Father’s Day And The Ghosts of Negroes Past

Daddy as a toddler

Last year, I wrote a post about my father and why I dread Father’s Day each year. This year is no different. I started working up a to a sad two weeks ago, particularly because this is the second year in a row that Father’s Day has been preceded by strange occurrences.

Early last year, a good friend of mine passed and that was horrible. And this year, I’ve had a parade of Ghosts of Broke-Down Negroes Past to contact me. (GBDNP for short.) It seemed that every man I had dated since college showed up. Yes, I did say, “What. The. Hell?”

Men from fifteen or more years ago, when I didn’t know how to dress, wore unfortunate hairdos, and didn’t have an emotional backbone to speak of.  In particular, one past GBDNP “friended” me on Facebook. He was the only man out of my past collection that would have been suitable as a mate, at least on the surface. He was smart, hard-working, seriously pretty—and dark brown-skinned, unlike my daddy (which used to be very, very important to me when I was younger. Not so much now.) Problem was, this GBDNP was completely lowdown, and in addition, he was one of them intellectual, double-talking Inscrutable Chocolate Sensei types that you’re never going to get any apology or emotional truth from.

Usually, past lovers showing up doesn’t bother me. Once we’ve had a real relationship, a GBDNP never gets another chance to make a fool out of me, not matter how fine and chocolate he is. After all, if he had acted right I would have never broken up with him in the first place; we’d be married right now with some Inscrutable Chocolate Juniors running around.

After my last conversation with this particular GBDNP, though, I started having strange dreams of my daddy. In past dreams, I’m terrified of my father; then, I end up fighting him in the dream. I’m hitting him or kicking him, and it doesn’t take a therapist to figure out that’s all my anger coming out.

But in dream of a few days ago, we were sitting in a car going somewhere and he was trying to talk to me, calmly; he put his hand on my arm for emphasis–gently, not in a pushy way–but I kept talking loudly right over him. “I’m not trying to hear that, Daddy,” I said. “So please just shut up right now. And don’t be sitting so close to me, neither. You stay over there on your side of the seat.”

Before this, I hadn’t had a dream of my father in a few months, and I haven’t had one to disturb me in about a year, not since I experienced what I think of as my “womanhood epiphany.” Yet here I was, letting my father bother me again, after he’d been dead for twenty-five years. I woke up from that dream completely sad and drained. My bones felt heavy. Then, I started coming down with a cold, even though I had been taking vitamins and taking good care of myself.

And so, finally, I decided it was time to do what I’d resisted for so long: forgive my father.

I’ve thought about forgiveness for years, but couldn’t get there. No matter how much I loved my daddy, he wasn’t a nice man, at least not inside our home.  There was no happiness in that home; the only happiness I remember is from visiting my mother’s family Down South in Eatonton, GA. I never wanted those summers to end.

The happiness I have in my life now is not the kind you might imagine, where you effortlessly float into  joy as a natural consequence of wisdom. I’ve met some of those naturally wise people and frankly, sometimes they get on my last damned nerve, all that  serenity and whatnot.

No, since my childhood, every bit of happiness I possess, I have clawed for. It was a bare-knuckled, back-alley fight, and I was determined to be happy to spite my father. I wanted to show him that he had not succeeded in destroying me. Every time something good in my life happened, I would talk to his spirit and say, “See, I told you so, Daddy. I won. You didn’t.”

Of course, I know that’s not healthy, so don’t be shaking your head at me right now. I didn’t say it was healthy. I said it was a fight.

And in the same way I fought for happiness for myself, I fought against forgiveness of my father. My resistance had a lot to do with the anguish I saw raining down on my family, so much of it because my father hadn’t dealt with his own pain, but expected us to put up with his meanness out of a sense of his own emotional entitlement. He denied his wife and children the knowledge of his insides and then blamed us because we didn’t understand him. He would be so nice, and then, a sudden rage would come out of nowhere. I learned to be constantly on edge as a child and not to trust anyone.

