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Maya Angelou loved me.
I know because she told me.
I had two occasions to be in her presence. The first was during college. It was a private dinner for her in Alabama and I was in a room full of people who were all, at least in their own minds, way more important than me. I was meant to be decoration for the event. “Youth” for the sake of saying young people were in the room. I sat at my table all evening listening to person after person speak about how wonderful Dr. Angelou was and how Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise were a testament to her strength and wisdom, etc. I agreed and I nodded my head and clapped my hands as an outward indication that I did. But inside my brain I was whispering to myself and rejecting the spurious parade of adoration. The thoughts in my head were coming so fast and furious that I literally started shaking my head ‘no’ and had to tell myself to stop. I was just so uncomfortable. All of the praise being heaped upon her and no one was telling the truth. No one was saying ‘this is what a warrior looks like’ and no one was saying ‘truth can’t get any truer than what this women represents’ or that ‘this is how joy operates’ and I was getting sick from the omission. At the end of the dinner we were allowed to come down a sort of receiving line to shake her hand and get a picture if we had a camera. It was 1994. No camera phones and no digital cameras. I bought a disposable camera and left it in the car I came in by accident. I stood up really slowly when the line formed and tried to be as far to the back as possible so I could be the last person to greet her – hoping to get more time. The line moved excruciatingly slow and I watched as the person in charge got more and more antsy, checking her watch and whispering in the ear of the person next to her. My heart was racing. I was not about to miss my opportunity and I had a small window to do something about it. Following my instincts, I stepped out of line and made my way behind the dais to a door on the side of the room while there was still so much buzz going on in the space. As I was walking I heard that antsy woman say, “I’m sorry, but we have to let Ms. Angelou go now…” and like I suspected she would – she shut the receiving line down. The other folks in line grumbled and pleaded and held their cameras asking for at least a picture – but I was focused. Ms. Angelou and her party turned and headed straight for the same door that I saw her enter through and when she arrived. When the group got to the door I politely opened it like it was my job and then stood with them quietly as they waited for the elevator. When I got within earshot I said “Did you enjoy your evening Dr. Angelou?” and she said “Oh, yes, dear very much.” Then I said, “I didn’t get a chance to meet you, but I love you very much!” She said, “Aren’t you meeting me now?” The group laughed and then the fidgety women who had been looking at her watch realized I didn’t belong. She asked if I was a student and I told her I was and then she said that I needed to go out of the door in the front. At that moment Dr. Angelou said, “What is your name dear?” and I told her. She said “Well it was great to meet you” and I asked if could I hug her just as the elevator came. She turned and hugged me and I said almost teary eyed, “I love you” and she said “And I love you, Tarana.”
She said she loved me. And she pronounced my name right.
That moment was a highlight of my life, but I already knew that she loved me.
I grew up in a Black woman’s literary paradise. My mother had hundreds of books all over our house and a majority of them were from the most beloved and revered women writers of our lifetime. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. As a little girl who loved to read I was always fascinated with the books my mother read mostly because of the pretty book covers and spectacular names . In particular, the Maya Angelou books had amazing covers and titles, but every time I asked my mom if I could read one she would say things like “I don’t know if you’re ready” or “not yet” and I would be so frustrated – but I obeyed her and left the books alone. I finally read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” at 13. I was in the sixth grade at Sacred Heart Middle School and it was a rough year. I remember when I started reading the book I was confused because it wasn’t hard to read. I thought my mother held me back from reading it because she thought it would be too difficult to understand. When I got to the part about young Maya and Mr. Freeman I understood. In the book, Maya Angelou talks about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at 7 years old. I was raped by the big brother of my childhood friend at 7 years old. At 13 years old – at the time I was reading this book – I was being molested and nobody knew. My 13-year-old mind could not understand and didn’t know that this was a thing that happens to girls and women around the world. I thought it was just me. I thought I was the kind of girl who bad things happened to. I didn’t tell my mother or anyone because I didn’t want them to know what a dirty, bad girl I had been. When I read about what happened to a young Maya Angelou it was the first time I even had a thought that another little girl could have gone through what I went through. I finished reading the book and I continued keeping, what was now in my mind, our secret. For me, Maya Angelou at that time was just another name on a book on my mother’s book shelf. She wasn’t “Dr. Maya Angelou” the esteemed poet, author, activist and all around wunderkind – she was a lady who wrote a book that shared my secrets.
