Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.
Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?
She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.
Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)
The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.
At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as “Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.
But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.
In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown—a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.
Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.
They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved “monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. “Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.
The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.
At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some “brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some—excuse me—ignorant folk were giggling about “homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.
But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.
And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that “Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, “Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the “N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.
Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara—inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist—and settled in for a long winter of solitude.
Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, “Speak to the hand.”
Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.
Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, “You can never have too many of these.”