After my father died, several Brothers that I dated stood in for my father in different ways. I tried to understand them and carry their emotional loads, too, hoping that would make them treat me better.  But sometimes, I thought about my emotional load. Besides Jesus, what Black man had ever gone out of his way to know me? What about my pain? What about my feelings of not being a full woman in this racist society?

Certainly, the message I received from my father was that I wasn’t lovable, pretty enough, or a good girl. As an adult, I retreated into my rage against Black men.  I decided if Brothers wanted to do me wrong, and then, when I got an attitude, call me “an angry Black woman”, I would oblige them and then some. Just try me and see how angry I could get. I can’t tell you the number of Black men that I have verbally eviscerated using the defense of “don’t start none, won’t be none;” there used to be nothing that gave me greater pleasure than to take a Black man’s pride from him. I admit it, and I can’t say I’m sorry. But once I grew emotionally, going toe to toe with anyone took too much energy. Sure I go off still, but far more rarely these days.

A while back, I’d stopped trying to get present boyfriends carry the burden of my childhood pain, but I learned these past few weeks that no matter how much I have grown, and fought for happiness and peace, the past was going to keep coming back, if I didn’t finally deal with it.  As one of mentors likes to say, there are no accidents. Even if I couldn’t give the burden to anyone, it was still there.

I knew it was time to forgive. This was the final frontier.

When I rose yesterday morning, I had to remind myself that I’m forgiving Daddy not because I am making amends to him and/or saying he was a good person and a Positive, Strong Black Man. He was what he was, good, bad, and in between, and he hurt me terribly.  But a grown woman doesn’t find her joy to spite somebody, even a mean somebody; she finds joy to celebrate herself.

As Lucille Clifton (my favorite poet) wrote once, “Won’t you celebrate with me/what I have shaped/into a kind of life?”

Forgiving my daddy completely—which might take a long, long time—doesn’t mean what happened between him and me was okay. It means that I finally can lay this burden down, by the riverside, the roadside, or outside my house before I walk into the sanctuary of my home.  And that doesn’t mean that I won’t remember what happened in my childhood. It just means, what happened won’t have anymore power over me.

Soul Food: Embracing My Inner Old Black Lady (Part I)

Grandma Florence, circa 1990

My maternal grandmother was the worst singer of church songs, ever. I mean, Florence Paschal James could not sing a lick. Maybe that’s why it took so many years for me to love the Traditional Spirituals (or what used to be called the Negro Spirituals).

After a Sunday morning of Grandma Florence’s reedy, off-key singing, all of us in the house would head out to Flat Rock Primitive Baptist Church for Sunday services. Flat Rock was a church of mostly old folks who dragged their grandchildren along. The songs dragged as well, as the song leader led the congregation in what I now know is called “line singing.”

There was “shouting,” too, as one or more of the old ladies would catch the Holy Spirit, start screaming, and fall into the arms of one of the church members. Then, they would fan her with a church fan that had a blond Jesus on the front and the name and address of Rice’s Funeral Home on the back. Mr. Rice was the African American mortician in town; to this day, I don’t know where the White folks in Eatonton, Georgia go when they need to bury their dead.

Those summers represented my first and most lasting experience with spirituality, and for many southern Black folks, my early memories of church are extremely familiar, but I did not and still do not follow a traditional path to spirituality, at least how that path tends to look in most African American community(ies).

These days, I’m a radical Black Feminist Christian and sometimes I think there are maybe ten other people like me in the world (if I am lucky.)  And so, there’s no comfortable spiritual model for me.  This has been a problem for Sisters going all the way back to the African American spiritualist Jarena Lee, the first woman authorized to speak publicly by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Within my own family, which is populated with fundamentalist Christians, I’m something of a pariah because I don’t go to church. Mama, who is a feminist but also a devout Catholic, finally gave up on my attendance, though on Christmas and Easter, she’ll gently remind me that I can always go back to church; it will be there when/if I need it. “Thank you, Mama,” I say, in that childhood, exasperated cadence of old.