Later on as a freshman in high school we read and studied “Phenomenal Woman” in my english class. I knew the poem but this was my first time dissecting it and reading her work with other students. My honor’s english teacher, Mr. Pieteritan, was in his white-liberal glory and very proud of himself for having this poem in his curriculum for Black History Month. I remember him passing out the handout and saying “you guys are SO going to love this!” Most of the class didn’t know the poem and many didn’t know Maya Angelou at all. I was excited when I saw her name on the paper and really eager to read out loud. Mr. Pieteritan allowed me and my friend Yolanda to read the poem together. I remember acting out a little bit and making the class laugh while I read; and then I remember him asking us what we thought this poem was about. Someone raised their hand and said something like it was about her letting the world know that she was fly and couldn’t be stopped. Mr. Pieteritan immediately agreed and went into this whole thing about how this was her way of saying “hey world look at me I’m a Black woman and I’m just as good as any white woman!” and then I remember very distinctly, he said while doing a weird ditty-bop type movement with his body – “She’s talking jive right? She’s kinda trash talking and saying ‘Yeah I’m better than you and you better believe it!” Before I knew it was going to come out I said “What are you talking about?” No!” Mr. Pieteritian was kind of used to my outbursts so he just turned and held out his hand and said “Ok, Ta-raan-a elaborate.” (he always pronounced my name wrong saying the middle part like the past tense of ‘run’ as opposed to the like the name ‘ron’). I sat up in my seat and said to him and the class that she was not talking ‘jive’ and she was not comparing herself to white woman – at all. I said that the poem, in my opinion was descriptive and that after a life like she had lived she was trying to explain to the world why they were so amazed by her and why she would never walk with her head down because she was a phenomenon. I said a bunch more. I was passionate about my explanation. I talked about how saying she was “jive talking” was an insult and demeaning to her. I talked about how all Black woman should feel this way. I talked about how she never mentioned white women or white people at all in the poem and it was “just like white people” to think that she had to be talking about them. When I was done, my classmates where a mixture of annoyed and amused. My teacher apologized for offending me and anyone else in the class and then went on to give a long, drawn out mini-lesson on the history of “Jive” in America. I rolled my eyes because although I didn’t know what ‘white privilege’ was at the time I certainly knew when I was experiencing it. I tuned him out and I sat for the rest of the class reading the poem over and over. I had read it before but not really read it. As I read the poem over and over and over my memory of young Maya Angelou and what happened to her was smacking up against what I was reading now. Even though I defended her right to be ‘phenomenal’ intellectually, I didn’t understand what that meant or how it was even possible spiritually. At a time when I was working hard to balance to duality of what I thought my deep, dark secrets made me and who I needed to be in order to keep those secrets covered up – I couldn’t understand how this woman who had been through what I had been through was able to hold those memories in the same body that held joy. I was amazed. I wanted to get to that place so badly and at that moment, with that poem, I started the journey and committed to finding out. I’m still on the journey but I’m as close as I have ever been because of her. I understand that its possible because I have the lived experiences that I was determined to have because she told me and showed me that I could.
Maya Angelou loved me.
I know because she told me.
From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Phenomenal Woman and every line in and around those remarkable works – she told me. She gave me a roadmap to myself. She and her friends did that and I won’t ever stop being grateful.
Rest in Peace Mother Maya.
I had just started tinkering with this blog post, which I had been planning to write for weeks in honor of my 40th birthday, when my mother called. We talk several times a week and she often calls me before the evening news comes on in NY so that she can watch it and go to bed right after like she does every night. She joked with me about the final moments of my thirties and told me that she knew I would “grab forty by the horns and ride it out…” and then we talked about a crazy mishap with her surprise gift for me and some other stuff. When I hung up from her I laid across my bed and like I had many times in the last year, I thought about her fortieth birthday. When my mother turned forty, I had just turned 17 the month before. Her birthday that year is pretty vivid in my mind because I threw her a party. It was on ‘the hill’ in our old neighborhood in the Bronx in a lounge called Mr. Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s place looked like the lovechild of Harpo’s juke joint and the smoke-filled back room where Dons get made. There wasn’t nothing but grown folk business being handled in there, but it was where the adults in our neighborhood went to unwind, and one of my mom’s favorite places. In hindsight it might have been a bit inappropriate for me and my four-year old brother to be there, but the occasion called for it. When I close my eyes I can still see the whole scene. My mother, whose hobby was sewing back then, made her outfit for the occasion, a black and white skirt suit with a black and white head wrap. She wore black leather stilettos by Bandalino, a brand she was loyal to until her back issues forced her out of four-inch heels. Her shoes had a black and white leather rose on them and she carried her black leather clutch. (The one she won’t pass on to me no matter how much I ask.) She was, as we say on such occasions, sharp. Or as my grandma would say she was “clean as the Board of Health.” I remember thinking she looked like a movie star walking in that place. I also remember that my mother had to work that day. She left work, maybe early, and went home to change before arriving to her party that evening, but she did have to travel to mid-town and work like she did any other day. Days off were a luxury in our house, I don’t know how many times I heard something to the effect of: “If I have to take a day off of work for this…” growing up. In any event, the party was a success. It was a modest affair and all of her buddies were on hand to wish her well with plenty of food, snacks and drinks for everyone. My stepdad helped me with the food and my mom’s girlfriend Lynda made sure she got there. She had a good time. I know she did. I could see it in her face all night long.
