Open Season

It was always Open Season.

It started in Africa, and spread across the world.

The Middle Passage was Open Season, as was the slave auction block, the noose, the burning crosses, the beatings, the framings, the looking away, the destruction of prosperous black towns.

It’s been Open Season.

It was Open Season on Dr. King. Dogs, hoses, jailing, beatings, and finally, a bullet.

It was Open Season on Malcolm X (well, his was ‘friendly’ fire, but he scared ya’ll for awhile, didn’t he?).

It was Open Season on the Black Panthers, but not on the Klan.

It was Open Season on Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron.

It’s been Open Season on our daughters and sisters and mothers and wives, bearing up under the indignity of laying in beds that weren’t their husbands’, and watching their children destroyed before their eyes.

Some walked to the edges of cliffs and rivers voluntarily, and some dropped in the master’s child; some dropped in themselves, and still others made it a package deal.

Black girls with white dolls, black women with bleached skin.

It’s been Open Season on the first black President: met a wave of incredible backlash and resistance. Desires for his death requested, hinted at, and plainly stated. His wife, just another angry black bitch with a big booty. His daughters called classless by a white reporter who boozed it up in her own ‘heyday.’ Oh wait. His daughters don’t drink.  His crimes: Tan suits, Marines holding umbrellas, coffee cups. his feet on the desk…Oh, wait, there are pictures of other Presidents doing the same thing.

So what’s different this time? No, really. What?

Oh yeah, it’s Open Season.

It’s been Open Season on black neighborhoods: ‘gentrification’. A gentle sounding word to describe the economic herding of poor people out of established neighborhoods so the demographics can be more ‘attractive’ to tourists and businesses, and former suburbanites  can save on property taxes by moving back into the city they abandoned decades ago to get away from ‘those people.’

It’s been Open Season on the streets:  the police began shooting young black men and women like dogs, regardless of the severity of the crime, regardless of guilt or innocence. Yet white guys with multiple guns shooting children in movie theaters and schools get apprehended alive, unless they shoot themselves.

Obey and Respect the law? Let’s see…

Black men are just now getting out of prison because of DNA evidence overturning wrongful convictions, after losing decades of their lives. “We just need someone to take the fall. We don’t care who, as long as it’s a black guy.”

“You fit the description…”

“Why are you driving that kind of car, and what are you doing in this neighborhood?”

“A black man did it,” and a community gets rousted, but it’s the mother who drove the car into the water after all, it’s the husband, it’s the….well, it’s not a black guy (this time…)

All white juries. Peers?

Mobs breaking into jail cells while sheriffs and officers look the other way.

Those same officers and sheriffs taking pictures in Klan robes, smiling….

Heck, these days even community watchmen get a free pass after being told by the real cops to let them deal with the little Skittle-eatin’ n*r. (How many times did that community watchman, pillar of the community, get arrested since then? But you see, the kid was a criminal, an unarmed, walking home having a snack criminal… ok)

Cops and citizens who kill black thugs (which covers crimes from robberies to unpaid parking fines, and whether they reached for the gun or ran away, or knocked on a door at 3 in the morning, or played their music loud at a gas station) become network tv spokesmen and motivational speakers, overnight millionaires.

Whistle blowers are, let’s say, discouraged….

It’s been Open Season in the military: Black soldiers segregated, denied medals of honor for brave deeds done, now gathered posthumously, if at all.

It’s been Open Season on generational wealth building: Towns of black prosperity burned, their citizens murdered: men, women, children, to rise again from the ashes, until a new generation came.

The apartment is taken. Someone came by in the half hour since we spoke and gave a deposit.

The position is filled.

Keisha’s a ghetto name. How’d she attend Harvard with a name like Keisha? Toss it…

Code the applications with the letter N….Why do you people abuse food stamps? Why can’t you do better for yourselves?

It’s been Open Season in education: until Black history month, our history in the US began and ended with slavery. We learned nothing of the kings of Africa, of its wealth, of its culture. We did learn of it’s colonization, but not what it cost.

We learned nothing of black patriots who helped build this country; (not entirely true: we learned nothing of Crispus Attucks except he was the first to die)  Did YOU know? Paul Revere did not ride alone…

Hallway conversation in an inner city middle school: “We pass the kids because they’re not going to be successful anyway…”

Open Season?

Keep. Moving. Forward.

One of us has gotta make it through

because

Open Season

is

never closed.

On Black History Month

“They did not take slaves from Africa; they took people from Africa, and made them slaves.”

