I’m not just saying this because Mrs. Newman is my mom, but she is one of those unsung legends who really should be celebrated and hailed as one of our pioneers of this generation. She was an original cast member of the historic and ground breaking shows “Julia” starring Diahann Carroll, playing the babysitter Carol Derring, and was also in the original cast of, “The Leslie Uggams Show,” playing Leslie’s hip sister Oletha, on a segment titled “Sugarhill.”
My lovely mother has accomplished many mile stones in her life time that I could go on and on about-so this particular blog is about her AWESOME time piece fiction novel “MAGGIE 3”. Nobel Peace Winner Tonie Morrison has commented that “Alison has done a rare thing, written with beauty and powers and purity about a woman.” But don’t just take mine and Toni’s word for it. Come out this Thursday and hear Alison read from her. In the meantime here’s the first chapter to give you just a glimpse.
CHAPTER ONE We stand in the store together, and I reflect inwardly privately upon her youthful lovely firm form, quick-timing and not so wide-eyed innocence. My daughter, my only daughter, I muse. Will she ever know how much she means to me? Perhaps not until she has her own beautiful daughter I smile secretly. “Wow, Mom, I didn’t know you were forty. I thought you were fifty,” she says teasingly. “Just kidding Mom,” smiling at me, apologetically. “No Mom you look young. You really do.” But I’m quick to catch my thoughts. I have no desire to look young, or old or whatever. I only desire to look what I am, and to be the best of that. I lived my youth. I’ve had my teenage years and twenties, and thirties. I am not some woman that is jealous of youth. I am in a new season, new discoveries, new beginning just like she is. Besides I’ve never been forty before, I think to myself and laugh. “My friends all say you even look young. I didn’t know you were forty. I didn’t know you were that old,” she punctuates “old” as only a teenager can, and I just shake my head. She flips through shirts hanging on hangers, hastily. So hastily, I’m sure she missed seeing some shirts that look attractive to me. I point them out to her, and she’s fast to shake her head at me condescendingly. “No Mom. That’s not my style.” She sighs. “I’ve got to teach you how to dress,” she lectures. “I know how to dress young lady. It’s you who needs to learn how to dress.” “Yeah, right, if you say so. I mean, you look good for your,” she almost says age, but then she stops herself laughing and I laugh with her. “AGE,” I smile, “You can say it.” Brown skinned, tall and lean (she’ll fill out later, I have assured her). I was almost nineteen before I really had breasts, late bloomers we are, no fat on her knees, no fat anywhere. Her perfect tight athletic body to die for. A little plumpness where her breasts are begging to bloom.
Big bright eyes. My serious silly and again I muse, lovely daughter, young lady to be exact. My daughter who came out of my womb with power and has gone through life with that same thrust. Basketball player, straight A student (though occasionally called ‘white girl’ by some few black students at her school who somehow feel talking correct English, and making good grades is a tribal betrayal. Ladylike, well mannered (through sometimes given to being loud and crazy). Taking heed to my guidelines and various life giving instructions without too much rebellion. Not in a rush to grow up right HERE NOW, not in a rush to be attached to some boy. Not in a hurry to be twenty. I was struck by my daughter’s separateness when I had to go to school yesterday to talk to one of her teachers. So many girls passed us in the hallways saying, “Oh, hi Myisha. Is that your mom?” I heard some girls in the group whispering, “That’s her mom.” (I didn’t allow myself to wonder what had made me such an arcane subject, but mothers appearing at school are sometimes viewed as alien beings, I have come to understand). But whether they are white or black or Mexican, most of the girls had their hair fixed in some kind of latest hairstyle that didn’t represent any cause, or political position. Not one black girl had a natural (shame, shame, shame we’re still brainwashed and don’t like our hair, I thought). Most of the black girls had long, flowing braids either attached to their own hair, or their hair was pressed, a few more jerry curls. Some had their hair dyed bright red hair, purple, or a combination of both, and cut in various original styles with rings upon rings in their ears. Lipstick, black lines trimming the eyes, short tight skirts, short, or long tight pants, some in baggy clothes three sizes too big, smiling flirtatiously at a few gangster walking wannabes (white and black), sex all in their veins and intentions and there was my daughter saying “Hi” back, cheerfully. Her bushy kinky hair pulled back in a bun, in its natural states. Her face, the face of a deer-ballerina just a clean face, scrubbed almost, no airs of sex only airs of athleticism, freshness and immaturity discovering bits of maturity here and there. No hint of her wanting to attract anyone, or anything dead or alive to her sexually. I was amazed as I remembered my own yesterday, as I even remember now, in this suburban retail store, with my daughter, my own youth, and how fleetingly the season passed. I, too, wore my wavy hair in a bun in high school making a conscious decision not to be attractive to boys, not wanting to complicate my life with those emotions that so many were engaged in.
I saw their joys that soon turned into struggles, frustrations, tears, torment, you name it, and I wasn’t ready for all that; besides, I wasn’t sure I could compete in that field, being a late bloomer and all. But I remember those days, the times, and the late sixties, how alive and seemingly vital and unmaterialistic they feigned me to be. I too, attended an interracial high school, lived in a white neighborhood. My father was a doctor with a big time reputation (though I was later to learn that he made a fortune giving abortions illegally to young ladies, and old folks, too) and my mother a socialite with a college degree. When he first moved to that neighborhood–way past Lincoln Boulevard and (the cutting point between the black and white neighborhoods), the white folks roamed up and down the street with their children shouting in front of our house “Nigga, go home! Get out of here!” It was devastating to be confronted with so much hatred, as we peeked out through the windows and curtains, monitoring the commotion. My mother especially made it her occupation to protect us from any racial ideas. She always tried to hush us up if a conversation about white or black ensued, but here were white folks outside our house throwing pears, and dirt, and toilet paper in our yard. I suppose my stately, handsome father called the police. I can’t remember for sure. But I know that in time things eventually calmed down with the neighbors (though we never got to know most of them, like normal neighbors might). At least they seemed to recognize the fact we were human, and tolerated us peacefully. Fat spinster twin sisters who were sweet and jolly and lived in a huge two-story house on the corner, actually became our friends–giving us cookies and other gifts on our way home from school sometimes. I know that despite of my mother’s contempt and fear of conversations having to do with injustice, and racism, what those human beings were doing outside our house that night, and why, reigned as the topic of conversation. My mother tried in vain to wipe out the discussion, but having lost, she wandered up and down the stairway begging us to hush.
Whispering delicately, as if someone would harm us if they heard what we were saying. Finally, she threw her glass of wine at my father, who mercifully ignored her while he vacillated between erupting with rage and trying to be calm as he told us of a relative who was lynched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; how as a child he couldn’t go to the places where the other white children went to play; how his father suffered as a waiter, a brilliant man, who could have done anything if only he had a chance. And my mother, pathetically, sadly, weakly, sat on the sofa, gave up her fight, and cried. Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching and the Jewish woman who sold us the house in that neighborhood, worked hard to sell that house to my parents knowing that it would be a first. Dad felt connected to the Jews as a race, and instructed us about his feelings of respect. He said they had suffered much like we had, he felt a kindred spirit to them. “I want to make a contribution to the cause,” the quaint and rich woman emphasized one day as we sat in the real estate office as a family before we actually moved in. My mother looked at the woman as if she had no idea what CAUSE the woman was talking about. My mother satiated herself in denial. I remember my mother, a black woman who could pass for white. Elegant always in precision in dress, a perfectionist in formalities and tradition, every now and then a glass of wine in her high-minded hand. The South and the East Coast definitely defined the way she dressed. No hang loose California, as she put it; no jeans or pants for Mom. She was always in her stockings early in the morning, with her flats, and a simple nice dress. Something that Jackie Kennedy might like for sure. She wore suits anytime she ventured outside of the house. In church she carried purses and shoes to match always, gloves and hats finely completing her fashion statement and when I was young, and under her control, I dressed the same way she did. She saw to it that I did. Mom spoke with a sweet, gentle, crisp, seductive sound, not wanting to be seductive, it just was a hint of a southern accent that she tried her best to downplay. I was in awe of my mother when I was very young, in awe of her prettiness and occasionally gay and then depressed behavior. Her moods flip-flopping back and forth in such a beautiful body.
She was completely given over to being feminine. I remember in her bedroom: flowers, earrings, necklaces, dresses, lingerie galore, makeup, perfumes, etc. I was able to glean from adult conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear that my grandmother had been the object of some white man’s lust, a man who she worked for in her youth. One evening he raped her and Nana was left pregnant. (Perhaps white men are the original neglectful fathers of black children). Long before blacks were equal in the eyes of the law. Long before my grandmother could do anything about it. You see, Nana and Big Pop, (my grandparents on my mother’s side.) Big Pop (being my mother’s stepfather) would sometimes come and visit my mother and father from Mississippi. Mom and Dad went out and bought Nana a sewing machine just so Nana could sew while she was visiting ‘cause sewing was Nana’s joy, and doing things for her mother was my mother’s joy. It was a marvel to see how my mother honored my dear Nana. Nana was plump, dark-skinned black, radiating soundness and goodness, always beautiful looking, dressed in the clothes she had created and designed and sewed herself. Nana always baked us pies and chocolate cakes when she came to visit. Her presence made life so sweet and wholesome and meaningful. Suddenly life became extra special when Nana was around. I loved it when Nana visited. Big Pop was a jolly short, round, light-skinned man with silky hair, who liked to take his false teeth out sometimes and chase me around the house holding them, and showing them. For fun. Once I snuck outside the door and sat outside the door listening to the voices of my mother and grandmother as they sat in the extra bedroom Momma adorned luxuriously for Nana and Big Pop: charming comforters, curtains, rugs and all. Nana sewed and Momma sat on the edge of the bed, watching and listening. “I went up to New York to see your sister.” Nana dripped those words carefully out of her. “You found her?” my mother asked tenderly with despair–yet giving my grandmother the permission to continue.
“Yes,” my Nana sighed. “I don’t know why someone would want to live up there on top of folks like that. I’ll take my house and land in Mississippi any day…but she was happy.” “Was she nice to you?” Momma asked. “Oh, I suppose so,” Nana tried to say without letting her feelings take over, “If you call not recognizing me as your mother nice. She said ‘hello’ and kept on walking. I let her walk. I didn’t bother her.” “My God.” Momma almost cried. “No. No. Don’t go you go to crying ‘cause she was fine,” Nana said pushing grief out of her voice, her self control intact. “That child ain’t gonna lose my mind. I ain’t gonna let her break my heart. I got too much livin’ to do. Don’t you worry ‘bout her. I’ve given that child to the Lord.” “But how could she do that to you?” my mother protested. “How could she do that?” “She looked healthy,” Nana said calmly. “That’s all I care about.” Nana sighed and never stopped sewing on that sewing machine. “I just wanted to know if my baby was dead or alive. She’s alive. So I’m satisfied. Got some nice children. Good lookin’ husband. They was all walkin’ along the street together, walkin’ in style I might add. Her husband looked like some kind of rich lawyer, or doctor, or something. She wasn’t wanting for nothin’, that’s for sure.” Who was my mother’ s sister? Why didn’t they ever mention her name? Mom never talked of a sister. Mom seldom talked. I was to learn that my mother had a twin sister and after she got a certain age went up to New York and passed for white, marrying some rich white man, hanging out with the rich and the high class, wanted nothing to do with her dark-skinned mother who loved her so. Wanted nothing to do with those members of her family who were obviously of African descent. And everybody in the family who knew her, just let her go and live as she chose. Everybody just let her go. No one invaded her life. Sometimes though I had heard some of my relatives say they don’t hold a grudge against my mother’s sister, no way, given a chance, and if they looked like she looked, they said, they’d probably do the same thing themselves. It was too hard being black, and if she could get away with it, more power to her. They did wish though that she would send a little money to relatives in need, if she had any. At least she could do that, they complained. But Momma, I could tell, took it more painfully to heart. I could tell she was hurt by her sister’s behavior, wounded deeply as she sat listening to Nana talk strangely about her estranged daughter. I heard my mother sipping wine as Nana sewed.
I heard her pour some wine into one of those dainty glasses. My mother in her way accepted her blackness–clung to that side of her heritage, but then in another confused way, rejected her African-ness too, but never to the extreme of her sister. In private Mom might say something good about a black man or woman who accomplished something outstanding. But you had to be a black man or woman who had accomplished something for Mom to recognize you. Just ordinary black folks weren’t good enough for her. “You ought to stop drinking.” Nana scolded her, and I shook my head up and down in agreement as I knelt mouse like by the doorknob. I didn’t want my mother to drink, nobody liked it. Daddy didn’t like it. Mom could get very sloppy around the house, slurring her words, and bumping into things in her high-priced dresses and shoes. Once I snuck and tasted that stuff she drank and it made me sick. I couldn’t understand why she drank it. “That ain’t acoomplishin’ nothin’–not a thing–but making you old before your time.” “I look good,” my mother snapped back. “Just God’s mercy, that’s all. Keep it up and you gonna look like an old white prune,” Nana insisted, and Momma just sat on the edge of the bed and laughed. I heard grown up footsteps approaching so I noiselessly got up from bended knees and bolted away. I tried to forget the knowledge of Mother’s illegitimate beginnings and twin sister somewhere up in New York. At such an age I was not able to digest it all and didn’t want to. All I could figure out was that my mother lived in pain day and night, and why, I couldn’t understand. She had a wonderful husband who loved her, and a beautiful house. I often thought perhaps I was the cause of her agony and so I tried to please her when I was very young in the hopes that she might not drink. The only thoughts I really let my mind dwell on was that my mother took after my wonderful grandmother, Nana, dressing so refined and polished and tastefully all the time. As the years went by, I judged my mother harshly; condemned her and decided that she was intent on forgetting where she came from. Even though she didn’t go as far as to pass for white, to me she might as well have. She was airish and middle-class snobbish, always looking down on black people, and ashamed of Africa. The pity I had for her when I was younger disappeared when I became a teenager. I found her an embarrassing bundle of confusion and self-hate. Yes, she doted on my black-skinned father and was proud of the brown-skinned children he gave her. She didn’t mind enjoying and savoring, pleasing my father, loving him with her body and beauty. I often heard them laughing in their bedroom. Mom entertaining my father privately like, I suppose, only a Southern submissive woman can and I remember my father completely satisfied. But as the black revelation/revolution raged.
I determined that my mother was an Oreo cookie in reverse. I decided she was trying to escape reality and had done us (her children) injustice not sharing with us more of our history, more of her life, more of her struggles, more of her. She removed herself from what was going on in the world of civil rights and took no interest in other black people suffering oppressive racism, dying and sacrificing so much. How could she be so blind? What was wrong with her? Why did she hide herself in that big old house? She didn’t involve herself in the politics of the time or social needs she might have filled. She didn’t involve herself with me too much either, other than trying to find me a suitable mate. She devoted herself to my two brothers, and their football and basketball games. She’d pull herself together for that. Her two sons she adored. Most of the time we watched her ramble through the house, dressed to kill, off to some club meeting or social event. The Jones’ were falling apart, but Mom wanted to keep up with them. I think I hated her half the time cause I couldn’t talk to her about anything. If I had wanted to talk about race, or sex, or anything puzzling me, I was convinced I couldn’t. She was frail, so gutless, and so weak. Sometimes I just stood back and looked at her, wondering why my father loved her so. But it wasn’t just Mom. Nobody talked too much back then, from my mother’s generation. Mothers just didn’t talk too much, and mine was a generation that wanted dialogue. Mom wasn’t ready for dialogue. But that was okay. I found my friendships and mothering in books. I was thinking, feeling things other than sex and kissing boys. I gave myself to poets, and words, and thinkers through books. While Mom went to the Links Cotillion and parties and drank, I hid myself in books. When the black revolution came along, I began to read the works of Phyllis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Countee Cullen, and on and on. I was astounded as to these great American writers were never discussed in our English classes along with the likes of Shakespeare and everyone else. I was angry at America’s public school systems for promoting what I considered to be cultural genocide. I just felt deprived and cheated when I discovered what had been overlooked, ignored, counted not of equal value. My mind exploded anew with a hungry curiosity for all that I was, my people, their genius and creativity, all the things we had done and got no credit for, and if we did get credit, we got it begrudgingly. The more I read the angrier and more filled with hate towards white people I became, and I would have to put the books down and take a rest. It was painful, too painful to study and research all the atrocities we had suffered at their hands and I couldn’t live with such bitterness. So sometimes I’d just have to take a break. My friend, Linda Douglas, shared that interest with me, though with less passion. I could talk to her about the things I discovered. I had found out about Mandela, about Sojourner Truth changing her slave name, and we flirted with the idea of changing our names as well. (I learned about reparations and how we had never been given anything. Absolutely nothing). Yet I also learned of William Lloyd Garrison, a white man who had befriended Frederick Douglas and believed in the abolition of slavery, and wrote about it in his newspaper, The Liberator how powerful the written word could be for good or evil.
All into the night sometimes, Linda and I would talk of our history. Linda! How could I describe her? Valedictorian of her class. She was on her way to Princeton, she thought. She stopped straightening her short nappy hair to the chagrin of her parents and the school authorities. The principal had suspended other black students for wearing their Afros that the revelation advocated but Linda Douglas was a middle-class black honor roll student, not a rowdy, rebellious black ghetto raised Negro (the kind the principal considered would wear that hairstyle). I mean, Linda was the teacher’s pet, the white principal’s black pet, and there she was with a natural on her head defying her connection to the status up and aligning herself with the underclass, declaring her kinky God-given hair nothing to be ashamed of. Time stood still the day she appeared at school with her Afro. The principal called Linda into his office and told her to change her hairstyle, that her hairstyle was a disgrace. How someone of her caliber shouldn’t bring down their reputation by identifying with the jungle. Linda stood her ground and refused. Huey Newton had come and for us the world would never be the same. We were in love with him. He was our Denzel Washington. Our black fantasy. We had never seen anyone so fine, our beautiful black lover. Lover of our color, our hair, our lips, lover of everything that was not loved by white America. Oh, we didn’t love him cause he carried a gun. I don’t think we even really noticed that. We loved him because he loved us. We had never heard anyone anywhere ever tell us black girls that our skins were beautiful, our kinky hair was beautiful. We had never heard that we were beautiful, unless we were light-skinned with wavy or straight hair. The whiter our features, the lighter our skin, the more beautiful we were to society, to look at ourselves. He burned the scales off our eyes and we could see. He caused us young girls and young boys to take a new look ourselves and celebrate what we saw. It was wonderful. A mental liberation, a mental defense. For the first time it didn’t matter what the white man thought of us, his view of us didn’t amount to a hill of beans. We didn’t live for acceptance; we lived for our own; nothing to prove. Nothing to prove other than the fact that we weren’t gonna take his brainwash anymore. I was medium brown; not particularly light, not particularly dark, and very awakenly concerned with my people. So I listened to Huey Newton and believed he opened our hearts and minds to a history and heritage that had been hidden and considered an irrelevant contribution to western civilization. We didn’t exist, but he said we did. We liked that. We had seen the police harass our fathers and grandfathers and brothers and uncles. We had seen it with our own eyes, stopped by the police for no reason; the police might cock a gun to a black man’s head. Mom would always sit in the car and pray nervously, and cry when a policeman stopped Dad. She would whisper, “You know the police treat black men bad.” (It was one of the few times Mom related to being black). But Huey Newton was standing up against police brutality. Standing up against the brainwash and how the black middle class could reject him was beyond me. Huey Newton was a cuss word in my house. But to us young ones he was a man standing up. My father didn’t stand up. We flourished in the passion of the times. “Black men love your black women.” He reminded black men we were descended from queens and royalty.
Can you imagine how that made us starved black girls feel? I remember coming home from high-school one day dressed in my self-imposed uniform: black pants, black shirt, black sweater, and black shoes. I opened the door to my mother’s elegant two-story home decorated lavishly with the finest furniture from some store in Beverly Hills (where the employees all thought she was white; she let them think it), carrying my books of black and white poetry. I was sure poets transcended racism and hate. I was sure Edna Saint Vincent Millay would have thought black was beautiful. I was sure Emily Dickinson would have adored Huey Newton. I was sure of it. Wavy hair, nappy hair, blonde hair, straight hair, Asian eyes. I could love it all. There was Mom sipping wine with Martha, the black maid from down the street. Martha was dark brown, thin and beautiful. She spoke as if she had some education in life and I looked at her wondering if she had been held back because she was black. She was beautiful. As beautiful as my mother, probably in her late thirties, and working for Dr. Myers, the white man who had spit in Dad’s face and called Mom a itch with a “b” in front of it. “I couldn’t believe it.” Martha was going on and on trying not to slobber her words, yet she was floundering in her wine high. “I worked for Dr. Myers for ten years now. Why I practically raised their children. My husband’s a janitor down at the elementary school. He’s got a college degree from Hampton, but so far that’s it and Dr. Myers, used to help us out a lot, just like family. I mean I really thought I was family and there he was marching up and down the street calling you all ‘nigga’ why they never called me ‘nigga’ all the days I worked for them. Never.” She moaned. “Oh, really?” my mother asked airishly, like she was the Queen of England, as she looked at the ceiling or the chandelier. I was curious that my mother had even let Martha in the house, considering Martha was just a maid, but there was something beautiful about Martha, something extraordinary about this woman who cleaned people’s houses. I stood at the bottom of the stairway shouting angrily at my mother, consumed with hate! “What do you mean, ‘Oh, really?’ WHAT DOES THAT MEAN, MOTHER?” My mother looked up at me with weakened eyes, wondering what had happened to her little girl that once wore pretty dresses and tried to copy her. “What is this CRAPPY PITY PARTY ABOUT ANYWAY? HOW DARE YOU TWO SIT UP HERE AND GET DRUNK WITH SELF PITY! I WOULDN’T LET MY MOTHER DRAG YOU INTO HER MESS, MISS MARTHA! HOW DARE YOU! HOW DARE YOU! Martin Luther King is marching so black folks can just vote and breathe, and go on and sit in a restaurant for crying out loud, like anybody else. Folks are DYING, MOM. YOUNG white kids and black kids are dying down South and you’re sitting up here drinking wine like a Martian from outer space, like Alice in Wonderland, like you haven’t the slightest idea what folks are going through. You make me sick!” I screamed. “You’re black, Mom. You came from the South like everybody else. To them you a nigga too, and if you ain’t a nigga, if you ain’t black, your children are black. What about us? You don’t have any heart or care for the next generation alive, the next generation comin’ up? Just your wine, and your dresses and your shoes, and stuck-up black folks that like to pretend that everything’s all right. You make me sick.” My mother stood up, while Martha just sat there looking at me with gazing eyes dumbfounded.
