emancipation of enslaved Africans and people of African descent, there has been a consistent effort to eliminate the African race or traces of the race, by way of intimidation, deception, denigration, incarceration, and murder. For decades, even to this day, a sector of society is directly ostracized and openly isolated by some of the most abusive practices imaginable. Only the color of skin, their choice of who to love, and the God they understood was enough to make them the dregs of “proper Christian” society, by those who worshipped flags and burned crosses. Through the years, and one century later, the rights of people of African descent (and other who felt or were disenfranchised) came to a head and erupted for the world to see. Still, decades later, the rights of people considered different, remained in the forefront of the American psyche and the hue-man efforts branched off in directions the ruling parties were not prepared to deal with. This is what gave birth to Patrisse Khan-Cullors, whose memoir is revealing, exciting and sometimes confusing (in a nature versus nurture sort of way). And they called them terrorists.

Khan-Cullors, who is a very talented writer, was able to seamlessly blend the complexities of being an emotional automaton and a formidable force. The killings of innocent people by police, the discrimination against the LBGTQ community, and the “turn the other cheek” decisions of elected officials started the clearly missioned but intentionally misrepresented (by those who wanted to besmirch the cause) organization/ movement, BLM.

The book is magic even if its heavy biographical content dominates. It is a history lesson that may never appear in a textbook or on an SAT exam, but can never be hidden or destroyed. It is the single most recognized movement in current history and the reason that so many others, who remained silent for ions, are now raising their voices and donning warrior gear.

Read When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, not for those things that are easily seen, but for the content that encourages you to think. Take from it more than Patrisse intended. Like Black Lives Matter, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is the blueprint of what’s to come.

Same Kind of Different As Me: A Review

same kind of denver and ron

There are occasions when a reader is drawn to a book because of its title, cover or both. The contents become secondary, practically an after-thought. But it is the title and cover, in its complexity or simplicity… that often clinches the deal. Oddly, and perhaps only in my sensibilities, this applies (in its simplicity) to Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s book, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together.

With an awkwardly handwritten and excessively descriptive title, coupled with a muted and arid but luminous drab pale yellow ,  Same Kind of Different as Me,  could be told by scanning the cover without ever reading a word. The addition of an older Black man, a railroad crossing sign implying more than transportation (being from the other side of the tracks, perhaps?), a lone structure that could be a house and an empty landscape all effectively symbolize details to be found in the story. But beyond the cover, the words are stunning. The collective story is profound. The messages of life, love, and humanity, peppered with historically significant events, although often wordy, are as clear as confessions of sin.

I opted for the audio book version of Same Kind of Different As Me, certain that there would be — through the dramatic inflections of the human voice — greater authenticity in the telling of the story, and to undoubtedly heighten my appreciation for the depth of the tragedy and triumphs that the characters and their individual tales bestowed.  I wasn’t wrong.  I wasn’t disappointed. The audio book catapulted the story beyond expectation and heightened my visual.

Same Kind of Difference as Me is the story of Denver Moore, a Black man, whose personal perils and melancholy filled life are directly attributed to the color of his skin and the emptiness of his pocket, Ron Hall, a very successful art dealer, and Ron Hall’s wife, Beth, both of whom are cast as philanthropic humanitarians, initially more for self gratification (but, it seems, not in an insincere manner) and later by way of “spiritual” awakening. This is the story about being vastly different in an America that promises equality, and how those differences are so clear they have become practically invisible. It is the story of the second oldest form of segregation in the entire world: money, and how the wealthy and the impoverished view each other as different species.

The reader will  find that Denver Moore’s narratives were considerably more engaging than the others. This is not to say that the other characters lacked any of the nuances that would make for a spirited and riveting tale, but Moore’s stories were filled with the emotion only a walk through the fires of hell can produce. It was felt. I felt it. The opportunity to walk in his blister causing shoes hit a nerve, over and over again, as his stories pulled from the depths below where the rocks gathered, and his honest confrontations with sorrow, tragedy, bad luck and self-imposed alienation in immeasurable abundance, were his cause de rigueur against those who offered help and his general lack of trust. There are points within in the book where Denver openly describes himself as an opposing figure, an ogre, the unapproachable beast, emotionless and pitifully satisfied with his view of how the world views him (my words). This self view proves more penetrable than even he seemed to expect, as he lives the life he seeming felt he deserved.

To be honest, there were many questions not adequately answered; many beyond the contents within the book and maybe this is why a second book (What  Difference Do it Make?) was quick to follow (I have not yet read this book — and may not at all). I couldn’t help but question if Denver became another piece of art for Ron(after a personal tragedy) or a cash cow whose story could pull, ideally, at the heart strings of sympathetic country (just reread the title of Ron’s second book); a way for Ron Hall to make money through a story that he could only imagine based on the reality of another’s impecunious sorrow . I may be digging deeper than necessary, but it was Ron who open that Pandora’s box  as he also questioned the initial sincerity of his friendship with Denver toward the end of the story.

Still I’d say read or listen to  Same Kind of Different As Me, I’d like to know what you think and if you got from it any of what I did.

