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harmonyholiday

Mama Looks for Melanin

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Illustration by Bex Glendining

Harmony Holiday | Longreads | June 2019 | 17 minutes (4,437 words)

The night my mother turned 30 we went to Spago in Hollywood. It was her, me — about 6 years old at the time — and my sister, who was about a year and half, wheeled in, asleep in her stroller. We didn’t have a reservation, and Spago is one of those pathetically coveted restaurants where celebrities go to be seen. I remember my mom walking up to the hostess at the front of a long line and making something up about who her husband was. Or maybe she just offered the truth about who he had been. We were seated right away, like it was urgent. I don’t remember what we ate or if I even did. I can just picture the three of us sitting at our center-of-the-room table and feel the eyes on us like branding irons, because it had to have been rare that a white woman went for dinner and a night on the town at the new Wolfgang Puck haven for the stars with two brown kids, one needing a high chair, and no spouse in sight. Only fame or power could make a woman that bold. Most vivid in my memory are the many glasses of wine and other types of alcohol my mom ordered and how I took on my usual posture of quiet and aloof but insubordinate disbelief, placation, and empathy.

It was her birthday and she was still mourning the death of her husband, my father. Earlier that day when the cluster of foil balloons with the number 30 etched on its centerpiece arrived for her with a card signed by her parents and siblings, I could feel the event become drastically cheerful — cheer to smother sorrow. I could feel her becoming belligerent the way I do now as an adult when I remember that I deserve and want more and set out to take it or just go the club to remind myself that this society’s idea of more, of thrill and intrigue, is perverse and unsatisfying, garish and corny. I was more my mother’s supportive friend than her daughter then. Her grief and resentment and work ethic and frequent breakdowns knew no filter, and I secretly loved the lens it gave me and reveled in witnessing the ridiculous world of those who passed for adults in Los Angeles, up close, inappropriate, and beautiful.

When we finished that imitation of a convivial family dinner and left Spago in our wobbly trio, we entered the agitating momentum of the Sunset Strip. The dazed energy of that evening possessed everything with its ridiculous blunted shimmer. We were really in Hollywood. Our cinematic migration and everything that had led to it felt complete that evening. On the way back to the car my mom started sobbing on the sidewalk, then the raging torment I had sensed pretending it was entitlement or cheer spilled forth and she started screaming at the passing cars, tears streaming down her face — Fuck you! Fuck all of you! — for what felt like an eternity of shame and glory, overcoming, ever coming. A little catatonic, I asked: Can we go back to the car now, and so we stumbled, me, her pushing my sister in the stroller, back to the Chevy my grandparents had given her after my dad died and his cars disappeared with him. Here was repossession, my dad having been another black entertainer who refused to organize his death by the laws of the West. Those were the days when you had to look at actual paper maps to determine where you were if you didn’t know for sure, and in L.A. there was a huge book of street maps, a rite-of-passage atlas that everyone kept in their glove compartment, and since we had wandered far from home, my mom took hers out to study it and find our route back.

The blurry amber light on in the car was soothing. My sister was asleep in the car seat, and the street outside was quiet — it felt like we might be shown the safest way back to composure. I watched my mom intently for signs of recovery from that stupor of outbursts on the sidewalk. And then two men got into our car on either side of her, as if the car was theirs and she was too, as if this was a planned meeting, and they pushed her between them. They had guns, they held them to her temples and started driving. They drove aimlessly like they were looking for their third man and he could be anywhere, like they were prepared to make this a caravan, and the first question they asked before they could even focus on their crime was why do you have these black kids? My sister started crying the shrill guttural way distressed infants cry, I sat in silence. I had seen a gun before. I had seen one held to my mom’s head. I had seen a black man I loved, my father, hold a gun to my mom’s head in the same way, while threatening to kill her, like it was a routine checkup on fidelity, and I didn’t believe in villains or heroes even then. If these two petty thieves thought they were gonna frighten me into hysteria, I would do what I had done with my own father: unnerve them with my calm. That’s how I felt as I watched my mom beg take me, but please don’t take my babies repeatedly. They kept driving in some performative frenzy of deliberation, busy deciding what kind of theft this was gonna be, what kind of reparations, what kind of Hollywood ending. Eventually, after what felt like a marathon or a scripted relay, they left us on the side of the road. My mom still had the book of street maps in her hands. She had been squeezing it tightly as she pleaded for our lives. She called the police from a phone booth and we were picked up and taken the to nearest station. This was familiar, too. We’d been to precincts time and again after dad’s episodes, only to go home as one happy family as if nothing had happened. We would do that on this night, too: Go home, sleep off our black secrets. What I didn’t realize at the time, as drunk and distraught as my mother was that night, is that maybe those men saved our lives. Now when I think back on that carjacking, I’m thankful.


