In The Church of Grown Folks’ Music

Saeed Jones opens his memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, and this happens:

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” comes on the kitchen radio                                                     and briefly, your mother isn’t your mother –

… Spinning, she looks at but doesn’t see you,                                                                           spinning, she sings lyrics too fast for you to pursue,                                                      spinning, she doesn’t have time for questions like:                                                               What is this nasty song and where did she learn                                                                    to dance like that and why, and who is this high pitched                                                      bitch of a man who can sing like a woman and turn                                                              your mother not into your mother but a woman,                                                                  not even a woman, but a box-braided black girl, …

( “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music,” p. XI

My God, this scene. I can see it; I can see myself in my own kitchen caught in a revelry that envelopes me like a cloud when the right old school jam is on. One time I’m Chaka Khan singing “Sweet Thing,” the next time I am party to my own undoing while Barry White sets the stage. Grown folks’ music is right. It’s those tunes I knew and sang sitting on the back seat of my parents’ Chevy Impala and then later the station wagon.

WJMO – Cleveland’s soul station was on as long as my big brother was in the car. On the way to middle school, I memorized the lyrics to “You Are My Starship” in Mrs. Robinson’s carpool. I could sing all the songs but had less than a clue what they were really about. When I was maybe 7 or 8 our neighbor across the street, Mr. Bogan, liked to hear me sing “I’m Chairman of the Board” because I knew all the words and had it down. It always made him laugh and I was sure I’d become an actress one day.  My neighbors down the street, the Wheelers, their favorite song for me to imitate was “Can This Be Real.” Song imitations were my out-of-house social currency. Mimicry seemed to be a gift I had.

Like special aromas, the right melody can take us back to who we were in another time, practically in another life. Which how I can see Saeed Jones’s mother become the girl she was when Prince was brand new and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was all any of us wanted to hear on the radio. I always dreamed of myself doing that silky hand dance to “Yearning For Your Love” with a handsome Black gentleman who would have all the moves and eyes only for me.  It never turned out quite like imagined, though. That young gentleman I envisioned never materialized and the consolation prizes who showed up lacked both moves and real interest. Alas, the hand dance of the century would not be my destiny.

When I allow myself to dip into my soul music revelry for real, I am usually alone, free to hit the high notes without shame, to shoop and swing like back in the day. I throw on a little nerve, some attitude, close my eyes and testify.

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photo by Alexandra Thompson

*For those who can’t get enough of these sounds, here’s a playlist I made earlier this year for #31DaysBIPOC