I have been thinking so much about her and that day for weeks and mostly thinking “I’m so not her.” As I started to seriously evaluate my life in this last run up to my birthday and think about who and what my mother was at forty, I didn’t feel as grown or as responsible or as together as she was to me back then. And I know I have a child’s perspective from that time, but this is not just random self-deprecation, she and I are very different.
My story is as cliché and as uniquely individual as any number of brown girls from the Bronx or other urban centers. In a nutshell: raised by a hard-working, single mom, who emphasized education and a strong work ethic. But my mother was also decidedly un-cliché, at least in my neighborhood. She found and enrolled me in an African centered daycare that began teaching me Swahili at three years old. Although she held customer service and clerical jobs for many years, she managed to pay for me to attend Catholic school when I could have easily gone to P.S. whatever number in the neighborhood. I couldn’t pledge allegiance to the flag in school and had to sit down with the Jehovah’s Witness girls every morning. When teachers asked me why, I was instructed to say, “I can’t pledge allegiance to a country that won’t pledge allegiance to me.” I was in first grade.
My mother sent me to the library on weekends and made me do book reports – just for her. I also went to a pretty swanky summer camp upstate every summer. The other campers were Black and Latino and white kids from the upper West side. Their parents were doctors and professors and they went to schools like Fieldston and York Prep. I lived in public housing and went to a small parochial school, but if I wasn’t supposed to fit in no one ever told me. I was as smart and talented and charismatic as any of those campers and I learned a great deal about history and art and culture at that camp. What I didn’t learn until much later was that my mom used her income tax return money every year to pay for me to go. The only lump sum of money most working class people can look forward to in order to get nice things or go nice places is their income tax return. My mother has never been on vacation, but I never missed a summer at Goddard. She also put me in program after program: Cadet Corps, drill team, African dance class, track team – some of which came with a price, all of which came with amazing experiences that shaped my childhood and my life. By the time my mother’s 40th birthday came I had traveled around the country, been to the White house and met world leaders. When I wanted to campaign for David Dinkins she let me. When I wanted to protest about Yusef Hawkins and the Central Park 5 she let me. When I wanted to travel half way across the country to join a national youth leadership program, she let me. If it would expand my horizons, broaden my knowledge base or enrich my life she let me do it, even when she couldn’t do the same things and even when she sometimes couldn’t afford it – she found a way and she let me.
I have been anticipating my 40th birthday for a while now. Like a number of my fellow early ’70s babies, the last few years have been an interesting mix of anxiety, preparation, anticipation and dread. Over the last two years however, I have started releasing some of the typical fears around leaving my thirties and have begun embracing this ever-present sense of freedom that planted itself in my spirit when I was still a child. I feel more determined to do the work I had put off for half of my thirties: writing, working with brown girls, and being fabulous (yes, that’s real work) and that is a wonderfully fulfilling feeling. But I recognize my privilege.
My mother is a great writer. If I have any talent as a writer at all I have to acknowledge it in deference to her. She is incredibly well read, and made sure I was too – early. I once asked her why she read so many books and she said “Because it makes you smart and who can dispute that?” She is also a social and economic justice advocate. It was partly watching my mother fly into action to advocate for those who had difficulty finding advocates that taught me about fighting for what’s right and against what’s wrong. She would have been an amazing activist and organizer, but social justice workers don’t get paid enough to put a child in private school and send them to fancy camps. I know because I tried.