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* * *

My mom is a starkly direct embodiment of the “be careful what you wish for” adage. Or, be careful that you don’t get caught in a loop of brutalization and self-brutalization on the road to healing or understanding. Be careful that the refrain on that road isn’t finding new ways to be a victim and survive. That night at Spago and every night, it seemed, she was unconsciously looking for Jimmy, my father, and she found the very version of him we had been forced to escape time and again. We would go to my grandparents’ house in San Diego and recover from the patterned domestic violence, only to return, both of us, to Iowa, to be with my father again. Waterloo, Iowa, where we fought our losing battle of love and justice. In a particularly misguided moment of emotional blackmail, my mom even told me she went back the final time so that I could have a brother or sister, and maybe she even believed it, such is the drugged-out effect of that kind of tortured love.

When my parents first met it was as if the American promise was giddy with the buzz of perfection: an idyllic cross-pollination. A young woman, a girl really, raised in a Chicago suburb, having gone to Catholic schools all her life, matriculating at University of Iowa with dreams of becoming a writer, meets a famous songwriter returned home to live near his mother and siblings, who had left a life as sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta for Waterloo, Iowa, during the second wave of the Great Migration. The girl, naive but serious, had gone to Iowa in hopes of finding a kind of creative freedom that she hadn’t experienced at home. The man had returned to Iowa from Hollywood after a messy divorce from his first wife and a mental breakdown that found him hospitalized and mega-dosed with the later-illegal drug Thorazine. Home was where he could be stable, take his requisite prescription of lithium, sing in church on Wednesdays and Sundays, feel protected from the trappings of celebrity culture as a black man.

When my parents first met it was as if the American promise was giddy with the buzz of perfection: an idyllic cross-pollination.

He met my mother while performing near the college. There is a tacit tradition of interracial coupling that begins with black performers having to enter white spaces and endure, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Jack Johnson to Billie Holiday and Orson Welles. There are codes and levels and degrees of longevity and conflict, but once you enter that tradition it has a momentum of its own. There’s a sense of newfound autonomy in the alienation that I could always sense between my parents. They were married within two weeks of meeting, and I was born the following spring. Besides my maternal grandparents’ initial objection and suggestion that they put me up for adoption to avoid the confusion this chiaroscuro child could cause, besides the mutual rebellion it became in that way, everything was beautiful and new. An interracial couple was still a rare thing that deep in the Midwest, but they made the best of it. My grandmother taught my mom to cook greens and how to comb and braid black hair, my dad already knew plenty about the white world from his travels, his career, his first wife, his affairs, and he was unfazed, besides, this was his world.

Peace reigned over their union and our house for a while, but naively. Wanting to inspire his creativity, my mom suggested that my dad cut back on the lithium, a drug which flipped a switch in his spirit, made him comatose at times, but gentle and at ease. He obliged her and the raging talent and the rage and jealousy and militancy in all directions that accompanied it unleashed and that was that. Once he remembered who he really was, pacifying him with that blue pill was no longer an option. The cyclical violence began: the nights they spent up all hours writing and singing and fighting until it was difficult to differentiate between conflict and collaboration. I could really see firsthand the role-play of it all. I could sense the inevitability of a dynamic that’s so electric it charges itself, propelled by a longer and much more vicious history, how it almost has to be tumult and tenderness vying for dominance until the final curtain to be at all. And so it was. If you leave me I’ll die were the last words I ever heard my father say as he was taken away by police. We moved to a battered women’s shelter where we slept on cots and had aliases and I felt safe and missed him and dreamt of a happier era. Then we moved to California.

