Monthly Archives: February 2012

To the Place / I Belong

Currently, I’m having an issue with John Denver. At night, almost every night, his country hymns are the ones that lull my 7- and 4-year-olds to sleep.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the musical bedtime selections of our kids is not a big deal. And I acknowledge that overall, our kids’ tastes in music are quite varied. Like in the car, where they clamor for ’90s French rapper MC Solaar. Or in the kitchen, where they hang on for dear life to keep up with the rollercoaster that is Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. U2, Stevie Wonder, The Who, they dig all that.

But when you’re a mother of color trying to instill some sense of black culture in your kids — and the shiny meadows and shinier blonde mops all around you make you feel you’re already living a John Denver song — hearing those opening twangs about the Shenandoah River night after night after night can feel like a losing battle. I’m not sure how the CD, which belongs to my husband, first got into the rotation. But at bedtime, as their eyelids flutter and finally sink into sleep, there is only one voice Sky and Rose want to hear: the voice that sings Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and of course, the top grosser of all Denver’s hits, the ballad that gets mentioned with John Lennon’s Imagine and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century: Take Me Home, Country Roads. Attempts to slip in the occasional Erykah Badu or Harry Belafonte are futile.

“I like how his voice sounds singing with the music,” Sky explained the other night. “It sounds, you know, nice.” And part of me can’t argue with that four-star review — especially since I made a stink to Brian about the last CD that was in heavy rotation, Led Zeppelin II (remastered). I’m sure Sky and Rose have no idea what Robert Plant is talking about, but there’s something weird about peeking in on children bathed in the glow of a Hello Kitty lamp and hearing “Squeeze me baby/ ‘Til the juice runs down my leg” waft through the crack in the door.

Now, some have called Denver’s songs soaring melodies of hope. I would call them syrupy odes to romantic love and an idyllic notion of America that doesn’t really exist. I would not be alone in that assessment. In 2007, in the midst of an apparently heated battle over whether to declare Rocky Mountain High the state song of Colorado, a Denver Post columnist opined, “Rocky Mountain High deserves its place in Colorado . . . in Muzak form on supermarket speakers or during a marathon Time Life infomercial hosted by Air Supply.” Of course with music, it’s all relative. If Ray Charles and legendary ska band The Maytals saw fit to record covers of Take Me Home, there’s gotta be something to it that I’m missing.

And as I write this, I’m actually recalling another heated debate that took place right around 2007, in a cell phone conversation between Brian and me. I’ll attribute some of the things I said, and the conviction with which I said them, to the hormones coursing through my body during my second pregnancy. But I distinctly remember screaming about the importance of our kids understanding the revolutionary sound of A Tribe Called Quest. And I remember Brian saying something about hip-hop consisting of a lot of noise and only a very little bit of actual music.

The other day, as I heard Denver’s relentless major chords drift once again through the hall, I decided to try an experiment. I started Googling “John Denver” and “African-American,” just to see if there was any possible intersection of Denver and black culture other than in this house.

It didn’t take me long to find it.

In the 1970s, after Denver married first wife Annie Martell, the couple had trouble conceiving. They adopted a son, Zachary John, and later a daughter, Anna Kate, who Denver would later say were “meant to be theirs.” The little boy who inspired Denver’s  Zachary and Jennifer and A Baby Just Like You (which he wrote for Frank Sinatra), was black. If the Internet is to be believed, he is now in his 30s, happily married, and still lives in Colorado.

In an interview he gave to People in 1979, Denver talked about his family. He made no mention of race, but he made his feelings about fatherhood very clear. “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough.”

Well I’ll be damned. There’s an idyllic notion of America, and I want to sing along.

Beautiful Struggler

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a person comes into your life and offers you the gift of sight. Somebody you didn’t imagine could exist one day appears the next day, and sends a column of light into the settled passages of your mind, showing you something you needed to see. Not by anything they say or do, but by their way of being in the world.

I made a new friend this week. His name is Leon Mobley, and he plays the drums.

You might not have ever heard of Leon, but some of the people he’s played with in his 40-year career may ring a bell: Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson. Mick Jagger. The Marley sons, the Fugees and the rapper Nas. A few years ago, Leon got a phone call from a friend to come play at the United Nations in New York for a fundraiser. It was Madonna. When Leon was 7, a friend of his uncle’s came by one night and scooped him up to play drums for a show in Boston. That was Duke Ellington.

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How did the path of a world-traveling percussionist cross the path of a mom whose orbit often includes the town gas station, family day care and the nearby Target? They crossed because, incredibly, the place I reluctantly call home is also a place Leon calls home. Not two weeks ago, I sat on a train bound for a weekend in New York, feeling every Amtrak mile that put distance between me and the racial vacuum of this awfully lovely town. But this very same place — this land of saltbox barns and driveways that disappear into Yankee estates unseen — was drawing Leon closer. He couldn’t wait to get here.

Leon doesn’t own a house here and he wasn’t born here. He grew up in a housing project in Boston. Where he lived, a mayonnaise sandwich was a meal and the eggs at breakfast time came powdered, from a can. But in 1970, when he was in the third grade, Leon made a little piece of Boston history: He entered METCO, a newly established and voluntary school desegregation program between Boston and its ring of affluent suburbs. Waking up before the sun and taking the subway to a waiting station wagon that substituted for a bus, he was transported from his cramped high-rise to Dover, Mass., the country town next door to ours, the place where my husband and his father and four fathers before that were born. Little Leon Mobley, all of 8 years old, became the first student from METCO ever to attend Dover’s elementary school. And last week, for an entire week, he returned to that school to teach traditions of West African drumming and culture.

I wrote about Leon’s homecoming for a story in last week’s Boston Globe. Not everything from our two-hour phone conversation made it into print. For example, there was the time a kid in middle school walked up to him and said, “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.”

It’s strange to be a 41-year-old woman who writes about race and has lived here for 10 years, but who still feels paralyzed in the face of situations that are much, much tamer than that. Leon was just a kid. I’m sure he felt hurt, but he definitely wasn’t stunned. “I looked at him and said, ‘You need to kill somebody, you kill me,’ ” he said.

When I finally met Leon, it was at a suburban hotel off 95 in Newton, not far from here. The master drummer who has played at Wembley and hung out with Mandela had an audience of 35, give or take, in a lounge area outside a basement-level restaurant. When he started to drum, it looked like there wasn’t anywhere else in the world he wanted to be. Two days later, inside the school auditorium where he performed with school kids, he was greeted with the kind of deafening screams usually reserved for Justin Bieber. It was an amazing thing to watch.

It is said that when METCO first started, the program strategically sought out a certain kind of child. They were looking for little survivors, students who could cross from a world of powdered eggs to a world of poached eggs and find some way to hold onto themselves. They were looking for Leon Mobley. There was no diminishing this kid. Every experience he had here — being chased by state cops, being embraced by a local family, being nurtured by teachers or feared by townies  — became fertile soil for his own growth. Deadbolt locks in one place, doors that were never locked in another place? It was all experience. He soaked up every lesson this place had to teach him. “Without Dover,” he once said of his adopted hometown, “there is no Leon Mobley.” There it is right there, that column of light.

I sound like a broken record, I know. But I still have so many questions about this: What is home? Is it history running deep over a few square miles? Is it a census tract with an acceptable threshold of your own kind, or is it the beat you hear in your head no matter where you are? How much of home is the feeling you get, and how much of it is the feeling you make?

Falling Dormant, Waking Up

Note to readers (if this blog still has readers, that is):

Never, ever start a two-part blog post about race and children’s books when you are lost in the tunnels of your very real, very adult racial mid-life crisis. When the school bus driver’s confused stare, just a few seconds long, starts to stay in your mind’s eye for hours. When a row of maple trees might as well be a row of metal bars. When the path you’ve made with another person — every piece you snapped in place together, every willing compromise and good intention — obscures itself. And two things that never stood in the path before, blackness and whiteness, look so big you can’t see if the path continues on the other side.

My intention back in November was to blog about Hazel the Hedgehog, a vintage children’s book in which a brown and spikey hedgehog is banished from the barnyard by a posse of strangely blond farm animals. At a certain point, the mere act of picking up this book used to make Brian and I laugh out loud.

That was part I. Part II was to share a book that is Hazel’s antithesis: Spork, the uplifting tale of a mixed kitchen utensil.

I am going to share it now, here, because it’s a beautiful parable with beautiful pictures, and because Kyo Maclear, the book’s half-Japanese, half-British author, has her own beautiful story to tell about how this book came into being. (You can read about Maclear’s and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s upcoming book, Virginia Wolf, which addresses depression, here).

But as I look at this adorable spork of a child, searching for identity in the silverware drawer, I realize how drawn I am to his parents: the fork father and spoon mother “who thought he was perfect just the way he was.” They look so happy.

Do they argue about balancing Spork’s spoon heritage and fork heritage? If you are made of prongs, can you truly understand a round hollow? And if these utensils are a family, where can they all happily live? Because like much of America (still), drawer organizers tend to be segregated.

When you’ve written a children’s book that has been used as an allegory for everything from transgender identity to the Middle Way in Buddhism, and that educators use to introduce kids to philosophy, you have done something worthwhile. In an interview, Maclear said it took a common camping implement to get at the deeply personal messages she wanted to convey.

“When I conceived of this story, I knew I didn’t want the protagonist to be distinctly human . . . I wanted to avoid the ‘social studies’ approach to talking about these issues, which can become ponderous and joyless,” says Maclear, who lives in Canada with her husband and young daughter. “I definitely didn’t want to make my character purple or some arbitrary mixed color, because I find this trivializes the real historical and cultural experiences of being a person of color.”

When readers meet Spork, Maclear says, they are disarmed. I have no idea if Sky and Rose consciously see their mixed selves when I read this book to them. But I know they root for Spork, and I know more than anything they love how it all ends.

Removed from anxieties about race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or any number of other dividing lines, Maclear says, adults and children suddenly find themselves able to explore what it means to be different, and what it means to belong. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a new language, and fresh words.”

If there is a better guiding principle when it comes to race, I can’t think of one. Yes, there are deep injustices to battle. There are presidential candidates who have figured out how to divide across color and culture, and there are families still trying to figure out how to love across color and culture . But so many of these things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves, or have told ourselves for too long. Sometimes we need a new language. And fresh words.

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