When my daughter was born and I realized that I would be raising her pretty much as a single parent I was scared. I came home to live with my mom for eighteen months and took a job as an organizer for a small anti-sweatshop organization in Brooklyn. It paid next to nothing and I couldn’t pay my mom much rent. She told me to save up my money so I can move when I’m ready. I did move, a year and a half later, I moved back south. It was a big, risky decision, but she supported it. I moved to Montgomery, AL and got a regular job for a while (regular meaning in an office) but still social justice related. But after three years, my “real” work was calling me. I quit my job and moved to Selma, AL. I took a significant pay cut – meaning no pay – but I was doing everything I loved. My mom, who worked hard to find positions for herself that had upward mobility, and who had gone back to college to earn her Bachelors degree, surely didn’t get it, but she didn’t verbalized it to me. Soon after I moved to Selma I decided to actively pursue writing again. I was accepted into a highly regarded fellowship program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. The program lasted four months, but I couldn’t bring my daughter. My mother volunteered to take her. A few more years passed and I decided to leave the South. I had no idea where I was going or how I was getting there – with little money, but I packed up nonetheless. When I said to my mom, “I’m not sure where I’m going and I don’t have a job yet, but I’m leaving here.” She replied, “alright…but are you sure about that?” I said yes and that was it. By the summer I was ready to wrap things up in Alabama but had a lot of ripping and running to do. Again, my mom volunteered to take her granddaughter while I handled things. Everything worked out fine and now I’m in Philadelphia.
As I sit here writing this post I have about four tabs open on my computer. Each represents a different project I’m working on. Even though I have never worked a ‘conventional’ job in my whole career, this past May I was laid off from the job I had for the last four plus years. While it was a bit of a set back initially, ultimately it was a blessing. I was freed up to really dig into these projects that I have been putting off for so long and I’m also free to give my baby girl the kind of attention she needs going into her junior year in high school. In fact, at forty, I almost feel like the world tells you to feel in your 20s – like anything is possible and I can ‘be’ what I want to be but that’s not the kind of grown my mom represented at forty. She was stable. She was consistent and she kept a spotless house (no comment). And she didn’t seem to lean on my grandmother the way I lean on her. Not just financially (mommy, I’mma get you back I promise.) but emotionally and in other ways. She also didn’t seem to focus on herself and her personal aspirations as much as she did on mine. And as intentional as I am about raising my daughter and shaping her childhood to position her well for the future, I haven’t sacrificed my dreams or set aside my ambitions to do so. My mother surely had other aspirations for her life and there are probably roads she would have discovered just by following her heart as I have. Instead, she hunkered down, found stability, and gave me that freedom.
My mother was who she was at forty so I could be who I am at forty.
She made me brave. She made me curious. She made me resilient. And she made me free.
I don’t think she had some blueprint or master plan for how she wanted me to turn out, she just believed that I could be anything I wanted to be and made me see that I had something valuable to contribute to the world and then found every way she possibly could to prepare me to do and be just that.
Being forty, at least for me, isn’t about harboring shame or disappointment about who I’m not at this point in my life. It is a celebration of who I’ve become and who I’m becoming. I don’t know what the immediate future holds anymore than the next person. But I do know that whatever happens next and whatever direction I go in, I will be true to myself, I will work hard and smart to achieve my goals and I will not be afraid to fail, because my mom made me that way.
In response to the Russell Simmons promoted video Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, I wrote a piece for this blog that was very close to my heart. In the blog I talked about how I had wanted to write about the pain of feeling like the world hates Black women but had hesitated over and over again. In closing I added a short note to brothers:
“Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song…sing a song of her possibilities…”
I guess I want my song. We sisters have been singing to each other for a long time. We have a small chorus of brothers who join in from time to time. But really, we have been force-fed songs for everybody else. We know all of the words to our songs by heart and our songs are pretty, but they don’t soothe our souls like when…you sing. I don’t expect * them * to sing, but I want you to sing. my. song. Love me. Sing to me. Protect me. Make this pain go away. Don’t create this pain. Is it too much to ask to go to sleep and wake up to the melody of you singing my song? I want to go through the day with your song for me playing over and over again in my head. I want to have random memories of your lyrics cross my mind and make me smile. That’s how I want to survive, with you and I singing each other through unjust verdicts and heinous videos and anything the world throws at us. I know how to sing your song. I sing it with a hoodie on, I sing it in front of prisons and courthouses, I sing it every chance I get, I promise you I do.
sing. my. song.
Don’t hate me because I love you. We could sing together but my voice is tired. I just want you to sing for a little while.
While I was pouring my heart out here, a collective of Black men writers who call themselves Black Men Writing to Live were crafting a response to the much talked about twitter conversation that happened this week based on the hashtag #blackpowerisforblackmen started by Ebony.com editor Jamilah Lemeiux.
While this post is not a direct response to what I wrote – it certainly responds.
Sometimes I draw a hardline in situations like this. I get frustrated with the people who are “in the know” preaching to a choir that anxiously awaits their thoughts and musings so that they can vigorously agree. This is different. This is a touchstone conversation. This is Black men doing what Russell Simmons did NOT do in his apology – speaking directly to the hurt, pain, and challenges of Black women and being accountable. It’s beautiful, and heartfelt, and vulnerable, and needed.