* * *

Looking for someone like my father to fall in love with was asking for trouble and disappointment and more and more hagiography of him as each imitation failed to live up to the magic or the danger that he exclusively possessed and represented for us both. His resounding aura as he rehearsed on the piano or sang at home is the most protective energy I’ve ever known. It made us forget the suitcase full of guns in the closet. And his ability to flash a smile and crack a joke when hearts got too heavy, even if he was the one imposing the weight, made it hard to remember his fits of anger. His knack for style and his rhythm meant he could turn swarm into swoon, pain into reprieve, at will, that he was easy to forgive and impossible to forget, and kind of god in our eyes. He was a man whose torment and rage always promised they were in the name of love. Tall and spellbinding and towering over our memories with the gauntlet of his spirit even now as the standard of charisma I’ve inherited. I can tolerate its shadow side without realizing it. Some men rule by becoming the rules, the unlikely rubric of the heroic and anti-heroic. The search for someone like dad, like Jimmy, in part my mom’s natural inclination, in part because she wanted my sister and me to know exactly who we were, and be proud, was relentless. After Spago, there was nothing we couldn’t fathom Los Angeles presenting, nothing too cinematic. And mom set out to find her happy ending.

First, she had an affair with singer and songwriter Willie Hutch that lasted several years. I remember feeling the urge to scoff when I’d see him at our house, or when she’d pick me up from school, and instead of heading home we’d wind up in his Inglewood studio where I’d dismissively do my homework amid the samplers and booths. Willie was kind and loving, but he wasn’t my dad, and I always reminded him of that. My mom had enrolled me in a dance studio run by two black former Alvin Ailey dancers, Ted and D’Shawn, and they too became peripheral father figures, surrogate black dads. I spent more time with them training in ballet and other forms than I did at home, and I preferred it that way. The dance studio reminded me of life in Iowa, where I had had cousins, aunts, and uncles around at all times, and I felt most like myself while dancing and being taught new steps and techniques by iron-fisted Ted, who would turn off the music and use the tapping of a yardstick on the studio floor to keep rhythm when we messed up the barre exercises, and who tapped our legs lightly but sternly with the same yardstick when they weren’t high enough in routine extensions. That was the kind of enforced discipline my DNA recognized and craved. The dance community was a mecca, and I could escape into and be excused from some of my mom’s searchlight escapades.

Not too long after the Spago incident, I remember coming home from dance class to find a copy of the National Enquirer on our coffee table. On the cover there was mention of mom’s close friend Bridgette, along with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall lured me for sex. They watched, then laughed as guards beat me, the cover read. By my mom’s account, one night while my she and Bridgette were out at a comedy club, Eddie’s body guard invited them back to his mansion in the Hollywood Hills. While my mom says she was upstairs being wooed by Charlie Murphy, Bridgette ended up getting into a fight with Eddie, shaming him for the swarm of white women he had around him. She ran up to get my mom and leave, but as they drove away drunk in Bridgette’s Fiat, Eddie’s security guard drove past them, blocked the car, walked out and grabbed Bridgette by the hair. He slammed her into the car window repeatedly while my mom watched. Gloria Allred ended up defending Bridgette, and I believe she won a large sum. Suddenly Bridgette had a nicer house and an air of retribution about her. My mom never testified because she was afraid of retaliation, had seen too much of that kind of violence. She also fancied Charlie.

His resounding aura as he rehearsed on the piano or sang at home is the most protective energy I’ve ever known.