What was my mother going to do, throw her glass at me? My mother clutched her glass of wine nervously, and Martha stood up, wobbling. “Don’t talk to your mother that way. That’s not the way. That’s not the way for you to talk to your mother.” I walked over to the bar and threw down all the wine glasses in the bar while my mother screamed and Martha tried to stop me. There on the floor lay broken glass, and Mom stood fixed in her place, nowhere to walk without stepping on her glass. She screamed for me to stop breaking the glasses, but I ignored her, while Martha just moaned, “Oh my God, oh my God.” “Scream if you want, Momma. But you can’t drown me out. You can’t drown the world out. You can’t hide your glass Momma. You can’t hide your middle-class indifference and illusion of superiority.” She stood shaking, clutching her empty wine glass in her hand, raising her hand, to throw the glass at me. “You better keep that wine glass, Momma, you better keep it.” “Why do you hate me?” my mother cried. “Why do you hate so much? I’ve been a good mother. You used to love me. Remember when you were little, how we used to shop together?” “Shop? That’s all you know—Shop! Clothes! Shoes!” “Some day you’ll need me.” my mother said sternly, as if she had some guts after all. “I need you now, but you ain’t nowhere to be found. You’re lost somewhere in your sickening wine bottle.” I picked up my poetry books that I had thrown down on the floor and walked defiantly up the stairs to my bedroom where I locked the door behind me and sat huffing on my bed, knowing I had hurt my mother and not caring at all. I listened to her opening the front door of the house so Martha could leave. I sat up in the bed, and peeked through the window watching Martha wander back up the street to Dr. Meyer’s house. I listened to Mother putter around downstairs picking up the broken glass. I listened and everything was silent. Dad wasn’t home. My brothers had gone to the park. Would I have done that if my father and brothers had been home? Probably. I was out of control. I wondered what my mother was doing, the house was too quiet, and finally I heard her walking quietly step by step up the stairway. She stopped briefly to knock on my door. I did not answer. She walked on, dragging herself it seemed to her bedroom. I heard her shut the door and I assumed she just laid herself down on her bed, drinking wine. I shrugged the whole event off in my mind and dialed my bedroom phone to call Linda. Linda was the only sane person in this world who understood me. She was dark skinned and lovely, one of the few black girls who she knew she was lovely without the help of the black revolution. Raised up in that up in that upper middle-class neighborhood of Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles. Some black movie stars and singers lived up there she told me. She had a change of clothes for every day of the month, and she styled when she went to school. She was sophisticated, reserved, dressed so fine, walked so fine, talked so fine. James Madison was her boyfriend. The president of the high school. He was also black, intelligent, middle class, star of the football team and part of the system, too. He never did get an Afro until it became the norm. Linda had a choice between so many colleges I remember. Sarah Lawrence, Princeton and Stanford. We weren’t that aware of black colleges back then. Anyway, we spent a lot of time that senior year discussing where she should go. Linda shared my love for poets, and I shared in her love for James and college, and all the aspirations that she had. There were white kids and black kids, Mexicans, Jews and Asians at the school we attended. We all got along. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any racial incidents. So many white kids supported us in our new love for our blackness. Our young white comrades couldn’t figure out what all the fuss and fear was about. What was making all the old white folks so nervous? It was just common sense to defend yourself against negativity and lies and prejudice and oppression.
Hadn’t the English done the same thing when they rebelled against their mother country and formed America? It was just common sense to have a sense of self, sense of history, sense of your own beauty and meaning; and if someone was out to take that away, or had taken that away, it was just common sense and a man’s rightful right to get it back. White men would defend their territory, their sense of self. Should a black man be denied that same inner and natural reaction? Or because of the color of our skins? Were we supposed to accept being raped and abused, let the world walk all over us? We questioned Christopher Columbus, and the way we had been taught to believe. Suddenly it was wrong to question, but isn’t that what they told us, don’t be afraid to question. Ah, you could question as long as you weren’t black, huh? If you’re black you ain’t supposed to question nothin. I wanted to be a poet so desperately, but how to do it? Who knew? There was no one in my immediate environment who was artistically inclined, and my teachers sabotaged me at every chance they could. Mom was trying to get me married to this doctor who looked like Sidney Portier. Mom’s thinking was that all I had to offer the world (since I didn’t perform in high school to any level of significance) was to use my looks and youth to marry someone well able to take care of me. Sad huh? That was as far as I impressed her. She didn’t mean me any harm, I suppose. I can understand how I must have appeared such a strange character. Reading books in my room, writing and writing, wearing ugly clothes to school, and hardly any friends, save for Linda. It was a time when people were willing to die, when people were taking a stand. I was willing to die to be a poet. I had courage. Dad could see that. I wasn’t in the mood to marry a thirty something handsome black doctor who lived in a big house on a hill somewhere for what? I had hidden wings and I wanted to reveal them and fly. Myisha found a tie-dyed shirt on the rack and I smiled silently–a throwback to another time. Remembering the style that as far as I knew was my first introduced to me in the sixties–still making an appearance in the nineties. But Myisha is different from me physically, darker in complexion–the color of her father–her hair woollier, more African than mine. I have spent much of my motherhood drilling in her mind that her hair is beautiful just the way it is. No it isn’t straight, no it isn’t wavy, no it isn’t bad hair, like some of the other black kids with no consciousness like to say. I have spent so much of myself filling this young black being with faith in her looks and hair and nose and lips. She is my special tree and I couldn’t let her self-esteem be destroyed by a backslidden racial society. I watch her, wondering how the world is treating her. How is she holding up in her heart? When she looks in the mirror and sees her short kinky hair, is she discouraged by it cause she can’t wear it long like a white girl’s or a Mexican’s or some black girl’s? Does she wear her hair in a bun and dress like she does ‘cause she feels she could never compete with those other girls at school no matter how hard she tried anyway? What was the reason for her holding on to her youth (as good an idea it is)? Was she ashamed to wear her hair out? I have bought her Essence magazines so that she could see what other black girls do with the type of hair she had, but most of the girls in the magazines had their hair pressed too, so that wasn’t much help. Sex. The nineties. I’m willing to talk about sex. Myisha knows all about everything that I didn’t have a clue about when I was her age. Even earlier today I flipped through a magazine, standing in line at a supermarket and there was an article that stated most teenagers have sex when their working parents aren’t at home, in their parent’s bedroom or on their parent’s couch. At least I can rest at ease that Myisha is not engaging in such activity. I can celebrate the fact that she has a lot more sense than I did at her age. Virginity is treasured by her, beauty of love to be saved for marriage. “Do you like that shirt?” I ask, coming out of my own mind. “Kind of. Mom are you talking to yourself?” “No,” I said. “Mom? Tell me about you and Dad. How did you meet and stuff?” “Really?” I asked. “Yeah. Well you got me thinking,” she continued. “I mean, actually all my friends think you look so young, and like I thought you were young. I mean, I didn’t know you were as old as you are, and I was starting to think about what it was like for you when you really were young.
I mean, like how did you meet Dad? Were you in high school? I don’t know, sometimes I wonder about things like that, like when I wonder why–wonder about your marriage pictures–you talk about a little but never in detail. Mom, what was it like back then? Like it’s of historical importance, you know, for me to know about my beginnings.” “Many years ago,” I laughed, “like I’m a dinosaur.” “No, it wasn’t so long ago really.” “Well,” I began with a sigh, as I touch my daughter on the shoulder and hold her slightly to figure out how to begin, where to begin and what to leave out. “Well, let’s have lunch, and I’ll tell you about it.” “Yeah. I can’t find anything in this store, and I’m starved.” So I follow Myisha out of this modern, mainstream, clean middle-class TV advertised store, in this suburb of conservative white America–all the while pondering painfully what to tell her, and how and what not. I could never talk to my mother about anything, and I wasn’t about to create the same experiences for her. All my mom ever talked about was my marrying a rich man, or someone’s new house or new car, or some son or daughter who had passed the bar, or gotten into this college and gone to Europe during the summer. I couldn’t ask my mom about her youth and her feelings, boys, men, sex or Dad. Those were definitely disrespectful discussions. Parents didn’t talk back then, it just wasn’t done. It was just the way things were. They didn’t talk about God either, come to think about it. They hardly ever talked about Jesus. Most of the concentration at this middle-class church I attended with my parents and two bothers centered on who was the richest, and drove the best car, and lived in the best neighborhood. Nobody was out feeding the poor or praying for the sick that was for sure. We all got dressed up and heard a sermon on Sunday morning about what I can’t remember. Dad seemed to take a special interest I noticed, quoting the scriptures on the way to church. On the way to a church he didn’t want to go to. He liked those small little storefront churches, where the folks shouted, and sang till the Holy Ghosts came down, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. Mom liked to sit in church in her silk stockings, and alligator shoes and purse, top of the line suit, earrings, and necklace to match, and smile. I couldn’t believe in God. How could I believe? There was some written law in my heart whispering that this was not what Jesus was about if he was about anything. Somehow I knew that how much money you made wasn’t one of God’s requirements for being justified. Somehow I knew there were issues a lot more important to God than what kind of car you drove (though He certainly might have cared) it just didn’t make sense that if he there was a God, how come He didn’t have the power to impress His believers with those concerns that really mattered to Him? It didn’t make sense for Him to be so powerless. I mean how could there be a God if the people I knew said they believed in God but cared so little about Him in return? It seemed to me God would energize more activity in a soul than these folks I knew put forth. I was totally disillusioned by what appeared to me to be a vain show. How could there be a God when the Ku Klux Klan said they were followers of Christ? And yes, how come Jesus was blue-eyed and blonde? I mean, where were the religions of my African ancestors? I just didn’t get it. How could there be a God when the white man had used the Bible to control the black man and keep him down? I had too many questions, yeah. I saw God in maybe Martin Luther King, but basically I threw the Bible and God out the window and poetry became my religion and its poets my prophets. I wanted to drop out of school. Well, I couldn’t tell Myisha that. I would have to edit that out. I found school boring and I felt like I didn’t fit in. The teachers did best to defeat my pioneering spirit. My English teacher told me I would never write and would never be anything. I was given an F on my final essay in History cause I wrote that the South got what was coming to them–their land and lives were destroyed ‘cause they didn’t have the good sense to execute justice during the right time–and that the black man was right to insurrect and rebel. I sighed as we got in the car, Myisha on her side and me behind the wheel of the car. She had forgotten what she had asked me about in the store, and the whole reason we were going out to lunch. Her mind became engulfed with basketball practice, and how she didn’t understand why there wasn’t a woman’s NBA, and there should be a woman’s NBA, or else she would play with the men’s NBA, and how all the women should get together and protest. And how the coach was amazed at her ability, and how the media always presents that image of the dumb, ignorant athlete, and how playing basketball took a lot of discipline, and you had to use your mind as well as your body to be great in it.