I went through a range of emotions as I read through this. Sometimes I just eagerly nodded my head in agreement and other times I clutched my virtual pearls with a silent ‘awww’ under my breath. It made me smile and think and cry – the good kind of tears. It made me feel exactly how I was looking to feel when I wrote the last blog – understood, appreciated, valued, loved.
These men are by no means perfect, nor do they profess to be. They are not calling themselves “the standard” but I would say this is a starting place for building a standard. I have said for a long time that these conversations that happen about the lives of Black women and Black men cannot happen only between same genders. If Black women aren’t getting married, guess what? Black men aren’t either. It’s a family conversation not a national debate. We need to talk to each other and I’m so grateful to this collective for making that happen.
I’m posting the entire blog below. Please feel free to comment directly on the blog and repost liberally. Especially if you feel like I do and want to hug each and every one of these brother’s necks.
I am doing my best to set my intentions for the new year and a part of that is seeking greater spiritual grounding. My faith in God has brought me through all of the most difficult challenges that I have faced as an adult and somehow I seem to forget that when I need to remember it the most. I often forget that I have this awesome gift of faith and try to rely on my own will to get through the worst of times. This year I am determined to stay focused on my goals and “lean not on my own understanding…”
This is my daily prayer for 2013:
I want to walk in your perfect will all of my life. I do not want Your permissive will; I don’t want to do anything without your approval and blessing. If I try to do something that’s not Your best for me, please let me feel hesitation in my heart and a check in my spirit, to keep me on the path of your plan. Help me not to be stiff-necked. Help me not the be stubborn. Help me not to be hard-hearted. God, I want Your will to operate fully in my life. I’ve experienced the fruit of my own will enough to know that if I get my way, and it’s not what You want, it’s going to turn out bad. I’m willing to obey You, but please help me to hear clearly what You are telling me to do.
Whatever your particular faith is – I hope that you are able to lean on it to help you set your intentions for the new year and whatever your goals are for this life – and then work diligently toward them. God has brought me this far for a reason. I know that I am doing my best not to forget that again.
I have been contemplating the idea of ‘almost’ quite a bit lately.
Growing up, in my house, the word was certainly frowned upon. My mother had a thing about speaking in definites. If she asked a question like “Tarana, is your homework done?” She expected a succinct answer: yes or no. When I would simply yell back casually, “almost!” She’d return with, “What is almost? Either you’re finished or you are not – don’t answer questions that I didn’t ask!” As a kid it would boggle my mind as to why it made a difference to my mom, but as an adult I can see the absolute value in being direct and clear. Webster’s dictionary online defines the word ‘almost’ as an adverb meaning “very nearly, not quite, or slightly short of,” which means using the word frequently is like perpetually living in the gray area.
I didn’t get it then. I do now.
There are clearly situations to which ‘almost’ applies. One can be almost finished a drink; or almost to the finish line; or almost dressed. It’s a marker for half or perhaps a quarter of the way towards completion when there is a clear end in sight. But, in other instances, like affairs of the heart, Ms. Norwood was absolutely right: almost doesn’t count.
It was Brandy’s heart wrenching song that led to my rumination about ‘almost’ actually. I was sitting up in my room (I couldn’t help it) thinking about my latest heartbreak. Like a good virgo child, I was mulling over every single detail of our relationship that I could dredge up from my memory and laying them out chronologically in the vast open space in my mind. I was thinking through how close to being forever me and “he” had come to on more than one occasion and I kept wondering – why not? Why was there always some-thing, some-situation or some-new development that managed to unravel whatever progress we might have made when we were so close…we were almost there. But that is precisely why almost doesn’t count.
Almost doesn’t talk me through rough nights when I’m doubting my abilities as a parent, a professional and a person.
Almost doesn’t make me feel strong when I’m feeling scared and confused.
Almost doesn’t lose itself in hours of conversation just as easily as it does in long moments of silence.
And almost doesn’t clap for me. Love does, but not almost and I need someone to clap for me.
The conclusion that I came to, although not profound in the rocket science sense, was more of an “aha” of the Oprah variety. When I thought over all of the years I had committed to trying to make something happen that didn’t ever end in my favor and all of the times when I felt like we were so close only to be disappointed again, I realized that as it pertains to emotions – love – in particular, almost was synonymous with never.
As much as that felt like a gut punch it was also cathartic. I had to sit up straight and say it out loud. I don’t want to spend my life chasing behind a maybe. I can’t wrap my arms around “very nearly” or plan a future with “slightly short of.” If it’s love it has to be absolute, definite. I deserve that. Everybody does. And I don’t plan on settling for anything less.