(Audiobook is highly recommended!!!)

 

An American Marriage: A Review

 

 

 

Title: An American Marriage

Author: Tayari Jones

Series: Oprah’s Book Club 2018 Selection

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah Book Club ed. edition (February 6, 2018)

Tayari Jones’s has written four novels. I have read three: Leaving Atlanta, Silver Sparrow, and most recently, An American Marriage. Before An American Marriage was selected for the Oprah Book Club (the gold star of book clubs) I knew that Jones was exceptional; a writer’s writer, with clear, fluid thought and relatable, often internally flawed (thus familiar), characters. But she writes about real people, with honest conflicts and a jig-sawed existence, lost within a terrific maze of their own creation. She writes about relationships that are complicated, impervious, surreal, and painfully sincere. She, like novelist Bernice McFadden, forces the reader to gasp, not in horror, but in wonder, as the characters make conscientious decisions and engage in emotional actions, often leading to long-term repercussions. Indeed, they are flawed, but understandably so, and in many ways, they are us. They are resilient. They are believable.  They are beautiful.

An American Marriage draws the audience in, sitting them comfortably on the living room sofa where they become not just a reader but one with the action. Tayari does this transitional integration effortlessly, extracting from overlooked human events shared in kitchen conversations and amplifying them, with the slightest of action, to rock band crescendo. Addressed are the sacred covenants of marriage (between Celestial and Roy), the old school “stay-together-no-matter-what” marriage (of Roy’s parents, Big Roy and Olive and Celestial’s parents, Gloria and Franklin Delano), and the relatively predictable “man in waiting,” (Andre). It is through each of these characters that the audience begins to understand the meaning of the title: An American Marriage. Jones paints the three marriages differently and each is infused with their own abstract story of turbulence. Thankfully, she doesn’t sugar-coat their issues, nor does she overly embellish them for the sake of giving the story depth.  But depth is something past readers expect from Jones, and she does provide it plenteously, from chapter to chapter.

The story opens with Roy providing a narrative about him and Celestial as husband and wife. This option to use individual narrative as a point of projecting the story is most effective as it enhances the point of view, personalizing while familiarizing. Roy, whose adult life, the audience will learn, is subtly complicated (especially in relationships) despite involvement in success building organizations in his earlier years. But he minces no words when he was able to leave Eloe, Louisiana. He states:

Celestial thinks of herself as this cosmopolitan person, and she’s not wrong. However, she sleeps each night in the very house she grew up in. I, on the other hand, departed on the first thing smoking, exactly seventy-one hours after high school graduation. I would have left sooner, but the Trailways didn’t stop through Eloe every day. By the time the mailman brought my mama the cardboard tube containing my diploma, I was all moved into my dorm room at Morehouse College attending a special program for first-generation scholarship types.

Roy is something of a ‘good-bad’ boy. The type of guy who was a big fish in his high school and was determined to be even bigger in college. Without emphasizing the components that made Roy who he is, Jones introduces a plethora of quick, but vital, personal stories that produce aha moments. It is revealed that Big Roy, Roy Jr.’s father, is not his biological father, and perhaps (as I put on the reviewer’s deep-dive hat) this is a part of his multidimensional personality. And it is when Roy is arrested, for a crime he did not commit, that the story goes into another casual phase.

Although there isn’t much said about Roy’s experience as a prisoner allusions are clear. Jones, thankfully,  spares readers the overwrought details of the perilous life Roy faced there. Instead, she takes the story in a direction that is far more engaging and wholly unexpected by presenting a character with whom Roy quickly bonds: his long absent, never before met, biological father, Walter, who brings yet another dimension (there were many).

The novel, for a few dozen pages, is epistolary in form, told as letters between Roy (in prison) and Celestial (building a business), and this technique effectively expresses distance and individual change. It is through these letters that the audience learns the most about Roy and Celestial’s relationship; the volatility, the passion, the always-there-but-never-revealed uncertainty. It is here that Jones quietly makes a point that is perhaps the truest and most overlooked event of the story: Growth. For Roy, time stood still, locked at the moment of his arrest and suspended as an undying memory. For Celestial, time was the factor that decided her destiny; her truth. For Andre, time was the only thing separating him from true but elusive love. And time is everywhere (even in the Roy resembling dolls whose innocence is unchanging) but particularly in the form of an old oak tree that Jones presents (in my opinion) as Celestial’s symbol of time. The tree, although sparingly mentioned, is so powerful and such an assertion of time that toward the end of the book  Roy, in a fit of mania, is determined to stop time. It is masterful!!!

This short review exposes many elements of “An American Marriage,”  but Tayari Jones, in the now classic Tayari Jones way, provides so much in so few pages that the story, by way of this review, remains relatively untouched. This is a novel from which everyone can glean something different — something personal. It is a novel that may have readers questioning or applauding the concept of love as they understand it or the nature of commitment to another human being. I give a much-deserved ovation to this work, as did Oprah, for its depth, its complex simplicity and its detail to the familiar. A brilliant work worth a few hours of your time.