The Man YOU Made–To Dad on His Birthday

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Dear Dad,

Happy birthday!

Man, when God made you, the mold was definitely broken. All I can say is that I am glad to know that I am a part of that mold. So, here’s the strange part,  despite the fact that I talk to you several times a day, every day, I hardly know where to begin without sounding commercial, forced or trite, so I will just start by saying, thank you.   I know you always tell me that I don’t have to give you thanks, but you do understand where I’m coming from and why I am coming from that direction. You know that through the years I have seen boys and men who have had no father to thank. So, I, Joey Bean-Head, with immeasurable appreciation, am thanking you.

I want to thank you for what some may see as common, expected, or the responsibility of a father. I don’t know what that means: common, expected, or the responsibility of a father.  You fulfilled our expectations and nothing about you is or has ever been common, but everything about you is father. In my eyes, for all of my life, you have been more: a superhero, a disciple, a Giant! from the expanse of your chest, your confident gait, or the unselfish giving of your heart. Oh Captain, my Captain! You are what no other man could ever be, and what many fathers never took time to become. I am working on becoming ….

You were young when I was born, barely out of childhood yourself, yet in the eyes of an infant, you were monumental. You gave me your name. I honor that and carry our name proudly. I remember how safe I felt, how I knew, regardless of what the world projected, that no harm would fall upon me, that no demon dared set foot or claw in our den. I hold memories of those days, memories that perhaps should have been forgotten by a child of three or four, but for reasons that I cannot explain, they remain, vividly. I remember growing with you, maturing as you further matured, in awed by your strength and your passion for the unseen, later evidenced by what you accomplished. You said it and it appeared. You promised it and it became.  I remember being taught how to cut grass (“follow the lines made by the wheel!”), prune trees, plant flowers, build fences (or try) and make BIG ASS fires in metal trash cans.

Through the years (I call them my war years) I grew more complex, feeling at one point that I didn’t even know myself. I wanted for nothing, yet here I was. I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, my heart betrayed me as my forever love said love wasn’t forever, at least not hers. I thought myself smart, talented, athletic, a trifecta that would be irresistible, but that wasn’t, at that time, supposed to be, at least not with her.

I came home from school that day, broken, after wandering through the streets enshrouded in an impenetrable fog. It was warm. The sun was bright. The scent of Jasmine perfumed the air. Birds sang so beautifully that the Angels hushed to listen. To the rest of the world, life was joyous, but for me, my universe was in shambles. I remember little about what happened when I got home. For reasons forever mysterious, I was drawn to the bathroom. When I entered I collapsed on the floor and trembled, curled in a fetal position, tears streaming down my face and neck, wails calling out to God. The door was closed but as I lay there, confessing that life was no longer worth living, contemplating how I’d end this excruciating pain, you entered, still dressed in your uniform. I don’t remember what you said, or if you said anything at all, but I do remember feeling your warmth, as you lowered yourself in a tiny clearing next to me on that floor of Tremble, and embraced me until the chill waned. I thought I heard you whisper:

Now if you feel that you can’t go on (can’t go on)
Because all of your hope is gone (all your hope is gone)
And your life is filled with much confusion (much confusion)
Until happiness is just an illusion (happiness is just an illusion)
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’…

(Reach out) Reach out for me…

I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through…

You gave me a part of your soul that day. No one was ever to know and we never spoke of it again and life went on. And I knew on that day I was given undeniable confirmation that you were more than just my dad.

There were many similar stories as the years progressed. You accepted my sensitivities, made me accept my failures, encouraged my passions, and fed me with the fuel of brilliance. You let me know that there will always be people who wouldn’t understand my drive, try to discourage my dreams, hope to break my spirit, and project their self-hatred in my direction. You spoke of naysayers spitting fire in your path, but how the water on your soles kept the fires extinguished. I, too, now have well-earned soles of water extinguishing their fires.

Dad, I, in this letter, am trying to recall everything that you provided to ensure that I would live a life of satisfaction. I am hoping to remember so I can share those memories in several hundred more pages, with my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and people who approach me with curiosity, but even that would prove insufficient.  A million words would only touch the surface of who you are and what you are. But I do see that look from my child; that same look that I used to give you when I was her age; the look of amazement and awe, love and assurance. I never thought I could walk in your footsteps, but I realized that you never wanted me to. You instead encouraged that I create my own, and when I ventured into a world I didn’t know, surrounded by people whose language I did not speak, I knew I was making you proud.

So, here I am, humming your favorite tune, looking in the mirror at a facsimile of your face, enamored by the thought that your DNA is in two generations and that each time I sign my name I also sign yours. Today I pay great tribute to you on the day you broke the mold. I will continue your journey because I know that next to your giant footsteps, perhaps a bit smaller, and not as sure, are mine.