And then, there are my “strange” theological interpretations of The Word.

For example, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with being gay, despite the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of the Old Testament. One reason is that particular section of Genesis is full of extremely problematic contradictions: Lot first offers his daughters to a crowd of men to gang rape who circle the house, instead of the male guests the crowd wants to “know.” After Lot’s wife is turned into salt, Lot commits incest with those same daughters, though it is framed in scripture as the daughters plotting to ply him with alcohol so that they may “preserve the seed” of their father; once he’s drunk as Cooter Brown, they take—ahem—advantage of him. That’s just completely nasty, ok?

So some man offering up his female children to be gang raped and then having nasty incest with them are both perfectly fine—but being gay (even in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship) isn’t? What kind of sense does that make? Nonsense.

Also, although men wrote the biblical scriptures, there are many, many examples of faithful women in those scriptures.  In the New Testament, all of the Twelve Apostles abandon Jesus when he’s arrested by officers of the Roman Empire, but ironically, it is his female followers who remain faithful all the way through his execution. And despite some problematic sexist moments for Jesus in the New Testament, he performs (for me) the ultimate feminist act: he trusts a woman with his spiritual mission.

Mary Magdalene was the one Jesus revealed himself to on the third day when he rose from the dead; she was the one who went and spread the Good News. To me, that is clear evidence that Jesus was a Colored Male Feminist. He may have been celibate, but he clearly preferred the ladies’ company when it came to doing the real work of God.

In the Black church, it’s Ladies First, too. I think about those old Black women of my childhood who got happy at Flat Rock Primitive Baptist. Catching the spirit was how they experienced God, how He arrived in their souls.  And I think about those church fans; they had the picture of a White Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes, but when I was a young girl, my grandma Florence had a vision of Jesus. In the vision, he was a Black man with nappy cornrows down to his shoulders.

What you need to know about my grandma Florence is that she was nobody’s racial radical and nobody’s feminist, either. (Though in her youth,  she did once beat a grown man senseless, and at the time she weighed only about a hundred pounds and stood at five feet three inches. That’s another story, though.) In fact, just the opposite. Born in 1909, grandma did not believe in challenging the White power structure in the least. But when she had her vision of Jesus, she took it as a sign from God, and never questioned it as the truth, up until the day she died.  She also spoke publicly about it.

Like grandma, I can note my own signs from God. Years ago, before I came to live a whole-hearted spiritual life, I was living in Talladega, Alabama with my mother, and there was a Black male minister who worked at the historically African American college that was named for the town. He was a nice guy and he liked to talk to my mother all the time. If I was in my mother’s office, he would talk to me, too.  He always referred to God as both male and female.

One day, I asked him how a strong, feminist woman could ever be a happy Christian. I’d noticed that in the Black churches, women were discouraged from speaking, yet in our community churches, women represented the largest population. And he said to me, “Honorée, I don’t know that a truly strong, Black woman can ever be happy in this sexist world, period. But God made you this way on purpose. He/She never makes any mistakes. He/She makes mystics to question folks about faith, to keep them honest and true to His or Her word. And Honorée, you are a mystic.”

A mystic? I didn’t live in a cave, I didn’t wear loincloths, I liked to have sex outside of marriage, and if anything, I looked at religion as a figurative crack pipe for weak-minded people to suck on. I wanted to laugh in this brother’s face, but I was polite and didn’t say anything in response to him, because again, he was a nice guy, and besides, my mother was sitting right there.

When I look back, having that conversation with that minister in Talladega was one of the defining moments of my spiritual life. He saw me, so clearly, even when I didn’t see myself at the time. (A decade after that, I encountered into a young Native American sundancer, a Mvskogee student of mine who asked me, out of the blue, “You have visions, don’t you, Professor Jeffers?” That was another defining moment.)

It’s taken me all these years to look up what that minister called me, a “mystic.” It means “one who believes in mysticism.” And “mysticism” means “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be obtained through subjective experience.” It doesn’t say anything about where you live or whether you like to get naughty every once in a while.

So those ladies from Flat Rock Primitive Baptist were mystics. When they got happy with the Holy Spirit, they had a “direct knowledge of God or spiritual truth.” My grandma was a mystic; when she had her vision of a Black Jesus that was her “subjective experience.”

I’d been defensive about how fundamentalist Christians criticized my feminist/womanist beliefs and made assumptions about my approach to spirituality, but at the same time, I’d been condescending toward my country grandma’s spirituality. I’d thought that she couldn’t be anyone’s mystic because she hadn’t been the best reader, she’d spoken in non-grammatical English—what we now call the “Black vernacular”—and she hadn’t been to anybody’s seminary and couldn’t tell you where one was located if you asked her.

Yet she was someone who believed God talked to her, even if what He said contradicted the teachings of her church, as her vision of Jesus had. (It was no mistake that Jesus was a White guy on the front of those church fans; they had been made special for the Black churches in that town.)

So if being a mystic was good enough for Grandma, the ultimate Old Black Church Lady, it should be good enough for me, too.

As a Christian, I’ve been told by other Christians—presumably better and more faithful Christians—that there is only one way to believe in God: by reading the Bible. The Word will give me everything I need, and what I needed was to stop being a feminist woman who didn’t believe that a man had more power than I did.  But for me, a strong-willed, questioning grown woman who’s paying all her own bills without a man to “head” my household, I’ve had to go back to those Old Black Ladies to find my way on my brand-new, modern holy path.  But I will admit that I had to learn to sing the Spirituals all by myself.

Prelude To A Wig Snatch: The Black Scholarly Edition

A few weeks ago, President and Mrs. Obama decided to have a Poetry Night at the White House. I was all excited, until I found out that Common and Jill Scott were going to be on the program with former US Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

I love Jill Scott the musician, but I’ve never thought she was a great poet and when she walked on stage at the White House, bringing a laptop to the podium and reading from it, I knew I’d been right. Then, I noticed she was “biting” legendary Sonia Sanchez’s style, without giving credit. This is a no-no in the poetry world. You can “bite” but you have to put something at the top of your poem like, “after Sonia Sanchez.”

And Jill committed the sin of going over her allotted time, again, another no-no, although poets do that frequently and you can feel the room getting cold as each minute stretches longer. But, as my nephew can say, I guess Jill was “a’ight.”

But Common was much worse than Jill could ever be. I could barely made it through watching his poem. There was a lot of uproar and to-do about Common’s invite from conservatives who claimed he hated cops. (Oh wow, like the rest of the African American community just absolutely adores the American criminal justice system and all its paid officers.)

But frankly I didn’t care about Common and the cops at all. My beef was and still is that Common is a horrible poet. Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Listen, Common looks great without his shirt on, and I know this because I went to see his movie with Queen Latifah and Common’s acting was almost as horrible as his poetry. But since he did not take his shirt off at the White House, I was really, really cranky that the space for someone who was a good poet (and who didn’t regularly use the b-word when referring to women in his/her records) was taken by the admittedly cute but poetry-tone deaf rapper Common.

What made me even crankier was that there were African American literary and cultural scholars online praising Common’s “artistry” evidenced in those sad, pedestrian heroic couplets of his.

And then, what made me downright enraged was the tone that some—not all, but some—of those critics were using, a tone of condescension.  How was it that I was a published, award-winning Black poet, yet my opinion did not count at all about Black poetry, unless of course, I agreed that Common was a great poet?

I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why were all these siddity,  upper-middle class scholarly Black folks pretending that Common a fabulous poet? Didn’t they know that what he was reciting wasn’t good poetry, unless of course, he was a child in grade school?

The overall gist of the online scholarly comments went something like this:

Number One, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a matter of “perspective.” And even if the beholder is someone who doesn’t read not only poetry books but, like, any books at all, that functionally illiterate someone gets to say what is and what is not poetry.

