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…
Title: The Cook Up
Author: D. Watkins
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (May 3, 2016)
I am selfishly at a crossroads, perhaps a little flummoxed, maybe just enough of an editor to notice the small stuff. For just over a year, I have been reading the work of D. Watkins voraciously; from his articles in Salon to the two books he released. He is, in many respects, an urban (metropolitan) Charles Dickens, telling and retelling stories that are completely American, based on an America that is well known yet so foreign to most of America. It is for this reason that when reading his 2016 release, The Cook Up, the story of crack dealing and use in Baltimore, on my Kindle, that I was disappointed by the number of editing errors that appeared throughout the book. Still, The Cook Up was a tremendous literary voyage.
His colorfully entertaining but wholly true tales of drugs and life in Baltimore was an exploration in ‘A’ plus ‘B’ equals ‘C’ sociology. Its characters, customs, and profound and unexpurgated vibe are, for me, some of the best emotional story-telling about real world issues in the little-big town of Charm City. Watkins pulls no punches; he instead battle-rams his points directly into your chest, with no apology. He writes about his world– the world he knows best– and his books, articles, and interviews leave no doubt about who he is and where he’s from.
The Cook Up is drugs, sex, and cars, music, relationships, murder, blood, tears, and losing one’s soul to the unknown; a memoir dotted with sandman bluesy sorrow and ‘thug life’ elation. It exposes the pain of being African-American in a city (country) that recognizes orange jumpsuit numbers before learning [and aknowleging] government or neighborhood names. It exposes the pain of being African-American in a city that remains divided by color, class, and education.
Watkins is keen on relationships, forthright in the complicated variables that produce those relationships, and if you are confused, read the following exchange for clarity:
Guy (Baltimore City police officer) and Tatter Man (Watkins’ cousin)
My younger cousin Tatter Man, who never broke the law in his life, came through the block to get some money from me for his prom one night. I hit him with the cash and we walked down to the Chinese spot to get some shrimp fried rice and gravy, Tatter walked out the door in time for one of Guy’s sweeps.
“What the — is that your dinner? yelled Guy to a confused Tatter.
“Yeah, I got some rice, what?”
“Boy, you being smart!” Guy responded as he knocked Tatter’s food to the ground. I watched from the window as Guy used his boot to smash the rice into the concrete.
The Cook Up is another wake-up call in the age of Trumpian political philosophy. It has exposed and, perhaps, reawakened the sleeping giant that lingered in waiting. Watkins speaks the language of his community, his friends, and those who want to be heard but have been silenced by irreversible circumstance. It is a story well known, with a history that still longs for a comprehensive audience. Thanks to Watkins, that audience is discovering the history.
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
FEAR IS NOT AN OPTION
If you’ve read my previously blog (Fear Factor: Election 2016), you already know that I am not a political stalwart, but I am an American citizen, and if I were to wager a guess, I am descendent of at least 300 years of America. This is simply a guess, but one which I will claim until proven otherwise. It is for this reason that I let the vitriolic rhetoric that is and was being spewed simply roll off. It is also the reason that I find it impossible to fear any single (or collective) man who calls himself this country’s political leader.
Did the Country Fall for a Short Sale?
I do understand that the idea behind a democracy is to quell chaos, institute order, and provide citizens a respectable quality of life. But that democratic method of thinking, as ideal as it is, has quickly become archaic and, whether we admit it or not, is virtually unheard by a new breed of ‘free-thinkers.’ As odd as it may be to conceive, considering the outcome of the last presidential election, these same ‘free-thinkers’ helped in electing the nation’s first Black president with margins so wide, one would think that the demons of racism and social/lifestyle discrimination had fallen into an irretrievable abyss. Barack Obama not only smashed the wall of political normalcy but he smashed the structures surrounding it. But eight years later, all of that changed.
Over the course of fifty plus years, the harbinger has been making the call that the fights for the eradication of separatist ideologies will be met by forces not yet known.
Enters, Donald Trump…
1) “(John McCain is) not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
2) “I get called by a guy that can’t buy a pair of pants, I get called names?” – Trump’s comment about paralyzed commentator Charles Krauthammer
3) “How stupid are the people of Iowa?” after talking about a poll showing Ben Carson was beating him in Iowa
4) “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture….When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness. I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed.”
5) “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.” – Trump overestimates the number of people cheering after 911 by thousands and stuck with it even though he knew what he said wasn’t true
6) “(Obama) doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that.”
