“Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘What is art? And what do I care what it is called and what it becomes?’ The only thing I know about it is that sometimes it has a tendency to shake me up and to shake what is around me up.” – John Outterbridge (1933-2020), interviewed by Art in America
Smack dap in the middle of the COVID pandemic, and the MAGA-fueled public health emergency, we closed out 2020 on America’s interstates. She was making a major life transition and you know Pops couldn’t let a lone Black woman drive by herself through the ‘heartland of America’ during the reverb and clang of the Trump-Biden campaign battle.
Actually, despite the national tensions, our trip was cool. We smartly wore our masks when we stopped at gas stations and restaurants, at a Jiffylube in Sioux City, Iowa, and at hotel lobbies in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and on into Massachusetts, her relocation destination.
Each day started with our ritual unfolding of a AAA map. We drew a line to our next stop. While driving, as we got closer, we used the AAA app to review and reserve hotels, where we’d grab a meal and watch some TV, before crashing for the night. Our ritual cooled us out on the road. Kept us from worrying, since each day we were making up our itinerary.
Occasionally, as the old head in our duo, I had doubts I should be driving these freeways after living in an almost perfect quarantine bubble since the spring of 2020. Especially since I knew that after I departed New England I would have to jump on an airplane to visit my extended fam in Florida. Uh, AND I’d be trekking through airports during the crush of Thanksgiving season, when even the incompetent Drumpf Administration was encouraging mugs not to travel!
Ultimately, traveling with my smart, funny daughter soothed my angst. We drew on our hard-earned rhythms and loving lessons, and together we framed this trip as the adventure it was.
Another thing I embraced: I was riding shotgun mostly, as an ally on this trip, which was really her trip. And when I did drive, it was for a predetermined amount of time, since a brother can’t brave hour after hour on the humming asphalt like I could once.
Often, from the shotgun seat, I stared at the changing scenery, listening to the playlist she curated and blasted through the speakers. Erry now and then she’d drop in some Motown or 70s classics for the old man, but mostly her sound track was dancehall, and other bass-heavy international music, which stamped this trip as hers down to our bones and cells and inner ears.
I was proud that I’d helped raise the grown woman behind the wheel. She was no longer the cute spindly youngen whose hair I braided on earlier road trips.
In fact, this was our first trip across the country for a purely visionary reason. There was no underlying family drama or trauma. After almost 10 years in LA, Ade had decided she wanted to live back east and seek her Ph.D. Applications were submitted on time and we’re awaiting decisions from schools.
We met real unthreatening folks on our trip, but I can’t lie … ‘thank god I grew up where bridges named after frederick douglass & duke ellington’*… where schools named after Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anthony Bowen, where every step I took as a youngen I followed a trail of African American history.
drawbridge engineered of Mahalia’s choppy handclaps
arch forged by memory of my baby daughter a stole around morning
grate of colored glass quarried from marbles knocked out a dirt circle
world’s fate depends on tools we make from silence in Roberta & Donny’s duets
we’re all local music
goose bumps sizzling through circuit board powered by Little Richard’s turbine
breath riding piggy back on rim-shadow of sacred thought
we find melody in our lives accenting our solos
with mouthful of family home cooked potato salad first loves
tales with sad endings we couldn’t peep bitter taste of blames
moan of curses put shards in a voice
can I take it to the bridge
once over dinner at house of blues
my lover accused me of being triumphant
hurt like a vision of my dead mother frozen with a guitar under her arms
paralyzed me in a room set afire by sharp-tooth duppies
knew we should go our separate ways but meals hadn’t come
& Roberta was set to take the stage within two hours
at concert time stage was revealed when restaurant floor opened
like a drawbridge engineered of Mahalia’s choppy handclaps
goodbye echoed in every one of Ro’s lyrics
thank god I grew up where bridges named after frederick douglass & duke ellington
thank god for local music
conceived in rim-shadow of sacred thought
to incline even frustrated lover toward triumph
hope in her search for beauty in human relationships
accenting her solos with mouthful of family
feel of loving hands oiling her scalp
uneven plaits press of her shoulders into welcome legs
bitter fumes of burning hair wished out open windows
soothing taste of bath water moments in a voice
can I take it to the bridge
praise what’s flowering
speak with smell of victory on my breath
stand with rhythm of neighborhood by my friends
walk like I have manufactured tools from silence
engineered my bridges with flamboyance
of a maestro conducting transcendent orchestra
of an ex-slave shredding 4th of Julyin erudite oration exploding across the sky
Local music is a GoGo back beat in my cells. It gives me a historical tongue, a multi dimensional tongue. It translates my English into a bilingual tongue, rhythm substituting for my lack of vocabulary.
For 2021, I’m seeking to translate my local music into my own personal Baby Talk…a working tenderness, an effective tenderness, humming with the right tone of voice that channels my mother’s mantra—it ain’t what you say, it’s how you say it!
Starting with my May blog post, and for the rest of 2021, I’ll be tapping into an ecstatic frame of mind to write a sustained meditation on speaking tenderness.
Frankly, I know it will help me soar beyond the scarred legacies of this past year’s pandemic, as well as the coarse and pedestrian and self-serving language out the mouth of Emperor Wanna Be when he lived across from Black Lives Matter Plaza.
I know for sure that I need to try a little tenderness! For personal recalibration. To contribute to any and all social well being.
I am hyped to tap into its fulfilling locomotion.
To paraphrase the haunting words of late Maestro John Outterbridge:
I’m ready to be shook!
To hum along with the late Maestro Little Richard:
I’m ret to be powered by a whole lot of shaking from now on!
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “…Me myself, I’m trying to carry the weight of my wrongs with some grace and I hope my consistent striving for ethical doing the do ultimately helps folk to define me by much more than my flaws. … I stay alert for what my past has bequeathed and for what’s offered in the here-and-now on the sidewalks of our lives….” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop