Friday, November 22, 2013

Crying While Listening to Moms Mabley Sing "Abraham, Martin, and John" on the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's Assassination

If you have not seen the new HBO documentary about the legendary comedienne Miss Moms Mabley you should seek it out.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a poignant story about the role of the comedian as truth-teller.

Moms Mabley is also part of the Black Freedom Struggle, and its long journey, as detailed by another great recent TV series, PBS's The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates. Black and brown folks, Jews, the Roma, poor people, and those who are Other, all have to learn to laugh to keep from crying. The bard sustains us all on the long journey of resistance and struggle.

I discovered Moms Mabley while looking through my father's record collection. It was next to his Eddie Gleason concert albums, some bachelor party records with "cheesecake" nudes on the album, and Duke Ellington LPs in the heavy oak cabinet that doubled as a corner lamp table in my family's TV room.

Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Godzilla, and all of the various TBS early evening and late afternoon shows were my dinner companions. There was no greater joy than eating a Banquet turkey bag TV dinner with some corn and burnt toast, drinking some Coca-Cola, playing Atari, getting a "liberated" gift from the shipping department of Sears and Roebuck from my father, and watching those wonderful shows.

Thinking myself particularly sophisticated after discovering this "Moms Mabley" person--who I couldn't figure out at the age of 8 or so if he or she was man or woman, old or young--I mentioned this strange gender bending age obfuscating and mysterious performer to my parents and godparents.

Who was Moms Mabley, I asked? Had they ever seen him or her perform?

Truth or lies, I am and remain unsure, but they began telling me about the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and all of the other black theaters on the Chitlin' Circuit which they attended at one time or another in their near recent youth. Parents lie to children in order to help them understand bigger truths. I will do much the same when and if I have little ones too.

As a child of the hip hop generation and Reagan 80's, I "got" that being a black American meant something in terms of history and how we were not treated the same way as white people: thus, my parents, mentors, and interested others telling me that you have to be 10 times as good to get half as far.

At that age, with Michael Jackson on TV, Run DMC on the radio, and Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, I pushed away their correctives and guidance as old folks talking who didn't know about what I intimately understood to be a new America. My friends and I, that multiracial, multiethnic cadre were going to change the world, and all that racism stuff would be thrown into the dustbin, the trash of the past and our parents' "ancient" experiences. The hip hop generation did change many things about American society and the world, both for good and bad. Conquer racism and white supremacy? No. Of course not. B-boy wannabe kids in the 1980s were allowed to dream. We brought a new culture into the world. Such a triumph makes you feel like you can do anything by virtue of sheer will.

Despite resisting my parents' wisdom, there was something startling to a post civil rights generation baby about a society in which humor and music were segregated. Laughter ought to be something universal. And as a relatively overachieving member of the black working class who attended predominantly white schools, and was often one of two or three minorities in their classes, my hubris was encouraged and nurtured by a belief in meritocracy. I believed that I could best any white person if given a fair shot. Youthful naivete does not allow one to realize that such fanciful and fantastic notions of fairness are a dream and a lie, as in most circumstances there is a thumb or hand on the scale, tilting it against those of born black and brown in these United States.

Moms Mabley, like the best comedians, used humor to expose hard and uncomfortable truths about society. Like the best comics, the Pryors, Chappelles, and Carlins, she was a master of parrhesia. The Greeks used that word to capture a willingness to speak truth to power without fear of consequence or regret.

For example, Socrates chose poison rather than to betray his intellectual integrity.

Moms Mabsley, and those other black comedians who were participating in a culture of resistance against white supremacy through their humor, and ability to help people of color laugh at the difficulties of life in a racially ordered society, were fighting racism by not allowing us to forget our essential humanity.

African American comedians who were working in a similar vein and tradition in front of white audiences were doing the same for the latter, by reminding them that we, those labeled "black", "colored", or "negro" were fundamentally human. As such, white racism was a sin, a moral crime, that hurt white people and white society by forcing them to buy into the many insane lies and fictions that undergird white supremacy.

Until I watched HBO's special on Moms Mabley, I had not seen her rendition of the song Abraham, Martin, and John. It is one thing to be able to speak and write with an expert tone about black cultural publics, the role of humor as a type of resistance in the Black Public Sphere, and work through what the African-American comedic tradition tells us about the boundaries of "the political", "politics", "resistance", and "opposition".

I cried while watching Moms Mabley sing Abraham, Martin, and John. Her channeling of the sentiments and experience of a society struggling with loss, reveals more about politics as an essentially emotional experience, than does any dry analysis or theory building about racial and social inequality along the colorline.

I also cried because, and this is the power of the song, of how Moms Mabley asks if we have seen our old friends who have passed away. Where have they gone? Anyone who has lost a good friend, relative, or parent to death, too soon, will feel that question. I have asked it many times. Have you?

I asked my mother about the assassination of President Kennedy and where she was on that day. My mother shared how she was working at Macy's Department store, one of the first black women hired there--she is very proud of that fact, thus I have to honor her emphasis of that detail in my retelling--and the store went silent as a radio playing in the background switched over to a special announcement about how the President had been shot. Everyone in the store was in shock. They stood, looking at one another, transfixed, rooted in place, and seeking comfort from one another, hoping that the inevitable did not occur. Cronkite sounded like he was crying. President Kennedy was dead.

I asked her if that pained moment was like September 11th. My mother paused on the phone, searching for the right words. "No" she explained. "That was just bizarre, with those planes crashing, watching it happen on television that beautiful morning."

She explained that Kennedy's murder was part of a crazy time when so many others would be killed, there was a horrible war, unrest, and just general discontent and lots of change. Ultimately she told me that, "we killed Kennedy, Martin, Malcolm, and Bobby. September 11th was something done to us by outsiders."

