Let me start off by saying I’ve had some problems with this. That the (read white) media’s unwarranted attack on Leonard Jeffries, their fascination with the fact that, with Clarence Thomas, Bush’s appointee to the Supreme Court could be a black, radical conservative (as if skin color necessarily determined political alliances), or the hullabaloo over Spike’s and Amiri’s apparent inability to see eye to eye on a figure as controversial as Malcolm X would prompt the Voice to do a segment exploring definitions of blackness among black writers is sadly typical of the racial dynamic in this country. This Western dissection of one’s cultural, spiritual, let alone racial identity is usually prompted by white America’s inability to figure out precisely who we are at any given moment in time. It makes them feel better. Furthermore, I have yet to see an article exploring the concept of “whiteness” provoked by the antics of the “alleged” St. John’s rapists, Jermaine Ewell’s attackers, or Yusef Hawkins’s assailants. In addition to this initial resistance, I also realized my life as a “barely-making-ends-meet black woman living in Harlem” rarely affords me the luxury of such bohemian introspection. “Blackness” stopped being the subject of emotionally wracked poetry at the completion of prep school and Wesleyan. At 26, it is simply who I am.
Violence often is the tie that binds in our community. My roommate has a message from the new friend. “He just saw Boyz N the Hood and sounded very upset. He kept saying, ‘It all came back and I knew Joan would understand.’ ” South Bronx, Compton, Williamsburg: all around the ghetto, same song. Even peripheral knowledge of each other’s project pasts was enough to let the brother know; watching Ray’s chest get blown open let loose a floodgate of illy fucking memories: Me and a posse of 13-year-olds searching 20 flights of projects for the three 16-year-olds (two male, one female) that ran a train on my homegirl Pye. Nina being raped and thrown off the roof of her building days before her departure for college. Not quite understanding what was going on, but knowing that the reason the candy store was closed on a weekday was related to the wine-colored mural on its gate and something called point-blank range. Like the new friend, I sobbed uncontrollably, not only for what once was, but for my inability to live comfortably with these ghosts and give them the homage of memory. I cried because their repression had become a necessary part of my survival.
Summer Madness: Snatch 1
“Something is terribly awry,” a speaker would say later on, at her funeral. “One of our tribesmen has shot the messenger sister.” News of Tamu’s leaving this earth reached us by pay phone on Broadway, around the corner from Sticky Mike’s. Ipe’s legs gave way and mine soon followed. Tamu was shot and killed in a robbery attempt in Baldwin Hills, and yes, I do know about the statistics, but aren’t those who are black and young and beautiful and vibrant and loud and sassy and talented and above all else doing extremely important work in the political, religious, and art arenas of the black community somehow exempt? I wonder if any other race of women in this country sleeps with such an ugly dichotomy: if I am to leave here unexpectedly it will probably be at the hands of one of my brothers. If I am to survive this at all, it will probably be because of them too. Insanity and rage are seductive, beckoning fingers on a dimly lit corner. The new friend becomes the good friend and nears unexpectedly: obviously sent at that moment to pull us back from the line.
The women gather for a laying on of hands. We come from different paths and generations to give our support to Dee Barnes and mourn and curse a system that produces, then supports, women-bashers like N.W.A’s Dr. Dre; one that gives rise to questions like the one Sister Souljah posed in her speech at the New Music Seminar. “The white male power structure has made our men insane: how can we hold them responsible?” Insanity must breed insanity because hardly a day passes when I don’t find myself hoping Dre’s punk ass will catch a bad one. So, I’ve got to hold them responsible or I’ll spend the rest of my life reduced to loving brothers in the abstract and fearing them on streetcorners.
The sounds of girlfriend laughter and the eager energy of road trips will not turn Leslie’s respectably corporate car into a thumpin’, bumpin’, finger-poppin’ Negromobile this summer. She imagines it to be a hearse instead. “The car is possessed,” she whispers, “and very evil.” Nairobi and I rush to Wall Street, hoping that Leslie’s fly corporate gear and sensible shoes will serve as Emperor’s Clothing and keep her officemates from noticing the tearful phone calls and talk of strange animals lurking under the desk. Later, from the hospital, her mother confirms that the breakdown is similar to the one Leslie experienced postgraduation, “a chemical disorder, that is triggered by sustained drug use.” Her mother senses our confusion; Leslie hasn’t done blow in years. “It seems as if she’s been smoking small quantities of marijuana.” One jay a day and our sister lies strapped on some bed fighting for her faculties. I go, once again, to the place the tears are supposed to be and come up quite empty.
Hours before Tamu’s funeral my thoughts run to Carol, another sister lost and buried in June. Those who loved her described her as a happy (upper-middle-class) African American princess. Those who knew her and loved her watched Carol’s never acknowledged addiction to prescription drugs claim her long before the alleged asthma attack. Those who loved her wrote a scanty obit, summing up the last eight years of her life with, “She had taken up housekeeping in the Midwest and had lots of new friends.” Those who knew her and loved her wondered why it took two weeks for someone to find her. She died the day before her 27th birthday. Those who loved her shook their heads and spoke softly of Jesus. Those who knew her and loved her were few in number and too angry to cry.
The pallbearers and ushers wore real kente armbands and very few folks wore black. I suppose we were all trying to look bright and full of the love that Tamu had that way of generating. The place where the tears are supposed to be is dangerously, unfamiliarly full. I grab my eleke and pray to Yemeya for enough strength to hold back the flood. The last piece of kente I see before they carry in the casket is on the arm of a recent ghost sister, one I have not quite yet repressed. I touch her to see if it is really Niambi, returned from the world of crack vials and pipe dreams. “It’s me Joan,” she whispers between barely audible sobs. “I’m back.” Yemeya sends a wave; the tears haven’t stopped falling yet. So maybe this is what blackness is partially about, learning how to make space for ghosts and love to the blues.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2020