At the same time as this partying and discovering L.A., my mom was teaching at a private Lutheran school by day, a haven for celebrity kids where Lakers player Jamaal Wilkes’s children and the likes were among her students. Of course mom and Jamaal were friends. She had also taken up meditation with a coach. I would sneak and watch Beverly Hills 90210 during her weekly Wednesday night sessions. This was far from the prayer meetings of our life in Waterloo, an example of how healing from trauma tends to threaten a kind of estrangement from one’s roots that makes even the most resilient souls reluctant to overcome themselves. Nothing seemed to work to quell my mom’s deepening anxiety and alcoholism and desire to fall apart and be put back together as darker and safer than she was before. Some days this desire would show up as praise for my skin color that felt too close to envy and made me uncomfortable. Sometimes cold misappropriations like yelling wake your black ass up many mornings before school. In other ways her desire to experience black culture showed up as pure appreciation. We would go see Debbie Allen or Alvin Ailey or local black theater companies perform regularly. Exposing us to the arts, to Black Art, in this way, compensated for some of the trifling social incidents we had witnessed. The arts deepened our understanding of what we were seeing play out in our lives, gave us a means to name it in code and tone, and find some beauty there.  

Mom had almost exclusively black friends, all of our babysitters were black. Everyone around us but her. From the outside but also close to the inside, it seemed like her soul had suffered so much, had been so shocked by the contrast between her suburban upbringing and her adult life, that she couldn’t relate to the white world she came from in the same way anymore. It was driving her crazy, how she tried to transcend that schism and appease the white world at the same time as the black one. Watching her then was an excellent lesson in how all-or-nothing rebellion must be if you expect to survive it. You have to pick a side.

After several years looking for love or thrill or validation or escape on the L.A. scene, my mom ended up in a long-term relationship with a man who looked a lot like my father. He was also a musician. They had a child together, my youngest sister, and then they separated, but not without their share of turmoil and untransmuted rage as they enabled one other’s pathologies and addictions. I kept escaping to dance and academics, kept shaking my head in incredulity that humanity could be so many contradictions. I kept a laugh in my muted scream at them. And then the first summer I spent home from college, my mom introduced me to the legendary jazz musician from Chicago she’d fallen in love with, maybe her last affair. She’s been with him since. It’s been turbulent, tender, familiar. It would be through him that I would meet the hip-hop musician and first man I dated who reminded me of Jimmy, who won my heart for a long while with scraps of my father’s sublimated charisma. And so the cycle goes.

My mother’s affinity for black culture and black men comes with its share of perks almost equal to the dilemmas. My mom can cuss out as effectively as a black mom, maybe even more effectively, because she’s backed by white privilege, her built-in (even after all the upheaval) sense of entitlement. She’s used that skill in my defense with reckless abandon. And because of her choice of company, her taste in lovers and friends, I was surrounded by black women when I needed them most a kid and teenager. Women who stepped in and made sure my hair was done right, clothes were ironed, spirit was high and unbroken. While Mom was unraveling, I had surrogate mothers. Barbara, my dance friend Gloria’s mom who treated me like a daughter during long rehearsals, did my eyebrows for the first time, and had a sparkle in her eyes that taught me what light can never be dimmed. Our babysitter Katherine, originally from Kenya, whose house smelled more like home than home did and stayed up nights with me while I finished strange book reports I’d obsess over. Debby, my older sister from my dad’s first marriage, who was close to my mom in age and able to make me feel both cool and safe in her presence, like my dad without the violence. While my mom was looking for her renewed identity, mine was being tended to by forces that felt ancestral, as if my own biological needs were driving some of her exploits. This is repossession. And when she finally wanted to try and get sober, it was videos on holistic healing by renowned but marginal black thinkers like Dr. Sebi and Dick Gregory that I’d sent her that inspired the turnaround. I knew my audience. I knew that learning the science of melanin and not just the scene surrounding it might be enough to tempt her to regain her health and will to live. It was time to remind her that she was not an outcast, that she had cast herself out, that loving blackness does not mean courting dysfunction, but rather a pursuit of reparations starting with the self, rescuing the body from its labels, letting it finally triumph, being careful what you wish for.

* * *

It takes bravery for a white woman to admit she wants to be black in America, bravery, insanity, and the transfigured genius of brokenhearted compassion. It requires the specific kind of indomitable courage furnished by creating black bodies and realizing you’ve been charged with their safety and set up to fail and as forever changed by their doom as by the glory and beauty that overrides it every time. It’s exceedingly risky and taboo, letting your kids in on your confusion and hoping they transmute it into clear-minded self-actualization. Hoping they reject you and become who they are, embracing the tenacity but not the destruction. It’s the gambling with black lives that makes America break again and again, that makes the perfect broken family we call home a country, a bliss and abyss of contradictions. Even as the bludgeon of it being a fetish for the exotic never quite leaves. Even as I know it’s more of a calling for my mother, an awakening that cannot be reversed, an act of love and self-abnegating longing, there’s something comforting about knowing she would give up some of her good old-fashioned white privilege for a chance at the wholeness and healing she associates with blackness. And it’s healthy to have learned that even the desire to relinquish white privilege doesn’t diminish it at all. When the police pulled her over, she could still start crying and get off with a warning. When those men saved our lives by taking our car that night, we still went back to the precinct a couple weeks later and identified them in a lineup, and two more black men went to jail.

I felt most like myself while dancing and being taught new steps and techniques by iron-fisted Ted, who would turn off the music and use the tapping of a yardstick on the studio floor to keep rhythm when we messed up the barre exercises, and who tapped our legs lightly but sternly with the same yardstick when they weren’t high enough in routine extensions.

By the time I realized that my mom harbored some pent-up racism like every white person in this country does on some level, by the time the echo of comments like wake your black ass up that I’d thought regular as a child formed into a consciousness of my own mother’s love/hate relationship with her idea of blackness, by the time I was ready to let myself be aware of this, I had to reconcile the love of black bodies with the contempt and envy that often comes with it. I had to trace those tendencies in my own mother back to the earliest incentive to steal us and ship us here in the first place, and through my parents’ fraught love and my mother’s transparency, I am able to understand the U.S.’s blatant love affair with its idea of blackness as the true source of the history of this nation, and the hinge on which its soul rests to either be redeemed in atonement or annihilated in denial. My mom is not just looking for melanin, as she once put it literally, she’s looking for saviors, for heroes, for kings and queens, for regular everyday negroes and black people, for allies in her pursuit of her own wholeness. For me and my sisters and our fathers to accept her into the cypher from which she feels excluded, to help her survive America, to remind her that neither uppitiness nor self-sabotage will make her better or safer or blacker or more like who she is meant to be. I don’t blame her for being so intent, for knowing that we are the ones who can help her, as well as make her laugh it off. I don’t blame her for knowing we have.

There is no more real way to be a mother than to become the child, to want to know what it’s like, just like there’s no way to oppress without becoming oppressed, just like there’s no way to be black without being black. But in an era where just being real — battle wounds and questionable obsessions and all — is becoming obsolete, I couldn’t ask for a more surprising and empowering and achingly honest version of an American matriarch. What’s most shocking as I’ve knocked down pillars of judgement about my mother’s choices along the tally in my mind through the years, forgiven them and come to understand, is that never once did she malign my father or anyone black no matter how badly she’d been hurt. My sister and I grew up thinking dad was the hero of the family and that being black in America was valiant and irresistible. We grew up knowing the truth. And we watched our mother grow up with us, wake up from the stupor of white liberal fragmentation with a clearer sense of the boundaries between skin and words, body and soul, our blackness and her idea of it. My mother has learned to just love what she loves unapologetically, naturally. She stopped apologizing to the white world she rejected through self-destructive acts. She stopped punishing herself as severely. Because of my mother, America’s haunted love affair with blackness, its desire to be reborn in a kind of noir armor, in almost exactly the way Get Out depicts, seemed so obvious that I thought everyone knew. I thought we all understood this self-hypnosis, this two-way trance. The happy ending will be this: In real life, it’s not that bad.  

* * *

Harmony Holiday is the author of four volumes of poetry, most recently HOLLYWOOD FOREVER and A JAZZ FUNERAL FOR UNCLE TOM (July 2019). Her collection of poems MAAFA is forthcoming later this year. And her collection of essays on reparations and the body, LOVE IS WAR FOR MILES, will publish in 2020. In addition, she runs an archive of jazz and diaspora poetics and is working on a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Fact checker: Ethan Chiel

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross