My mother told me she understood love for the first time the moment I was born. She also told me I was melody flitting through rhythm, past the congas. That I am the inspiration for the keyboards as it stretches and scratches the perimeters of possibility; she told me I am Opportunity, Crisis, Fire and the children, that I am the soft, strong, pressing timbre born of pain that moves within the soul. I didn’t understand a word of what she said until many, many, too many decades later. I now know, so I stand between the jazz cadences –
… I know I know … it’s trite, but shit, some things are just that way.
I am both Crisis and Fire as I strut and find the cultural synthesis that supports this post-modern black woman living, and at this age, ignoring the call to be placed conveniently into a 2/4 measure of predictable and controllable white-American cadence. I am an erudite-sassy ebony of the 21st Century, my history calling me radically forward to my own present.
As I look at my 400-year past on this continent, there are eras that specifically shape me – personally, artistically and psychologically. For some blacks it is the magnificence of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Nationalist/Black Power Movement/Black Arts Movement, for others the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) of Marcus Garvey. But for me it’s The Harlem Renaissance and its echo of crashing and competing tides.
Opportunity and The Crisis were journals respectively edited and published by Harlem Renaissance fathers Charles S. Johnson and W.E.B Du Bois, contributing authors included the magnificence of Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson, of the black national anthem fame. The goal of these black literati was edification with the help of the “Talented 10%”. They were image builders, identifying the icon of the New Negro during the early 1900s.
To these individuals art, and all other endeavors of the Negro, were to be used as vehicles to demonstrate the humanity of the Negro. In Du Bois’ politicization of expressive culture, art served to legitimize and humanize – to think of myself as sub-human in the eyes of people I pass every day brings such sadness – the deprivation of their spirit … the incalculable loss of my potential. I still need The Crisis.
The Fire was a publication created by the dissatisfaction of younger black writers. They called them selves the Niggerati, as a play on the attitude of the older fathers of the New Negro movement. They consisted of Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. They saw art (and life) as a means of expression for personal idioms, as an art for the development of the artists, not as propaganda whose soul purpose was to edify the race. That Fire burns inside my heart and their call to action feels luscious in my mouth. I am the Niggerati.
Then there are the Children of the Harlem Renaissance Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Robert Colescott, and Gwendolyn Brooks who carried on a particular philosophy depending on their “art parent”. Colescott modeled irreverence for me and Alice Walker taught me to want and love myself.
Born in the race conscious 1950s, raised with the radical nature of the 1960s, educated with the opportunities in the 1970s, started my professional artistic career in the post-modernism of the 1980s, developed my mastery in the global, technological and revisionist boom of the 1990s, by the time I hit 2010 I was simultaneously irreverent, idiosyncratic, enigmatic, inclusive, self-estranged, integrating, Theosophist, Buddhist, accommodating, tri-cultural, bourgeoisie, scholarly, phat and sassy and slice you in a heart-beat vernacular. I am the New Black, and there are a lot of us.
We flit through the various aspects of our heritage as we code-switch leaving those not in “the club” baffled, faces furled in confusion. I can hear them thinking, “She sounded so white just a minute ago!”
I now bask in my enigmatic and unfathomable nature but I did not come to my mystery easily. As I look to the creators of the Harlem Renaissance for a path and inspiration I can feel great forces aligning with my mother’s tutelage forging this Negress – a Creative Synthesis that is me.