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Juneteenth, the Day the Last Ones Heard

Skin Trade: Forty Acres
July 14, 1992

There are three legends that are told of how enslaved Africans in the Texan territory came to know of their freedom, and why the word didn’t get to them until two months after the civil war ended, which was a good two and half years after Lin­coln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Or, to make it plain, rather late. One legend says the messenger, a black Union soldier, was murdered. Another says he arrived, but was delayed by mule travel. (A variation on this is he stopped to get married.) The third and favored is that the news was withheld by white landowners so they could bleed one last crop from slave labor. What is held as fact is that June 19 — the day that federal troops rode into Galveston with orders to release those kept as slaves — has been celebrated, in Texas and beyond, for 127 years, as Emancipation Day, as Jubilation Day, as Juneteenth. The day the last ones heard.

Juneteenth, the name, is one of those fab African Americanisms, functional, rhythmic, at once concise and not too concise. It fuses the month of June with the number 19, and eludes that the holiday was held in adjoining states on different days of the month as folks got the word. Early emanci­pation rituals were not exclusive to Texas or these territories (South Carolina and Mississippi’s fall in May), or to the South. What may have been the first emancipation ceremony was held in New York as early as 1808 to mark the legal cessation of the slave trade.

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No state comes close to Juneteenth in Texas, the black folks’ Fourth parades, feasting, pageants, and preachifying. Eman­cipation-day organizations in Texas date back to the turn of the century. The most powerful image from the early days must have been the former slaves themselves, who, according to tradition, marched to­gether at the end of the parade lines. By the 1950s, Juneteenth Day came to be linked with freedom not from slavery, but from segregation. Texas’s Jim Crow cities would allow blacks to be citizens for 12 hours a year by granting them entry into whites­-only parks and zoos. With the passage of the civil rights bill in the ’60s, refined black Texans abandoned Juneteenth to their country cousins and took to celebrating in­dependence day in July along with their majority brethren. A Juneteenth renais­sance has been gathering steam since the mid ’80s, spurred by the latest wave of the Afrocentricity crusade. It’s become in re­cent years not just a hootenanny for black Texas (to use the condescending folksy por­trait favored by the local press), but a holi­day eagerly adopted nationwide by African Americans in search of cultural signposts. Not to mention one that offers a dramatic, tube-and-T-shirt-friendly soundbite of black history.

The J-Day momentum is due in large part to the efforts of a man who could be called Daddy Juneteenth, state representa­tive Al Edwards from Houston. Edwards sponsored the bill that made Juneteenth an official Texas holiday 13 years ago, no small feat in a state that still closes banks for Confederate Heroes Day. Juneteenth U.S.A., Edwards’s organization, is tracking J. Day rites across the country and raising funds for a national educational headquar­ters. To Edwards the holiday has tremen­dous secular and sacred promise. He sees it as an economic vehicle for African Ameri­cans, as well as a day that should be ob­served of almost holy remembrance. “The Jews say if they ever forget their history, may their tongues cleave to the roof of their mouth … Let the same happen to us,” he cautions.

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You can find Juneteenth rituals in all regions of the country now. States like Cali­fornia where Texans migrated en masse have held Juneteenth festivities for de­cades. The New York area’s largest is in Buffalo, tapping into upstate’s rich history of antislavery activity. Wisconsin counts at least five, including Milwaukee’s, where Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1971 and is the best-attended single-day cultural event in the state. Far from being family picnics, these festivals sometimes last for days, made possible by the legwork of com­munity groups, city cooperation, and pri­vate sector donations. Often old world knocks against new-world when Miss June­teenth pageants (inherited from towns like Brenham, Texas, which crowns a “Goddess of Liberty”) share the stage with Afrochic street fairs ablaze in faux kente.

Juneteenth in Minneapolis, now in its seventh year, is becoming known as one of the most progressive and trendsetting J­-Day celebrations in the Texas diaspora. What began as a poetry reading in a church basement is now two weeks of program­ming including a film festival and an Un­derground Railroad reenactment.

There are those who think Juneteenth is an embarrassment. That the holiday tells more of our ignorance and subjugation than of an inheritance that predates slavery in the Americas. Or that it’s “too black,” and promotes a separate but not equal Fourth of July, or “not black enough” be­cause it’s funded by white purses. And, of course, that it’s far too symbolic and doesn’t solve anything. What does a June­teenth celebration mean anyway when the Freeman’s Bureau never gave us our 40 acres? (Not thrilled about news of the state holiday, one former Texas legislator had this to say: “Dancing up and down the streets, drinking red soda water, eating watermelons … I grew out of that.”) But Juneteenth critics are few, and what they have to say hasn’t put a dent in the holi­day’s grassroots popularity.

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Buried in their shopping ethos, we tend to forget holidays were once holy days that defined us in more profound ways than what Nintendo jumbo pack we got for Christmas. Michael Chaney, an arts activist in Minneapolis, believes that Juneteenth rituals could be more than acts of racial communion but could have a role in rede­fining America: “We have to realize our own role as historians. We need to ascribe our treasures and offer them to the world. Juneteenth should be a day for all Ameri­cans to get in touch with the Africanism in them.”

Juneteenth does have great possibilities as a new American holiday. The families that emancipated slaves made were com­plex: they weren’t just about blood type but about family beyond kin, family as commu­nity. In this tradition, modern Juneteenth doesn’t circumscribe any Dick-and-Jane paean to the nuclear family. You can be a single parent, gay, from D.C. or Ann Arbor; it’s a history that includes you. You can read the Emancipation Proclamation out loud or drink some red soda water if you damn well please. Or just take a moment out of your day to think about all the folks that laid down nothing less than their lives so that you could see the 20th century.

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The White Issue: Mama’s White

Just another rainbow baby on the IRT, that’s me, handing out flyers modeled after Adrian Piper’s seminal art piece, “My Calling (Card) #1” (1986):

Dear Fellow Straphanger:

My mother is white. And I, as you may or may not have figured out, am black. This is how I choose to define myself and this is how America chooses to define me. I have no regrets about my racial classification other than to lament, off and on, that classifications exist period.

Actually, the mystery of my background is really not much of a mystery at all, despite those taboo-love-child stories you read in People or Jet. If you boned up on your world history, you’d know that unions between people of different racial classifications, such as my (white) mother and my (black) father, are not a recent phenomenon. Entire countries in South America are peopled by the offspring of such relationships. Even our own country is more of a creole outpost than we are ready to acknowledge.

Are you still staring? Let me guess. My white mother presents a different set of enigmas to you based on your own racial classification. Those of you who are black might find “evidence” of my white parent reason to question my racial allegiance. For those of you who are white, evidence of my white lineage might move you to voice deep-seated feelings of racial superiority. You might wonder why I would choose to identify as “fully” black when I have the “saving grace” of a white parent. I have no time for this sort of provinciality either. I realize both sets of responses display an ignorance of our shared cultural and racial history as Americans.

