Thursday, April 30, 2015

No Place to Be Somebody

As I watched the uprising in Baltimore unfold following the death of Freddie Gray, remembered other young Black men who’ve lost their lives due to police brutality, I thought about Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize winning play No Place to be Somebody. I can’t recall the details of the storyline but the title encapsulates the theme, that American is no place to be somebody for Black men. Gordone was commenting on America in the late sixties. Sadly this is truer now for the average dry-long-so African-American male than it was then, worse than it was in the 50s when I grew up in the segregated South.

In the 50s, before drugs had ravished our communities, The Atlanta Public Schools had hand-me down-books but good teachers, teachers who knew that being Black didn’t mean we were dumb; teachers who helped us discover our strengths. There was a vocational high school, after-school and recreational programs, and summer jobs—things that are only minimally available if they exist at all today in America’s urban cities.

Don’t get me wrong; I acknowledge that lots of things have changed since desegregation. But our successes—people like Oprah Winfrey, BeyoncĂ© and Jay-Z, Robert Johnson, Shonda Rhimes, and our crowning achievement, Barack Obama, the first Black president—isn’t the complete picture. These are people who Dr. W.E.B. DuBois would have called the talented tenth.

Since Monday, I have been enraged by the bias in the news coverage. These are journalists who know the nuances of language but choose incendiary words like riot, instead of uprising, who identify these disillusioned Black men as thugs. CNN has not reported what Mother Jones revealed regarding how this unrest began—teachers and parents maintain that police actions inflamed a tense-but-stable situation. Why do we know how many policemen have been injured but know nothing of the injuries of citizens during this uprising? I find the media's emphasis on loss of property over the loss Freddie Gray’s life sickening.

When Baltimore was relatively quiet Tuesday night, their police commissioner downplayed the importance of community intervention in maintaining the peace. He vowed that policemen and national guardsmen would remain in Baltimore until the streets are safe. My question is when will these streets be safe for young Black men?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shearing my Locs

In November, I cut my locs. It was traumatic. I’d been talking about cutting them for two years but couldn’t face the idea of having to comb and style my hair again. I’d had 27 years without daily hair maintenance, of owning neither comb nor brush. Every time I dialed my hairdresser’s number to make an appointment, I hung-up before he answered. Couldn’t face adding daily hair-combing to my other chores. But in November I was determined. Years of living in the intense Mexican sun, in arid San Miguel where there are no Black hair care products, where no one knows a thing about nappy hair, mine felt like straw. I didn’t want to turn 65 with dry, damaged hair on my head.

What would I do with it? I knew I didn’t want it straight. Remembered the dreaded straightening comb that inevitably left a small burn on your earlobe or the nape of your neck when the sizzling-hot iron touched skin, the chemical relaxers which when imprecisely timed burned my scalp, leaving sores. But if it wasn’t relaxed, how would I control my hair? I almost backed out again, almost cancelled my appointment.

I sat rigid in the chair while he snipped, didn’t say no when he picked up the flat iron after he blow-dried my hair. I had no styling suggestions. Let’s see what he comes up with, I thought. It wasn’t bad. Spiky on top, kinda punk but it didn’t look like me. I didn’t have to live with not looking like myself for long, the next day hot yoga ruined it.
Whatever I knew about my hair pre-locs no longer applied. My reddish brown was completely grey, and the grey hair was a different texture, wiry.  I woke up every morning for a month looking like Don King. Told my girl friends if any pictures of me in this transitional state showed up on Facebook they’d be murdered. I felt completely disconnected from my power. Couldn’t figure out if I was pissed or amused when people I’d known for years didn’t recognize me when they passed me on the street.

I bought mud, mousse, gel, things I’d never used on my hair before, trying to fashion a do that didn’t make me go, “This was a big mistake,” every time I passed a mirror. Then an African-American friend, who wears her hair natural, arrived in January and gave me some of the product she uses on her hair.  A little Aveda Be Curly transformed my mane, created a texture I didn’t hate. I still don’t love but it’s getting better.