For years, they brought them out like Christmas decorations, only it was February: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.

No one but my father ever spoke of those with more militant stances, more edgy, prickly points of view: Eldridge Cleaver (Iceberg Slim) Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panthers) Malcolm X before his renouncing of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Imiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).

I did not know of the brilliant, biting edge of James Baldwin, the struggles of Josephine Baker, the strength and vulnerability of the tragic, plaintive-voiced Billie Holiday, the towering courage of Paul Robeson and the fiery Vernon Jordan.

These figures made people ‘afraid’ and ‘uncomfortable.’

We learned that 6 million Jews died and saw films on the horrors of the Holocaust, but as black children we were not taught about the 9 million Africans who died on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing lane called the Middle Passage, where slaves still chained together were tossed overboard, either deliberately to lighten cargo, or jumped willingly in order to die free, or just because they didn’t survive, but neither did we learn about Nat Turner (except that he led a rebellion and died, as if that was all there was to know) or the legal victory of the black men of the HMS Amistad.

And over the years, we learned the stories of our annual decorations. We saw films on the Civil Rights movement taking place in the south, having no idea those attitudes existed in the north, and given no awareness through our history textbooks that it was a global truth, if not universal:

Dark skin is evil.

It didn’t matter what form of evil, because all sorts of stories were concocted based generally around these two principals: Black was unclean, White was pure. Black was inferior, White was superior.

Yet, I was taught in science class that in the spectrum, black is the absence of color, and white contained them all. Why were we being persecuted for something we were not?

When I sang, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, until fourth grade I did not know my fathers died differently, I believed that Pilgrims and Indians lived in harmony. When I sang America the Beautiful, I did not know that its Natives had been stripped of their dignity, slaughtered like sheep, ravaged like Sabine virgins, and tossed aside as rubble.

I didn’t even know that as low as they were, they still owned Black men and women.

I was taught that the Quakers helped slaves escape to Canada to freedom. I have learned, only recently, that it was not so. There were slaves in Canada, too, and some who were free, were sold back.

Long buried in the archives of old libraries lay the story of my people, the mixing of my own ancestry, not just here in America, but across the world, doomed to die dusty deaths in the recessed shadows of long abandoned archives, unless one truly took the time to unearth them.

And then the Internet came, and grew, and evolved, and the archives were dredged and lovingly sorted, restored, and made available. And I learned that far more Black people achieved great things in the face of impossible odds and incredible oppression: denied admission, having no transportation, being ripped off, gutting of project financing, threats of death, and they kept going and became pilots and doctors, nurses and teachers, judges and lawmen, cowboys and business owners, so many, many names bubbling out of the soil after so much blood soaked in…

Their vision was clear and focused, their drive to succeed unstoppable, unshakable, and unswerving.

And all, all, having one common thread: ancestors brought here not to live, but to work, as commodities, not people, as beasts, and not men.

And they survived.

And I do indeed live here now, a free man in America, because of their sacrifice and vision, not limited to twenty-eight days in a government building. The storehouse is mine to visit, whenever I choose:

blackpast.org

blackhistorypages

blackhistory.com

These are just a few of the storerooms available online these days, rich with information. If you would gain some perspective, I invite you to celebrate with us, and not just for the month.

There are no ‘colored only’ signs on these doors….

A Fireside Chat with Frederick Douglass

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Fireside Chat.”

A good, hard question for this Daily Post. I thought of several writers who I would love to hear life stories from: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Kahlil Gibran, Octavia Butler, or from the world of music, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, or from the art world Georgia O’Keefe, (what’s with the flowers, girl?) She did a piece called Music that I saw a reproduction of in a museum gift shop, fell in love with, didn’t buy at the time, and haven’t been able to find since.  But after the impulsiveness of the choices I initially made, I decided to go in a different direction.

I would want to talk to Frederick Douglass, not just read his books. I would like to see the expressions of his face  when he reminisced about being a slave, getting his freedom, and being sold back.

I would want to hear his voice, the strength of it waxing eloquent as he wielded words of desiring freedom like a flaming sword, cutting through the hypocrisy of the crowds he addressed, the nation he lived in, holding up the mirror to a white slave owner, his reflection Douglass’ own face, for them to see the vileness of what they’d done.

In his straightened back would be the defiance of refusing to bend under the whip, to stand firmly on the ground for those who were hung from trees, in his quiet passion the balm that would heal the burning bodies of castrated black men, the violated black women, who dared for a moment to be human again.