I’m sorry you’re still staring. If you care to, I’ll gladly engage you in a lengthy conversation about this subject at another time. But right now I’m having just another “attitudinous”-black-girl day on the IRT, and if you keep staring, I’ll just stare right back. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you. Just as I’m sure you regret the discomfort your ignorance is causing me.

Yours (More Truly Than You Think),

L.J.

This is the story of Emily Sohmer Tai, and Hettie Jones, two women who don’t know each other and whose only connection is the melanin count of their skin.

Recently, Emily Sohmer Tai, who describes herself as the “white female half of an interracial marriage,” wrote a letter The Village Voice. The letter is worth returning to as an example of the closeted superiority trip mentioned. And what I mean by superiority trip is the type of thinking that assigns whiteness highest value (and upholds white people as the only viable arbiters of experience), though this thinking may at times be draped in the gauze of liberalism.

I had written a sentimental tribute to my 65-year-old Aunt Cora for a series the paper ran for black history month. In one section I recount my aunt’s visit to Minneapolis, where I was living at the time, her brushes with racism there, and her reaction to the large number of white female–black male couples that coexist there alongside this racism. I sized up these couples as “Debbies curled up with Sam” — to allude to the lady-stud legend that burdens them and, at the same time, to pry it apart. I was sure to note, in the same breath, that if one Debbie hadn’t curled up with one Sam, I wouldn’t be around. Clearly I was saying that these duos tangle up my emotions; I look at them as a child of an interracial marriage, but also as a black woman who has witnessed the market value put on white femininity.

Tai seems to have got stuck on one word, “Debbie,” and looked no further. Her letter responds to my entire article as if it were merely a personal attack on her and other white women in interracial relationships. Tai never once mentions my aunt. In effect, she completely erases Cora’s story. What I got form this is that there is nothing I could say about my aunt, her amazing life, and our feelings as black women about interracial relationships — some shared, some not — that could be as important as Tai’s outrage as a white woman measuring herself against a stereotype. Nothing, simply, was as worthy of readers’ consideration as Tai’s story, Tai’s version of history.

There’s a shrillness to Tai’s letter, and it seems to come from the fact that I don’t accept her view of what interracial identity means. To her, it’s a haven from a racialized society; to me, it’s not. Tai rather smugly assumes that this safe house is indeed something I have a political or aesthetic interest in embracing. I’ve been called “nigger bitch” more than once in my life, and I wonder if Tai would advise that I handle it by shouting back, “Actually, guys, my mom’s white, so call me half-white bitch, or how about mongrel bitch, since it’s better rhythmically.”

Left unsaid, but lurking in the margins of Tai’s letter, is this amazement that I, as a woman, would claim black over interracial or white. The implication being that choosing black was somehow a settlement, a compromise following a personal identity crisis (another assumption whites often make), and not a much larger cultural-historical calling or even just sheer love, romance, and respect for blackness (in all its permutations), for better or for worse, amen. Would Tai’s mouth hang open if I told her my story? That, among others, it was my (white) mother who raised me to think politically about being a black woman.

Could Tai picture this complexity as well? — That I’m a black writer whose work is dedicated to exploring the hybridity of African American culture and of American culture in general. That I don’t deny my white forebears, but I call myself African American, which means, to me, a person of African and Native American, Latin, or Eu­ropean descent. That I feel comfortable and historically grounded in this identity. That I find family there, whereas no white peo­ple have embraced me with their culture, have said to me, take this gift, it’s yours and we are yours, no problem. And that, by claiming African American and black, I also inherit a right to ask questions about what this identity means. And that, chances are, this identity will never be static, which is fine by me.

Tai’s reaction to this “racial persona” of mine is nothing I haven’t come across be­fore. White women in particular have trou­ble seeing my black identity as anything other than a rebuff of my mother. Deep down I wonder if what they have difficulty picturing is this: not that I could reject, in their minds, my own mother, but that I have no desire to be them.

Friends of mine who are also rainbow babies have had similar run-ins, and some­times we sit around and compare notes. We’re not disinterested in our white “heri­tage,” even though most of us don’t know our white relatives (apart from the parent who raised us), or we were given up for adoption by a white biological parent and have never had white family. In my own case, my mother’s parents, first-generation American Jews, disowned her for marrying black. When she announced she was preg­nant, they begged her to have an abortion. On hearing that in her third year of mar­riage my mother was pregnant with a sec­ond child, they again begged her to abort.

We of the rainbow persuasion joke about whites’ inability to imagine why we would want to see ourselves as people of color and as African Americans; how connected this makes us feel. What could they possibly think is “in it” for us to be white people? Would it extend refuge or protection, provide moral directive? If it helped us get better jobs and higher salaries, would it offer spiritual community? Would it bring us family?

Forget everything that the Emily Sohmer Tai example tells you about race, and meet Hettie Jones, author, poet, teacher, and my mother. Her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, revisits her life as a woman among the Beats as the starched-collar 1950s gave way to the guns-and-roses 1960s. It also tells of her marriage to my father, writer Amiri Baraka, and her own coming of age as a writer. If you want to know more, the book is in paperback. I will share this: The most dreadfully cute fact about my mother is that she has taken to checking “Other” on her census form. In the line slotted for explanation she writes, in her flowery long­hand, “Semitic American mother of black children.”

My mother is my mother, and I’m very protective of her and of our relationship. I find myself in this amusing little bind at times, which reminds me over and over that what I am, I guess, for lack of a more sexy and historically complex word, is a humanist. This is the bind of explaining that my mother is white, though I am black, then getting pissed when people reduce dear Mom to the calling card of “your white mother.” Negotiating all this contin­ues to be one of the challenges of my intel­lectual life. I’ll crib from Greg Tate on this one: “The world isn’t black and white, it just feels that way sometimes.”

I owe Mom a couple of solids. One for being strong enough in her own self to let me be who I was gonna be: Being the sister/girlfriend/black woman individual that I take so much pride in being actually brings me closer to my (white) mom. This identity gives me a stronger sense of history and self, and I can come to my mother as what the New Age folks might call a “fully real­ized person.” If I called myself “interra­cial” (in my mind, and I do know others see this differently), I would need her presence, her “whiteness,” to somehow validate my “half-whiteness.”

Another solid. Mom’s a bohemian from way back. The journey she’s made as a woman, as an artist, making herself up in America, has been useful to me as a black woman living outside of society’s usual paradigms of femininity. Mom knew that we — my sister and I — needed black female rela­tives and role models, and she made sure these ties were in place. She never tried to substitute for these; what she gave instead was her own DNA, her own boho Mama in the black stockings self, and she trusted that this would be enough.

Solid number three. My mother, more than anyone I know, has taught me differ­ence as pleasure. Not as something feared or exotic, but difference as one of the rich facts of one’s life, a truism that gives you more data, more power, and more flavor. These are the sort of things you needed to get by: a black South Carolinian grandfa­ther who did the Moon Walk before Michael Jackson (though he called it the Cam­el Walk), a mother who speaks Yiddish and jazz, a Caribbean boyfriend to make you rice and peas, and a sister who’s a Latin American art scholar so you won’t lapse into thinking you’re God’s gift to all knowl­edge as an American Negro.

Today my mother is in town from Wyo­ming, where she’s teaching for a stint. We hug, I cook her tofu and collard greens, we swap clothes, watch TV evangelism for a goof. We talk about race as the world places it on us. We argue sometimes, but we don’t stumble on it. When our generational dif­ferences make themselves felt in how we see the world and race, it doesn’t butt against our love, our trust.

I’ve got my pad and pen out and she’s laughing at my officialness. So, Mom, not how, but why did you become Hettie Jones?

“After the breakup of my marriage,” she explains, “people asked me why I didn’t change my name, why I didn’t, quote, ‘go back to the Jews.’ There was no going back to something that denied you.”

And why was it important to you that we be black and not “biracial”?

“I was not about to delude you guys into thinking you could be anything different in this country. And, frankly, I didn’t think that being anything other than black would be any more desirable.”

Mom, what you say in the book about black people’s anger in the ’60s being neces­sary to America, how did you come to this?

“Some people think that I’m dishonest and that I’m a martyr for saying that, but there’s a certain time in your life if you’re a white person and you have black children that you have to see that the world is ready to take them on. I love my children and I just sensed that the world had to go through this period in order for it to be a better place for them.”

Motherhood has always been more than a domestic chore or emotional bond for my mother. It’s a political vocation — one she’s taken seriously enough to go up against the world for. And she’s always been ready to testify about how her children and black­ness have broadened her own life. In the music — the jazz, blues, language — she found her own.

Mom’s headed back to Wyoming. The cab driver offers to put her backpack in the trunk. “May I take your parachute?” he asks. People of all ages and backgrounds say fetching things like this to my mother. She’s led, as she wrote once, a “charmed life in the middle of other people’s wars,” and it comes through in her smile. When Mom sends the mojo his way, the cab driv­er lights up like New Year’s Eve on Forty­-Deuce. I’m reminded, right then, that there is no place that I’m ever gonna go (by way of geography or ideology) where I can’t bring my mother, and where I can’t bring myself, which she has in large part made possible. And, as Adrian Piper would have me ask, what are all you — black and white — gonna do about that? ■

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Hiphop Nation: Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free

Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free
January 19, 1988

Remember the Roxanne wars of ’85? U.T.F.O. cut “Rox­anne Roxanne,” cold-dissing yet another “stuck-up, devious, and sinister” home­ girl. Along comes 15-year-old Roxanne Shanté from the Queens Bridge projects, Long Island City, the unauthorized rap­per behind “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Shanté (real first name: Lolita) tells the U.T.F.O. crew to “suck my bush.” Requests for “Roxanns’e Revenge” pour into black­-music stations it before Pop Art Records even presses it. U.T.F.O., after threatening to sue, answer with “The Real Rox­anne,” sung by the Roxanne of their choosing. Shanté takes it to the stage, namely the Roxy-Red Parrot scene in New York, and wins the battle with fierce freestyling. In ’86 she drops out of sight.

After having a kid (Kareem), Shante surfaced last summer when producer Marley Marl convinced her to record “Have Nice Day” (Cold Chillin’). Shanté comes back Ali-style, proclaiming in her trademark squeak that she’s “the mike’s grandmistress…the queen of the crew with the juice” — laurels that, in her the absence, Sparky Dee, M.C. Lyte, Salt ’n Pepa, and others so young, the title in ques­tion should be princess; if there’s a queen in the house it’s Millie Jackson.)

Certainly, in Salt ’n Pepa, Shanté has stiff competition. Shanté herself calls Salt “shocking,” which I took to mean stupid-fresh. Shanté’s three singles (the third, “Payback,” was cut in ’85 and re­leased only recently by Pop Art) deliver their share of quick-draws — “A lot of to MCs most today of rap those to MCs/So please/But when I gave it comes birth around to the month of May /Send me your royalty check for Mother’s Day.” But it’s live on the mike where Shanté has most female rappers beat; given an inch, she’ll read any man in the audience faster than a snap queen can raise his right arm. When we met she obliged me with samples of her freestyle “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” I remembered to close my mouth about three minutes later, no joke.

On the subject of male rappers and their female problem, Shanté had no use for any oppressed-other politics. She ac­cepts what rap boys have to say about girls, for the most part, with a shrug and a smile. Yet “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money” isn’t about accep­tance. It’s much closer to Janet Jackson’s idea of control, and seems to me to be more sound advice to Shanté’s primary audience than”Papa Don’t Preach.” Just who owns the means of reproduction? I’d like to hear someone answer Shanté on that.

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Lisa Jones: Tell me about your live show.

Roxanne Shanté: They turn off the lights. My MC says, “Are you ready for Then Roxanne Shanté? Well here’s the queen.” Then I go (from offstage): “We came here tonight to get started, to cold act ill or get retarded.” The we play Public Enemy and I go out there. I say, “Tell them who I am?” My DJ cuts in Heavy D and the Boys’ “The Overweight Lovers in the House.” I say, “Wait, who am I?” The DJ repeats Heavy D. Then he cuts in “Pay­back.” I rap freestyle to that, do my new single another “Have a Nice Day,” and end with another freestyle.

How does the freestyle go?

Usually I start with, “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” And more stuff about guys. My language is very vulgar, and that’s bad because I have little kids who come see me and they go home quoting me. I had somebody’s mother call me up. Her kid is four and she took her to see me at a stadium in New Jersey. For the past two weeks this kid’s been going around the house saying, “The pussy ain’t free, you got to give up money.” Some people tell me, “Listen, don’t you think you oughta cut it down?” If I did cut it down, what would I do — “One-two, one-two, what we would gonna I ­do?” My audience is used to hearing me say things like, “See that guy right there? He makes me sick. Always  wanting the [pause] but [pause].” You can imagine what goes in there. [Whispering] “Always wanting the pussy, but ain’t got no dick.”

You can say that in this paper.

Really? I must sound like I’m terribly nasty. I’m not.

If you use that language, there must be a reason for it.

Some people say I use it just to be known, ’cause I had to work so much out harder there than and men say, did.  L.L. [Cool J] can go out there and say “Rock the bells,” and  the crowd yells.

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And when you use that language… 

They love it. If they didn’t love it, I wouldn’t use it. When I pick a guy out of the crowd and start dogging him ’cause he said something smart, the crowd goes wild.

You bring him up on stage?