For all my friends who didn’t understand why I hemmed and hawed for two years—this is why. 27-years of practically no-care hair that I loved is a hard act to follow.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beginning a New Year

I’m slowly moving out of first gear after a week in Playa del Carmen, celebrating my 65th birthday with five old friends from the States. All Christian, preacher women, which for anyone who knows me is a seeming contradiction. I transitioned from Christian to one God many paths after studying world religions for four years at George School. But quirks and contradictions are what make life interesting. Mostly we hung out at the resort—only went into town twice, once for a day for spa services, the second time for my birthday dinner. We embraced laziness—life had been an ass-kicker for most of us at the end of last year. My challenge had been helping the daughter of an old friend navigate death in a foreign country. Aishah Rahman, a woman I met in my early 20s, died here in San Miguel at the end of last year. She was the second theatre mentor I lost last year.

I was in my mid-20s when I met Aishah. When I moved back to New York after a stint working with a theatre in Atlanta, Aishah was close with Nikki Coleman, one of my roommates. Aishah mesmerized me. Her presence was arresting, regal like Nina. But it wasn’t her physical that attracted me; it was her absolute comfort with who she was. She was bold, lived life on her terms, didn’t follow convention. I remember thinking, I want to be like her when I grow up.

I have vivid memories of opening night for Transcendental Blues, her play that explores the lives of teenaged mothers on the last day of Charlie Parker’s life. I marveled at the mind that could envision this juxtaposition. Hers was a unique voice. And at the after party, there was Aishah, holding court, resplendent in a hand-crocheted ensemble. I would remember that evening, filled with fascinating people and lots of drugs, for years.

I only saw Aishah intermittently once Nikki and I were no longer roommates, almost lost touch with her completely when she started teaching at Brown. But when Nikki and I became roommates again, my first year in San Miguel, Aishah and I reconnected.  Our relationship was different. I had moved from idolization to admiration so we could be peers.

We spoke now and then, often about writing—we’d both gone to Goddard for our MFAs. Talked more regularly once Aishah started thinking about moving to San Miguel. She came for a short visit, called a few months later to ask if I could help her find a place long-term.

She’d been here a little more than a year with a hiatus in the summer. She was working on a new book so we talked more than visited even though she lived less than a five-minute walk from me.  But Aishah had almost finished and we’d been talking about traveling in Mexico this year. After her death, Yoruba, her daughter, said, I thought we had more time. So did I.

Georgia Allen introduced me to acting and was also a second mom. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t part of my life. She was one of Mama’s cut-buddies. Both started teaching at Turner High when it opened in ’51. Summers, Georgia and her two children, Judy and Punch, now known as Henry, drove to New York with Mama and me. She and Mama drove red-robin, changing drivers every three hours. Georgia was a speed-demon, covered at least an additional 50 miles more than Mama during her three-hour stints.

Georgia was the Black actress in Atlanta. I couldn’t have been more than six the first time I saw her onstage at Spelman where Black theatre happened when I was a kid—the Spelman/Morehouse Players during the school year, the Atlanta University Summer Theatre in July and August. It was watching Georgia as Bloody Mary in South Pacific that made me think I might want to be an actress. She did it all from musicals to the classics and inhabited every character she played. And when other theatre companies in Atlanta started using Black actors, Georgia was the first one cast. I was about 14 when we went to one of the downtown theatres to see her perform in Tartuffe.  She went to Broadway with Red, White and Maddox and once the 70s came, started working in film.

All the while she taught, first at Turner High School, where she cast me in my first play, later at Harper High. And directed—Georgia was the first director of my one-woman show Sally of Monticello. Dozens of actors who passed through Atlanta where taught, inspired, mentored by Georgia but she was also one of my aunties.

When great-aunt Clara, the last of my grandparents’ generation, passed, Mama bemoaned the fact that now she was the older generation. I guess that’s what I am now. Scary because I’m not sure I’m wise.