Number two, if you don’t think Common is a good poet, you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, and if you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, that means you’re prejudiced against working class Black folks. And shame on your classist self and stop pouring your haterade.

Then I realized something: creative writing (and poetry in particular) seems to be the only other field that people think they can just come into with no knowledge of tradition, no training, and with no apprenticeship at the feet of other experts. (The other field is stripping.)

Let me break this down further.

I love me some Jill Scott the singer. I saw her concert DVD “Live in Paris” and she was signifying on other singers who had “dancers in the background” and no “live instrumentation;” the implication was that real singers didn’t need all of that.

Now, I sang the blues back in graduate school, fronting for a band of White guys. (I loved them boys, too. They could really play). And I could carry a pretty good tune and belt like nobody’s business, but I still only have about a one and a half octave range, certainly I couldn’t stand next to Jill Scott on the stage without completely embarrassing myself.

So how does Jill Scott get to be serious about her art but want to keep me and my (probably) lip-synching one and a half octave self –and my background dancers and pre-recorded music track–off her stage, but I don’t get to be serious about my art on my page? How is she going to dog out somebody’s dancers and then bring her laptop to the White House and read off it? I’m just saying.

You know why I haven’t mentioned Common here in this “musician metaphor” ? Because if I’m not a musician and I can sing, Common’s talking over a prerecorded track definitely eliminates him from that field.

Let’s return to the Black literary critics. I don’t want to give the impression here that if someone doesn’t agree with me, that makes him or her The Devil. I like a good debate and I like it vigorous. As Tina sang, I like my debate “nice and rough.” Maybe it’s because I hung with boys back in the day. I never learned to fight well with my fists, but I can sell some woof tickets with the best of them, and I always bring Blady Jane to a debate.

My issue is not disagreement with my views on poetry. My issue is that I’ve worked hard as a poet and I keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the scholarly respect that should be accorded to me and to others who have worked hard in this field and who are actual practitioners in the field of poetry.

We poets don’t talk about it, we be about it.

Most literary and cultural critics I know are brilliant writers and thinkers. But most that I know couldn’t write a successful poem if you were holding their mama hostage somewhere, either. Yet, these folks—literary and cultural critics—who have never written a successful poem let alone published a book of award-winning poetry now claim the right to tell professional poets, the actual practitioners of the craft, what is and is not poetry. And they claim the right to chuckle condescendingly at us when we try to disagree with them.

And why? It’s simple: the critics went to graduate school and earned Ph.D.’s in Literary and/or Cultural Studies.  And most of us poets don’t have those Ph.D’s.

These are the folks who can suddenly decide that someone is a poet based upon whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth, as long as he can “rhyme”—which rhymes with “time,” “dime,” “lime,” in his stank heroic couplets—and as long as he is a Black man who looks good in or out of a suit and no matter what he calls us Sisters.

But if I, a trained and award-winning poet, an expert in the field with eighteen years of work under my belt, says “No, that’s not good poetry,” I will be called a classist. I will be told to go set my jealous self down and start writing a poem that “reaches the people” the way that “Genius-Brother Common” did with his simplistic rhymes.  And again, before I pick up the pen, put down the haterade.

Now, what I just wrote (above) is called “literary analysis.” I looked at what several Black literary and cultural scholars wrote online a few weeks back about Common’s poetry performance at the White House, thought about what they wrote, and then I took a position based upon my thoughts on what they wrote.

But what I just did doesn’t count as “literary analysis” to literary and cultural scholars because I don’t have a Ph.D. in literary or cultural studies. I certainly couldn’t publish my analysis in a peer-reviewed critical journal; if I mailed it to them, they would send my work back to me in twenty-four hours, if I was lucky. If not, they’d throw it in the trash can.

So now, who’s the classist?

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P.S. Thanks to my Brother-poet Rich Villar for “wig snatch”!:-)

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