I would look on the scars of his beatings, and feel my spine chill with the danger as he took his books to secret places to practice reading by moonlight and lantern under threat of death, but willing to die.

In his eyes would be the sound of the spirituals ringing over the fields, the sound of chains, the sound of violins and dancing, the tears of the pregnant slave women walking at night to drop their half-breed progeny into rivers and off hilltops, or bury them silently in the woods, or suckle them in silent, tearful suffering.

From him, I would feel the will to survive the Middle Passage, the pride of fierce anger, of refusing to let go of the old ways, of holding on to the memories of ancestral tribes and customs and language, slowly eroding like promontory  rocks, or crushed and driven out like crushed and broken shells at high tide.

And as the fire died, and sleep grew heavy on my eyes, and his visage began to fade in the paling light of the rising sun, I would then have a reason, and find the strength, to go on, and on, and on…

“Colored” Signs and White Robes (No, I Will Not…a poem for Black youth)

Don’t tell me to ‘get over it’ because it makes YOU uncomfortable,

The founding of a nation on blood and chains should make you uncomfortable!

And though the institutions no longer exist, the attitudes of slavemasters yet prevail, 

Freely and proudly expressed!

So be it, but let this be too: the history of my ancestry DOES NOT BEGIN with bondage,

but the history of my ancestry HERE does, and so I will celebrate the TRIUMPH of their SURVIVAL, so that

I might sit here today and use this machine to type these words:

You will no longer brand me ‘animal’

or grind my dignity under your heel.

You will have no access to my joy

And I reject your invective as the source of my sorrows.

I do not seek your approval to grow and thrive and be.

I have no master in you, and you have no servant in me.

I will be free, in spite of, not because of, your documents that proclaim the very liberty for all men 

you’ve revealed to be a lie. 

You don’t get to define me, if you don’t want to know me.

You don’t get to classify me, when you don’t want to live next to me.

You don’t get to objectify me, because I am not here to amuse you.

You don’t get to nullify me, and say I shouldn’t be here: WE are the nation’s only IMPORTED immigrant.

I will not get over the chains I’ve never worn,  not get over the whippings, lynchings, beatings, rapes, torture, castrations, hunting hounds and K9 cops, bombings, hoses, “Colored” signs, white robes, shotguns, fires, burning crosses, burning bodies hanging from trees and bridges and tossed in rivers, broken and dismembered, and soil soaked in blood and lost years behind bars from false accusations I’ve never experienced, because I stand on the remains of all the rubble and remains of those lives; they are yet a part of me, and whether or not you “understand” it, it is nevertheless so.

And so I say again: I am FREE

but I, and my children, and their children

will not EVER

‘get over it.’

Sharing Homework with Cheerleaders: A Cautionary Tale

Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt,  and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.

She was a nerd too,  with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust)  hiding my feelings.

Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.

And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.

“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”

In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.

“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”

Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.

At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.

The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?”  He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”

Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:

“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”

His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”

I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.

Wearing her cheerleader outfit.

Dammit….

Underground Encore

Just to provide some background for this story:  I started out as a guitar player at the age of 11. I had a classical acoustic guitar and I was going to be the next Earl Klugh. Between the ages of 14 -17 I sat in with these old jazz heads in Washington Square Park.

I stayed mostly silent but they let me join them on some of the easier stuff, until one day I heard the words from the de facto leader of the group. “You did a nice job on that.” It was, at the time, like a five-star rave review in the New York Times, but way led on to way, and in time, the group thinned out, and eventually they didn’t come back. And after awhile, as I sat in with new players and did new songs, way continued leading on to way, and I stopped going there as well.

I’ve often thought about those men, old men even then, no doubt passed on by now, and I’ve been thankful they were gracious to a young man with a love for the music who didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to play it, but who took what he had, and eventually heard the words, “You did a nice job on that.”

As jazz continues to hold a precarious place on the American music scene, I wanted to write something to show my appreciation not just to those men I sat in with, but to others like them who keep the flame in the hot tunnels, smoky clubs, concert halls, and  libraries and museums around the country and around the world. Now, without further ado….

The sun was sinking into the river against the city skyline. Leon sat in a patch of it as it came through the window, his shirt and tie barred, like Cyrano’s body, with the shadow of crossbeams that separated the window panes.

The doctor came out, and Leon stood up.
The doctor’s face said everything.
“I’m sorry, Leon. The tests are conclusive. I don’t know what to say that would make it easier.”
“Ain’t nothing left to say.”
“Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”
“Got someone, but I’ll take care of it.”
“All right then. And Leon…” The doctor offered his hand.
Leon took the doctor’s hand in both of his.
“You done what you could, doc. thank you.”

******************
He walked out into the evening, the street alive with people and lights, cars and movement, the last of the sun ray’s deepening the shadows to a dusky blue.
The subway rumbled beneath him, and he headed toward the nearest station, then stopped.
Be underground soon enough. No need to rush.

He chuckled at his own weak joke, and took the long walk home.

*****************
His daughter was all he had left for family, and he wrote her now:

“Everything you need to know is in that old cookie tin you gave me for Christmas all that time ago. Everything’s in there, along with a note for my last wishes. I got some time yet, but I don’t, so you don’t have to come tomorrow, but don’t come too late. I don’t want to go in no potter’s field, though He’ll find me if I do.
“Just try not to let it happen, that’s all.”

*********************
His battered saxophone case was under the rickety bed, with the tarnished, well worn saxophone inside. He pulled it out, and sat on the edge of the bed, and looked at it, going back in his mind to the smoky nights, spent playing til the sun came up, so dapper he glittered in the spotlight, and later the feel of a full, warm woman on his lap, in his arms, in his bed, til time passed and the people moved on, and the clubs closed, and his career stalled, and stopped where it had started, and never moved again.

********************
Bars replaced clubs, drink replaced music, and even the most stubborn woman he’d ever met who tried to stay with him no matter what, threw in the towel before her own youth was wasted with a man who couldn’t move on, whose identity was too closely tied to what he did, and not who he was.

********************
Back into the evening streets, his case bumping along his spindly left leg, his suit fitting badly, but clean, and his face washed, he paid his fare, went down to the subway platform, but he didn’t open his case for change this time.

***********************
In his mind’s eye he saw her, regal in her red dress, her red lips matching, all of her full and shiny in the dim light. Her mahogany eyes gazed into his as she leaned forward to light his cigarette, and as he took her hand in both of his, she leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
“Play me something.”

She was leaving it up to him what to play, and he knew so many songs, but as he looked back into her eyes, and saw her smile at him, the song came like a lightning strike.
He played her something. And something else, and something else, til the band caught the pattern and the gist as they caught them staring, and they smiled and shook their heads, and simply followed.
“Leon at it again,” said the piano man. “On three, fellas…”
Three months later, they all came to the wedding.

*************************
Leon played the set through, but it was melancholy with a twist of bitter, haunting and bluesy and sad, with a splash of hope, and a sprinkle of joy.
A young cop began to walk toward him, but something made him stop, and he paused for a moment to listen, and a crowd began to gather. This was not the average subway joe who practiced for coins. Those who knew music knew this was the real thing, and those who didn’t felt it.

“All the Things You Are” echoed throughout the station and into the tunnels, a plaintive, restive, devotion leaking out with the realization of how utterly unattainable all of her had been, in the end.

*********************

The song ended, and the crowd clapped loudly until the rumbling train drowned it out, and they turned away to get on with their lives.
The cop came up to him.
“I know you. I know that song. My father had one of your records, and he played it all the time.”
“Did he, now?” said Leon, wiping the mouthpiece. He grinned, turned to look at the cop, a twinkle in his eye. “Only one?”
“No sir,” the cop laughed, “he had others, but that’s the one he played the most.”
“Played,” Leon said. “Is your father still alive?”
“No sir, he passed away five years ago.”
Leon straightened, gave the cop full attention.
“I’m sorry, young man.”
The cop said nothing for a moment, then “It was an honor to hear you play live, sir. I only wish my dad would’ve been here.”
“My pleasure,” Leon began to walk away.
And then he turned to the cop, and seemed to think a moment, and walked back, and held out his saxophone case.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m giving this to you.”
“Why? I can’t take it. Don’t you need it?”