Love you Dad! Happy Birthday.

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home — A REVIEW

“Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home,” by Sheri Booker, was introduce to me before I saw the cover. What I read is perhaps that most unique memoir I have come across in a very long time.

Set in Baltimore, “Nine Years…” addresses “life” in the funeral business, but it twists, turns, and journeys beyond the normal expectations of death and gore. It takes the reader into a depth that is unexpected, applying a level of storytelling that is both telling and profound, and that is very welcoming.

Part confessional, part biography, “Nine Years Under…” opens, a few pages in, with the death of Booker’s aunt.  This experience evolves into the unexpected, unpredicted, and ‘unlikely’ undertakers’ Odyssey for fifteen-year-old Booker. Alfred Wiley, the proprietor of Wiley funeral home, sees something special in young  Booker, and oddly, offers her employment (it took a while to understand offering a funeral home job to a fifteen-year-old), and she rises, profoundly, to the occasion. Sheri becomes a sort of protégé in the world of embalming and reconstruction, learning every aspect of the business (she began and remained in the business office for years before she started working on bodies) and letting it shape her into someone she certainly would not have been otherwise.

Throughout the book, Booker prepares the reader for something unexpected. Each page climbs to uncertain destinations. She colors the story with characters that seem almost surreal and often immense. The image of a funeral home is unhinged as she writes of mourners holding their own “form of ceremony” and of fights that spill over into the street in front of the funeral home and the brutal death of personal acquaintances whose lifeless bodies become clients. She lets us into her heart, and into the often complex personalities of her characters. Booker, for example, nails the sometimes tyrannous personality of Alfred Wiley, creating him with broad no-nonsense strokes insisting on uncompromising loyalty and unquestioned commitment, even if he refuses to reciprocate the same (when firing someone he says, “leave the keys”). She confesses a sort of unrequited love for the son of Wiley, but dart strategically through the details, so we are left to wonder the actual depth of their relationship. She does, however, profess the eventual realization that the Booker / Wiley affair was a love that was never meant to be. But even there, it seemed that she held back the details.

The book has magic and equally some moments that feel self-serving, but it does entertain, and it does reveal many unknowns. “Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home” answers questions that many may refuse to ask about funeral homes and the business, and it makes Sheri Booker translucent. Nine Years… is part history lesson, part sit-com, but all a lesson of life, loyalty, love, and death. A worthy read, from a special talent.

The Hate U Give — A Review

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Like a comet, in the form of her debut and NYT best-selling novel, The Hate U Give,  author Angie Thomas rocketed across a haunting and darkened sky leaving a trail of light a mile long. In the first chapter, the reader senses a developing conflict, anticipating the revealing of the unknown. What better way to dive into the deep end of the emotional abyss than a party?  The public flossing and social adoration of the 464-page multifaceted work of fictitious realism made me wonder if it was honest to its premise: The police shooting of an unarmed African-American boy based on that officer’s fear (sound familiar?). Admirably, Thomas, who is from Mississippi, pulls no punches, on either side of this deleterious event and (re)opens the emotional wounds that African-Americans were confronting even as the book was in its early stages of composition. She keeps it real, from the opening lines: “There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me,”  and intended or not, this simple line becomes the ever-evolving, multi-meaning theme of the novel.

Angie Thomas pulls from a place deep and familiar. At times her words are transcendent, beyond storyteller; becoming a universal conversation. It is abundantly clear that Thomas invested more than research in the producing of this novel, she pours her soul into it. She, thankfully, did not bombard and bull-rush us with one-dimensional rebellious banter, as easy and, perhaps, enticing as it may have been, but instead invited us to those pivotal moments and events as they were unveiled. She made us feel the pain of the bullet; the searing heat from the lies and cover-ups, the complexities of familial love, and the riotous, ravenous nature of a community. She pulled magically from her experience, producing characters that walked the streets she’d ambled upon ( i.e.,. Fo’ty Ounce), the same streets we may have walked upon all across this country. We know them.  We love, hate, and sometimes fear them. But Thomas accurately reminds us that they are our familiar.

There will be many moments when the reader feels that they are no longer reading The Hate U Give, but hypnotically experiencing the panic and chaos, the conflict and affection, the challenges and disappointments that spring from the pages; breathing in the burn and scorching their lungs.   It was certain that Thomas intended this to be the desired reaction and it was done beautifully.

