Thursday, September 27, 2012

Where is the Love? It's "Just Above My Head"

I’m reading James Balwin’s, "Just Above My Head".

 I "discovered" James when I was young, far from home, and trapped between those hard places.  That summer, I read all of his books, except this one, and Giovanni's Room. I Then  passed them along to a homeless New York friend sleeping on the couch of my shared rented house, that I could barely afford, and didn't want to even be there because of my really southern and much older roommates.

 Years later, my friend, now a successful Hollywood actor, claimed, I saved his life. Upon receiving this shocking news, I told him that I was merely the conduit between James, the true savior,  and he.  I confessed that I was so caught up  in my own sufferings, I didn’t even know how much he was hurting.

James kept me moored,  it would have been so easy for me just to let go and drift away, but James turned the lights on so I could see the monsters.  For James had the ability to "name", what Samuel Beckett labeled “the mess”,  which he said was the responsibility of a true artists to make visible and grapple with.  Dr. Cornel West calls it the “funk” for Black people which incorporates the existential crisis of the human condition described by Chekov's work, with the white terror of two hundred years of chattel slavery and another hundred of Jim Crowism, that's produced this hybrid polyglot of “mess” and "funk" regurgitated up from the plutocratic and white supremacist American dungeon, as a demonic cyclone moving back and forth, back and forth, through Black America or like Edgar Allen Poe's pendulum, slowly cutting through the American Black body
 chained in the bottom of the pit.

James Baldwin was no ghosts buster. But his ability to expose the funk, at least gave one a fighting chance.  I always kept James Baldwin close through the years, and it was because of him that not only did I begin to heal, but became less dangerous to my community, by finally getting off the fence and firmly rejected homophobia, specifically in the Black community were it’s most destructive. Now that I've matured a spell, I understand that Baldwin's work was equally about spreading Black love, after the "naming" and "exposure" of the "mess" and the "funk", so that one can not just heal
but began to develop love as a weapon to heal the Black community.

I’m not going to get deep into this book. I’ll save that for when I finish it.  But for now as Chicago's pandemic of Black on Black Rage/Black on Black Violence, finally winds down for the season, only because of the rapidly fading summer,  I’m focusing on the love, also because I missed it during my first introduction to James years ago. I know at that time I wasn't ready, because I only wanted to see the enemy made visible.

All the Black characters in this novel, both women and men, are deeply masculine in their response to what was at that time, in the 1960, Black people full submergence in the swamp of white supremacy. 

What's fascinatingly is, while the Black women are one dimensional in this roll,  The men are overly sensitive and almost feminine.  The main character is the narrator’s brother, Arthur, who is a musician. But not the stereo typical Black jazz or blues musician, but the lead singer of a gospel quartet named "The Trumpets of Zion".  The members  of the group are all from hard-scrabble Harlem, which makes it somewhat easier to see why they're "of" the Black church as singers, but not in it as members.  So they have street names, like Crunch and Peanut, but they wear their pain and suffering on their sleeve and as opposed to hiding it in a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, in a needle, or in violence. 

And while they don’t always vocalize their pain, each member is on the look out for the signs of pain in the eyes and voices of the other members.  And through singing they broadcast the primordial screams and cries of those Africans locked in the hauls of slave ships on the middle passage, and in transition to becoming the “Black race" on the plantations, losing husbands, wives, children, sisters and brothers, limbs, the whips and chains, etc.  In fact at the beginning of the novel, Arthur and the Trumpets of Zion are singing in a church. Now gospel songs are mostly beseeching, imploring, and begging God to intervene, for his mercy, to have pity, etc.  But this song is not about begging , this song paints a picture of midnight in the final hour before a situation that's already desperate, slides to despicably horrid.  This song aint about prayer. It’s about the faithful  believer cashing in all their chips, this is the mother on the slave ship with child, demanding,

“Savior, Don’t You Pass Me by!  Savior, Savior, Savior, Don't you [dare] Pass Me by!”  Arthur's brother narrates,  that his brother[ Arthur] the lead singer, seems "alone, eyes closed meaning every instant of it, beginning high, like a scream, then dropping low, like a whisper in a dungeon, "Don’t You Pass Me By, Savior, Don't You Pass Me By”  

In the world James Baldwin creates, a Black man in New York City, can walk into a crowded bar, as a stranger on Christmas eve, meet the Black bartender and immediately form a bond so intense that the former stranger tells the bartender that he's bringing his girl friend back to meet him on Christmas Day. And the Bartender says "You better do just that, Baby" And not only does the former stranger bring his girl to the bar to introduce them, but days later, comes back into the bar  alone, with a look that the bartender can immediately read as utter despair. The bartender catches and  hugs the former stranger into the bar's back-room, so he can cry and get it together, while the bartender leaves to prepare and bring back for him, a especial Bloody Mary.

This might sound cheesy, but James Baldwin pulls it off as a cogent response to such massive suffering, because this book goes deep with it. One of the subplots, is a fourteen year old child prodigy evangelical minister, Julia, who is not only the "meal ticket" for the whole family, but through manipulation and passive aggression runs the house and ends up basically killing her mother and like Toni Morrison's Pecola in her novel "Bluest Eye", falls victim as well.

Then there is the revelation by the novel's "strong man" Crunch, that before he even reveals it, just the inflection in his voice makes Arthur's "heart jump". Because Black males in this novel, are so connected that that they can spot those catastrophic announcements before they even arrive, such as the bomb that Crunch drops, "every time I see my Momma", he says so quietly  that Arthur's heart leaps almost in terror, "My Moma's a whore, really. I love her, but that's what she is. It's funny, I don't think I'd mind, if only she didn't mind. I don't think the other kids would mind-she's our Momma. She aint got nothing to be ashamed off. She did every thing she could for us, it aint her fault the world is like it is"

bell hooks writes authentically about Black on Black love as a scholar. But James Baldwin's characters in this novel demonstrate it in action, so boldly that I understand the total lack of it in reality and it's constant lethal and detrimental consequences to us as a race and America as a nation. I also understanding the subconscious yearning for this connection in Black men, trapped in masculinity. Now, finally I understand the reason why a lot of Black men and boys ( including myself) born and raised in those "hard places and spaces", no matter if we've left or are still there, nod to each other when we pass each other in the street.

"My Dungeon Shook And My Chains Fell off"

-James Baldwin

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