No, he stays right there in the crowd, behind the guards, ’cause he might get mad and try to punch me. If he yells something like, “Yo, fuck her,” I’ll be like, “What? Fuck your mother,” and such and such. I’m a little nicer now. I don’t get that many hecklers ’cause don’t nobody wanna get cursed out and be embarrassed the next day in school. “Ahh, I seen it Roxanne curse you  out.” Some guys like it ’cause them popular the next day. They be like, “Talk about me, talk about me!”

You get out there and you really dog ’em, but these guys get off on it. 

Guys guys like me, it’s the girls who don’t. The guys be looking forward to getting the drawers. [Sexy male voice] “Yo baby, you need such and such.” They be giving me all that cooneckedyneckedy talk. They be looking forward to gettin’ some so they can say, “I got Roxanne!” Now, girls, they roll their eyes, act like they don’t like me. Some girls I meet are nice, they’ll say, “Yeah, I like your records.” And then some will be like, “I coulda done better.” Well, bitch, if ya coulda done better, why am I up here and you’re down there? If you came to heckle, why you waste your 15 country dollars to come see me if all you gonna do is stand there and stick your lips out? Me and girls never got along. Never, ever, ever got along.

Is that why you started rappin’, be­cause you hung out with guys?

I hung with guys. Never with girls. Like I said, they cause problems. I’d say guys encouraged me to rhyme. Guys like Ha­kim, M.C. Shan, and them. You know, beating on tables and stuff like that. They inspired me a lot.

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When “Roxanne’s Revenge” came out, you were 15, right?

Fourteen. Tasting success. I would go to the park with my friend Sherron and the fellows wouldn’t want to give me the mike. How dare they? When I got it, I’d start with, “You right there in your mock neck and Lees/Scratching your ass like you got fleas.” The crowd would go crazy cause I was so little, with a high-pitched voice.

You told me you don’t like “Dumb Girls” [Run-D.M.C.], but “Dear Yvette” [L.L. Cool J] you like. Don’t they both dog women?

To me, ”Dumb Girls” had no meaning, What’s the sense in making a record called ”Dumb Girls”? Girls aren’t dumb. If you think about it, a dumb girl can get more out of a guy than a really smart girl can. ‘Cause the dumb girl could be play­ing dumb. It was a stupid dumb record. I started to make a record called “Dumb Guys,” but I didn’t want to do anymore answer records.

I didn’t find anything wrong with “Dear Yvette.” L.L. was talking about one girl. Her name was Yvette. And I know a lot of girls like Yvette. He wasn’t downing her, he was trying to get her to better herself. So he wrote her a letter, telling her what she should do, get a GED, and stuff like that.

I listen to songs by male rap artists and it seems like all the women are either hos, bitches, stealing their seeds, ripping off their gold chains and Ballys, or like Dana Dane, running off with all their Gucci stuff. 

See, there’s no such thing as a a “in-between girl.” Even the homeliest girl wants. She wants more to make herself look better. She wants gold earrings, chains, et cetera. Guys pamper girls and make them want these things, anyway. And what makes a girl a ho? Because she won’t give you none? I walk down the street and guys say, [homeboy voice] “Yo baby, yo baby, I’m talking to you, yo Trooper.” (I wear a Troop jacket.) And when I don’t speak, they say, “Yo, fuck you ’cause you ain’t fly anyway.” I’m the type to stop and turn around and say, “Then why the fuck was you chasing me?” And then he says “Yo, baby you don’t have to go out like that.”

Guys dis girls for the stupidest reasons. They want the kind of girl they can just slap up. No nigger slap me, I haven’t been slapped yet. Let somebody slap me.… Wait a minute, I have. So, I lied.

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One hand, you ‘re saying you don’t mind the records male artists are making about women…

Rap is about using fighting words, in­stead of fighting. Instead of saying “Let’s fight,” people say, “Let’s battle.” I bet you rap has saved a lot of lives. Even though there were shootouts afterwards!

Half of it is about people getting so dressed up for rap shows. Not suits and stuff, but in stuff that cost more than suits: leather and Gucci suits and sneak­ers, Fila suits and sneakers. We’re talking expensive shit here. So if somebody steps on homeboy’s sneakers, of course he’s gonna break and wanna fight. Especially if the other guy got on Pro-Keds, flair-leg jeans, and a mock neck. There used to be this guy going around called the Slasher. He’d slash leather jackets at parties and concerts. Do you know how ugly a leather looks after it’s been cut?

You said that guys dis girls unneces­sarily, but you also said sometimes girls deserve it.

Maybe L.L. did have a cousin named Yvette. Yvette, that’s your problem. May­be there are dumb girls out there, okay, that’s their problem. I have had records made about me that have gotten deep­down dark and dirty. I’ve been called “project ho,” from niggers who never got a bit o’ pussy. Why I’m a ho, cause you didn’t get none? Or did you ask and I told you no? And then things like, “Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fuckin’.” How long he been knowing me? ‘Turns out he never even met me. I could’ve bugged out, ran up to him and killed him, he wouldn’t have known what I looked like.

As long as you’re able to defend your­self with words, you don’t care what they say?

Exactly. But sometimes I feel hurt about records made about me, especially those that came out when I wasn’t even making records. Regardless of how hard I play on the outside, I’m still a woman. I’m still sensitive. I don’t like to see dogs get hit by cars, I don’t like to see children get beatings.

What do you think of the other women rappers?

There’s enough room for everybody. I’m not against no female rappers, just as long as they don’t get in my way.

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What about a battle between female rappers?

That would have to be a Don King promotion, because it would be a strict fight afterwards! That’s something you’d want to put on before a Tyson fight! Put everybody in the ring, let all the mikes come down, and let everybody go for theirs! I can’t rate myself. I might not be the last one standing, ’cause girls can get down and start writing, and I’m the kind of person to do mine off the top of my head. I’d be so nervous, I’d be downright vulgar. I’d say the kind of stuff that makes people’s mothers climb into the ring.

It’s a good idea. No one could possibly predict the outcome. They could have me, Sparky Dee, Salt ‘n Pepa, M.C. Lyte, and any female  who think she can cope. That would be def.

What would you say to Salt-n-Pepa in the ring?

I’d be like, “Your mike sounds wack, check one/Your mike sounds wack, check two.” I’d think of some crazy shit if it got down to that. I would. I’d be like, “You think you can fuck with me? C’mon, there’s no reasoning, knock out the box, you’re nothing but seasoning.”

Why would a showdown between the women be so crazy?

Let me tell you. If men go crazy over mud wrestling, they ought to come see some female MCs get crazy. I used to battle girls at my shows all the time, and they’d cry. And I’d have to explain to them that it was all in fun. “No, fuck you,” they’d say, and then we’d start fighting. Women just fight, they go crazy. They be having fights that guys don’t wanna break up ’cause they think some­body’s clothes gonna come off. I think girl rappers are more fierce than guys.

Who’s the fiercest after you?

Salt. I think it’s Salt. She’s good. Shocking. They have a nice show, they ­dance. I don’t do that. I walk out there, get a seat. I look like a female Bill Cosby, I have my legs crossed and I just talk.

What do you wear when you go on?

Anything I have on. I don’t get dressed up ’cause I find it fake. A hip-hopper is a regular street person, so I wear my regu­lar clothes. If I was doing a show tonight;, I wouldn’t wear this hat, but I’d wear these jeans, these sneakers, this shirt, and put curls in my hair. Throw on a Gucci hat or something. I’m not a dressy person. That’s why when I go out, people see me and say, “That ain’t her, look what she got on.” ■

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M.C.LYTE: Lyte as a Rock

On the phone with M.C. Lyte, com­poser of the epic poem “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)” (First Priority Music) hip-hop’s self-described “ultimate MC,” and certainly, as long as we’re a society into demarcations along the lines of gender, its best female vocalist. (She’s its best female lyricist, too, but in this genre, that’s redundant.) How would you describe your style, this so-called “Lyte Touch?” I ask. She pauses to think as labelmate Milk Dee bumrushes the conference call. “Hard…her calling card…”

She replies. “I guess you would say it’s sort like a female hard-rock. I bet you nine times out of ten, most girls, their voices are at the same level, has the same weight, that mine does. They just wanna play that ‘pret­ty female’ role” — she does a syr­upy, daisy-picking voice — “you know, doing all that fancy sty­lin’, when they could really be smackin’ people with their rhymes.”

Ouch. Bel’ voice is kinda low for a 17-year-old. What is does she think of it? “There’s nothin’ I can do about it,” she says, laughing. “I get ranked on from head to toe. I was even at one point called ‘Teddy Pendergrass,’ so you know how that goes.”

Hard…” Milk says again.

I use to be in love with this guy name Sam
I don’t know why ’cause he had the head like that of a clam
But you couldn’t tell me nuttin’ ’cause Sam was number one
‘Cause to me oh my gosh he was one-in-a-million
I should o’ knew the consequences right from the start
That he’d used me for my money and then break my heart
But like a fool in love, I fell for ‘is game a-but
I got mine so I show no shame
In Empire, winked his eye, and then he kept walkin’
All o’ those who live in Brooklyn know just what I’m talkin’
The roller disco, where we all used to go
A-just to have some fun, back in 1981
You know the place-Empire Boulevard is where I first saw the nigger and? he tried to play hard but
I knew the deal ’cause I knew his brother Jerry
And Sam he just broke up with girlfriend ‘Jerry so
Jerry introduced Sam and I that night
He said, “Hello, my name is Sam” I said
“Hl my name is Lyte”
We yipped and we yapped and we chit and we chat about
This and that from sneakers to hat
He said, “Look I’m in the mood for love
Simply because you’re near meeee!”
Let’s go
‘lb my house, lay back and get nice, watch television
A Riunite on ice
I said-a, “Slow down know you wanna shake me down
But I’m not one o’ the girls to go rippin’ around.…”

“Ultimate is a level,” she says, “and a certain amount of MCs can get to this level. I’m not sayin’ that I’m the only female MC that can do this, But I am at the ultimate level.

“You’ve only heard a piece, awright? When you hear the super dope def stuff that I have, you will say that Lyte is on the ultimate level.”
—Harry Allen

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L.S. FRESH: Dick Got Stuck

On line at a supermarket in San Francisco’s Hispanic Mission district, two 12-year-old girls chanted: “l met a guy, his name was Tussy/Took him to my house and he ate my pussy.” The song will be performed soon in supermarkets throughout the country. ”I met a girl, her name was Stacey/I took her home, she sat on my facey.” Copyright 1987 by Fra — naw, you can have it free, it’s a gift.

Those of you who don’t get to supermarkets much can experience similar pizzazz listening to L.S. Fresh sing “You Can’t Get No Pussy” (12-inch single, Revenge, PO Box 312, Bellflower, CA, 90706), a rap back at 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy.” L.S. Fresh says, “Don’t call us bitches, don’t call us ’hos/ Cuz when it comes to that only your mother knows” — in your teeth, boys.

Most important; this is music. 2 Live Crew’s cock rap was no sexier than a pneumatic drill. L, S. Fresh sounds attractive. Not the high-glitz “sensuality” that pervades Urban Desultory Radio; rather, a languorous, out-of-tune dead­pan. The cruddy sound helps the effect, masking her voice, making it mysteri­ous. I like c:ruddiness; this is low tech done right. The beatbox plays bass drum, snare on the backbeat, synthesized bass: rhythm stripped to its skeleton; you can play it with two hands on a subway seat. Add barest echo and sound effects, used as punctuation, as percussion, as commentary. The arranger is someone named Mouz. L.S. Fresh says, “Your dick got stuck”; in the background a siren goes off. She smells the guy’s crotch; the odor makes her sneeze. Back in the mix the room explodes, ka-boom! —Frank Kogan

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DOUG E. FRESH: Bigger Than Live

Hip-hop vocalist/instrumentalist stands silhouetted, armed with a mike, a year-old album, a loose upper lip, and the blunt force of African-American musical superiority. Proceeds to emotionally dismember neighborhood youth at random. At the end of his rampage, thou­sands lie about, weak, gasping for air, dying. To be rocked one more time.

The show? Krush Groove Jason’s Nightmare on Beat Street. Or Doug E. Fresh, the brother who grabbed hip-hop and swung it. Despite former partner M.C. “Slick” Ricky D’s casual departure from the Get Fresh Crew, and an apparent increase in audience tolerance for brusque, onstage stomping fronting as performance, Doug Excitement continues on his own merry way, choosing rather to (1) structurally slam dance his own music in hip-hop’s best live show, (2) worry about being a good Israelite, and (3) work on his new album, The World’s Greatest Entertainer. That is to say, the only yelling over beats you’ll hear at a Fresh show comes from the crowd, which, I guess, is why they call it a Fresh show.
—Harry Allen

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A Most Dangerous Woman

For Barbara Chase-Riboud—known to most as the literary emancipator of Sally Hemings, slave-wife to Thomas Jefferson—1999 will be the sort of crowning year that most artists live out only in their dreams. Accomplished as both a writer and a visual artist, Chase-Riboud will finally bring her two identities into the spotlight at the same time. An exhibit of her drawings opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June. In March she’ll receive the Design Award from the U.S. government for her monument to the African burial ground in lower Manhattan, and a survey of her sculpture and drawings will be published by Harry Abrams in the fall.

The list goes on: a plagiarism suit Chase-Riboud brought against Steven Spielberg, which charged that the filmmaker used her novel Echo of the Lions as the basis for his epic Amistad, was resolved “amiably” last year. (Sources place the monetary settlement at $1 million.) And Sally Hemings, her first novel, turns 20 this year—just months after DNA findings confirmed the Jefferson-Hemings link, dramatized in Chase-Riboud’s novel but long denied by mainstream historians. The novel, along with its sequel, The President’s Daughter, will soon be published in a mass-market edition. And Oprah is considering the Hemings novel for her book club.

A reassessment of Sally Hemings, apart from its role in bringing the Jefferson-Hemings relationship to the public stage, is overdue. Dismissed by some critics as simplistic romance, the novel and its sequel are in fact astute examinations of slavery—particularly of the legal groundwork laid by the slave system, which kept blacks as second-class citizens long after slavery was abolished. I reached Chase-Riboud by telephone at her home in Paris.

Lisa Jones: Have you been following the latest rebuttal of the DNA evidence?

Barbara Chase-Riboud: I figured it was coming. Dr. [Eugene] Foster [the retired pathologist who published the findings] can do all the retracting he wants, but the DNA is simply icing on the cake. It validates the historical evidence that was there for everyone to see anyway.

What led you to the Jefferson-Hemings story? I admired Fawn Brodie’s scholarly book on Jefferson and the effort she made to introduce the Jefferson-Hemings connection to mainstream American history. Brodie was the historical basis I started with, and from there I went off and did my own research. Since I was already living in Paris at the time, I began my research here. I had the benefit of walking the same streets and visiting the same buildings that Hemings did in pre-Revolutionary France.

Jackie Onassis was your editor at Viking. How did this come to pass? Was the subject of Hemings a personal passion of hers? Before Sally Hemings, Random House published a collection of my poems and I originally proposed an epic poem about Hemings to Toni Morrison, who was my editor there. Toni said she could only get me a contract for a historical novel. So I dropped the idea altogether.

My family and I usually spend the summers in Greece. And in the summer of ’77 we went to Skorpios, where I met Jacqueline for the first time. We talked about Sally Hemings and about presidents, passion, power, and she told me that I had to write this book. She was vaguely related to the Randolphs and the Carrs [Jefferson descendants] and there was no question in her mind as to the truth of the story.

By the time I finished the first draft, Jacqueline was working for Viking as a kind of therapeutic job after Onassis’s death. She had started calling my agent to inquire about the book. The very day I turned it in, it was sent over to her. She bought it immediately. I believe it was the first book she acquired for Viking. It became a bestseller very quickly. I think the appeal wasn’t so much the historical detail, but the presentation of Hemings’s humanity—telling the story from her point of view. I’m sure it would never have achieved such success if the Jeffersonians hadn’t attacked it in front-page articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. I woke up and found myself famous, at least notorious, for daring to attack Jefferson by writing about a woman old-guard historians had pronounced as only a figment of my imagination.

Were the film rights sold right away? Sally Hemings has been in movie option for over 20 years. Even before it was published, it was sold to CBS for a miniseries. This really upset the Jeffersonians. As long as the debate over Hemings stayed in academia, they could deal with it. They never would have tried to stop a book, but they felt they had every right to interfere with a film, which would have surely stirred public discussion on a much wider scale, and Hemings would no longer be able to occupy this realm of invisibility they had imposed on her.

What happened to the miniseries? I believe there was a conspiracy to force CBS to cancel. A network executive kept the Jeffersonians informed as to the progress of the project and eventually helped them launch a campaign against it. The miniseries was in preproduction when suddenly the head of the CBS movie section was fired. It was canceled soon afterward. Another company came along right away and took up the option. This has been going on for two decades. Actually the story is in option now as a musical, but for the first time in 20 years the film rights are available.

Even today I think the Jeffersonians would put up a bitter fight against me having control of the visual image of Hemings, though my book has been called the definitive portrait of Hemings. Americans have short memories, dictated, in particular, by visual media. We believe the movies. We always have and we always will. So a movie of Sally Hemings is still the most dangerous of all representations we could have of her.

That DNA tests were done at all can be traced back to the public debate generated by your book. So why haven’t you been quoted in the recent news coverage? I don’t think it’s because everyone has amnesia. And I don’t think it’s because I live outside the country. There is a political reason my point of view has been ignored. I have always posited the Hemings-Jefferson relationship in a complex, ambiguous way. It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes and see her as the powerless slave and him as the exploiter. But the image I projected is not this black and white. She is neither rape victim nor Angela Davis, and Jefferson isn’t hero or villain. Everything about their story is a shade of gray. And it’s not just whites who are uncomfortable with this picture, but blacks as well.

Do the DNA findings offer any symbolism as we near the millennium? The story of Jefferson and Hemings embodies the love-hate relationship that exists between white and black Americans, and this intimate and almost Shakespearean interaction began with the invention of America itself. If we don’t come to terms with this relationship, we can’t come to terms with anything. It’s the amalgam Hemings and Jefferson represent that upsets old-guard historians so much. They’re delighted there’s something called “black history” because it gets them off the hook. But the story of whites and blacks in America is not two separate histories, but intimately entwined, and Hemings and Jefferson symbolize this on every level.

Research: Kandea Mosley

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Grave Matters at Monticello

We cruise the aisles at Wal-Mart and eat chicken-fried steak at Shoney’s. This routine alone is enough to keep me coming back, but really why I go is to hear the same family stories told year after year. A favorite involves my great-great-grandfather, Jack Johns, an African American, and my great-great-grandmother, Anna, his Jewish wife; they fell in love while working as domestics at a plantation near Bishopsville, South Carolina, shortly after the Civil War. Who said interracial coupling first blossomed in the Age of Aquarius?

My holidays are synonymous with a trip to Hartsville, South Carolina (about an hour upstate from Columbia, the capital), for my annual family reunion, which brings together relatives from around the country. On the topics of race, sex, and hair, there’s always plenty to report. This year, I noticed what an openly multiculti family we’ve become. Our mixed ancestry, like that of most blacks, is not news. The news is the family’s sense of comfort with it. In the future, I see our gathering evolving from a black family reunion into what one might call a historically black reunion of Americans.

In June, another cousin of my generation will marry, as folks used to say, “outside the race.” And a highlight of this year’s reunion was the wedding video of yet another interracial couple. The family sat around eating Cheez Doodles and enjoying the obvious devotion between two middle-class kids from Palo Alto. “Love, we are standing here in the fullness of your presence,” said the minister, and no one in front of the VCR batted an eye. A far cry, I imagined, from when my white mother and black father tied the knot in 1958, their union still illegal in most Southern states.

It’s no sweet irony that despite the current state of my family, the state of South Carolina exists in an entirely different stratosphere. In November, South Carolinians voted on whether to abolish a 103-year-old ban on interracial marriage. This Jim Crowmanaged to remain part of the state constitution despite Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down miscegenation laws in 1967. (Alabama is the only other state that still has such a law; there is currently a campaign to remove it.)

South Carolina voters ended up siding against the ban, but only by a two-thirds margin. Several state representatives wanted to keep it. Said Representative Lanny Littlejohn, Republican from Spartanburg, just before the vote, “I think God has a perfect plan, and man has screwed it up.” Here’s to the new millennium. Whose American future will prevail—Mr. Littlejohn’s or my family’s?

One family reunion in particular has made headlines of late, though in this case the parties were brought together by means of a test tube. Last month, DNA tests confirmed that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The Jefferson-Hemings link has been a hotbed of contention for 200 years. And the DNA “bombshell,” as some saw it, reignited the debate about our third president’s character and legacy. Was he the architect of American equality struggling with the question of slavery, or a slave owner who warned against race mixing while feasting on taboo sex across the color line? Or just another human specimen of contradictions?

Before DNA sent mainstream scholars scrambling to revise their canons, they happily bypassed stacks of circumstantial evidence and oral history from black families attesting to the relationship. The most damning clue all along, to my mind, is that Hemings herself was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, née Martha Wayles, who died young. Martha’s father had six children by Sally’s mother. (Historians have long accepted oral history accounts of the black Wayles children, but not of the black Jeffersons.) Jefferson romantics like to claim the president was immune to the ethos of slave owner as sultan, but he was surely surrounded by it, and not just philosophically.

African Americans didn’t need DNA to give credence to the Hemings-Jefferson story; we just look at our rainbow of skin tones and our family trees full of European and Indian ancestors. Without question, the concubinage of black females was central to American slavery. And given that nine out of our first 12 presidents owned slaves, one can only imagine how many other colored descendants of note are among our ranks.

The only scoop from Monticello was no scoop at all. The real issue, as talk-radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson told Don Terry at the The New York Times, is “why there was such denial for so long among historians and so many whites.”

Indeed, the presumed crime of race mixing looms large here. (More attention was paid to Hemings’s race than to the fact that she was three decades Jefferson’s junior, Lolita’s age when accounts say their relationship began.) Jefferson’s sex with Hemings suddenly became a “crime more heinous than the crime of his legal ownership of her,” to quote Annette Gordon-Reed, whose Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy examines the racial protectionism that litters Jefferson scholarship. And while we’re on the subject, one of the least-explored crimes of American slavery was that whites didn’t just own and rape their African property, but committed the offspring of these unions, their own flesh and blood, to bondage as well.

Many commentators label the Jefferson-Hemings chronicle a presidential sex scandal with convenient parallels to the Clinton era. The heart of the matter is not sex at all, but family and American identity. This country is a “family not just in democratic theory, but in blood,” as writer and Jefferson descendant Lucian K. Truscott IV quoted Gordon-Reed in the New York Times, and we’ve been so since our colonial beginnings. According to Frank Shuffleton, editor of A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, Americans have been a creole people, culturally and genetically, since the mid-1800s. Yet the reality of our shared blood is constantly denied, particularly by whites. So are the lines between races carefully drawn—manufactured is a better word (witness the “one-drop rule” in determining race)—because they limit the pool of those entitled to the privileges of whiteness.

Truscott’s fiery op-eds about the upcoming showdown at Monticello caught my eye. An army brat who grew up in the integrated armed services, Truscott says he’s been writing for 32 years, but never had the desire to weigh in about his lineage until he heard his relatives spout off like “rednecks” when faced with the DNA findings.

The Monticello Association, the official society of white descendants of Jefferson, will vote this spring whether to accept black descendants. Membership gets you into the annual reunion at Monticello, and allows you to rest in peace in the president’s graveyard. Truscott has invited all the Hemings kin to attend this May, and challenged the whites to “look our slave descendants in the face when you vote to exclude them from our family.” Some members are threatening to quit if blacks are voted in; others will quit, and sue, if they aren’t.

Last month Truscott took part in a made-for-Oprah reunion with his Hemings cousins, including the descendants of Thomas Woodson, reportedly the first son of Hemings and Jefferson, conceived during their time in Paris. No DNA match for the descendants of Woodson has yet been found. Truscott thinks DNA is “horseshit.” No one’s asking the white descendants for their DNA. Obviously blacks are being held to a higher standard of proof for family membership than whites.

White scientists published the DNA findings, and a white historian, Joseph J. Ellis, introduced them, trumping the decades-long battle for acknowledgment of the Hemings-Jefferson family line waged by African Americans. Truscott put me in touch with Michele Cooley-Quille, whom he calls one of his “Hemings cousins,” though she’s a sixth-generation Woodson. Cooley-Quille, 33, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Hygiene and Public Health, is a daughter of the late Robert H. Cooley III, considered by many to be the catalyst behind recognition for the black descendants.

Cooley, a retired federal magistrate and lieutenant colonel in the army, had been waging a campaign since the early ’90s, appearing on TV to declare his ancestry and talk about the Woodson Family Association, which claims 1400 known descendants. The Woodsons, a distinguished African American family of college presidents and federal prosecutors, have criticized the DNA study, and stand by their 200-year-old oral history.

In the early ’90s, Cooley was asked by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (which runs Monticello and is guardian of the historical legacy) to take part in the 250th anniversary celebration of the president’s birth. He requested permission to stage the semiannual Woodson Family Reunion at Monticello for the first time, which he did in 1992. Judge Cooley was the impetus for the foundation to begin oral history documentation of the descendants of Monticello’s slaves, abstracts of which can be found on their Web site (www.monticello.org).

Cooley died suddenly in July, just months before the DNA results were published. Two weeks before his death, he’d appeared on an ABC news show and said one thing he wanted from his crusade was to be buried at Monticello. Cooley-Quille contacted the Monticello Association immediately after her father passed and requested permission.

But the Monticello Association, the more conservative body, turned down Cooley-Quille’s request to bury her father. Robert Gillespie, president of the association, says the decision was based on lack of space in the yard. Gillespie acknowledges that the association has never asked to review the Woodson family records.

A magazine editor I know finds the whole question of who gets to be buried at Monticello a vapid symbol, nothing more than blacks coveting all things white. To Cooley-Quille, the graveyard is no symbol, but part of the “equity in rights and privileges” that she feels are due black families. (Jefferson descendants attend the University of Virginia, which the president founded, for free. Cooley-Quille and her two siblings all went to UVA, but the judge paid their way.)

Truscott calls the graveyard tussle serious business: “This is about blood, race, and land, the same things Gone with the Wind is about… the biggest unexamined subjects we have in this country. And the most explosive. The slaves worked the land, and what did they get for it? Nothing.”

I can’t think of a more potent metaphor of American race relations at the millennium than the battle over graveyard space at Monticello. There seems to be only one mature choice for the Monticello Association. If it welcomes African American descendants of Jefferson, the association will embrace the future. If it says no, it replays our segregated past. (Truscott says Gillespie once called for the creation of a separate graveyard for Hemings descendants—a Jim Crow solution if ever there was one.)