This has been my own lesson to learn though. My almost love isn’t all to blame. He’s been telling me for years in one way or another. He’s been communicating, without saying a word, that he wasn’t ‘the one’ and the volumes spoken between the lines of those unspoken words are where the lesson lies. Sometimes we just know. We know when it’s not enough. We know when it’s just a dream held together with scotch tape and lipstick and bendable will. And, when we find ourselves in that gray area, alone with a random text message and another rain check – we have to make some serious decisions. Almost will never make me happy. I’m clear about that. And now that I’m clear, I have to do the work of figuring out why I tried to find happiness in almost instead of in Tarana.
These revelations are always energizing on the first day. But now its the next day and the day after that and the day after that and I struggle sometimes because although it won’t bring you joy, almost can at least make you smile occasionally – and I like to smile. But I want the kind of smile that comes from the inside out. I want the kind of love that lasts forever. And I’ll know it when I see it because I almost had it.
I can’t stop crying.
It has been hours at this point since I plopped on my bed, opened my laptop, clicked onto Facebook and had my heart ripped out.
Whitney Houston, the biggest female singer of my time, has died. And I’m taking it hard.
It’s more than her being one of my all time favorite singers. Or maybe that is it. But I haven’t felt like this since…well, since we lost Mike. And tonight, just like that balmy, early summer evening in 2009, I am struggling to understand why this feels like a death in my family.
I get it that people die, obviously. I also get it that I had never met her and didn’t know her personally. But I did know her, or at least that’s how it felt sometimes, and it felt like she knew me – or at least knew my heart. She was ten years older than I am . She wasn’t supposed to precede her mom and her cousin and her godmother in death. She was supposed to bounce back from the bowls of narcotic hell and show the world that her magic was real.
Maybe it hurts like this because we’ve known her since she was 19. I remember hearing “Saving All My Love” on WBLS in New York and thinking “who is that?” I can still remember Ken “Spider” Web, the radio DJ, going on and on about her being related to Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin but I had missed her name. I was, and I still am, a HUGE music fan. Her voice was so amazing to me that I needed to know who she was. I listened to the radio intently for the next 24 hours until her song came on again – it did and I missed the name again! Finally, a few days later, the song came on and the radio announcer said “new one from Whitney Houston – this young lady is sure to be a star!”
You think I’m lying? I remember these things like moments in a relationship. I can also remember hearing Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” while getting ready for summer camp and my mother and I listening over and over trying to figure out what he was saying exactly. I remember when my mother brought home Whitney’s first album, Whitney Houston and told me that she was Cissy Houston’s daughter. (We listened to a lot of Cissy in my house.) I sat on the living room floor and looked at the picture thinking about how pretty she looked to me. That album did to me what it did to legions of young girls around my age at the time – it made us think we could sing! One of my first big Whitney-related memories is auditioning for Showtime at the Apollo. (I’ll pause for wisecracks) My seventh grade friend Keisha and I decided to sing The Greatest Love of All as a duet and we would meet everyday after school to rehearse. When the audition came up my mother and father brought me down to Harlem to the old National Black Theater building and Keisha and I got up and sang our little hearts out. We didn’t make it. But my mother did say afterwards, “Ok, well you have a little something there, you ain’t Whitney, but you held your own.” That made me proud – I held my own. That’s all I needed. I gave up singing but I still loved Whitney.
As I sit here recalling other Whitney memories in my life I can’t help but think about how I matured with her. She took me, emotionally, from middle school to motherhood. By the time her second album, Whitney dropped, I was entering high school and the world of high school boys. Where Do Broken Hearts Go; I Get So Emotional; Didn’t We Almost Have it All all dripped of the drama that a fourteen year old girl needed to cope with the roller coaster ride that is puppy love. And the latter, Didn’t We Almost Have it All? Chile. That song reared it’s unfortunately appropriate head more than a few times well into adulthood. In later high school years I had a ‘high school sweetheart’ and All the Man I Need from her third album became one of our first songs. Another lesser known cut from that album, After We Make Love (which, by the way we hadn’t yet) was another favorite of mine. I wrote lyrics to songs I loved in my journal back then. These were included and I still have it (see below). I can’t find the one with “All the Man I Need” but I can tell you that I had planned my deflowering to a tee and it was to be on July 4th so that there would be fireworks involved and that song was to be playing in the background. Didn’t quite go down like that, but Whitney was apart of the dream.
