The Colored Grinch vs. Black Santa Claus

Even though I just won a serious chunk of change from the National Endowment for the Arts, I am determined that this will be my last Christmas where I spend too much money for Christmas presents.

My issue is that I’m in my forties now—I’ve been officially Grown and Sexy for a while—and I need to start acting as if there is a future I need to prepare for.  So now, I’ve set a strict budget for myself that I am trying to follow, and that includes not getting grown people numerous Christmas presents anymore, except my mother, of course. This year is too late—I already bought my gifts—but next year, I decided to tighten the belt.

When I talked to a couple of good friends of mine about this few-to-no-Christmas-presents policy, they got this tone to their voices as if I were a Cheap Colored Grinch Who Stole Negro Christmas.  And it got me to thinking, why are we Black folks—poor, middle-class, and rich—so obsessed with spending money for just one day? Unless, of course, you actually celebrate Kwanzaa, which I don’t and I am not ashamed to say so.

Sidebar: There’s an actual reason–and it’s not that I’m bourgie and uppity– that I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa and that’s because my father was a Black nationalist who actually knew Ron Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa (and that’s all I’m going to say).

Here you have the religious holiday of Christmas, which is supposed to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ but he wasn’t even born in December. Somebody just gave the man a random birthday. So that’s a little weird to me whenever people say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

And further, let me ask this: Why are people running around, putting charges on their credit cards in the middle of an economic recession/actual depression so they can celebrate Jesus, who was broke and rode a donkey?

So that’s where I stand politically and economically. Yet at the same time, I believe in buying my baby nephew, the children of my friends, and my mother a present. Here’s why: little kids who read books without words or even, books under three hundred pages are not going to understand the capitalist motivations behind Christmas, and that all we’re doing is making Wall Street rich while draining our bank accounts.  They can’t understand all that.

I don’t believe in trying to break down a simplified version of Karl Marx to some little kids, okay, but my daddy the socialist Black poet did believe in reciting a Marx remix every Christmas; he didn’t get me and my sisters gifts. Only my mama gave us presents, aside from presents our relatives gave us.

My sisters and I used to call Daddy “The Grinch” behind his back. Also, “Oscar the Grouch.” Also, a myriad of taunting, rude nicknames around the holiday season and throughout the year. But only behind his back, I promise.

When I was a little girl, and I knew my daddy wouldn’t get me and my sisters Christmas gifts I would get so mad. I felt as if my father was selfish and cheap and that I should punish him by not getting him a gift, so that he could feel as mad and hurt as I did.  But my mother would convince me to give him a gift. She would ask me, if I felt mad and hurt, why would I want someone else to feel that way, especially my daddy? And that, if I gave him a gift, it would me a better person, even if it might not make him one. And didn’t I want to be a better person?

She would tell me her own Christmas story and explain why, though she believed in getting her children gifts, she was in accord with my father that we shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus, though not for the same reasons.

When she was a little girl, growing up in poverty, she would pray that Santa Claus would notice her, all the way out in the country in Eatonton, Georgia. And she tried to be a good little girl. She was the oldest of six, so she would help her mother with the younger children, and with cooking the meals, along with the chores she had on the small farm they leased.

Yet every year all my mama ever received for Christmas was an orange, a handful of pecans and a peppermint stick. This is not an exaggeration, because I just talked to her a couple of days ago about this, and even though she is seventy-seven years old, the pain was still so fresh in her voice. And she told me she never understood how Santa Claus couldn’t see how so hard she had worked to be a good girl; he only seemed to notice how the rich little White children had been good.

Later, when she understood that there was no Santa Claus, Mama realized that those little gifts were all her parents could afford and that they had sacrificed to provide her and her brothers and sisters that little bit.

Every time my mama told this story, she brought me over to her philosophical side. I always ended up being ashamed and getting my daddy something nice with my Christmas money that my mother gave me so I could buy presents. I still would be mad as a wet bee at him, but still I got him something decent. And even though he didn’t believe in Christmas, he always loved his gifts. That used to blow my mind. (But that’s another blog post.)

And Mama always loved what I gave her, too. From the time of memory, not matter what I have given my mother—a construction paper gift when I was in elementary school, an antique brooch I found at a thrift shop in graduate school, a check when I won my first creative writing prize—anything—she has loved. When she opens up each gift, she makes an astonished, audible gasp and says, “Oh, this is beautiful! Thank you so much! You are so generous!” Yes, even the check was beautiful. I guess it was the paper it was printed on or something.

I do want to be better about saving money, because I don’t want to end up in my sixties broke and scared I can’t pay my mortgage. But I don’t ever want to be so selfish that I can’t or won’t give a gift to somebody.