7) “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”
8) “I am embracing the issue, and I’m proud of the issue. I think somebody has to embrace it because, frankly, the people that are – and I don’t like the name ‘birther,’ because I think it’s very unfair and I think it’s very derogatory to a lot of very good people that happen to think that there’s a possibility that this man was not born in this country, and by the way, if that were true, you know it’s very interesting, if that were true, it’d be the greatest scam in the history of this country.”
9) “You know, when (Ben Carson) says he went after his mother and wanted to hit her in the head with a hammer. That bothers me. I mean, that’s pretty bad. I’m not saying anything other than pathological is a severe disease. And he said he’s pathological, somebody said he has pathological disease. It’s in the book that he’s got a pathological temper. That’s a big problem because you don’t cure that. You don’t cure these people. You don’t cure a child molester. There’s no cure for it. Pathological, there’s no cure for that.”
10) “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, (Carly Fiorina’s) a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
11) “You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
12) “You could see there was blood coming out of (Megyn Kelly’s) eyes, blood coming out of her whatever.”
13) “Beautiful, famous, successful, married – I’ve had them all, secretly, the world’s biggest names, but unlike Geraldo, I don’t talk about it.” – From Trump’s “Think Big and Kick Ass.”
14) “I don’t think Ivanka would do that [pose for Playboy], although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
15) “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”
Source: John Hawkins– Townhall.com. January 19, 2016
“You Don’t Want No Problem With Me!”
— Chance the Rapper
And Still We Rise…
Along this journey — along this pathetic road– there were far too many ill-tempered words said and many more incomprehensible matters televised, and I know, with distinct certainty, that this country, at least for that period had suffered a massive divide. The country is bleeding, but we have become immune; victims of a trauma we no longer feel. But the unfortunate reality is that this country has always been divided by the color of skin, accent, religion, gender, or philosophy. We hold these truths to be self-evident….
Without lamenting on and reliving a well known, yet poorly documented, history, we (people of color, especially African-Americans) have overcome a multitude of social and emotional atrocities, proving that we have the veracity to defeat that which so desperately wishes to defeat us. Fear, to some degree, has been our constant; not because we are afraid, but because there exists a shroud of impenetrable mystery.
In the life of any African-American, every day, exacerbated by the profound and inexplicable reoccurring of racially inspired incidents, to immeasurable degrees, marks a painful reminder that life isn’t always fair. Thankfully, this does not deter us. We remain resilient, despite the media coverage finding only those stories that show brown faces committing heinous crimes, furthering the misconception and wholly mistaken ideology that all people with brown/black complexions are inherently demonic. Indeed this inaccurate image left a lasting impression. So, here we are… in a country that is confused and conflicted.
On that November night, when the country and the world stared blankly at television screens and emotions went awry, a cloud of bulbous darkness extinguished the light that had shone for many years prior. In that moment, as another ‘blue’ state plunged into a deepening ‘red’ ocean, the images of the Bushs didn’t seem so bad. But the country had spoken, and the nightmare was no longer simply in a dream, and those who abhorred the thought of a Trumpian government were now forced to accept what was touted as absolute. Cheers and chants rang throughout the states and social and mass media volleyed for outrageousness. Neither won… Trump did, and he promised one unspoken thing; four years of unequaled chaos. Supporters chanted and cheered.
Still, to fear what he or his cronies can or will [try to] do is relatively unwarranted. It is not about hope or prayer or some supernatural phenomenon, but it is about the door that has been reopened to reveal that this country is and is not what we thought. For older generations, this marks another chapter in the”Business as Usual” book, as they are well prepared for what we are to face as a nation. The young, new to this pathetic maze, are relying on answers that are generated through “Big Brother” but are prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder, stressing that their genetic structure still harbors 300-year-old wounds or historical recall. They have proven that they will not be moved.
Why are we afraid? We aren’t! Our feet are planted; our roots are deep. We are America!
Okay, let’s be honest. Politically speaking, this country is , for all intents and purposes, screwed. Now, allow me to explain.