When Starr, the narrator, and 16-year-old powerhouse, is made to walk through the maze between community loyalty or honor to her friend,  she treads lightly, but decisively. Her goal to make certain that the officer who shot and killed her friend, Khalil, is exposed and pays for the devastation of his crime. During an understood, but relatively undisclosed period of time, Starr grapples with the decisions she has to make. She wisely decides to hide her identity (as the ‘other’ passenger in the car) to avoid conflict from a multitude of parties hell-bent on justice, chaos, or honesty. Her world is turned upside down, and her awareness of the truth of social injustices beyond the judicial system peeks. As she begins to understand, so does the reader. We begin to reflect upon the lives Black men killed by police officers, from Eleanor Bumpurs to, most recently, Charleena Lyles.  Gotta applaud Thomas for stepping into a place that is hard for society to find (and agree upon) common ground.

Read this haunting, brilliant, necessary, and honest novel! One of the best “layered” reads to date.

A Review of Bernice McFadden’s “Sugar”

 

Title: Sugar: A Novel

Author: Bernice L. McFadden:

Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: Dutton Adult (January 10, 2000)

Bernice McFadden’s first novel, Sugar, encapsulates the elements that exemplify the making of a classic. This is not to say that it was perfect, for that would be pretentious on my part, but it was arguably a guaranteed page turner that you hoped would last just a little while longer. As a debut, Sugar did not lack any of the many elements we have come to know and love about McFadden’s storytelling style or her imaginative, colorful, and captivating characters. But the tale, even with its twists, was simple – direct with less density than, let’s say, The Book of Harlan (one of my favorite novels). Stylistically, it was as vivid, engaging, and captivating —  unmistakably McFadden.

Set in Bigelow, Arkansas, Sugar takes the reader on a heartfelt journey through poetic pain and the lives of Sugar Lacey and Pearl Taylor (primarily), and a host of others (secondarily). Sugar’s deleterious childhood, overwhelmed by scars and filled with a level of isolation that steals her youth and ultimately her identity, contributes to the creating of the wayward woman she becomes.

Pearl, we learn early in the novel, struggles with her own isolation, but unlike Sugar’s, hers is involuntarily self-imposed, developed after the tragic and brutal murder of her daughter, Jude. This isolation is not so much about staying out of the company of others (she finds both companionship and solace in church), or even being an effective mother to her other children (Seth, her son, speaks on this point in a single but precise statement later in the book), as it is about withdrawing into herself. 

Pearl’s actions and personality scream depression but McFadden is careful not to label her, allowing the emotional wave we ride with Pearl to reveal, by layer, her quiet but obvious struggle. This internal conflict catapults Pearl into a place from which she cannot easily escape until Sugar crosses her path forming and firming an unusual friendship and, progressively, the voids they’ve carried are seemingly filled.

Sugar Lacey is bold, worldly, mysterious and irresistible. She is a woman equally desired and hated, caught, it seems, in a complex network of interconnected (and interlocking) elements, surviving the only way she knows how, by giving pleasure, yet seems to have relegated herself undeserving of joy. She is a vassal to the highest bidder, a beast of burden, a mannequin sans emotions, and as such she receives nothing but a womb filled with frustration. But despite her transgressions and unsavory nonchalance,  she has a heart longing, from the child she never was, for unconditional love.

Sugar reinvents Pearl, rebuilding the confidence she sorely lacked and the sexiness she secretly, seemingly, yearned for. She takes Pearl from mundane to magnificent, while Joe, Pearl’s husband who would object to this rebirth (and perhaps revelation) or so we are made to believe, is out of town (his reaction shortly after his return dismisses all assumptions, including Pearl’s). The elements of resurrection (the church is an important “character”) develop almost seamlessly throughout the book and the conflicts are broad but not alarming or distasteful; they are real and familiar.

Sugar, as a novel, is multitudinous — an impassioned vision, seething with hope and finishing with unexpected confessions, familiar brutality and wow factor discoveries. It would make for an amazing movie, an incredible television series or Broadway-worthy stage play (think The Color Purple). I was enveloped by Bernice McFadden’s voice, slowly consuming each chapter and resting a day before beginning the next.  I am that kid waiting for her upcoming creations with bated breath and wondrous anticipation. Read Sugar, and you’ll understand. I promise.

 

 

 

Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam War Refusal Will Be Documented In Mini Series

Source: Harry Benson / Getty In a time when every deceased legend is being immortalized by biopics and documentaries, it only makes sense that Muhammad Ali would get the same treatment. The boxer who passed in June 2016 is getting a Showtime scripted mini series titled The Ali Summit, about his refusal to participate in the Vietnam…

via Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam War Refusal Will Be Documented In Mini Series — HelloBeautiful

The Beast Side: REVIEW

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Title: The Beast Side

Author: D. Watkins

Paperback: 208 pages

Publisher: Hot Books; Reprint edition (September 27, 2016)

