A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I have come to think of blackness as my twin. The proof is that we came along at the same time: 1963, the year of my birth, also brought the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not—and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it.
My Uncle Brock was missing his front teeth and quite a few others besides. I don’t know if his drinking caused that—he seemed to drink more than he ate—but it couldn’t have helped, just as it didn’t add any pounds to his very lean frame. Because he was so lean, he seemed long to me: long limbs, long, medium-brown fingers that often held cigarettes, long, skinny feet in brown loafers and white socks, a long, narrow face. It was a kind face, with a salt-and-pepper moustache and squinty eyes.
The eyes looked down on me one night when I was about ten, as he sat on the side of my small bed. Other relatives who lived nearby were downstairs with my parents, playing cards, drinking, smoking, laughing. Uncle Brock had heard I was sick and had come to my little room to keep me company, smiling as he talked about girls and this and that in his gentle, whiskey-roughened voice.
Seventeen years or so later, the memory of that voice brought tears to my eyes; it was 1990, I was two hundred miles from that little room and soon to be much farther, and I had just been told about his death.
Usually when I heard Uncle Brock’s voice it alternated with the smoother tones of his buddy and brother-in-law, my father. At our dining-room table they would talk about people they knew, or TV shows, or the most recent NASA mission, or movies they wanted to see but—as far as I could tell—never got around to, or the horses. It was Uncle Brock who later went to Laurel racetrack, the scene of my father’s death the day before, with the ticket that had been found in my father’s wallet. Not untypically, it brought no money.
There is a pairing of voices that reminds me of my father and Uncle Brock’s: the sounds of Coleman Hawkins, the original jazz tenor saxophonist, and Roy Eldridge, a luminary of the trumpet. The obvious relish with which they played together, their humor and pizzazz and down-homeness as they traded fours, make me think of those long-ago conversations between my father and uncle. In my mind, Hawkins—who loomed somewhat larger on the sax than Eldridge did on trumpet—is my father, who had the larger place in my life. Hawkins’s mighty tone and pronounced vibrato could make the air seem to tremble, an effect my father’s voice could sometimes have, more than he knew, on my insides.
In my mind, it is a short step from thinking of Hawkins and Eldridge to thinking of my father and uncle. In my life, I made the journey the long way around, arriving just in time to save my sanity.
I imagine a film about the Washington, DC, streets where I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. It opens with still, black-and-white shots of hilly Division Avenue, Northeast, in the valley where it intersects with Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. As Coleman Hawkins blows a wistful ballad on the soundtrack, maybe “Time on My Hands,” we see in turn the wide, wide front window and triangular roof of the Safeway food store (whose building, the last time I passed it, housed a church); next to it, on the corner, the Spic and Span, still closed and bearing the black burn marks from the ’68 riots; catty-cornered from there, the Amoco filling station, whose second “o” has fallen off to leave a misspelling of “amok”; near that, the drug store where I bought some of my beloved comic books, in the days when they cost twenty and twenty-five cents; a couple of doors up the block, the Chanese restaurant, part of whose upper-case “A” was removed to leave a slanting “I” when the owners realized their mistake; one or two doors up from there, a bar/lounge that was open all day, giving a view of an interior as black as outer space; close by, Woodson High School and also Ruff’s Barber Shop, of the hit-or-miss haircuts; and, on the corners, dotting the sidewalks, standing and talking any time of day, clusters of black men—the unemployed, the unemployable, the semi-employed, the illegally employed.
Now we have a tracking shot, up Division Avenue, past semi-detached brick houses, so many and so similar that we are all but hypnotized when the camera stops to focus on three. The owners of these houses had come decades earlier from rural Virginia and made their way to this block—my mother and father to 232, my Aunt Emma and Uncle Nay to 234, my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Manson to 236; Aunt Catherine and her husband, William Brockenborough (aka Uncle Brock), lived farther up the street and around the corner, in a little pale-green stucco house on Ames Street.
Two-thirty-two and 234 were attached, their interiors mirror images of each other. Between 234 and 236 were twin concrete staircases leading to the backyards. There were no fences separating the backyards of the three houses, and their boundaries were blurry. Our backyard had grass and a couple of trees. Uncle Nay’s had wooden horses and other equipment for whatever he was working on or rebuilding—his car, his back porch. But it was Uncle Manson’s backyard that contained the creation that defied category, the possible prototype for my own sensibility. Its centerpiece was the shell of an early-1960s tail-fin car, which Uncle Manson had painted pink and half-sunk into the ground. Over it he had constructed a cinderblock arch, and adorning the arch and car were dozens of trinkets and doodads that collectively resembled a swarm of bees frozen in mid-buzz. Here was Americana, folk art, the Roman arch, dime-store merchandise, and workmanship learned in segregated communities of country and city—a crazy brew of race, commerce, classicism, and where-the-hell-did-that-come-from, a linked-up hodgepodge of the kind that gets me jazzed up and may be the salvation of us all.
Clifford Thompson received a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays. He is the author of a novel, Signifying Nothing, and his essays on books, film, jazz, and American identity have appeared in publications including The Threepenny Review, The Iowa Review, Commonweal, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, Oxford American, and Black Issues Book Review. For over a dozen years he served as editor in chief of Current Biography, and he has held adjunct professorships at Columbia University and New York University. Thompson is married with two daughters and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Copyright 2015 Clifford Thompson. Reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.