To begin, I am not a hardcore political enthusiast. You will not find me arguing with flannel attired F-150’s about Hillary, Trump, or the state of an ever-changing America. But I follow the effects of politics and its impact on my day to day existence and how decisions made will affect the country, as a whole, in the long term. In a rush that continues to mystify me, the political process changed exponentially, eighteen months ago, when a murder of Republicans crowded upon stages across the country, stoic and robotic, bidding for the chance to become POTUS. The lies were magnanimous; promises that would never come to fruition were argued with the passion of a kindergartener whose cookie was eaten by another four year old. Leading the charge was Donald Trump and no one took him seriously, welcoming, in fact, the crass, rude comedy he brought to the rote bullshit interactions that for decades defined political debates. But his face was plastered everywhere. He had become omnipresent, even in our sleep and in an instant, I, and a great part of the nation were consumed by fear, knowing that regardless of the November 8, 2016 outcome, we were certain of one thing: we were soon to become the victims of a JACKED and divided country.
So, here we are, at the post position of the Presidential Election, and by the time I complete this essay Donald Trump, as POTUS elect and Pence as V-POTUS elect and Melania as FLOTUS confused, will be joined, possibly, by a chosen menagerie of unique characters. It has been a horrific journey and it is just beginning. The American people have revealed the crack in their armor and decided that divisive methods, finger pointing, unsubstantiated blame, fear-mongering, the denigration of Original People ( this includes our Mexican brothers and sisters) and the anti-Arab ( it was translated Moslem, but it wasn’t about religion, it was about appearance) sentiment, were more enticing than the policies that would unite and better the country.
Since that fateful day in November the nation, formerly know as the United States, has been lost in an emotional tailspin. With few exceptions, scores of Americans remain, to this very second, glued to the news and social media (a very unreliable source) to follow what can only be regarded as “the unravelling of an empire.” Translations of pre-election rhetoric continues to be spewed, heightening a separation of races and common beliefs between people who at once shared coffee and non-political chatter. Within a week of the election foolish young Americans, fueled with a tainted and ignorant mythology, took to the streets and airs waves with right wing banter that died a century ago; assuming, I guess, that the same intimidations that caused my forefathers to shutter in fear and run in panic, still applied. To them I say…Dude… new day… new time.
There is much to say, but honestly, the thickening of the air doesn’t need to be starched any further. We will move through this time, look back in months or years to come, and say what has always been said…’never again.’ But that statement will not be true, and we know it. There will come another time, another Trump with a different mask, and another manipulative, hypnotic force preying on sullen and disenfranchised souls, because there always is, and there always will be. Our job is to stay aware, keep our wits, build that wall around our hearts and souls, and know that even the worst of storms, although when in the middle of it, appears to be endless, never lasts forever.
God Bless you and God Bless these UNITED States.
Author: Jeff Hobbs
Publisher: Thorndike Press
Hardback · 639 pages
The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace rested in my Kindle, behind several other books I intend to get to for several months. But, it was the picture of a young Robert Peace, standing on the porch of what I assume was his mother’s home, that peaked my interest. I saw a young man who could be my cousin, brother, even son and I decided to open the book and read the first few pages. It opened to dialogue, common, honest, and familiar: Hot car, hot day, with the air-conditioning off because of what it does to the power, fuel consumption, and / or mechanics of the vehicle. This was the primary indicator that the story would not only be about social development but the economic deficiencies that directly affects the unacknowledged caste system that permeates throughout this country.
The resonating question, not only from my reading but the readings of others, was: Did Hobbs really know Peace, or was this an opportunity for him (Hobbs) to write a book that would put him on the literary map? Here, from my perspective, is the reason: The Short… presented scenarios that were predictable; pulled directly from the headlines of any metropolitan newspaper, internet feed, or the evening news. The full title, for example (The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League), reveals the story’s premise and total outcome before the first word is read. Although this was a peeve, it was not enough to halt my desire to read Robert Peace’s epic tale.
Hobbs addresses the socio-economic issues with as much patience and care as his literary imagination and talents would allow, but here is where [I felt] the disconnect began. Hobbs, perhaps without full acknowledgment, or maybe without full knowledge, emphasizes the economic struggles of the people of Newark, relaying to the reader that this place, nicknamed “Brick City,” was a certain Brick Wall. With a host of characters and personalities, he provides a semblance of proof through images of drug abusers, baby makers, miscreants and a healthy sprinkling of fence-sitters.
Peace was “Brick City.” He was the embodiment of this sometimes chaotic but highly loved town. His life was metaphorical, pathological and sardonic. The stereotypic elements were glaring, and for the greater percentage of the book, a darkness loomed, even when Hobbs tells of Peace’s escape through extensive travel. The sometimes overly academic passages seemed to be laced with apologetic innuendos, beginning from the first chapter, continuing through Hobbs’ admission of his prosperous life and ending with a tragic, lump-in-the-throat finale.