“D. Watkins is a very sharp young talent who transformed himself from a dealer on the streets to an adjunct professor, and most important, to a leading voice of his generation who is determined to see justice for the black community. The Beast Side is raw, intelligent, and at times humorous—and a necessary narrative in these challenging times!” —Michael Eric Dyson, author of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America
The jarring, sometimes depressing, often enlightening narrative that encompasses the 208 pages of “The Beast Side” is one of a troubled  America (through the eyes of Baltimore), left to grapple with unresolved and newly developed issues. We are touched by the narrative; all of us, whether Black, White, Native American, Latino,  Asian, or a combination thereof. We are this narrative; the outline that provided a perfect landscape for D. Watkins to masterfully and horrifically connect the dots.
More than I can personally recall, we have become wholly desensitized to the cruel and barbaric nature of our burgeoning society. We have learned to turn a blind eye to a reality that is continually festering and rearing an ugliness many are simply hoping would, one day, fade away,  perhaps into the same abyss as Beowulf’s monster, Grendel; and return reborn, renewed, hopeful. We have become an ensemble of wishers and waiters, certain that if we wait and wish long enough a brighter day is just over the horizon, while we wallow in the muck of a suffocating darkness. We are the old man and the depth of his misery:
It was like the misery felt by an old man
who has lived to see his son’s body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him
 Morning after morning,  he wakes to remember
that his child has gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall… –Beowulf
D. Watkins delivers this message, effortlessly. Revealing that the hell that strikes consternation in the hearts of many is pulchritudinous to others and that we are now living in a poorly composed polyphony. The truly brutal truth that we, of every race, do not want to admit exists. He invites us to peer through a peephole that reveals an almost unconscionable reality: that people do live in the imperfections of a world that they did not create but were relegated to reside inside of until madness or death took them to the edge of and over that horizon. He reminds us that the levels of unfeelingness is not only alive but is procreating and regenerating into unidentifiable high-tolerance formations that eat at our flesh and gnaw, ad infinitum, on our skeletal remains.
In the opening passages, Watkins writes:
“… I participated in a peaceful protest near downtown Baltimore. My fellow protesters and I were standing in solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, over the murder of Mike Brown — an innocent African-American teen, who was on his way to college when he was cut down by a policeman’s bullets. It felt good to unite with so many different people for the same cause — a diverse group with handmade signs and a shared sense of outrage. But even as we shouted for justice, I knew it wasn’t enough from my experiences in rallying for the Jena Six and Trayvon Martin. I do have an immense amount of respect for protestors, marchers, and organizers — but in the end, after all that chanting, marching, and lying down in traffic, Darren Wilson, the cop, who murdered Brown, still went free, and cops in America still feel comfortable killing innocent black people.”
Watkins writes from where his bucket was cast; delivering unapologetic prose that undeniably was intended (at least, I hope) to make as many people as uncomfortable as possible. If this was not his purpose, it perhaps should have been; he does it magnificently.  He is a Baltimorean, a Native,  from the (B)Eastside of this apoplectic metropolis, wearing the city like a pair of comfortable shoes. Watkins’ voice is the voice of the many children and residents I have heard speaking their complex language during the 23 years that I have resided in Baltimore. It is a voice that roars without echo. Throughout the book, Watkins takes us on a journey through the gritty, and often dismal straits of a beautiful wonderland. It is easy to become enveloped by the stories and easier to embrace the cast of characters that invisibly occupy seventy percent of the crowded Charm City streets. His childhood friends, money making comrades, food providing saints and blood-thirsty enemies, give color and illumination to what could easily become defined as a symphony of urban sorrow.
The Beast Side is a reminder, a wake-up call, a prosaic tour of a world we know so well, and others view in awe. It awakens the selectively blind to the countless injustices that have become our miserable expectation. It explains why we cannot lay aside our warrior selves; preparing our sword, our words, our hearts, and our souls for what our 400 years of intuitive DNA reveal to us.The battle continues. The war of race, face and inequality rages on. The emergence of another enemy, lurking in waiting, in the shadows for their opportunity to leap, is absolute. The difference is that the 18th-century mentalities are not yet aware that they are fighting against a 21ST CENTURY ARMY.
D. Watkins has composed a thinkers book in The Beast Side. There is the desire to pause, in contemplation and reflection after each chapter. And like the calm after a Tsunami, or the annihilation of Grendel by a chirping bird’s song,  Watkins ends with:
Yes, it was the image of a Black man in the White House that maybe has made it a little easier for us to make our way through the day, or at least to get a ride. But Uber has probably changed the racial dynamic in the cab industry more than Obama has. Because of Uber, cabs can’t afford to discriminate against me any longer. The cab industry had no choice but to change.
America needs a game-changing Uber shift in the political arena–a massive influx of minority activists, politicians, educators, and history makers. One Black man cannot bring about that change, but an army of people committed to making opportunity available for everybody can and will.
Yeah… it’s that simple.