Leon sighed. “No, I don’t. See, I’m about to meet your daddy, and we’re gonna be talking jazz for a long, long time.”
It took a moment, and then the cop’s eyes widened.
“Won’t be long now. Left everything else to my daughter, but she ain’t gonna want this old battered up horn. Won’t mean nothing to her except her daddy wasn’t home a lot, and she won’t even think to sell it, and probably just throw it away.”
The cop looked downcast.
“You gonna take this?”
“I can’t, sir.”
Leon leaned in, like he was telling a secret. “Tell you what, turn it in to lost property, then file a claim for it on my daughter’s behalf, and take it later.”
“Mr. Leon, are you sure?” The cop took the case like a sacred offering.
Leon straightened again. “I am. It’s the least I can do for a young man who grew up with my music, and who saw my last concert.”
The cop seemed to flinch.
“I…I’m sorry, sir. I truly am.”
Leon put his hand out, and the cop took it, and Leon put his other hand over it.
“It’s all right, son, you done what you could. Thank you.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
May 2, 2014
All rights reserved

Not Your Idiom

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I had a theater teacher in college who was a playwright . We did his plays with him, and I thought they were okay, but only okay.

I remember that he hated Neil Simon with a passion, and thought he was a hack, even though Neil Simon had his finger on the pulse of the American theater-going public for a while, (longer than my teacher did, but that’s another post).

We were having a class discussion about doing ethnic plays without the original ethnic group. He began a discussion on how the craze at the time was doing plays with multi-cultural casts that were not from the playwright’s country.
He gave the example of an all-black cast production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” with Phylicia Rashad and some other well-known black actors / actresses, and said that doing it with an all-black cast just for the sake of doing it wasn’t theatrically valid, because they couldn’t bring to it what Russian actors could, who understood the subtlety of meaning and history behind the play that black actors could only emulate to some degree, but never really understand.

Being black myself, I figured he was probably right about that, though of course, some of my classmates (not just the black ones) bristled at the thought.
I personally thought it was a valid argument: it would be like Russians doing the play Fences, by August Wilson, or a Chinese cast doing Raisin in the Sun.
“It’s not their idiom,” he said. He was right.

I’ve seen writers attempt black dialogue, but it mostly misses the mark. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just off.
One of my favorite mystery writers, Robert B. Parker, of Spenser fame, failed at it over and over again with his character Hawk, and a lot of the black characters he wrote. To me, he never captured the nuances. I overlooked it, though I shook my head at some of his attempts, because I liked his stories. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), the author of the 87th Precinct series, on the other hand, was fantastic at it, if a little repetitive.

And, truth be told, not every black character written is required to speak that way. It doesn’t make it any less ‘authentic’ to have a black character speak without being ‘urban’ (whatever that means).

Does that mean an author who isn’t black can’t write black characters? ‘Course not. Write whatever ethnicity / race / dialogue you can. Write all of it. But here is where the writer’s ear plays an important role; I’ve seen white comedians do dead-on impressions of black speech patterns, not just ‘ebonics’, but the inflections and rhythms as well.

There’s a music in it, a poetic flow that rises and falls, a pulse that’s hard to feel if you didn’t grow up listening to it. There are actually regional differences too, between northern and southern.

Capturing it successfully was primarily the reason for Eminem’s success in the predominantly black rap industry, because he’d steeped himself in the culture, and came away with it. It’s why (ahem) Vanilla Ice….melted away.
The comic from Africa, Trevor Noah, is a master at it, because it’s not even an idiom spoken by Africans. (Check out Trevor Noah: African American on Netflix to see what I mean.) Bill Burr and Anjelah Johnson are two others who do it well. Anjelah Johnson has a great ear for the voices that inform her comedy.

As for me, I was fortunate enough to read a wide variety of poetry and literature from around the world, from Dickens to Dosteovsky to Dumas, and see a lot of foreign movies, and watch a lot of medieval stuff, and see productions of the Elephant Man as well as Paul Robeson, both excellent, minimalist plays; the first with Bruce Davison, who wore no makeup and still managed to convey the pain of deformity, and James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson, who may be a reincarnation.

My dad was into Shakespeare, and opera, and James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, and Khalil Gibran, among others; his library shelf provided my summer reading for a long time.
And my mom spoke French, because she wanted to go to Paris one day, but cancer didn’t let her.

In short, it was equipping me to write the way I do, though I had no idea at the time that I was absorbing all these cultural influences that transcended my own, and was certainly not aware at the time that I would ever use them.

And while I try not to consciously write to any specific ethnic / racial audience, because I want you to imagine as much as possible without my guidance, it’s because of that I can write Of War and Breakfast and Bring Me No Flowers, and be the same guy.

But even though I can understand both stories, the history of what had a bearing on the events that shaped me lies with only one of them, and when I write that story, it speaks to me a lot differently.

And that’s fine, because while one may be ‘my’ idiom, and the other one isn’t, all of it can be learned, and mastered, and conveyed, if you take the time to really hear it.

And keep writing.