Perhaps Robert Peace’s downfall was that his father was imprisoned for a heinous crime, his mother struggled financially, and that he was cursed with an academic gift in a place unable to adequately appreciate or fully understand those gifts. He was caught between two worlds and the balancing act proved deleterious. But his mother and father (even from prison), (Hobbs tells of their not being married, but indirectly together), kept him on a relatively straight path. Despite family, intellect, honest friendships, the ability to reach beyond his grasp and acceptance to the Ivy facades and secret societies of Yale, Peace found his greatest solace in an endless consumption of marijuana. And the story, at this point, became one of inexplicable addiction by a man-child who had the world on a string.
But something greater than the environment and experience drove Peace to become who he was. He, with his multidimensional genius mind, became, from my perspective, a madman; an obsessed scientifically talented phenom who chose to live in a life undefined rather than apply his skills to the mission that would ultimately give meaning to his existence. Taking odd, low-end employment, using and selling cannabis (he created a more potent strain of marijuana by extracting and adding THC “oil”), and wasting time trying to figure out next steps. Regardless of how long he lived, his life because of his lifestyle would still be considered short.
When Peace’s end came, Hobbs drew on drama, but the actions and movement of the story were so sudden, so climactically awkward, that the effects, in some parts, were lost. Hobbs still had the ability to draw us in; to keep us wanting to turn the pages and find out the already known. Rich or poor, we are, in many ways, Robert Peace.
Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 8, Ralph Ellison
Author: Erica Buddington
Length: 143 pages
Publication Date: December 30, 2015
There is an absolute possibility that any fan of Erica Buddington will find Boroughs Apart a slight but welcomed departure from her many earlier works despite the similar ‘signature’ DNA. Buddington writes about love, and she does it “lovely.”
Expressed with immeasurable depth, Buddington captures in Boroughs Apart the emotion of this present era noted for social messiness and peppered with the social media anonymity. But don’t be mistaken, Buddington’s stories are not solely engorged with relationship fluff, nor are they entangled in the idea that love always ends happily, although, regardless of the outcomes of her many stories, there is always a ‘happy ending,’ even in the face of emotional adversity. This is her beauty.
Buddington’s literary voice is further strengthened in this ambitious 2015 novella. She has written a plethora of enticing stories, but this novella is special. There is an accuracy in her descriptions and a measurable honesty in her feelings and voice. It’s visual. It’s heartfelt. It’s familiar. Boroughs Apart is more experimental than her previous works, vibing on being a virtual time-driven maze of sorts; the well-known unknown. She has presented the theme of unrequited love reincarnated as a present day passion mirroring unrelenting love from a generation past. Yes, it is a complicated story but comfortably and simply well crafted.
For clarity, this is not Of Micah and Men (the last Buddington book I reviewed), but it continues the theme of cool, sweet breezes and summertime passion in the metropolis. It is a departure from many of her creative endeavors, thematically, standing forthrightly and independently. It’s daring and cunning, puzzling and measured. It’s sensual without being blinded by sexuality and comfortable like still photos of a Caribbean sunset.
As stated in a previous commentary, Erica Buddington, as a writer, is relatively transparent which is brilliant. We know where she is going yet we still look forward to sitting ‘shotgun’ during the ride anyway. She points out the subtle beauty of things we may otherwise overlook and makes us pay attention closely enough to commonly unseen objects, which penetrates, and remains, a permanent part of our memory. Knowing where she gets her inspiration isn’t too challenging if you follow her revelations, but what sparks that inspiration is like a pinata; a box of chocolates; a warm bed on a cold night — simply something unexpected and pleasantly welcoming.
The story is principally about Evan, the 30-year-old ‘son of money’ with: “…Sahara sand brown, eyes the color of the sky when everything felt wrong,” and Ella: brown complexion (I believe), “…shoulder length dreads, bright yellow summer dress, and huge Sankofa earrings,” and their one degree of separation. They meet the way Borough strangers do; with an abruptness that is potentially sour but tastes as sweet as New York candy and they ultimately become the unlikely victims of Cupid’s arrow. The story, from this point, moves along quickly.