She was sure she would get a scholarship and the SAT would be snap cause she’d been reading all her life, thanks to Mom and Dad (a statement which caught my humble attention) and would we make it to the gym on time, ‘cause she had practice at such a time, and it was very important that she showed responsibility and leadership, and there on time. “Yes, ma’am.” I thought. “Momma, did you have a boyfriend in high school?” she asked suddenly, returning to the previous train of thought as I drove out of the parking lot, and onto the busy streets. “No,” I said, not lying. A safe question. “I didn’t like boys,” I answered, “and boys didn’t like me.” “You didn’t?” she asked amazed, “Not even in high school?” “I liked to read poetry and talk about things that boys weren’t into at the time. I didn’t like anyone in particular in high school. I had a best friend who had a real serious boyfriend relationship and I think I kind of vicariously had a boyfriend through her. There was a doctor though, a very handsome doctor who wanted to marry me my mother said. He kind of looked like Sidney Poitier. Very dark and elegant. But he was so tall, he scared me. I couldn’t imagine kissing him.” Myisha howled with laughter as only a teenager can laugh, and I joined her in the laughter remembering. Maybe he was as tall as Kareem Abdul Jabbar or maybe a little shorter, but the thought of how tall he was in my youthful seventeen-year-old eyes and how he scared me, tickled me; where would I fit beside him, and how? I knew nothing about sexual positions and somehow I couldn’t imagine the affordability of that. How would he hold my hand, how could he–his arm would stretch down my miles past my arm. Would I have to stand on a chair to kiss him? “Well you can only deal with what you can deal with.” Myisha giggled. “He just wasn’t my type. I wasn’t a gold digger and couldn’t conceive of being with someone for the financial dividends.” “Doctor?” Myisha questioned. “Grandma wanted you to marry a doctor?” “Yep, she did.” I answered jovially. Then Myisha’s mind drifted off again. She was lookin’ out the window, daydreaming as I entered the freeway, accelerating the gas of the car–rolled down the window and let the wind re-arrange my hair. Linda got accepted at Stanford, Princeton and Sarah Lawrence. I wasn’t accepted anywhere. I didn’t have a complex about not being accepted. I only stayed in high school cause of Linda. She encouraged me to try. We had mostly the same classes ‘cause the authorities considered me to be bright, but bored, and even though I didn’t make the grades Linda made, the authorities thought I was smart ‘cause I was a quiet black girl, not a rowdy black girl. James, Linda’s boyfriend, got accepted to Stanford and some few other colleges, but the whole school knew he had decided on Stanford. He talked about it constantly–not with pride and ego, but with a mixture of gratefulness and amazement, it seemed to me. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and we all died with him a little. I remember catching the bus to school the morning after his death, and all these kids on the bus crying, and the white bus driver crying. I mean everybody was crying. There we all were on the bus crying. We needed each other. There was no comfort in staying at home and watching the news. There was only comfort in the community of sufferings–with our peers being a part of the crowd. Moaning together, we thought, would make it easier. At school the principal (fortyish, white male), couldn’t control anything or anybody. There was madness and despair everywhere. Students wandered the hallway, refusing to go class–crying, leaning on one another’s shoulders sharing the hurt. The voice of Mr. Davis, the black football coach was heard over the intercom demanding that all students go out to the football bleachers for assembly. (They had told us ten minutes earlier to go our classes, but nobody went). James, Linda’s boyfriend, president of the school, was selected by the administration to bring the message to the students about the situation at hand, but nobody wanted him, not even Linda. He was business as usual. He stood behind the microphone and the sight of him caused the crowd to shout him down. Whatever he said, nobody heard. Everybody was shouting. “We want Ray X!” “We want Ray X!” “We want Ray X!” The effect behind our unified voices supplied us with electrifying momentum. A feeling of control. Our demands grew louder and louder. The intensity of our pain scaring the principal, faculty and status quo.
James was part of the system. As black as he was, he didn’t have the credentials. That wasn’t a day for those who walked the dotted line. Only a rebel could calm our rebellious cry. Ray X grabbed hold to the fire of the times. He was our poet. I was nothing in comparison to him, our black rapper before they had these modern day rappers. He didn’t rap of profane concepts. He stood on the grounds of the school at lunchtime and pontificated on the sins of America with elegance and fairness. He could stand for hours and expound on Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and H. Rap Brown and Bobby Seale and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and their reactions to being black in America. His natural was big and thick. His facial expressions serious, outlined with purpose. His presence resolute, life had meaning to Ray X. Black life was pre-eminent importance. He was intelligent to us, articulate and brilliant, emotional and yet controlled. He could disagree without becoming violent. The white teachers treated him badly, and I don’t know how his grades were, probably worse than mine. He wasn’t a thug. I repeat. He was not a thug, but they tried to make him out to be one. He was our resident Black Panther, with class. And we were going to tear up the school if they didn’t let Ray X tell us what was on his mind. Tell us what to do. What to think and feel. Make our pain make some sense to us. Finally the principal condescended famous for his inflexibility. If he wanted to leave the school alive, he knew he better give in to our request. He knew that if he didn’t want the school torn up he’d better respect our desire. So Ray X in his black T-shirt, black tam on his beautiful nappy head, black jeans, black boots and dark black majestic skin, approached the podium in the arms of irony. We all broke out in cheers. Blacks, White, Mexicans, Asians. We were all black that day. We all felt the same human pain that day. They had killed a man who loved all of us, and we needed to understand why. Ray X stood there (the voices the authorities had tried to silence, could not be silenced), and we cried. A hush came over the crowd. Even James wanted Ray X. He took the microphone, holding it in his self-radiant hand. He had defeated the principal and all his out-of-touch mess, and we waited to hear the consciousness of the moment. “A disciple of Jesus was crucified.” he began slowly like a preacher–like only a Black Panther can. He paused to let us digest words. “Jesus came to give power to the people, and they crucified Him. Power to the people!” he shouted, and we shouted back in perfect agreement, those very words. In the stands we held hands, some of us not really understanding intellectually or religiously. Some of us hardly thought of Jesus and we were surprised to know that Ray X did, but somehow in our heart we understood. “The revolution now belongs to us. It belongs to you and me. When we graduate from high school we have to take the revolution with us into the streets, into the colleges, into the workplace, into the White house, and replace this fascist, racist nation with a nation that gives true opportunity to all men. All men! Defeat the demagogic politician hypocrite when we vote. When we turn eighteen–and some of us have–we could change the world if we took on our rightful responsibility and vote. The future belongs to us. We have the power to produce peace, or, by doing nothing, to increase wars. We are the future. Let us copy the strength of our forefathers. Not one of us should stand by the sidelines. Don’t just look out for your own lily-white, middle-class neighborhood, but look out for folks in the ghetto too, and as we black people prosper, let us not forget where we have all come from–and leave those in the ghetto to suffer without us. Don’t let the pig police rule. All forms of hatred must be destroyed. We might fight more righteously than ever—‘cause everything Martin Luther accomplished, they will try and undo. They will turn the clock back. But we won’t let it happen, ‘cause we’re brothers and sisters. We’ve seen the truth. We’ve heard the truth. And now the truth is in us–and we must not let the truth die. What Martin Luther King accomplished, they will try to undo. They will try to turn the clock back. But we won’t let it happen cause we’re brothers. We’ve seen the truth. We’ve heard the truth. And now the truth is in us–and we must not let the truth die. Martin Luther King told us, ‘No lie can live forever.’ Spread the truth, brothers and sisters. Power to the People! Power to the People!” We screamed and yelled the sadness out of our souls. With joy we wiped our tears away. Ray X had given us back to ourselves. “They didn’t kill Martin Luther King,” he continued, “they just gave reason for more Martin Luther Kings to turn this country upside down–to live up to its promise. Make America’s Promise Real. Make it Real.” The principal came to the microphone and announced that there would be no more school that day and we began to leave the bleachers thinking that telling the truth might cost us our lives, but we were willing to pay the price, all of us, Black, White, Jew, Asian, Mexican. We all felt a sameness, a oneness. Freedom for all. So we all went home to our own homes, or a friend’s home. We had gotten what we came to school for. Myisha was silent. I let her be silent.
I pulled off the freeway wondering whatever happened to Ray X. I don’t remember seeing on graduation day. I don’t remember his name being called, Marcus Allen. I came to a complete stop at the stop sign, waiting for the cars to give me an opening. One did. I entered into the street quickly, driving along. I don’t even think Ray X received his diploma. “Whatever happened to Ray X?” Myisha finally asked. “I don’t know, Myisha. I don’t know.” After graduation I travailed briefly trying to figure out what I should do and trying to fit myself into Mom and Dad’s agenda. I did honestly try. Dad did encourage me the best he knew how, telling me he could get me into some college down South somewhere where one of his friends was the president (high school had rejected, offended me and I didn’t feel that college would treat me any kindlier, although it might have). He also listened to some of my poems patiently. Mom was occupied with me marrying the doctor, and I did date him one night, to please her. I felt sorry for Mom again. I felt that she concentrated on me marrying a doctor or someone with means ‘cause she had been so poor as a child, and hated poverty so, and she didn’t want me to go through the same. So I went to dinner with him somewhere in Beverly Hills. (Needless to say the waitress and everybody thought he was a rich basketball player). I don’t remember the details of the evening, probably ‘cause I blocked the painful event out of my mind. I think he tried to kiss me, and I was so repulsed and nervous, I screamed. Linda and I were engrossed in preparing for college. My dear Linda. How I wish I could see Linda. ‘She never treated me poorly cause I didn’t get accepted to college. She defended me always, my faithful friend. Never allowing me to feel like I didn’t fit in. Never. She simply believed I had been misunderstood–a conspiracy operated in the world against people like me, of all sizes, shapes and colors, ‘cause we were originals. How flattering. But was it true? We spent the summer together driving around, vowing to be friends forever, and no matter if we became rich or poor, or murdered somebody. We both had driver’s licenses, and access to our parents’ cars. We drove to stores, shopping (for college clothes), to the beach–Malibu–where we walked along, talking of sex and being eyed by handsome white boys. Linda announced her plans to take birth control when she and James were in college, so they could participate with responsibility in premarital sex. At the time, we believed that sex was proper and correct if the two people loved each other and planned to marry. She worried though, whether or not James would continue to be true to her in college, and I consoled her; I believed James would love her, and would always love her. So many nights I spent over at Linda’s house, reading poetry or watching TV, talking with other girlfriends over the phone–where Linda’s overweight mother invaded Linda’s bedroom (from time to time) as we sat on her bed draped with thick, fluffy comforters and pillows painting our toenails and combing Linda’s hair with a natural comb. Mrs. Douglas would stand all hyper and nervous in the doorway asking me why Linda wore her hair like that, anyway? What was all the fuss, all this talk about black is beautiful she thought? Linda’s poor mother was dumbfounded by Linda’s Afro.
September came and a softer tone of hot weather came with it. Linda’s parents picked me up at my house at five in the morning and I sat in the back seat of their car with Linda on our way to the airport to see Linda off to Stanford. I was excited for Linda. Her time was just beginning. In one way, it had finally come. Linda’s father was quiet, thin and sturdy, dressed casually in clothing, but serious in mind. Linda’s mother sat nervously in the front seat complaining about Linda going off to college with her nappy all unpressed–what would the professors think of her? What would those rich white folks think of her? Linda and I sat in the back seat trying to control ourselves as we had respectfully done all summer but perhaps because Linda felt she would be finally free and gone, she opened her mouth defiantly–just fed up I guess–not like she wanted to or meant to be disrespectful but her mother had been taunting her all summer about her hair, and I suppose Linda just couldn’t take it any more. “Listen, Mom,” Linda began angrily. “My hair is nappy, all right. Kinky all right? It ain’t straight and I’m not blonde and I’m not of European descent and there’s no way in the world you are going to confuse my mind and make me your little daughter who goes to Stanford, who thinks she’s White, who wishes deep down inside that I weren’t so Black, or that my hair weren’t so nappy. So I change my hair and hope to God I can someday pay to change my color. I’m of African descent, Mom, and I’m proud of it. if you want to spend your life ashamed of what the Good Lord made, then that’s your problem. But I happen to like my hair. I happen to like my skin color. I happen to like everything that I am, and if you can’t understand that, then just keep your inability to understand yourself. ‘Cause this is my life now, do you understand? And it’s my hair. And I’m not going to live my life worrying like your generation did–about White folks think about me.” “George, stop the car,” Linda’s mother demanded, but Mr. Douglass kept on driving. “We’re on the freeway Martha,” he groaned. “Stop the car,” Linda’s mother screamed and soon Linda’s fat oversized mother had turned her body around in the front seat of the car, and reached out with her thick arms and grabbed Linda by her neck, slapping and grabbing and hitting and yelling like a maniac. “I’m paying for you to go to college with the money I saved when I was scrubbing floors. Do you hear me, scrubbing floors in white folks’ kitchens, before your father got that job? Stop the car, George,” she screamed, and Linda was yelling, “Mom, leave me alone. Leave me alone.” George pulled the car over by the side of the road. Everybody was looking, cars speeding by. Linda’s huge, strong mother pulled Linda out of the car. “Well, I don’t have to go to college, okay Mom…okay Mom? Take your hands off of me. Take your hand off of me.” “Are you crazy?” Mr. Douglas asked his wife, as he got out of the car and tried to restrain Linda’s mother, but she was mad and enraged and going crazy right in front of anybody that would watch. “You tell me that to my face,” she screamed as George tried to control her. “You tell me that to my face.
I scrubbed floors for you to go to college. Saved my nickels and dimes and listened to white folks talk about me and call me Nigga every day–and I did it for you, right, all the time I’m saying to myself, my daughter’s going to college. To the best college. I didn’t get to go, but my daughter’s going.” “Okay Martha,” George said, trying to soothe his wife, trying to stop the madness. “Alright. Get back in the car.” “Don’t alright me; don’t alright me,” she screamed as she jerked away from her skinny husband. “So you could be your best. Look your best.” “ Looking my best doesn’t mean I have to look like a white person, Mom. It doesn’t mean I have to straighten my hair. I can look my best just like I am Mom. As long as I’m clean and my hair is combed. I don’t want to go to college to learn how to be White. I want to go to learn so I can help humanity Mom, and I can help humanity if I also love and accept myself Mom. I’m not ashamed of you, myself, my ancestors, nothing. I appreciate all the sacrifices you and Dad made. I do, honest I do. I’m sorry if I made it seem like I don’t, but Mom you got to love yourself. Black people have to love themselves, love each other. I love myself Mom and I feel free Mom. I feel just fine. I didn’t always love myself Mom. I didn’t always accept my hair. I was ashamed, but I’m not ashamed anymore.” “Alright. Alright,” Linda’s father said as the police drove by getting ready to stop. “Let’s get back in the car, let’s get back in the car,” Linda’s father urged. “Linda’s going to Stanford. Linda’s going to college. Now just calm down, Martha, just calm down.” “She doesn’t know what I’ve been through,” Mrs. Douglas cried. “She doesn’t care. She just takes, takes, takes. I’m forty years old and I’ve done all I can see fit to do–and she–” “Any trouble, folks?” the policeman asked, getting out of his car as Linda and I got quickly into the back seat of the car–me wiping her tears and putting my arms around her. The sight of the police approaching provoked Mrs. Douglas into the car silently, as Mr. Douglass talked to the policeman softly, saying I don’t know what. We sat there scared as the police walked away after talking to Linda’s father. Mrs. Douglas sat in the front seat panting–her chest racing up and down like her balloon body might explode. Mr. Douglas got back in the car. “Alright, Alright,” he said. “Everybody calm–calm down, Martha.” “Well why does she want to make herself look worse than she does already?” Mrs. Douglas screamed. “I don’t look worse Mom. This is my hair Mother. I like it.” “Be quiet, Linda, be quiet Martha, just hush. Stop this talk right now. You want the police to put us in jail?” Mr. Douglas started the ignition and we entered back into traffic. Me crying along with Linda, not understanding what all was happening, just plain upset. I thought for a minute Linda’s mother was going to kill Linda, the way she was pulling and grabbing and throwing her around. I wondered did she want to kill her? Was she fed up too? “I don’t want to go to Stanford,” Linda blurted out. “Shut up, Linda,” I said. “Go on and go, Linda. Just ignore her,” I advised. “Ignore me?” Martha screamed again. “Ignore me?” “Now stop it,” Linda’s father demanded…”Just stop it both of you.” We drove the rest of the way staring silently out of the window. Linda’s mother somehow calmed down as George patted her on the hand with one free hand as he drove. I was happy to see Linda get on the airplane (away from her mother) and for the airplane to take off. I found the heart to soothe Linda’s mother as she cried, moaned and groaned in public like she was at a funeral. Linda’s father just looked on distantly for a long time…and finally found some kind of strength to put his arms around the woman and say as always, “Alright right Martha, alright. Calm down. She’s not dead. She just went off to college.” I was relieved when they dropped me off at my big fancy house on Cornerstone Street. There was Mom and Dad in the den with my two younger brothers watching TV. I hadn’t really bothered to get to know my two brothers during high school.
They faded away especially in my senior year, but there they were thirteen and fourteen years old. Handsome too, like my father. Both distinctly black looking. Not one of them taking after my mother, entering into the league of teenage-hood, best friends to each other. Mom and Dad. There they were like all the other moms and dads I had seen, now, growing distant. Who were these people I called my parents? Whom I had heard laughing together in their bedroom what seemed to be just a few years, a few months ago. They seldom talked now, they mostly argued. Their marriage seemed dead. Mom still walked around the house every now and then with a glass of wine in her hand, and Dad had stopped giving abortions, I had heard, cause some of his doctor buddies had been sent to jail. Why did they stay together, I wondered. Divorce was just not an option for my Southern mother. What did the piece of paper mean; my whole generation wondered (White and Black) if there was no love? What was the point to having a piece of paper just to have sex? We went on journeys in our minds and lives only ‘cause we could find no convincing authorities devoid of hypocrisy. What was the point of having things if there was no joy? What was the achievement, the accumulation of material grown-up toys? Did the danced to the pride of life really fulfill anybody? I thought of going to Paris. That’s where Richard Wright had lived, right? James Baldwin too. Yeah maybe London, but then Berkeley and San Francisco came to mind. That’s where the hippies were, right? That’s where Huey Newton had carried on. That’s where it was happening. I thought somehow I could go there and read my poetry and begin my life, like Linda had begun hers. I certainly didn’t plan to stay in that big house with my mother and father, and listen to my mother mourn her passing youth. Linda didn’t know it, but her defiance had given me strength. I had learned to love cellos, violins, bass and saxophones, French horns and drums from listening to my father’s jazz albums. Mom had a taste for jazz too, which she would sometimes listen to with a glass of wine not too far from her genteel hands. I loved my father. I worshipped my father’s position in the black society and his remarkable stability in the presence of my mother who grew more and more melancholy as the years lengthened…still class, still with her glass of wine somewhere near her, now and then still pressuring me to marry the doctor. But I was sure I could give the world a blessing though poetry, if she had just given chance. I just couldn’t be afraid if my parents would just not be afraid for me. Mom and Dad didn’t believe in poetry in terms of making a living at it. They tolerated poetry. They believed in college degrees, doctors and lawyers, marriage licenses, Cadillacs, big homes and fine clothes. Dad gave me a thousand dollars when I graduated from high school (some of the children of the Black middle-class got trips to Europe and such, or new cars) a gift for hanging in there, to do with what I liked. A gift for graduating. Her knew how sad I felt in high school. He knew I had suffered, but my suffering was over when I decided to go to San Francisco. Happiness. A secret happiness came and made a discreet home in me. Two weeks after Linda left for Stanford, I packed a few of my clothes–that long blue skirt Linda made me during the summer, that long black chiffon dress from the twenties, that I found in a thrift shop in Malibu when Linda and I were driving around and a camel hair coat from the twenties that I dearly loved. I packed my doubts, courage, guts, faintheartedness, and my thousand dollars I stuck in my sixty-dollar velvet shoes that Mom got me at Saks Fifth Avenue and caught a cab to the airport while Mom and the boys had gone off somewhere, and Dad was in the backyard reading the newspaper. Of course, for strength, I had my two books I couldn’t live without (at the time) a book of selected poems by Edna Saint Vincent Millay, a book of selected poems by Countee Cullen and a folder with poetry by Maggie Mitchell. “Where are you going Mom?” my daughter asks. “San Francisco,” I answer, forgetting where I am, what time zone, but I park the car in the lot of this fabulously authentic Mexican restaurant where the salsa is really salsa. “Where?” my daughter asks curiously. “Are you talking to yourself again?” “Oh let’s have lunch here. This is a nice place. Your Dad and I like this place. It’s the real thing. Yeah, they got the best guacamole and it’s not watered down either.” “Okay Mom, but San Francisco?” “I was just thinking, honey,” I say, “Just thinking out loud.” I was thinking about being on the airplane, taking off into the air, smooth unobstructed take-off power zoom force. Ecstasy. No feeling of remorse, just free, No fear.
I wondered if I should tell her how soon as the stewardess announced that passengers could move around. I unbuckled my seat belt, got up saying, “excuse me,” and holding on the tops of the seats for balance. Walked to the airplane bathroom. Locked the door behind me. The bathroom lights clicked on. Looked in the mirror and undid my bun. I let my hair loose, shaking my head back and forth. Linda wasn’t ashamed of her nappy hair and her beauty, and I wasn’t gonna be ashamed of my wooly hair, and my beauty. Back in my seat I looked out the window. Empowered by my rebellious independence clouds. Sky heaven? No birds. Faith in me not in God. And this is true, no man can live Who does not bury God in a deep grave. Dylan Thomas wrote and I agreed. The plane arrived in San Francisco safely in what seemed to be not soon enough for me. Still it was daytime. Winds almost knocked me down as I walked down the steps of the airplane into the San Francisco airport, no one to greet me but adventure. Crowded with people going, coming, hugging, kissing, crying, laughing. Sitting still. I felt connected to everyone in business suits and bell-bottom pants. I didn’t know the difference between Black or White, short or tall. Everyone looked the same to me, wonderful. Musicians, mothers, children, fathers, lovers, hippies. I saw a famous model from the magazines Linda and I would sit on her bed and read. There she was so thin, amazingly thin–I had never seen anyone so thin, unless they were sick. How could she be so thin and live? I asked a few questions. Everyone answered me politely. Everyone had time for me. That burden of feeling sabotaged, or not fitting in, was definitely nonexistent. A very handsome young man told me to catch a cab to North Beach. Lots of poets there, musicians too. Cable cars. Clear crystal blue skies. The strong winds of San Francisco baptizing me into its pool of freedom. I had never seen such a beautiful city, I thought. I quickly put on my camel’s hair coat. I had never seen such beautiful homes, on steep Disneyland roller coaster hills. I got out of the cab somewhere, looking up and around like a baby looks when he begins to grow, and recognizes things–question things. Curious ‘bout everything–everywhere–turning my head quickly, taking it all in. Everything looked brand new. I was sure I would find what I was looking for in San Francisco. Whatever had been lacking, I knew I would find it. Walking along the streets in bliss with my two bags. Men stopped me on the street to say, “you’re pretty.” White men mostly, and then they would walk off. The streets were alive and felt friendly and safe. I wasn’t afraid. I felt like I should have left home earlier, not even finishing high school. This is where I belonged in all those years. I stopped in a cafe cause I saw a sign in the window advertising some young artist performing a short story on a particular night. A young, white, longhaired man sat in the middle of the cafe strumming on his guitar, no one paying him any attention. Pictures of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin along with other artists of the times (who I don’t remember) hung on the wall. Dim lights–day was coming to a close. Men and women of different races sitting at the coffee tables, some smoking cigarettes, some sipping tea, coffee, talking of politics, art and religion. Conversations of philosophy passed by my ears, discussions clever. A very well dressed rich looking woman–shortish blonde hair, sat in the back of the café, just sitting. I found out who the owner was, and it turned out to be this big white man with a beard–a merry face; immediately I thought of Santa Claus. I asked him if I could read my poetry sometime in his cafe, and the bearded man to me, “Well, read me some and let me see.” “Right now?” I asked in amazement. “Yeah, go sit in one of those chairs.” “Really?” I asked in amazement.
I was used to being refused. In high school I had not been encouraged in my poetry at all by anybody but Linda. Nothing had ever been this simple. Nothing had ever been this easy. “Hey James,” the bearded man yelled. “Let this young lady have the chair. She gonna read us some of her stuff.” “Poetry.” I corrected. “Get off the chair. Let her have it,” he yelled. The longhaired young man got off the chair pleasantly and I got my folder and searched through my poems nervously for what to read thinking of Billie Holiday, Phyllis Wheatley, Linda and Dorothy Dandridge. I felt strong. Thinking of Mom and Dad, and if they could see now how proud they would be. I began to read. my momma stands on the staircase weeping with a glass of wine in her lacy white hand married to a black saxophone player who plays in a sophisticated jazz band she wants to sing with them sometime so she takes a sip of wine in the hopes that the melody time and beat she’ll be able to rigidly keep but it don’t matter momma is all i wanna cry sing without your crutch momma cause the band likes to improvise I began to read to a supportive attentive crowd, and then, on cue, as if we had rehearsed, an unkempt mellow white man with a huge bass walked up and stood slightly beside me lending me an array of disquieting, sumptuous, discordant, alluring tones as if he knew my mother or had seen her in a dream. His melody slid around my words, perfectly, and ended in a musical wail that was pain climaxed by hope. The few people who sat around applauded enthusiastically. I sat there gratefully, mesmerized by the fact that I even had an opportunity to read my poem and that these people–that people like them even existed in the world. They seemed to be from another world. I could sense that nothing meant anything to them–not what kind of car you drove, or the color of your skin, your race, your job, what neighborhood you lived in. The big burly man gave me a date when I could come back and have an evening. Surprisingly it was in a few days. He took my name and asked me where I was staying, and I told him I didn’t know yet. I had just gotten into town and I was looking for a place. No sooner had I said that when the rich glamorous blonde woman walked up to us both and introduced herself an air of fascination wrapped up in a French accent. “I’m Martine. I loved your poem. You are lovely,” she said politely, so politely. “Come and stay with me–while you prepare for your poetry concert,” she continued, “Feel free.” Bobby, the big burly man smiled approvingly. His glare of permission made me feel like for that moment he was my anointed father. I responded positively, “Oh thank you,” his temporary state of fatherhood disappeared. “Martine, you are an angel from heaven.” “When does she have her show?” It was only a few days. They were going to put my appearance in the local arts newspaper and make flyers, etc. Bobby told me to come around the next day. He would give me flyers to pass around the town. “Come on,” Martine said. “You must be tired. Let’s go,” and before I knew it, we were in a cab being driven up and down and down the hills of San Francisco, ‘till we came to her house on some beautiful street in a neighborhood I was later to learn, called Nob Hill. We walked up a series of stairs; we entered her very European home, scattered with African art and pictures of mostly black jazz musicians. Antique velvet sofas and chairs, exquisite rugs, chandeliers. She quickly took me to a bedroom–everything lovely and special–with a beautiful French bed, antique lamps and French windows. Passing through the hallway I noticed a longhaired somebody sitting around strumming on a guitar, and another very handsome young black man just lying around on the sofa. The black man called out Martine’s name possessively when she came prancing in, so elegantly. “Just a minute babe-bee. Just a minute babe-bee,” she crooned. Don’t ask me why I felt absolutely safe and at home, but I did. There were no homeless on the street back then, unless they were absolute bums I suppose. People opened their hearts and homes so freely. Martine showed me the adjoining bathroom, and left me to refresh myself. I heard her going on in her French accent, how I had written the most lovely poem, sounded like a song she said. “She couldn’t be older than sixteen, ran away from home.” “Oh, no she couldn’t be sixteen, she’s at least twenty,” and on the conversation went. Martine stating rather boastfully that I was to have a poetry reading in a few days and how I had impressed Bobby immediately down there at the cafe. I had just arrived from Los Angeles, etc., etc. “Can anything come good out of Los Angeles?” someone asked. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Martine continued. I was going to be a star, Martine informed everyone. “Haven’t I always picked them?” she asked. “Yes, Yes,” someone said agreeably. “She certainly is a beautiful creation.” Martine knew everyone I was to learn.
Rock stars of the time came to her home. There was a rumor she sold cocaine and that is how she met everybody, but I never saw any transactions going on. I would be there some days, and famous black blues singers would be sitting at Martine’s kitchen table, smoking and talking. Some of the young actresses of the day, starlets (they may have slept around even if they had talent) I would see there, wandering around and that handsome young black man that had been laying on the couch was a bass player, her lover, who played with a well-known jazz group making records, and traveling around the world. I was surrounded by accomplished artists. I had never felt so alive. Maybe not since birth I thought as I washed up in the bathroom shaking my wavy wooly hair taking a new look at myself–considering myself beautiful–humbled that I was the topic of serious conversation. I came out of the bedroom sheepishly, shyly. Martine hustled me into her bright kitchen of thick maple chairs and table, where I sat and she fed me. Spinach salad with bacon chips, avocado and salmon. (It was delicious, but I was used to hamburgers). I remember that meal, as people came and went (Martine telling me to squeeze some lemon on the salmon, try it with soy sauce and horse radish). She mentioned my poem to them, the date of my show, and said she was calling up David or something or other, who had helped people get record deals. She was gonna have him there when I read the poetry. Some folks asked to hear samples of my writing, but Martine said, “No, no, give them nothing; give them nothing; come to her show if you want to hear.” Already I had a manager. I slept well. The next morning, I got up and went over to Bobby’s cafe. Sure enough they had flyers for me, and they were impressed that I was disciplined, and had showed up. I was serious. A woman of my word. I passed some flyers around town, walking up and down the avenue filing up on the joy of a dream come true. I called my Mom and Dad to tell them I was all right. They didn’t answer. I called a lot over the weekend (I was worried that they might be out looking for me), finally getting them, Mom just listened in silence as I rattled on about reading my poetry, and being okay, and then she hung up. When the night of my show came, I was jumpy with jitters (I didn’t go to my high school prom. Nobody asked me, and I didn’t want to go, but I wondered if I was feeling something close to what a girl might feel waiting for her date to arrive)? Martine gave me a small glass of Dubonnet wine to drink (which I refused, thinking of my mother) before catching a cab together to the cafe.
Wow, I thought I was going to die. Then we arrived, and I saw the place was packed with folks. A cello player offered to play with me that evening, improvising. I believed in improvisation, trussed it completely, and gratefully thanked her (a thin, stringy haired brownish-blonde white girl with a flower in her hair too. Martine made her take the flower out of her hair if she was playing with me, which she didn’t seem to mind). Blessed with the cellist, that bass player (who had improvised with me my very first time at the cafe) came up to me and offered to sit in, too. Marine informed me that he was one of the greatest bass players in the world, playing with Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and on and on. I should be honored that he was in anyway inclined to work with me. “He feels the energy. He feels your energy,” Martine encouraged. Martine sat way in the back, beaming. I wished my mother and father could have been there, but Martine stood there beside this young white sold named David something or other, who struck me right away inside, a producer, the producer Martine had told me about. He had this hair–blonde, slightly curly, hanging down to his neck–his eyes, green and big. He looked hippie-rich. Bobby placed a chair in the middle of the cafe (the only prop I had) and introduced me, proclaiming to be a new find. A new artist. In days, months and years to come, they would be writing in Time Magazine that he had given this young lady her first chance, and so I sat on the chair and as if I had always belonged in the middle of the room, or center stage somewhere. I began to read with an anointing that was void of nervousness, ego, or vanity. And so I read. Cello and bass magnificently blending to the meaning of the words. Everything was going well. The visitors into my secret thoughts intent on each word–sipping wine, smoking cigarettes, not even an occasional cough. “This is a poem for Linda,” I said. i cannot deny myself gift of beauty invested in me (in you, in us all) to shine side by side with all mankind (not to hide my talent under a bushel) behind you (white man) because of doctrines of lines, prejudice, fear blindness, wishing not to see me wishing not to hear my simple song. love. (is the answer) i cannot deny myself nor the wind rushing against my nappy hair nappy hair is not a sin Grandma said, Jesus had hair like me kinky kinky kinky kinky (feeling power not because of the color of my skin) because of the forgiveness within blowing, knowing you may think you can deny me i cannot be denied by you, or you, or anyone under the sun cause I do not deny myself The bass player soared off into some strange atonal piercing sound while the cellist ended peacefully. Some of the people in the audience stood up and applauded. Martine was already in the back standing beside David, the man who had the connections to open further doors, but I hadn’t looked very long before I saw Linda standing in the back door, silent and so pleased. I looked again, to make sure, taking in the memories slowly—Linda and me in high school walking along the hallway to class, sharing our poems, love notes, Ray X, dreams. “Linda!” I screamed. I got up from the chair running back to her, to greet her free from any self-consciousness–she came back to her normal self, and screamed in return, “Maggie!” with the most beautiful smile. We hugged and shouted and jumped up and down right there in the cafe surrounded by all these truly sophisticated souls who turned around watching me with approval. Do you understand, I could do no wrong? “This is Linda! This is Linda,” I screamed, trying to tell Martine and David, and anyone that would listen.
Bobby announced a break, and some musicians took over playing some perfectly wonderful tunes–I had been reading, reading, reading, without anyone telling me when to stop. I heard voices say, “Your poems are beautiful. You are lovely,” and so on and so forth. I thanked everyone as I passed them, holding on to Linda, reaching Martine and hugging her. I think I hugged almost everyone that night. Linda invited me to Stanford to visit her, see the campus, just to hang out. She had come to see my on my turf, certainly I could go and visit hers. I discussed it with Martine, who had no possessiveness or controlling spirit–jealously wasn’t bound up in this patron saint’s soul, her life was filled with people who passed through her chambers like ships in the night. But I would return. I had to return. David had plans for me. He liked me. “I’ll be back in a week,” I told her and Bobby. Linda was so proud of me. I had done it. I guess if Nike had existed then, I could have done a commercial. ‘Just do it!’ I wanted to be like Andy Warhol, I wanted somehow to be part of the American psyche, like cornflakes. My dreams were big, and Linda was so proud of me. We laughed all the way to Stanford as she drove this blue Volkswagen bug painted with flowers (that belonged to one of her schoolmates). I told her how mother cried and moaned after she left on the airplane that day, and how her father practically ignored the woman, but Linda kept coming back to me. My being a poet, my doing what I had set out to do, how she had always known, and believed in me and how beautiful I was. She never noticed how beautiful I was, and how all those teachers and seers of ignorance in high school were so totally derelict of vision and taste and how she had seen my flyer when she came to San Francisco during the week to visit a friend at San Francisco State, and how she almost died when she saw my name on the flyer and she didn’t know how else to find me, but to come to the poetry reading, and how she had stood back there purposely in the dark, that hour that I had read, and the beauty of the cello, the bass player and on and on, and how did I get those musicians to play for me and how did I get all these people there? And how we were going to prove the world wrong together and the poem I had written for her, had made her cry, she had never known that I had written anything about her. And how this, and how that, and how wonderful life is, away from our parents and old square L.A. At Stanford I remember so vaguely just a room full of white girls. My wandering around alone on this beautiful campus while Linda went to class. I joined her at one class, but teachers, professors didn’t interest me. I communicated with them. There was a lake. I remember sitting there with Linda–talking of sex, and birth control pills. She had taken the plunge. No longer a virgin in this toxic world. She gave me a packet instructed me as to what to do, and how to do it and not to slip up and miss a day. She mentioned James, the Herculean firm power of his black luscious body and how she almost fainted when she first saw him in the raw. We sat by the lake laughing hysterically at how something as strange as a man’s private parts was meant to go inside of us. The first few days on campus I didn’t even see James but I supposed he was busy, schoolwork. Stanford was one of the tops, the Harvard of the west. I mean, a man must study. and then one day, I saw another him in the cafeteria tall dark fine gorgeous prince one of the few blessing the campus of Stanford. Conservative in dress, appealing in presence devastatingly handsome a young college Adonis surrounded by two white girls (chitchatting) obviously taken by this well proportioned delectable black man. My hormones secreted desire. That’s all I knew. My adrenaline rose (and I hadn’t even been running). Perhaps I could be described as having a silent invisible seizure, undercover, within my heart. My entire being was under attack. Some sudden illness came over me, and I ran to find Linda wherever she was to ask her who on this wonderful earth was he? Linda was in the library as usual, dedicated, thorough, studious, disciplined. “Linda,” I panted, (screamed forgetting I was in a library), practically out of breath, when I found her. “What?” she asked, wondering if I needed an ambulance. “I saw this guy, in the cafeteria, black guy, tall, kind of darkish brown.” “BLACK” Linda interrupted like she was bored, but would put up with me. “THE NIGGA IS BLACK. John,” she murmured, exasperated with my interest in this black stallion.
“He’s beautiful,” I raved. “He’s so beautiful.” “He’s sick,” she snapped back, turning some page in a book, she was reading while she talked. “Forget it. He’s religious, and in love with white girls. That’s all I ever see with him. He doesn’t give a black girl the time of the day. He’s smart. Real smart. A stone virgin, and in my opinion a stone fool.” “A senior?” I asked. “I could introduce you, if you insist.” “You lie. How could he ever like me? I’m so…” “Black,” Linda interrupted, shaking her head sadly. “He wouldn’t even consider you.” “Really?” I asked sadly as well. “Well, given another time and place,” Linda smiled, looking up from her book to glare at me. “Like maybe twenty years ago when they would lynch somebody like him, who kept company with white girls, you might have the chance with the boy, but considering that you’re up here–I mean otherwise—other than that, opposites do attract.” Linda laughed. “Oh, forget it, Maggie. Some rich white girl that could pay his ticket out of Nigga City got the brother all screwed up.” Here was Linda at Stanford, messing up the King’s English on purpose. I had never heard her talk like that before, never heard her use the word “nigga” before. Is this what college did to my brilliant best friend? “The girl worships the ground the boy walks on, white girls up here are crazy bout these black spooks.” Some of the students whispered to us in the library to shut up, and Linda just waved them on, but we did quiet down. And so I sat trying to subdue my emotions. You see, I had never liked anyone before. No one. And I thought somehow I didn’t have what it took to get the attention of this object of my bundle of fibers, heart, brains and all the other organs that were trying to continue functioning in me. See, in all my days I had never really experienced really seeing someone I could like, I could think of as–as mine–someone I could love, I could want. I never had a crush on anyone. Never written love letters to anyone. Never kissed a boy on the cheek (except maybe my father and brothers). Never had a crush on the Beatles. Too young to have a crush on Johnny Mathis. Never had a crush on the Jackson Five–or Michael like all the other little girls I knew. Didn’t have a crush on Jimi Hendrix. Never–not anybody on this earth– Nothing genuine–nothing that made me feel like I was about to die. Never. Myisha ordered tacos, and I looked at the menu but didn’t read it, and mindlessly ordering tacos, I couldn’t concentrate, looking at Myisha, seeing Linda instead. “It’s been a while since we moved to the suburbs. What do you think?” I asked Myisha as the Mexican waitress walked away. “Was it a good move?” I asked because there were many things I liked about where I lived.
I have to admit I liked the prestige of the neighborhood, driving up the winding hills, passing all the two story mansions. Physically, the semi-mansion we lived in was gorgeous. “It’s okay,” Myisha said just shrugging her shoulders, letting me know; whatever was on my mind wasn’t on hers. “I just remember you telling Dad you had to get out of the ghetto, away from all these ignorant black people.” “I said that?” I asked trying to hide my shock. “You said that, Mom,” Myisha insisted truthfully. I looked away. Of course I had said it, who was I trying to fool? I had said that, and much, much more. Myisha began to simmer. I could feel it, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to retreat. I wish I had a mother in whom I could have confided in when I was young. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be candid with my daughter without invading her dreams.” “Tell me,” I persisted. “What do you think of the schools?” “Oh, Mom, you know how it is. They try to railroad most of the black kids into special ed classes and. If you’re a black athlete they immediately assume you can’t even spell your name, and GOD forbid that you should score high on your SAT’s. Half the time they think you cheated if you’re black, it’s just amazing,” she smiled. I thought it was amazing that she was smiling. “I don’t know. You know how I wrote that paper on Affirmative Action? Out here Affirmative Action is a dirty word. I put a lot of thought and research into my paper and my teacher called it a bunch of rhetoric; just dismissed it all as meaningless. The thing about being out here is that, politically if you don’t agree with these people, they are so treacherous. So the teacher gives me this bad grade because he didn’t agree with my point of view which is so small minded, because the paper was well written, well researched, well thought out with pros and cons, and yet he downgraded me. I mean he refused to judge my paper on its merits, labor, input, and thought, structure. Remember Mom, you had to come up to the school. I don’t know.” “Kind of reminds when I wrote my paper on the Civil War in high school,” I smiled. “The kids are cool, you know, the kids are cool.” she smiled, apparently not interested in my fight with a pro-Confederate teacher, who gave me a D because I criticized slaveholder Robert E. Lee. We laughed. I was glad to be laughing. We were laughing at the foolishness of man. At that moment, sitting in the restaurant with my daughter, I didn’t want to bemoan, but on the other hand a heart to heart discussion once in a while was needful. That’s what the world needed more, more peaceful conversations between the generations, the sexes, between the races, the rich and poor…conversations that would help us understand someone else’s point of view, instead of always just demanding to be understood. The waitress brought our luxurious plates of burritos, and cheese, tomatoes, hot sauce, tortillas, and rice. I began to eat without saying the blessing, when Myisha corrected me and prayed. She shook her head at me, but didn’t since a word. “Forget the black boys,” Myisha sighed. “They don’t even consider you out here. It’s amazing. I mean nobody’s worrying about race, but it’s just strange how all the black boys went to the prom with white girls or Mexicans, or Asians. Not one of them took a black girl; I mean nobody cares about race. “Keep the right spirit,” I told Myisha, gently. ”Keep the right spirit. GOD will send you someone, someday, when the time is right.” She looked at me with a glint of pain. This beautiful young woman lost in a mostly white world. “You know what it’s like Mom. They treat us like we’re their sisters. They tell us the white girl they like, and like the girl might be our friend or something, and they’ll give us notes to give these girls, you know, but its like they don’t even consider us.
I mean white girls are pretty and stuff, but so are we.” “Well, what about the white boys?” I asked, just to see what she felt about that. “Do they date the black girls?” “Oh, Mom,” Myisha moaned with exasperation. “Listen, who even knows who’s who anymore. Half the people are bisexual, or something. I don’t even care, white boys, black boys, they all complicate your life, all of them. It doesn’t matter; they all want one thing. I can’t be worryin’ about no boy. You know, I’m keeping my four point zero average up, and got basketball, and I can’t be bothered with all those emotions my friends go through, I mean, they can’t get their homework done half the time, and I mean, I’m sure you don’t want me to get pregnant, you know, I just–” “I understand,” I sighed, “I understand,” “No, you don’t understand!” Myisha screamed. “What is there to understand?” Some of the restaurant partners began to look in our direction. We ate for a while. Myisha calmed down. I gazed at Myisha, and saw Linda instead as we sat in her dorm, years and years ago, all the other girls weren’t there. Just me and Linda and this unnecessary conflict developing between us. “He’s so straight, Linda. I’m a—“ “Black hippie. A Blippie,” Linda laughed kindly. “A poet.” I corrected her. “That you are.” Linda smiled. “He wouldn’t like me. My hair is all wild. I wear funny clothes–I mean to a college boy my clothes would be funny–to a poet, to an artist, a producer I would be fine–but to a college boy–and then I see him hanging out with those girls.” “Girl, your clothes ain’t nothing. Everybody up here dresses crazy. That ain’t nothin.” “And then I see him hanging out with those girls.” “Of the privileged race.” Linda smirked. “The white girls are for the white boys. That’s what they tell me. White boys get mad, some of them when they see black boys struttin’ with their women,” Linda laughed, “but they let John alone. They don’t say nothin’ to him.” “Linda, you’re a college student. Why do you talk so ignorant?” “Ignorantly?” she corrected. “’Cause it relaxes me girl, ‘cause I don’t want to lose my mind up here okay? ‘Cause I play the game. I know how to talk proper English, but all these white folks are drivin’ me crazy–straight out of my mind. All these days siddity little while girls, and rich white boys–hey, I’m gettin’ my education okay, I don’t want to be like these folks and they are workin’ on me hard to be like them.” “Oh, God,” I sighed. “Oh, God is right. White folks don’t give them black folks no rest. None.” I was confused. I didn’t want to share with Linda the ache of bumping into James–kissing on some white girl somewhere earlier that day. I had been walking along around the campus and there he was and I couldn’t even say hello. I was so shocked and disgusted by his flagrant unfaithfulness, his hand on the white girl’s behind. Should I tell Linda, or should I keep it to myself? We had always vowed to be honest with one another. I had always believed that James would be faithful to her, but I had no idea that being in an integrated environment away from home would cause his eyes and heart to wander. There had been white girls at our high school who he paid never attention to perhaps he was sowing wild oats. Would I want to know if it was happening to me? “Maggie, you’re afraid to face the truth.” “You’re a romantic on paper, but nothing in real life. You haven’t even lived. You’re still a virgin, like what’s his name, that John guy. Maybe you two are suited for each other,” she said mischievously. “I mean, I can’t believe you haven’t grown up.” “What do you mean? Each traveler has his own time.” “Oh, spare me,” she cussed.
“You don’t have the guts. Look at you–you saw that John boy with those two white girls and it totally intimidated you. I mean you can sit in front of a whole bunch of people and read some words off a paper, but you can’t deal with your emotions in real life. I mean if you are who you say you are, you could have anybody. You’d look in the mirror and see yourself as you are–right? A fine black girl, a fine woman, fetching, gorgeous, but you’re just fooling yourself. You’re as messed up as all the other black women, intimidated by the great white goodness.” “I’m just shy.” “You’re scared of the white competition.” “Linda, you’re confusing me. What are you saying?” I’m saying that you can’t deal with reality. Can you?” “Every day.” I answered. “I saw James today kissing some white girl, his hand all up her behind, like he couldn’t get enough. Your boyfriend was fondling some dearly beloved white goddess.” “Shut up, Maggie!” Linda screamed. “JUST SHUT UP!” “I’m not telling this to hurt you. I always believed he’d be true, but I mean Linda, I saw him. You talk about dealing with reality, well that’s a reality. I could have killed him, Linda. I was so shocked I didn’t even say anything to him.” “God you’re sick. You’re so jealous; so sickeningly jealous. You’re going to go and lie–just to make me feel as inadequate as you do.” “Linda, I’m not lying. I’m not trying to make you feel inadequate. You inadequate? I’ve always been your friend, Linda. I wouldn’t lie to you. I have no reason to lie. I care about you, Linda. I thought you would want to know somehow. I thought you needed to know. I thought you wanted to deal with realities. I always believed in you and James. I believed in the two of you. I never said anything other than the words of goodness and faith in you two, but I saw him Linda. I saw him.” “Shut up!” Linda screamed. “Go back to San Francisco. That’s where you belong with those bohemians and weirdoes you hang out with. You want to ruin me cause I’m here. Just cause I got in college and you didn’t. Just cause I’m able to–” “Linda, I’m not trying to ruin you. I want to help you.” “YOU HELP ME?” she hollered, like I was an arrogant slut. “YOU the one that needs help. I don’t need your help. Who do you think you are? Get out of here. I don’t want to see your little funky face when I get back, okay? GET OUT OF HERE!” Linda stood stunned, for a moment. Did she believe me? I had inquired her. What did I know of the wilderness of love? I had never really been in love. Perhaps there were things better left unsaid. Perhaps I had spoken too soon. I was ignorant. Linda ran out of the dorm and I stood there alone, feeling that I couldn’t face Linda again. Hoping that maybe I could, but then feeling again that I couldn’t.
I packed my few belongings and wrote Linda a note expressing my pain for causing her such pain, which was never my intention. I apologized, telling her of my continued love for her. Please forgive me, I signed it, Maggie, and left it in the jewelry box. She went in there three and four times a day, changing her decorations. It was a sullen sunset as I stumbled out of her dorm, along the campus, passing students coming and going, standing around talking in groups. I walked along thinking, ‘Well, it’s the first time I’ve been thrown out of any place since leaving home.’ I still had close to a thousand dollars and in San Francisco, I could no wrong. I hadn’t really had to spend any money since I left home. Everything had been provided, given to me, Martine had given me in those few days I had been with her, two of the most beautiful antique dresses that man or woman had ever seen (just the kind I like from the twenties and thirties, lacy and feminine) and I had bought a few things at a thrift shop on my days wandering around. When I ate, I ate for free. I didn’t take drugs. I would be okay. I love Stanford. I wished somehow I could stay and get an education, A Ph.D. Dr. Maggie Mitchell. Yeah, I fantasized. No that wasn’t true. Maybe I could get a degree through osmosis. Martine had told me I could teach at college myself, if I wrote enough books. I had laughed. Me teach? But I had chosen poetry. I was disciplined, but not for college, at least not yet. I had chosen the life of an artist, and I felt comfortable there in life, more so than any other place in the world. I walked along, looking for a telephone booth to call a taxi, I found one. Would it rain? Was our argument petty? Trivial? Fighting over the power of white girls in the hearts of black men? If I stayed would Linda laugh it off? I could see the taxi driving up the road onto campus, and then I saw him again. John. Would I die, have a heart attack in front of hi, and that tall socialite of a lovely white girl who hung on his arm so confidently? I was insecure, but I did not let her know it. Was I insecure because I was eighteen and she was twenty-something? Was I insecure, ‘cause I was just for the first time in love and scared and filled with too many emotions, or was I insecure cause she was white and I was black, unprepared to fight for a black man in that particular battlefield? He noticed me, smiled from a distance, as well as the girl. And they approached me, calling. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me,” running up to me. He was holding the white girl’s affectionately. What handsomeness, I thought. “Are you leaving the campus? Oh, excuse me” he said again so gentlemanly. “I noticed you earlier on campus today. I thought I knew all the bloods on campus.” “Bloods?” I asked smiling, pretending like I didn’t understand black street slang wondering why he would express his obviously collegiate self in such a way. “They told me you’re a poet. A friend of Linda Douglass. Lots of us in the school have been talking about you. You aren’t leaving are you? We thought for sure we could get you a poetry reading in the library one evening, or in the black student union.” I looked at the girl. She smiled at me eagerly too, her blonde hair blowing neatly, dressed in white socks, white tennis shoes, white T-shirt and white shorts. Had she been playing tennis? I’d like to learn, but I didn’t tell her that. Other students passed by and there I was with my bushy hair blowing, in an old twenties dress, socks and high heels, sloppy and disheveled for sure. “Oh, excuse me,” he said again, as the cab stopped for me along the side of the curb, and he looked at me so tenderly, so wantingly. Did he like me? Could he like me? Was I interpreting his expression correctly or was it just wishful thinking? He wasn’t wanting me for me. He wanted me to read poetry.
“I’m John Wilkerson and this is Leslie Anderson.” I smiled at Leslie and I looked at John Wilkerson again. “Nice to meet you both,” I said softly, sadly. Would it rain? I wasn’t hungry, why did it feel like I was starving? “I’m Maggie Mitchell,” I mentioned nonchalantly, as I bent down to get into the cab. “And I will always love you, John Wilkerson.” Then I slammed down the cab door and the driver took off. Myisha giggled. “Wow, Mom. You were brave. How could you tell him like that, that you loved him? He must have thought you were crazy. He probably never forgot you.” “I don’t know. To this day, it was like something came and spoke through me, and gave me some guts, some boldness.” I laughed, giggling them same giggle I giggled as I sat in the back of the cab riding along to San Francisco. If nothing else, he will never forget me, I thought. I was nefarious. Wonderfully wicked. Brave even at eighteen. Brave enough to announce my love for an older man, a college student in front of his girlfriend. Wow, I thought. I’m not intimidated. But then I thought of Linda, as I rode silently all the way up to Martine’s house, where I paid the cab driver the outlandish cab fare. I walked up the stairway at peace with myself one minute. Then I rehearsed what I might have done differently, what I had done wrong. I had done nothing intentionally evil towards Linda, yet guilt came and stuck to me for one hot minute, and I cried as I stood on Martine’s doorstep ringing her bell (contemplating going back to Stanford). There she was, opening the door in all her glamour and benevolence. “Ah, Maggie,” she proclaimed like a star had arrived. “Come in, come in, your room awaits you.” The gang was all there, I noticed, and they greeted me warmly with applause. “I like your poetry,” one stranger I hadn’t seen before at Martine’s party announced. “It’s real poetry. These fools nowadays put some words on paper with some dots and parenthesis and they call it a poem. Whatever happened to complete sentences that rhyme? What a time we live in. What a time we live in. Junk passing for art.” “Who is he?” I asked as Martine accompanied me to my room, ‘cause I was already upset and I wanted him to shut up and leave me alone. “Things are happening for you,” she said with enthusiasm, ignoring my question. Bobo (her lover) was in the kitchen playing so eloquently on his bass.
As I passed by he eyed me with sexual interest. It slipped out of him and I ignored it completely knowing for sure I was crazy to think such a thing. I couldn’t betray Martine. I didn’t like Bobo anyway. He was nice–buy goofy I thought, always depending on Martine for money and stuff. “David, the producer, wants to take you to New York and cut you a record my darling.” I didn’t say a word. “He fell madly in love with you and your work. He manages so many artists. Some of the great ones. Big ones. Singers, writers. He’s never managed a poet, he said. He wouldn’t know where to begin. I say, but of course with an album, drums, cellos, a little beat. He says, of course. It would be perfect.” “Martine, how can you understand me so well, so soon?” I asked sadly as I went into the kitchen, opening the icebox to find something to eat. What did I find? I don’t remember, some leftover something. “You are a soul sister,” I said to Martine as I sat down to eat, but I couldn’t eat. I was sick. I was in love. Martine shooed Bobo out of the kitchen with a conclusive wave of her manicured hand, and he consented kindly, no longer looking at me with lustful eyes. I was sure it was just a weak moment. I would never mention it and I was sure he wouldn’t either. “Eat. Eat,” Martine demanded. “You must eat.” “I can’t eat. I met the most beautiful man.” “College man? Professor?”: “Student.” “Oh, forget him,” Martine flouted. “Forget him. You will meet all kinds of wonderful men, artists, musicians, rock stars, and millionaires. What do you need with a college boy? Who is this college boy? Forget this college boy.” Martine finished with a stern smile. “Now eat.” A few evenings later Martine had David, the producer, over for dinner. Everything was very proper, correct and elegant. Candlelight, silk napkins, and a silk tablecloth, champagne, or wine, and dessert. Martine prepared a delicious pot of Paella (with crabs and shrimps and all kinds of wonderful fish that Martine and I had gotten down at Fisherman’s Wharf earlier that same day). The mood of the evening was amicable, warm–filled with one discussion after another–combative, but fun. Marshall Williams was over, a black writer–reading an article about himself in the latest Time Magazine where he was being lauded and acclaimed as a great American writer. His book climbing on the best seller lists. Bobo was there in perfect form, causing Martine to melt with his slightest touch. Briefly the two discussed the possibility of Marshall’s book being optioned for a movie. David sat silently most of the evening while this young Chinese writer shared his thoughts about how there was no God. Later on in the evening an expatriate who had lived in Paris, some black musician, with a beard and big bush hair taking French with Martine wandered in. Bobo proclaimed out of the blue that the government killed John F. Kennedy and how it was still all a conspiracy and how things would be different if he had lived.
“Are you high?” someone asked. “It was Bobby Kennedy. That’s who I loved,” Martine said in English. “He really had it.” “To me that proves there is no God. A truly knowing powerful Force wouldn’t have allowed such great men to be killed but to the Greeks who studied the Christian religion, they thought that death itself was some marvelous journey to a better world, another side–something to rejoice about–this death. After a job well done. Not remorseful.” “That’s assuming you’ve done a good job,” someone laughed. “Death, murder and suicide, three different things, yet producing the same results.” “Dostoevski,” Marshall shouted, “Ribolta, Murrillo, El Greco.” “What would have happened if he hadn’t died on the cross?” “His dying, if you understand Christian thought was the whole essence, purpose of His coming, to destroy the works of the Devil.” “Well, then he died in vain. He came in vain. He lived in vain…for He did not destroy the works of the Devil. The Devil is still living large.” “Is it possible that Christ made the wrong decision? That He died in vain?” Martine asked. “Who knows for sure if Christ even lived?” “But, of course, He died in vain,” Marshall shouted. “A spiritual illusion,” the Chinese man said, “religion is an illusion.” “Sin is an illusion.” “I do think there is a Higher power,” David said softly. “Ah, the prophet speaks,” someone howled. “I’m surrounded by atheists,” Martine teased. “No, really,” David continued, trying to make a point that seemed very few had patience with. “The sky, the moon, sun, music. When I listened to music, when I’m in the studio and all the elements come together. You know there must be a God. You can’t work with music and not believe, not know there is.” “Man creates music, man is his own God,” the Chinese man interrupted. “God in us. God in us.” “I hate conversations about God anyway, because it is such a personal thing,” Bobo interjected, waving a piece of French bread in the air, and I wished he would give us a solo and play his haunting music on his own big brown brass. “A truly personal thing. It’s not something that should be shared. It’s something that is so sacred it should be left between you and your God. My parents went to church every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, always in church. Even if you believe in God, how could you do anything for Him, being in church all the time? I felt more like God wanted me to live life and that was my best way of knowing Him, glorifying Him by living.” “There is no knowing other than God within us. There is no other knowledge.” “So when man prays to himself?” “Exactly,” someone answered. “How sad,” the expatriate lamented. “I don’t like talking to myself, much less praying to myself. I don’t think I have that much power.” “Ah, you are deceived my brother, you are deceived. You are very powerful.” “Do you find yourself boring Marshall?” Martine asked. “I personally enjoy taking to myself. I can go on and on for hours and have the grandest time all by myself,” Martine said joyously. “I love myself. I enjoy me. But I do enjoy companions, a relationship, I must admit.” “And so do I,” Bobo said, kissing Martine briefly. “I suppose God does, too,” David sighed. And so I went and sat beside David, drawn to himself by his faith in God. I did not believe in God, but I always felt more comfortable with the people who seemed gentle and did believe–rather than people that didn’t. He received me near him with a glow. He wanted me near him. He accepted me. I felt it. The others talked of nonsense while David told me how he loved my poetry, my energy. How he was leaving for New York the following morning. Would I come with him to New York? Martine passed by as he asked and answered me, exclaiming, “Yes.” I laughed and he laughed. “Pushy, pushy, push. You’re too pushy.” David admonished. “No, I’m not pushy enough.” “Go to New York,” Martine demanded. “New York?” I sighed questioningly. “Your dream is waiting for there,” Bobo encouraged. So the following morning, bright and early, there sat David in a cab on the street in front of Martine’s Nob Hill abode, waiting for me to ascend from Martine’s castle deluxe, to drive through the streets of San Francisco and board a plane to New York with a man I didn’t really know.