In hindsight, such an understanding of September 11th will be changed, modified, and added to as the distance grows greater between the today and that fateful day more than ten years past. But, I have to agree with my mother, at least for the purposes of public memory, about how and why the murder of President Kennedy hurts so very much. We did it to ourselves. Family betrayal always stings the most.

Listen to Moms Mabley's Abraham, Martin, and John. Then wonder, will there be similar songs sung about our moment? And if not, is that because we, Americans in the post civil rights era, have produced no great leaders? Or are we as Americans in this moment so blessed as to have great people among us, but to have been spared by the Fates the need to memorialize them?


KissedByTheSun said...

"At that age, with Michael Jackson on TV, Run DMC on the radio, and Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, I pushed away their correctives and guidance as old folks' talking who didn't know about what I intimately understood to be a new America...and all that racism stuff would be thrown into the dustbin, the trash of the past and our parents' "ancient" experiences."

Man this was so me growing up. I too am a child of the 80's, went to mostly multicultural schools, and had a false sense of racial progress. I thought my parents were like soldiers with ptsd, jumping at every loud sound and calling it racism because they had been shell shocked by horrific experiences. Now I find myself realizing how much of a soldier of the status quo I am. My heart sinks when my two year old daughter sees a picture of a white girl with long hair and says "look daddy, princess!" I want her to know she's beautiful too, I don't want her to be brainwashed like I was.

chauncey devega said...

Politics is dead consumerism killed it by design in a society where capitalism and democracy are equated in the minds of so many people. The rise of "lifestyle politics" i.e. proles who actually believe that buying a Mac or a PC is some type of "political choice", or alternatively twittering and facebooking as acts of "resistance" are the symptom and the problem.

chauncey devega said...

Embrace your true post racial self. Why you in denial? You so old :)

Bryan Ortez said...

I started posting more politically when Obama was elected. I couldn't handle the number of memes that came my way about him.

My family would post things, then I would see all the racist ass comments.

What was it you guys said in the podcast yesterday?
Provoke the other side into crossing a line to expose their agenda or belief system.. something like that.

It has catapulted me into seeking out more voices and ideas to support my own political beliefs.

vintagepeugeot said...

"I also cried because, and this is the power of the song, of how Moms
Mabley asks if we have seen our old friends who have passed away. Where
have they gone?"

I watched this at work, and was ok until that line in the song. Then it was raining all over my face and I had to leave my desk and take a moment alone. I'll rewatch and finish that cry in the privacy of my own home tonight. So simple, and yet so powerful.

Although I was a child of the nineties, I felt pretty similar and had similar experiences with racial progress. I've been subsequently schooled since high school that racism is alive and well just going through life. Thanks for sharing.

chauncey devega said...

It hit me that way too. I listened, then memories of too many gone friends came back. I also just found out that the older sister of my first "real" girlfriend died. We are the same age. Just makes you think. Mortality.

chauncey devega said...

An having to do some bell hooks oppositional reading to add some black and brown folks to that white fantasy. I still can't watch those white suburban whiteness of whiteopian dreaming John Hughes' movies.

Learning is Eternal said...

True that is. They had other black kids from other 'urban areas' (is that correct?LOL) so familiarity wasn't lacking. It was just different worlds.

I'm a Lil' shocked by the Hughes reference only because since coming to WARN you seem to watch/listen to any & all, regardless of interest, even if only for the sake of debate, academics, etc. but I feel ya' none the less.

SabrinaBee said...

It does seem as if no one cares any more, except for those busily working on reversing course for blacks, and that is scary. Observe a conversation about atrocities or genocide, in any medium, and

African Americans and America doesn't even come up. The Holocaust will and that happened before the end of Jim Crow. Some will even say, "but that was so long ago."

But, as I read the comments, it got me to thinking about my own views growing up in the 80's and no, this world of politics and racism, was not existent for me, then. And now, I want to know. So maybe there will be hope in the future.

Will we have a hero for our times? it doesn't seem so. Our prominent faces back them were up front and center. Our prominent faces now are simply concerned with peddling their merchandise through a company who's employees have called police on black shoppers for being able to afford the merchandise. Or only coming out to endorse a politician based on a future promise, despite the fact that he came into office implementing policies that specifically hurt the community. And it worked!

I can't imagine Harry Belafonte or Angela Davis doing anything like this.

Bryan Ortez said...

It's great to hear how all of you got into recognizing systemic inequality/oppression and problems people have with race in America.

For me, I am white, my parents are white. My folks never talked race, mom might make some negative comment about Mexicans, and reminding me that I'm not really Mexican.

My stepdad gave me lessons in racism I can never forget. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old when he would, seemingly at random, make comments about black and brown people. I always resented it.

Then my dad also overtly identifies as a racist. Told me and my family that he thinks blacks should be put on a reservation or stop complaining. Told us he wouldn't tolerate us dating black people. Especially my younger sister.

Now, white people want to tell you white racism is practically non-existent and in fact it is 'the blacks' who are more racist.

I'm not playing those stupid games with these people any more.

Eileen said...

Good day to you, Chauncey. I'm writing to thank you for your eloquent, soulful commentary on HBO's Moms Mabley special and what it says about our history, our lives, and what is in our hearts. I've shared that piece, and also your newly discovered (by me) blog with many friends . . . a great gift for the holidays with meaning, IMHO. I'll be reading!

chauncey devega said...

How kind. I missed you post earlier. Thanks for sharing the site and for commenting. Do keep writing and sharing and thinking and feeling.

chauncey devega said...

Got to change the world one day at a time and one person at a time. I appreciate that sharing too--racism is learned behavior; it is a legacy passed down from parents to children.