Ella, a junior curator, arrives unknowingly at Evan’s home to assess a painting. This meeting segues into the essentials of the story. An earlier meeting between them, although brief, is now in ‘confirmation’. Fate, one can assume, must have brought them together, as the past lords of missed opportunity assured that their moment wouldn’t be lost. Thematically, this is crucial, and Buddington nails it from the start. Oddly, their chance meeting is more revealing than either assumes but eventually Evan and Ella will realize that they are living an unlikely parallel to the lives of people close to home; both homes.
Boroughs Apart is a keenly ambitious work and, ideally unpredictable. Does it spark the imagination of anyone who has ever asked the question: What can happen if a stranger walks into your life who isn’t a stranger at all? Yes, it does in a way that isn’t foreign, forced or ubiquitous. But, as I have come to note in Buddington’s writing, this interrogative summation proved too simple a prompt for her, and she ventures into the hollows of complicated webs and surreal themes. In Boroughs Apart, she guides us into the worlds of people we’ve seen but never got a chance to know; the people whose social status allowed them to float where others could barely walk. She took us into those homes we’d only admired through shade-less windows, standing and gawking, hypnotically, at the Renaissance brilliance and tasteful wealth while we’re speechlessly consumed. Buddington shows Harlem’s beauty and the virtues and vulnerabilities of even its wealthier children.
Because any additional commentary will be a spoiler, I will say, as casually and nonchalantly as I possibly can, that the meeting of Ella and Evan has historical significance and unexpected ramifications; the kind of mysterious close encounter between strangers that cannot be calculated but is wholly welcomed.
Boroughs Apart speaks ominously of unrequited destiny, dysfunctional family privilege, chance love, and hope at the possibility to re-love what seemed eternally lost. It is the stories of two families, brought together by fate and coincidence. It is a most vivid example of her beautiful mind and imagination. One thing is for certain, it is ambitious and doesn’t take away from the magic that she has cornered and the talent that she truly possesses. In Buddington, who is also a visual artist, there is joy in the story and bright colors on the canvas, reflecting the realities that we all know or will one day discover; the unquestionable evidence of a soul’s memorial, and a belief in the worthiness of holding on to hope and embracing faith.
When the Glitter’s Gone
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
THE LETTER: The Beginning
I know we never thought our situation would end up this way, but life, as always, has proven a mystery; unpredictable and undefinable. This isn’t easy for me. The passing of time has not effectively erased the pain that we’ve inflicted. Only in the movies are there predictable happy endings. I know I will never heal from this situation, and for that, I apologize, despite the pain, because I know you will never heal either. It is for this reason that I am writing; to try to begin the process; to fill a void that was formed; to admit the callous endeavors that were enacted because we wanted to see one another suffer. I, perhaps, am writing to myself more than to you, I guess. I needed to reflect and reveal, or confront and acknowledge, my role in everything that happened.
I remember our happy; how we were “pillars of love” when we began this voyage. The air was sweetly perfumed, scented with Lilac and Frankincense, and breezes blew cool on sweltering days. I remember how you made everything so new, how your friends, coyly side-eyeing me, smiled in my presence because you smiled more than they have ever seen you smile; more than they, perhaps, ever have. But in my absence they’d pull you aside and ask:
“How can you be with a man like that? Girl, y’all don’t even look right together, I mean, he’s so dark and big. Ugh, he looks like he’d crush your little ass. And what he drivin’? A Honda? Damn girl, you drivin’ a Mercedes. I just don’t see it.”
We weren’t young but we were far from antiquated. The patina of time had not yet discolored our bronze glow. Maturity was our platform, our undeniable kingdom. Youth fled several years earlier, taking away those immature issues, uninspired mistakes, and childish innuendoes, but we were young enough to enjoy tomorrow and old enough appreciate our past. We pledged depth and eternity; those impossible possibilities that were so fantastically unrealistic there was no other option but to come true. It was because we believed in dreams where we hadn’t believed nor dreamed before. We were virtually iconic, allegedly, the poster people for the look of love, and because we were, people, friends, openly wished for our downfall.
After a couple of months, your people became my people. They were cool but cautious; measuring me with that joker-ish sarcastically painted grin on their MAC plastered faces. I was guarded, cautious, and unsure but certain that their designer mentalities and mixed social ignorance would not fit my conservatively artistic ideas of reality. My intuition was in the red zone. But, I accepted them because, on the surface, and for the most part, they accepted me. Eventually, when I began to feed the bank account, I gained their respect, I became them, dressing in clothing I could hardly afford and driving cars with massive notes and foreign names. Eventually and unfortunately, they got to know me better and had mistaken my kindness for weakness. They were offered that one opportunity to find that out.
Then there were my friends. They were international, free, artistic. Our bond was made from fire and steel, Jupiter Rays, and tsunamis formed from puddles of rain. They were beautiful, energetic and creative. They smelled of May showers and a cask of Cabernet. They were the embodiment of God as I understood God to be. There, within my cadre, were cover models and visionaries, exotic and undefinable; questionable enigmas who people feared but were drawn to, irresistibly. Together, my friends and I spewed elemental and complex stanzas, and poetic energy that warmed our souls until it turned into love. They were dapper and shabby, brilliantly confident and wholly insecure. With them, thunder quieted and lightning tamed. My friends… essentially so full of life and equally so damned to episodes of suicidal ideation. They were naturally everything your friends (my new friends) sought to be.
Perhaps against my better judgment and because I was crazy for you, I (reluctantly) dismissed those many amazing friends. They were sure that I had partnered with my artistic equivalent, but that rarely happens. Opposites, I thought, were the stuff that inspired greater creative endeavors. It was, from the beginning, painfully clear that you didn’t want them to be in your shallow circle. Their nose rings, long unkempt locks, spiritual auras, and freedom were too much to comprehend. You said you didn’t trust them, that they all seemed weird, aloof, sneaky and judgmental. But let’s be honest, we know who judged.
Do you remember the night we were driving back from Upper Marlboro? We were invited to a get-together and we were still vibing on the good time we had, continuing to laugh, thirty minutes later at the antics of the host. We talked about how important our friends were, spoke of the blessings they brought. I spoke of mine, glorifying in the good times we shared from New York to the shores of West Africa. Perhaps I had become more animated than was necessary. I talked about the beauty that seemed to be at every corner in Paris; how the air was always cool and just the scents from rue to rue identified where you were. I spoke with passion. And that did it; you withdrew. Silence filled the rest of the ride after that. You stormed into the house and I could feel the tension in my soul. I prepared. Finally, you gave a devastating ultimatum. You said it would either be you and I or me and them, that I could not have both. You said you didn’t want me to ever communicate with those friends again. I angrily submitted. They were my past.
Especially hard was when you told me to “get rid of” Elaine. You didn’t know her, you didn’t want to know her, but it was Elaine who saved my life when I was living in Harlem, I told you that. I minimized my bravado, telling my story from the heart. I told you Elaine and I met in Paris and she quickly took to me. She took me into her home and her life when I wandered through Parisian streets and cared for me when sickness wrecked my body. I don’t know why you saw her as such a threat, she wasn’t my lover, just someone who loved me. You said that sort of relationship was impossible.
She was almost my mother’s age and maybe that had something to do with it. When I left Paris and settled in Harlem Elaine came for a month-long visit, to conduct business and rekindle relationships separated by the Atlantic’s depth. She introduced me to spirituality, friends who were larger than the Empire State and stressed to me, in tears from some unknown place, how I must always be important to me. With her, my wandering spirit was given rest, and unconditional love replaced towering silos of pain. She was my sister, my rock, and my emotional guide during that period when I became lost on my journey to finding myself. She told me to be careful but to pursue you because I deserved happiness. If she wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be me.
These were my chosen friends.
RELIANCE: EAT AT JOE’S
Looking further back, before we ventured into the big houses, fancy whips, and massive parties, the bliss was different. It was easier when we had so much less. For us, those struggling days were exquisite. The lessons we learned could never be measured. It was sobering. It was an indescribable libation; a nectar of the gods, soberingly intoxicating I guess. I know that sounds dramatic, but I think many would agree. Having less was when we saw how rich we really were. Having less was the only time that we truly had so much.
We struggled; ate kielbasa, pierogies, and frozen yogurt until it poured from our pores. We laughed at nothing and bathed in the light of darkness. We looked forward to rainy days and snowy nights, and dinner by candle light or just the chance to lose ourselves in that place where no one else was allowed. Those were lean times but we provided what we could to one another because we were all we had and we had no choice even when there were countless choices.
