Are the Kids Alright?

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Immigrant families from the Black Diaspora are familiar with this passage: moving to countries with thriving economies to make a better living, and leaving their children behind in the care of trusted relatives and friends. Of course, the separation is never permanent. Just long enough for the mom or dad to get working papers and authorization to bring his or her spouse and kids to where they are. The idea of making such a choice for economic reasons seems hard enough, but what if one’s humanity were in the balance?

What if it was the late 18402 and you were a young slave woman, say Mary Walker, visiting Philadelphia with your master? With three young children back on a plantation in North Carolina, you might not be tempted to succumb to the urgings of abolitionists to get away. But if you and that master argued so fiercely about something that he threatened to sell your kids away from the only home they’ve ever known, then what?

Mark Walker made a choice given those terms, and you can read about it in “To Free A Family,” by Sydney Nathans. The story is drawn from letters and lots of other documents to piece together Walker’s life and what it was like for her to live through those times. I’m not sure if I could bear to be separated from Baby, but if it were inevitable and I had to make a terrible bargain, I’d at least want to scrape up an ounce of my own humanity by booking passage on the Underground Railroad, instead of waiting around helplessly until someone tore her out of my arms.

Walker was a literate slave, and was articulate enough to impress northern whites, apparently. I prefer to read stories about slaves like her, honestly, because tales of brutality meted out on field workers always leave me emotionally zapped and near tears. Judging by this book review in The Wall Street Journal, Walker’s story had a more uplifting end.


A Heaven-Sent Voice Returns Home

Give me one moment in time, when I’m more than I thought I would be

When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me

About a year ago, I steered our family station wagon through the narrow hoary streets of East Orange, consulting a scrap of paper with directions to a health food store. I drove past a rambling red brick building marked with a monumental sign on the threadbare front lawn: the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Performing Arts. The building was set far back from the street, and the lawn was framed with what I thought was skimpy landscaping. I wondered about that place of learning: Was it a district, charter, magnet or private school? Was it well supported by its namesake and benefactors? If so, couldn’t the supporters have done more to spruce it up, especially since the namesake has such a polished public image?

An uncomfortable feeling followed the first thought: By 2011, Whitney Houston had fallen from grace. Years of drug use, to which she publicly admitted and a hard-to-break cigarette habit, seemed responsible for damaging her uniquely glorious voice. Her public struggles to leave a wacky marriage and overcome substance abuse had taken apart the persona of a charming, articulate, poised and intelligent young woman with the world at her feet.

Yet Whitney was not, at heart, the coarse-talking riff raff that mean-spirited detractors say she “really was.” Her real, actual history was of a mesmerizingly cute impish girl, in middle-class East Orange, NJ.  The music world has its nobility and peerage, and she hailed from the House of Drinkard-Houston, LOL. Look them up, including her mother, aunts and cousins, and it becomes easier to process how someone could be that gifted vocally. Whitney was the gift that kept on giving. She was also a ground-breaking and highly sought after teen fashion model, with a thriving career that was translating nicely into television roles. She appeared on Gimme A Break, SilverSpoons and was offered the part of Sandra Huxtable on The Cosby Show.  By the time her music career had taken off, she had already traveled the world with her mother and Dionne Warwick, met and worked with the likes of Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross, and developed a work ethic that made her very appealing to music and casting directors who needed reliable, talented people to complete projects. One way or another, Whitney was destined for stardom. So all this talk about her “fake” public image is pure nonsense from cruel, hardened cynics.

Yet there was no doubt that years of being hounded by an inhumane press, lashings from an ungrateful and vulgar public, all compounded by marital betrayal worsened a natural proclivity to abuse substances. Whitney seemed as lost emotionally as I was geographically at that moment. She was working on reclaiming her former glory, directions in hand, her destination in view. Looking at the school, I silently prayed that the woman would continue her comeback, finally conquer her problems and enjoy a natural, long life. As much as I was aware of her problems, I couldn’t bash her and write her off: Her voice, clear, strong beautifully honed as European leaded crystal, had brightened many of my dark and moody adolescent days. It ministered to me, and I couldn’t drag her like some of these other sickos were doing.

To say that last week’s word of Whitney’s death shocked me is an understatement. She had too much in common with me, my cousins and contemporaries for any of us to filter this news out as yet another troubled, brilliant singer who could not save herself from ruin. Like us, she was black, talented, grew up in church, nestled amidst a family of talented, resourceful and driven women. She came from hardscrabble inner city surroundings in northern New Jersey and achieved—here is where she was quite special—phenomenal and unrivaled success at her craft. Yet she maintained a presence in the state and always owned a home here. It is safe to say that all Jersey girls are loyal, and no amount of fame or success will make her pull up roots from the state completely. She always leaves a piece of her heart here, and comes back to visit every now and then.

