Baby Talk – The Value of Tenderness

The Kiss, mixed media collage, detail, by Richard May III

It isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it!

With that admonition, Moms shamed us if she caught us slinging the Dozens indiscriminately, especially if we targeted family, especially when I inevitably took advantage of any time in the spotlight or on the mic.

As sharply as June Harris could snap herself, if her ethical framework was violated, mostly her Home Training taught us to try a little tenderness. Mostly she wanted us to cultivate the feeling-tones that saturate our voice when we talk to babies.

She didn’t want us to coochie coochie coo! She wanted us to speak honorably, speak kindly, as when we spoke genuinely to actual infants and toddlers. Such Baby Talk hypes a child, sparks and imprints her brain with the sound of safety and community, and puts to shame the awwwwwwww of social media and talk shows.

When lead singers of all types lend their magical voices to the task of persuasion and affirmation, when they say I wanna Ta Ta You Baby, they go beyond begging. They just get better with time!

When lovers mouth their beloved’s name with such quiet force it reaches ears across a crowded room, or they whisper baby come close until they both quake, we’ve slipped into the inspirational marrow of ‘how you say it!’ And the rhythm just changes!

I was a well-loved and well-reared child. I’ve been fortunate that throughout my life I forged close bonds with my father and brothers. Also over the years, I’ve had powerful, enduring friendships with good men. As a 22-year-old college graduate, my first child was born, and I reveled in sharing loving babble with my son. He’s a father of three now. I’m in my mid 60s. Our lingering hugs can still refresh one another.

I can still clearly hear my late father’s playful voice. He might be referring to his vodka and OJ as his ‘medicine.’ Or asking me for koshies, fat wet kisses on the cheek. Or boasting during an operatic game of bid whist. One of Pops’ friends, my late Godfather Mr. Scotty, always shouted a jaunty ‘Petey Pete’ while giving me change to buy candy.

Playing basketball in high school and baseball in college, I definitely heard my share of less than tender talk during hard-fought games. But I can also honestly recall stunning conversations of friendship, trust, and brotherhood in locker rooms, on the sidelines, and on road trips.

Oh I am fascinated with how humans speak our terms of endearment.

I often turn my gaze to history. I study, for example, Thomas Jefferson, avatar of America’s pursuit of happiness. After reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, I teared up wondering what 22-year-old James Hemings said when he welcomed his baby sister Sally Hemings to Paris in 1787. At 14, she accompanied the founding (step)father’s daughter Mary (aka Polly) to Paris, as a ‘domestic servant’ and ‘maid’ in Jefferson’s household.

James Hemings, the “bright mulatto,” was ‘owned’ by Jefferson. In 1784, TJ took Mr. Hemings to Paris for the “particular purpose” of being trained in the art of French cuisine. Mr. Hemings, a Virginian like my father, is revealed by Gordon-Reed as an intriguing enigma, known to posterity only through letters by Jefferson and his correspondents. James Hemings committed suicide in 1801.

I keenly miss the voice of James Hemings while in France. I long to hear him talking tenderly with his sister about their mother back home at Monticello. Musing together about filing a “freedom petition” seeking their legal freedom. How did brother and sister console each other when they agreed to return with Jefferson to enslavement in Virginia?  

“Hemings might have lived longer, had he and his sister taken the chance to work together to build a life in Paris,” Gordon-Reed writes. “Though racism was alive and well in France, there was a substantive difference between the treatment of mixed-race people there and their treatment in the United States. That did not change the condition of the entire race, but the extra social space might have made a difference to an individual as sensitive as James Hemings. By the end of his life, starting over in Paris was a moment that had passed. There would have been a great difference between putting down roots there in 1788 or 1789 with a sister who could have helped pay the rent and […] stepping alone into the uncertainty of postrevolutionary France.” [page 552]

Oh what is the sound of African American tenderness? How can we all shape our mouths to speak tenderness?

On my next birthday in April, I will be, incredible to me, eight years older than Moms was when she died in 1984. She schools me still!

In my senior year of high school, Moms was my date to the year-end athlete’s banquet. I was the MC. While roasting my basketball coach, I was slinging the Dozens indiscriminately. Moms got pissed. On our way home, she shamed me. I defended myself with the comedian’s mantra: But folks were laughing.

You went overboard. You controlled the mic. You had all the power. You let it go to your head.

And for sure Moms understood a roast! A foster child born on January 25, 1927, in Queens, N.Y., she loved comedy and satire. Normally, she took a bit of pride in the verbal gymnastics of her Number 3 son. But I had crossed the line. I had folks laughing beyond the playfulness of the moment.

I sulked but ultimately I took her criticism as one of the gospels that guides my life.

Moms wanted me to claim my voice as a magical tool of tenderness, a shimmering reflection of genuine emotions, a prism splicing vulnerability, a marvelous amplifier of subsonic hungers, a sensitive oscillator that warned me off of toxic swagger.

I will continue carving out time to explore the reverb of Baby Talk in my own life, in the broader culture. Always, I’ll seek the individual qualities of the VoiceMusic of intimacy.

I dedicate all future meditations and research to June Harris, my January mother with the summer name, whose ethical voice so often reminded me: My love is your love.

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… [W]henever I’m in public, especially when I’m in public, I’m quick to call a Black man Sir — whether he’s panhandling that quarter on city streets, standing with me in the supermarket line, or balling with me on the basketball court. And the normal reaction is for them to be cool in return. In other words, the human response is to be cool. Defenses melt. Cats be smiling. Courtesy is the rule. Maybe it’s my unapologetic leap of faith to think — no feel — this is a foundation from which we can help Black men heal their psychic and social wounds. Maybe it’s my own brand of street corner philosophy to believe treating a man like a human being will mean, nine times out of ten, getting treated like one in return. Maybe there ain’t enough science in my argument for the real experts to take it seriously. Well, just who are the experts on the inner emotional labyrinth of Black men? Who’s able to spread on the table facts and figures, evidence and analysis, examples and anecdotes, songs and stories that say there is no room for an effective, national surge of common courtesy, mutual respect, healing laughter, intelligent challenge, intense listening, and downright kindness toward every Black man we come to meet? Who’s got the magic words, government study, foundation report, or bible printout that document some alternative formula we need to excite a man into reaching his potential?”

2 thoughts on “Baby Talk – The Value of Tenderness”

  1. Everytime I read your writings, it makes me feel like I’m listening to a ballad that is crooning love and happiness. It also makes me feel like I’m back home on 18th street, or 5th street SE. Thank you for your oldies but goodies. Whenever your pen draws a picture on the paper (or your finger hit a key on the keyboard), I know its always going to produce a greatest hit. I’ll always be one of your biggest supporters!!


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