But I promised you that …
*I will build you a castle with a tower so high
It reaches the moon
I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly
And compose you a tune
I’ll give you lovin’ warm as Mama’s oven
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new
And in our self-made universe, when our paychecks grew, it was revealed that those who smiled in our faces were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put a sickle in our spine. For years we opened our home and our hearts. We fed them, gave them money and material, shoulders to cry on and faith when their faith waned. They followed us before the invention of social media, singing our praises and worshipping our names. They were relentless. We couldn’t avoid, evade, or tunnel away from them. These were lessons learned the hard way, years later, when our economics changed and times, again, got unexpectedly hard. We stood at the edge of the cliff with our hands extended as they threatened to jump and they withdrew when we hung from our fingertips from that same cliff. Then, like snow under a searing sun, they were gone.
“I’ve been fucked over, left for dead, dissed and forgotten
Luck ran out, they hoped that I’d be gone, stiff and rotten
Y’all just piss on me, shit on me, spit on my grave (uh)
Talk about me, laugh behind my back but in my face
Y’all some “well wishers, ” friendly acting, envy hiding snakes
With your hands out for my money, man, how much can I take?” Ether–NAS
Unfortunately, I learned before you did. I am still learning. Today I wonder, where are they now?
And my spirit sang…
I will take you away with me as far as I can
To Venus or Mars
There we will love with your hand in my hand
You’ll be queen of the stars
And every day we can play on the Milky Way
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new
We discovered and appreciated the unequaled beauty of long walks down North Charles Street, toward the Inner Harbor, along the path where men held hands and cross-culture couples secretly kissed under awnings that protected from rain, sun, and the moon’s full beams; pass the bookshops, restaurants, and storefront museums. We noticed the fragility of people, saw the abject hunger for life, liberty, and the pursuit if happiness in their eyes, shared our few pennies with those who had considerably less and tasted the sweetness of a city that conjured up fear and sorrow in the hearts and souls of those who lived outside its borders. I won’t say we loved Baltimore, but it was here that we found bliss. Baltimore, with its many imperfections, loved us as best it could, keeping us close to its full, yet virulent, bosom. Remember that?
And my heart said…
I will bring you a flower from the floor of the sea
To wear in your hair
I’ll do anything and everything to keep you happy
To show you that I care
I’ll pretend I’m jealous of all the fellas
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new
I am filled with an indescribable level of reflection as these words pour, perhaps meaninglessly, on to this page. They leave me panting. This emotional marathon has become my Katrina. As much as I try to avoid negative thoughts I am overcome by them. After our first two years together you changed. Maybe I changed. I noticed that you were suddenly continually preoccupied. Your time was spent on phone calls and girl’s nights out. I trusted you, I really did, but my loneliness had no place to hide. I know I showed it.
I wanted and needed you to see me; the inner me. I needed a nod that you recognized my transparency. I needed to quell the discomforts. Suddenly, with no prompting, the previous life you assumed I had, became your compulsive disorder. You were obsessed, without just cause. I tried to convince you that every woman that said hello was not a previous lover, although many were. I stopped writing and performing poetry because you felt that each line was about you or every image was my memory of a former tryst, and indeed they were. I tried to explain that it was often just poetry — that some of the shit just came into my head, but you weren’t convinced, so I let it go. Against God’s will, I let it go.
And my soul cried…
I’ll take the stars and count ’em and move a mountain
And if that don’t do I’ll try something new
I lost my voice with you. I lost my words and pieces of my soul because there were so many unexplained moments when you didn’t talk to me and I frustratingly blamed myself even if I did nothing to bring about the silence. But I loved you deeply. I loved you more than I loved myself. I think I can safely say that we both were drowning in our love for one another. We suffocated and at the time I didn’t know that the actions we projected had an actual name. When I found out what we were doing, it frightened me. Although I wanted to deny it, the facts were undeniably true. I think I can safely say that we both were drowning in what we perceived as our unequivocal love for one another. We nearly died but believed that love, alone, was powerful enough to keep us. We loved until we were empty. It was painfully beautiful. It seems like a lifetime ago. Perhaps it was simply another life. I didn’t know it was wrong.
My lips whispered…
I’ll tell the moon above it’s you that I love
If it don’t do I’ll try something new*
When you told me you were pregnant, I paraded around more proud than I had ever been. My already broad chest became considerably broader. It was the most magical gift anyone could ever give; parts of us creating a single magnificent life. I became a silver back that day. I knew that my job description had changed completely. I went from boyfriend to husband, to father. We both were floating. But unfortunately what floats sometimes falls although I wasn’t expecting the fall, nor was I reaching to have it occur. You know, it seemed that we were often walking a tightrope of which each of us held the ends.
Then things abruptly changed.