I couldn’t have abandoned Whitney then, and cannot now. The public still does not know exactly what caused her death last week, although it has been widely reported that she was found underwater in the bathtub of her hotel room. Part of me is still hoping that it was all an accident, and that her vices did not play a part in her demise.  There is also a temptation to blame her tempestuous marriage for keeping her mired in drug use, even if that relationship wasn’t responsible for introducing her to cocaine or whatever else she might have used to self-medicate. Some might say that had she devoted that singular voice to gospel music, she would have avoided the risky behaviors that attends the popular and R&B music scenes so often, and she might still be alive and thriving. But gospel is a well-trod hunting ground for R&B talent, and with her connections and obvious talent, Whitney would have faced unrelenting pressure to change genres. No, she was destined for the musical career that she had. And there is no guarantee that had she overcome addictions, her personal relationships would have fared as well. She was known to be stubborn, and those personalities can be hard to live with. And yet, I am still in her corner as much as I can be, hoping that she finds eternal peace.

I remember watching a video of Whitney Houston belting out the Star-Spangled Banner months ago and thinking: Is such a phenomenon really gone forever? Other singers have a higher range, but few had the crystal purity, exquisite refinement, sweetness and fire, and of course resilient strength of Whitney’s vocals in its heyday. And her heyday was a very long period.  The signature song “I Look to You,” from her comeback album, went gold, even though her vocals had been clearly diminished. She displayed a level and quality of singing that is still out of reach for a lot of people. Had she found the inner strength to save herself, to preserve her gift, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that her second career act would have been unassailably awesome.

I can accept that tragic untimely deaths happen all the time, and to much younger people. It is upsetting that Whitney did not seem to overcome her demons, worse that her voice seemed tarnished forever and that she might have had to live to see her glory fade, and regret it bitterly. Now all of that pining has to come to an end. Whitney’s funeral gets underway Saturday, and everyone will have to begin letting go of their hopes and dreams for her at that point. Yet it feels unnecessary and cruel that someone who had the support of mentors, protégés, family and fans, and who was pressing her way toward perfection again would be kept back from it. It just seems wrong that a singer whose voice embodied the American ethos of striving and moving forward should have slipped under the surface of the water for good.

A Deafening Silence

Black History Month is well underway, and with a paltry 29 days with which to revel in the achievements of Blacks here in America and throughout the African diaspora, we need to get moving!

Camilla Williams is a great place to start. A lyric soprano, her debut in the lead role in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with the New York City Opera on May 15, 1946, marked a triple threat. She had never performed in an opera before; the NYC Opera had never staged “Madama Butterfly”; and no African-American had landed a contract with a major opera company previously. Ms. Williams died just last week, at around 93 years old. Sadly, Ms. Williams passed away this week, as I read in an obit in The New York Times.

What a life Camilla Williams must have lead! She was the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker, really humble beginning, like more Blacks who go on to earn a line in the history books. Williams started serious vocal training from a Welsh instructor who taught at a local white college. Jim Crow segregation laws, however, required that she take lessons at his home. She graduated college, became a teacher, and embarked on a series of vocal scholarships to hone her craft.

It is a tragedy, I think, that I heard about this American gem just as she left this world, especially because I genuinely admire lyricists. Enough of the contrived, digitally enhanced embroidery that peppers so much of popular much today! Let’s hear about life, love and loss from the masters.

The Times put it another way and more eloquently:

That Miss Williams’s historic role is scarcely remembered today is rooted in both the rarefied world of opera-house politics and the ubiquitous racial anxiety of midcentury America. And though she was far too well mannered to trumpet her rightful place in history, her relegation to its margins caused her great private anguish.

“The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things,” Miss Williams said in a 1995 interview with the opera scholar Elizabeth Nash. “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”

I’ve only been to see two operas: Carmen and La Traviata, but I immensely enjoyed both. It’s too bad that the hustle and bustle of everyday life prevents us from seeing more productions. The Met, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are just a handful of the cultural institutions that I feel are sorely neglected today. I don’t understand why more people don’t see the beauty, so moving and perfectly executed, in the fine arts. Hubby and I took Little Sister to see the Alvin Ailey company when it came through Newark, hoping to instill an appreciation of a beautiful art form. She was languid and pouty through the whole thing, and not even the rousing, masterfully done “Revelations” could get her to stop slumping in her seat. It bothered me quite a bit, but I suppose that since the dancers were not bumpin’ and grindin’, or shaking her hands for their men to “put a ring on it.” their exertions were lost on one so young.

Please don’t get me wrong. I heartily congratulate Beyonce and her cohort on her well-earned success. It would be nice, is all, if somehow the public’s musical and artistic diet could be more balanced, and if they could embrace those shake our hearts, not their booties.