I was in college when I Will Always Love You hit. I have worn my lungs out on many, many occasions trying to hit those notes. It was just perfection. I used to feel so irritated towards white people, especially in the deep south where I was at the time, who acted like she just became relevant with this monster hit. I can remember walking to my apartment from campus with my walkman on singing I Have Nothing at the very top of my lungs. I also remember a guy who I was sort of seeing at the time calling and leaving “I Will Always Love You” on my answering machine. I was so annoyed because his intention was to woo me but I had to let him know that although a beautiful ballad, it was a BREAK UP song. Which of course leads me to her next album. The Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack.
When I tell you that I could barely believe what I was hearing when I found out that Babyface was putting together this all-star album with all of my favorite singers: Anita Baker, Patti Labelle, Faith Evans, MARY J. BLIGE and…Whitney Houston – I nearly passed out. To this day, Exhale (Shoop, Shoop) just makes me feel better. Seriously. Her voice in that song, the words, the lullaby like repetition, it just soothes me. In the same regard, Count on Me takes me through it. I love my friends so much. I can’t think of that song without thinking about that love, particularly for my best friend. When I hear that song I always get choked up thinking about the ways in which I have been able to count on her through the years. Makes me sad for Whitney’s close circle of girlfriends like CeCe Winan and Kim Burrell and Perri “Pebbles” Reid. There is a version of Bridge Over Troubled Waters that Whitney and CeCe sang on a Vh1 program years ago that shows the power of their connection.
My connection with her grew even stronger when she released the Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. I had never really listened to gospel music growing up but my relationship with God was growing and I felt like I needed to move away from secular music. The problem was, all I knew was secular music. I lived with a constant soundtrack in my mind and there was no way I could give that up. I felt so torn. Then I heard Whitney’s version of I Love the Lord and it turned it all around. I played that soundtrack out. I do to this day. I Go to the Rock and I Believe in You and Me are mainstays in my gospel rotation. Whitney ushered me into gospel. Her version of This Day is perfect. Bar none. The familiarity and comfort I had with her voice allowed me to be introduced to gospel at my own pace and eventually just fully embrace and love the genre.
I have to admit as much as I loved her first big “come back” with the 2007 release of Your Love is My Love. I wasn’t a fan of much of the music Whitney put out after that. It was hard for me to hear the straining in her voice and see the fear and anxiety in her eyes as she realized that we realized that things were not the same. Like most of her fans, and there are legions of us, we spent much of the new millenium deeply worried about her. And to be honest, it might have been easier to take this news six or seven years ago when we were watching her public spiral and challenges with addiction and sobriety. I can remember saying on more than one occasion, “please Whitney don’t die.” I also remember being moved emotionally watching her Christian sisters praying for her on live television during Cece Winans religion channel program.
After watching all of these clips of Whitney what has dawned on me is that this is harder because we were all rooting for her full recovery. The world of her fans, those of us who believed most in the possibility of her triumph – not as a singer – but as a human are that much more devastated by this loss. Many of us have dealt with drug abuse in our family. I know I have. And if you have you know that it’s often, more often than not, not a happy ending. Whitney represented the possibility of a happy ending. I joked after her return that I couldn’t wait for the tell-all autobiography ala Tina Turner that reveals the depths of despair that she pulled herself up from to become the beacon of hope that she would go on to be for so many who thought it wasn’t possible for them. She would be for addicts what Tina was for survivors of domestic abuse. When she came out on stage on Good Morning America last year I was moved to tears. Not by her voice, but by her spirit. That she did the work, took on the challenge and fought back for her life made me so happy. Watching her sing to her mother who has never once left her side and never once stopped praying was overwhelming. I didn’t care what her voice sounded like. I just knew we had Whitney back for the long haul.
You can’t imagine how sad I am that I was mistaken.
There are so many more Whitney memories I could share. I mean Heartbreak Hotel and Why Does It Hurt So Bad have stories that are worthy of their own posts. The names say it all – but I will digress. Our generation is loosing it’s “icons” way to soon. When I think about the legends of my mother’s time and her all time favorites: Patti, Aretha, Gladys…they were all able to come through rough times, continue with stellar careers and move easily into legendary status. They are here to be honored and cherished. It’s so perplexing to me that Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston would be lost at these young ages. And when I think about who my daughter will call icon, it just makes me sadder. There is no one in her generation and no other in my own who could do this or this or this or bite your tongue THIS.
Whitney was an original. Inimitable.
I’ll leave you with this clip. I feel like it embodies everything I (we) are feeling right now and why. We believed in Whitney. We wanted the best for Whitney, we wanted her to win. And maybe in some way that we aren’t meant to understand — she did. Maybe she won because she’s free.
Rest in Peace Whitney. We love you.
Back story: I originally wrote this in early 2010 after an incident with my daughter. Like a number of blogs I start and don’t finish, it was buried in a file that I just re-discovered and I decided to finish and publish it mostly because I have had many more of these moments since this one and many others before it. Life can be fleeting and it seems more so lately. So, I want to give my mother her roses now. Purple ones of course!
First I have to thank you. There are a number of things to thank you for obviously, but this is specifically for yesterday (and several others days like it) when I have called you in a panic about the baby Giant (BG) or “kaiahead” like you call her.
As you know, I am not prone to hysteria. You raised me to be rational in most situations and to take a moment to think things through before I fly off the handle (mostly). As such, when I had not heard from my child – your granddaughter in two and a half hours, I didn’t panic – i pondered. I started thinking about all of the reasons the BG could be late, like sitting in the library (where she was supposed to be) having a conversation with the librarian about the fine line between young adult and adolescent literature or maybe there was, you know, a puppet show. You never know with this kid. I thought about these things as I called the local library branch where she was supposed to go after school today and was told that she hadn’t been there – at all. That shook me up a little because I knew she should have made it to the library and been on her way home by that time, but I didn’t worry – too much. An hour later when she still wasn’t home, I decided to take a walk up to the library and see for myself; because, like you always were with me, I am proactive in my approach to raising my child. I thought, like you taught me, about what the reasonable explanation could be for not hearing from her for now three and a half hours. I still didn’t completely panic – but I prayed. Maybe they had made a mistake at the library and she was holed up in a corner reading as she always is at home. Maybe she was on a bus that was re-routed and it was taking considerably longer to get home. Maybe this was another of her hair-brained schemes to have a little “free time” and she was out gallivanting at the mall. I prayed: “Lord, whatever she’s doing – wherever she’s at, please bring her home safely.”
Mommy, I have to say as I walked up the hill to the library with my prayers in tow, my heart began to sink lower and lower. I foolishly allowed thoughts of the “worst case scenario” to creep in and I started to become unnerved. I took a brief moment to sit and collect myself and then I called you. You said to me “calm down” “Take a deep breath” “Think,” you said. “This is Kaia we’re talking about.” And I thought “what would I be thinking at 12?” And that’s when I remembered.
I remembered the time when I decided to “run away from home” in the seventh grade. I had been deeply embarrassed that day at school because I laughed during my public reading at church. In my pre-teen mind, the pressure of that and the other problems I was dealing with at the time were simply too much – and I bolted. I know now, or at least I believe, that what I really wanted was another reality. I wanted just for a little while not to have “those” problems, even if it meant creating new ones. I didn’t think for even a moment about how my sudden disappearance would affect you. I didn’t think about how panicked you must have been when I didn’t call you like clockwork by 4:00PM to say I was in the house and safe. I didn’t think about what your worst fears might have been about what had happened to your only child. I didn’t think of these things because I was selfish – as children often are. Not a mean, malicious kind of selfish, just a self-absorbed, naive kind. The kind that thinks that their problems are larger than life and the only ones that exist. The kind that thinks that no one can help them because no on understands. And the kind that thinks that they have the answers at the tender age of 12.
I’m sorry. Or rather, I apologize because, like you always taught me, “anyone can be sorry, it takes a big person to apologize.”
I know now. I understand the gripping fear that takes hold of you when you allow yourself for just a moment to imagine your life without your child. I understand the deeply sad and vastly empty feeling that creeps up from the pit of your stomach and anchors in the depths of your soul. Even if you don’t wallow in those feelings, just a glimpse of them is nightmarish. I understand.
The BG and I are different and the same. She is dealing with some similar, but many more dissimilar issues than i was at her age. But I’m sure her 12-year-old mind processes many things the same way that i did. She didn’t run away yesterday, she simply got her wires crossed and was at the wrong library branch. I thank God for that. She is mostly a good kid and I never have too much trouble from her, but you never know.
One thing for sure about your “kaiahead” she’s courageous where i wasn’t. I wish i had the courage to talk to you then. I wish i realized that you were my ally and your purpose was to protect me, not mine to protect you. I foolishly wanted to shield you from my hurt and anger and embarrassment and pain. I didn’t get that God put you in my life because you had the space and strength to handle whatever my tender years had to offer.
So this is an open letter to say thank you and I apologize. Thank you for being here now, always supportive, always objective, always a rock. And thank you for being there then with your worries and your fears and your heartache and your patience and your calm and your insight. I know it’s all love.
I can’t turn back the clock, but i can pay it forward. And that’s exactly what I try to do everyday. I hope I can be even half the mother that you aspired to be.
With all my love,