For me, kindness is the reason for the season, and I guess that does go really back to Jesus.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Decent People Action Alert

I met Dean Young in August of 2003, when I was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He was a high-spirited, sweet man who wrote quirky poems—and he laughed at his own jokes in those poems. But if someone had told me that Dean Young had a defective heart, I would have sworn it was a joke. His energy seemed boundless.

Just last night I found out that the poet Dean Young is in need of a heart transplant. First, I cried, because this seemed like some seriously unfair [insert many, many expletive nouns] for a nice man to have to face.

And then I decided to post about it, because I’ve noticed that many of the folks who follow my blog and who write comments or email me seem to have really sweet, generous spirits—even the ones who disagree with me. So I thought I would ask y’all to please help Dean to get him a new heart. The cost of the surgery is really high. Like, super high.

Now, I know it’s the end of the year, and I know Christmas is just around the corner, so everybody’s a little short on money, but if you can, please do Dean a solid and give something—if not now, then whenever you can. This is a real person—and you know if I didn’t think he was a nice guy, I sure enough wouldn’t be blogging about him. (Y’all know how I get down.).

Here’s the link to donate and read about Dean.

And even if you can’t donate money but you believe in prayer, mojo, or just good thoughts, then round those up, and send them Dean’s way, constantly. And please, please spread the word about Dean. That will help, too.

Get Well Soon, Our Queen

We all found out recently that Aretha Franklin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that has us all pretty scared and upset, but let’s not lose hope for her recovery, ‘cause everybody in the (Black) world is praying for Miss Aretha. Y’all know I am. She’s like a member of my family, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. I just unabashedly love and adore me some Re-Re.

I was introduced by my mama to her music when I was five years old . I thought they were best friends, because my mama didn’t use a last name to refer to her. She was just “Aretha.” Enough said. The first song I remember hearing by her is “Chain of Fools.”

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I could read by then, but I was confused by the concept of people making a chain. Did they turn themselves into metal?  My mama tried to explain, but I still didn’t get it.

I was twelve years old when I realized my mama had never even seen Aretha Franklin in concert, let alone been friends with her. But I was hooked by the time I was seventeen and suffered my first break-up.  I played “Don’t Play that Song”  over and over, even though I was violating Miss Aretha’s orders.

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Then, I became a “real woman” and thought I was grown. I didn’t know it would take me fifteen more years to become a real real woman, because when I heard Dr. Feel Good–two decades after my mother had played it and laughed like she had a secret–and I realized it was a slightly naughty song, I felt I had arrived at an exotic locale.

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Miss Aretha was really my first introduction to the blues. I heard “Drink Muddy Water” on my mother’s record player well before I knew about Bessie Smith or Lead Belly–or even B.B. King. I heard stories about musicians my mother and father had seen live, like Billy Holiday or Dinah Washington, but those weren’t the first records I heard. Aretha was first.

She has helped me to travel to that Black community place, and a bunch of other important destinations–like spirituality and defiance and razor-blade-heartache and do-right womanhood–though I’ll probably never meet her.

So let’s all pray for Miss Aretha, y’all. Get well soon, Our Queen.

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Beauty and Justice

Herbert Lee

A few weeks ago, someone posted a link on Facebook about Herbert Lee, an African American civil rights activist in Mississippi who was shot and killed in 1961 by E.H. Hurst, a White man who never was charged with the crime, much less paid for it. (Here’s a link to information about Lee and the crime. )

Well, recently a marker was placed at the spot of Lee’s murder, to commemorate the crime. For me, this sort of event is filed underneath the “God Be A Witness” label. Surely, sending the person to prison who killed someone is important, but to me, most important is that this person who tried to help his little corner of the world–Herbert Lee–not be forgotten.

A friend of mine, the poet Jake Adam York has written two books of poetry commemorating slain Civil Rights heroes. He’s from Alabama, and is doing vital work on reconciliation and history memory.

I’ve been meaning to have a podcast with Jake, ever since April, and haven’t gotten around to it because I am so busy I think I am going crazy, but when Jake sent me his poem that he had written on Herbert Lee, I knew I had to share it with y’all and I asked his permission to post it. It is a beautiful poem, written by a do-right man who is trying to bring justice to the world through his art; I think that’s important, and I hope you do, too.

Jake’s poem is below.

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At Liberty

……21 September 1961, Liberty, Mississippi

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Everyone will say he drove to the gin
with a truck full of cotton, so he drives to the gin
and gets in line, and everyone will say
the congressman pulled in behind him, so he gets out
yelling Herbert Lee I’m not messing with you this time,
and his affidavit will say Lee had a tire iron
and there are no photographs so there is
a tire iron and since the congressman will say
Lee swung at him his hand will grasp the iron
under the tangle of his own dead weight
and the congressman will leave and will not
see him again so he just lies there bleeding
and no one will touch him so for a time
he is just a story or a huddle of starlings
or crows or a cloud of bottle flies that might
explode and disappear until the witnesses
can say he’s there and an undertaker can come
with a hearse from the next county over
and then he is dead and the congressman can
tell his story so Herbert Lee will rise
from his coffin and swing his iron
and the FBI can come to make him into evidence
but someone will have roped him into his grave
so there is no photograph and no one sees
the cotton boll wicking blood so there is no boll
only a clear, white negative in the dark
and a paper that slowly fills with flies.

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My Life: A Mahalia Jackson Song

Hey y’all, I know I’ve been gone for far too long, but for those of you who teach college like me, you know why. The end of the semester is brutal, what with all the papers to grade, extra conferences with students, and lengthy emotional breakdowns from said students. They start crying and then I start crying, and then, it’s just a big, old mess, even when I know some of them are trying to head trip me to get a better grade.

In between being exhausted by my students, I’m exhausted by joy. A few weeks ago, something fabulous happened to me, but I was afraid that if I talked about it at the time, I would brag too much and seem ungracious. So, I’m telling you now.

Some of you already know my news, that I won a 2011 Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment from the Arts! (My hair is short in the picture in the post, but never fear, I have not cut it.)

This fellowship came right on time, not just because I can now afford to go to West Africa to finish research for my Phillis Wheatley poetry project, but also, in terms of my confidence. A few months ago, I was very upset that a friend of mine had basically erased me from Contemporary African American poetry history in an interview with Poets and Writers.

This led me to talking on my blog about the ongoing issues with sexism within the Black poetry community, something that also led to certain folks dogging me out and calling me crazy–which is another reason I didn’t want to post when I won, because I have a tendency to talk smack to people when I feel an “I told you so” coming on.

(But don’t let me lie. I was walking around my house brushing my shoulders off like a rapper every five minutes for a week after I heard the news I’d won.)

Now, don’t think that just because I won a chunk of change from the government (twenty-five thousand dollars, to be exact!!!!!) that all is right in the poetry world in terms of Black women. That particular fantasy is akin to Black folks thinking because we had a Black man in The White House that racism and White privilege was simply going to disappear.

But I DO believe in being just as vocal when GOOD things happen to Black women, too. I don’t want to only complain.

So I have to say that this year, the National Endowment for the Arts did something that was unprecedented—unless someone else can document otherwise:  they gave the NEA Fellowship in Poetry to FOUR Black women!!!!!!!!

I won, along with Aracelis Girmay, Shara Macallum, and Chanda Felman. This was simply phenomenal.

Now, when the NEA called me with the good news, I wondered what the racial make-up of the fellowship list would be, because they don’t tell you who else won when they call, only that you did. But when I saw the entire list, and saw all those Sisters—and TWO Brothers, too!—I nearly fainted. The Brothers were Randall Horton—my homeboy, a very good friend, and the brilliant Editor-in-Chief of Tidal Basin Review—and Jericho Brown, a wildly talented young poet.

Winning the NEA Fellowship is sort of like winning the lottery; the pool of applicants is around a thousand people, and you never know whether the people on the judging panel are going to like your work; you can’t include letters of recommendation with the application, so nobody knows that such-and-such famous person thinks you are the bee’s knees or the cat’s pjs or collard greens with side meat or something else sassy.

I’d been applying since 2000; it’s sort of like taking your vitamins—if you’re a poet, you gotta do it. But I never in a million years thought I had a chance, though I prayed over it before I sent off the application. Remember what I said about prayer or good thoughts or mojo or stroking tree bark or whatever your thing is before you submit something? I believe in it, strongly.

So, I know that it’s been too long since I posted, but I hope you will forgive me. I have been walking around in a daze. I just keep saying to myself, “Twenty-five thousand dollars!” But also, I keep saying, “FOUR Black women won!”

I’ve been sending up constant praise to God, and crying like a newborn fool in gratitude. I am not ashamed to say that. This year has been the worst of times, in several ways, but I have never wavered in my faith that my writing is not just a profession, it is a vocation. Winning the NEA Fellowship was a nice message From Above. It’s like that gospel song by Mahalia Jackson, “He’s Right on Time.”

I hope y’all will forgive my banging on my spiritual tambourine by posting the song below. It IS Sunday (night), after all.:-)

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