See part II. Coming soon….
*”I’ll Try Something New” — Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Author: Bobby Brown with Nick Chiles
Length: 341 pages
Released: June 13, 2016
I’ll admit, I am an incorrigible fan of biographies, but I’ve discovered that biographies are usually one of two things: profound hits or astronomical misses; often filled with so much fluff the story gets lost in loads of overzealous and gregarious bull. So when a copy of Every Little Step was made available to me, I was excitedly hesitant. I questioned whether I’d even read this book, after all, I knew this story. In fact, the entire world knew this often sordid, perhaps morbid, story. For over a decade Bobby Brown, and ultimately Whitney Houston (as a couple), were headline fodder. Their lives were broadcast as a national or romantic tragedy on the evening news, supermarket tabloids, and sadly, their short-lived reality television show, Being Bobby Brown.
Already steeped in a methodically, if not intentionally, developed controversy, Bobby Brown became infamously iconic through the dismally painted images he willfully projected: Pop singer, reality star, Whitney Houston’s husband, and father. His nauseating story played out in the media but never gave us a full image or explanation of the man. We often wondered if he knew himself or if he was simply a chameleon who changed his colorful façade to meet the moment. The jury is still out, even after reading Every Little Step.
Bobby built a reputation as a ‘bad-boy,’ but it limits the shallow depth of a much more complex character. He carried it — that bad boy image — and indeed, after thirty public years of wearing that proverbial and penetrating mask, it became his honest demeanor, bolted in a safe and protected by demons resembling padlocks. His world revolved around extremism, over indulgence, and the therapeutic attempt to conceal pains that clawed at his being. He states:
To some degree, I understand. That’s how public images work. They slap a label on you, and that’s who you are– the facts be damned. Early on, I cemented my reputation as the “bad boy of R & B.” And it stuck. For the most part, I embraced it–for thirty years. It was fun — when I was young and foolish. But now that label; feels too one-dimensional.
It was easy to lose himself in sex, drugs, and music, to falter as a father, husband, and musician, to flounder in the land of Oz, just long enough for the world (and himself) to believe it. Being Bobby Brown (both the show and the person) was a platform; a diving board on the deep end of the shark infested pool. He jumped, after Whitney, according to legend, jumped first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t realized, until the currents pulled them further from safety and sanity, that they couldn’t swim. There wasn’t too much more we wanted or, perhaps, needed to hear. Yes, another biography, I decided, that would become a ‘half read.’
But then the surprise. With Nick Chiles’ word wonderment, Brown’s biography sizzled then unexpectedly exploded. Despite a plethora of predictable and almost surreal events, Every Little Step astonishingly delivered. Readers are taken through the maze of “life according to Bobby Brown” and are presented the opportunity to amble through the jigsaw pieces of his madness. Revealed during this trek is what had long been hidden and many essential curiosities are answered, yet some of the revelations seem too convenient and occasionally it is questioned whether the book represents a real person or the person he really wanted to be. Indeed there is proof of his antics and some clues that point to real occurrences, but some of the events are forced and seem to be included more for dramatic effect than comprehensive information.
Every Little Step can essentially be summed up as the story of two luxurious ships. One is fantastically pristine with a wooden deck that glistened like polished gold under the Pacific coast sun and the other, of equal magnificence, but moving in circles under a dismal and constant shade of gray, attempting to share a small Roxbury-Newark pond. Which ship represented who is up for individual interpretation. But little can be gleaned from the book which merely highlights the highlights.
Every Little Step was mammoth, larger than the superstar players that controlled their kingdom with mythological fervor. Bobby and Whitney’s roles were almost, perhaps mostly, make-believe; bitter, blind, ignorant, faithful, prophetic, and destructive. The dissolving of the family and the under-appreciation of their height of fame was certain to disappear. It was only on loan; only temporary, and they had no idea. So much, according to the book, was squandered, and the chaos from years of their animated immaturity and abuses cover each page like locusts in a wheat field. There were moments when we didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, cheer, or turn our backs. We did all the above because we had no choice.
We know this story, maybe better than we should. But like most fairytales happier endings exist, and Bobby, seeing the possible end of an unforgiving road, attires himself in battered armor, relinquished his worldly possessions, and sets out to start again. Sadly, and almost as if by a sinister curse, the whole of his former life is inexplicably extinguished, and once again with all the glitter gone, he is back where he started with nothing but material proof of where he’d been.