Even if Hemings kin weren’t Jefferson’s blood relatives, the Monticello Association courts shame by keeping them out of the graveyard. Hemings and the other Africans held as slaves built Monticello. They made the bricks, planed the lumber, suckled and fed the children. And the white descendants of Jefferson continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege this free labor amassed. Ancestral labor, as much as common blood, demands that kin of former slaves share Monticello. The Monticello Association must know they owe the black descendants a lot more than a place in the family plot.

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Slave TV

Years ago I vowed not to waste any more brain cells critiquing Hollywood versions of the black experience, but the sitcom, or better yet, “slave-com,” The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (UPN), has had me foaming at the mouth. After keeping the series afloat despite several weeks of rock-bottom ratings, UPN bowed to pressure from affiliates and, as of November 2, put Pfeiffer on hiatus— or as the Post aptly called it, “forced vacation.”

And none too soon. This period farce, if you hadn’t heard, starred Chi McBride, in a performance reminiscent of Bert Williams, the “noble minstrel” of the early 1900s. Pfeiffer was a black Brit who fashions himself an aristocrat and, dodging gambling debts, managed to wash up in Civil War­time America as Abe Lincoln’s butler. Meant as a lampoon of the Clinton White House, the show instead drew the ire of black groups who had labeled it— and rightly so— a send-up of slavery.

Here, Civil War America was nothing but Play-Doh for the Beavis and Butthead generation; the war became a polite skirmish, slavery barely rated a mention, and the only black character, Pfeiffer, was a coddled butler who crossed the Atlantic on his own terms. Pfeiffer‘s Currier and Ives­style opening sequence, which showed nary a black face, said it all. The South was remembered as a peaceful fairytale, largely absent racial animus, and a prime setting to revisit good old-fashioned racist humor. On a network like UPN, whose young viewership is likely to possess a skeletal knowledge of history, this type of amusement seemed more than a trace irresponsible.

It’s hard to recall TV fare slimier than Pfeiffer, with its Animal House digs about race and boorish disregard for what, to many Americans, is still a painful, all-too-recent history. (To think of my great-great-grandmother, a former slave whom I’m named after, alongside Desmond makes my teeth grind.) But the defense of the show, by TV critics and UPN, has become a sitcom even more demeaning than Pfeiffer.

First, the scuffle over the pilot. UPN bowed to protests and replaced the controversial pilot with another premiere episode. A gaggle of white critics chided UPN for pulling the pilot, called the protests laughable, and defended the series as harmless albeit leaden satire. Rumors circulated all summer that the scuttled pilot depicted a lynching. UPN insisted the so-called lynching was a hanging on British soil involving white characters. What the pilot definitely did include was a few tasteless darky jokes. (Trusted butler Pfeiffer is told to get back to work because “the slaves haven’t been emancipated yet.”)

Though it was lost on critics, Pfeiffer‘s chief offense was not dusting off racist jokes, but its bewildering supposition— that a Civil War story could be divorced from the atrocity of slavery, while treating race like a running gag. Yet to Caryn James at the Times, viewing slavery “glancingly” as a joke was “not malicious.” Pfeiffer‘s fatal flaw, James and others argued, was just not being witty enough. Does this mean if Pfeiffer, which relied on slapstick, had done a better job of generating laughs the premise of the show would have been any less noxious?

Meanwhile, here at the Voice, critic Tom Carson heaped praise on Pfeiffer. Maybe Carson would have found the show’s “cheerfully crass” treatment of history less palatable if he had watched the PBS survey Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, which premiered opposite the sitcom. (Pfeiffer may have pretended that Lincoln’s D.C. was a liberal oasis, but the documentary reminded us that it was the slave auction capital.) Carson makes even mainstream critics look good when he wrote that Pfeiffer‘s “racial issue” never crossed his mind. Unfortunately for many of us, there’s no way it couldn’t— we still live it every day. Side-stepping gruesome history hardly qualifies as postmod invention as much as it is minstrelsy in new clothes.

A large part of the Pfeiffer defense has been to point out that butler Desmond, who also served as Lincoln’s kitchen-cabinet advisor, is the show’s smartest character, therefore the sitcom can’t possibly be racist. Please, folks. This is the oldest trick in the book of black caricatures in Hollywood, from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Rochester to Benson: The servant who’s smarter than the master but, how cute, still happens to be a servant. Pfeiffer’s intelligence was an aberration, meant for our amusement, not to disturb the social order that placed him as lackey and Lincoln as head of state. That Hollywood can continue to present African Americans as the help— while blacks account for nearly one-quarter of American moviegoers— and dare call it innovative programming, is more unspoken conspiracy than charming coincidence.

Clearly the network’s behavior in the Pfeiffer affair has only made matters worse. It did the p.c. thing, as in shelving the pilot, at the same time it sought to profit from all the brouhaha. (Ads boasted that critics hate the show so audiences will love it; they never mention, of course, what sort of critics felt this way and why.) And UPN has even tried to disavow the controversy altogether. A week before the show aired, Jet ran a patronizing little “Open Letter to the African-American Community” from UPN defending Pfeiffer. It’s “simply untrue,” the letter stated, that the show makes light of slavery, again with no explanation why. Coming from UPN— mockingly called “U People’s Network” because of its simplistic portrayals of African Americans— should we have expected anything else?

Though the network’s official statements about Pfeiffer reeked of damage control, president Dean Valentine’s comments told another story. UPN has the largest African American viewership of all six networks, yet Valentine has come across as perfectly willing to discount black viewers. He’s called efforts to block the pilot “insanity,” and assured the Los Angeles Times he had no plans to pull the show: “We have nothing to feel bad about, and we’re not going to feel bad about it. They can march up and down the street all they want to.”

What other group would UPN depend on as its primary audience, but feel so comfortable insulting? Imagine if Jews were to charge that a sitcom downplayed the Holocaust. (Anyone who actually remembers Hogan’s Heroes, which Pfeiffer producers like to compare to their show, knows it hardly qualifies.) No question UPN wouldn’t be as cavalier if the community protesting had more political and economic clout than African Americans.

Despite the fracas over Pfeiffer even before it aired, advertisers like Campbell’s, Glade, and MCI did not shy away. In fact, more came on board for the second episode, which managed to be even more offensive than the first. When Lincoln and his butler are caught in Confederate territory, Pfeiffer— without a mask— pretends to be a white man. A Rebel officer tells Pfeiffer if he didn’t know better, he’d mistake him for a “genuine, simple-minded Negro.”

The day UPN put Pfeiffer on hold, Danny Bakewell, head of the coalition of black groups protesting the sitcom, announced that at least five major advertisers— including M & M Mars, Pep Boys, and Kmart— responding to appeals from black viewers, withdrew their sponsorship. Bakewell, president of the L.A.-based Brotherhood Crusade, expects more advertisers to follow with pledges not to back the show if it airs again. When asked to comment on the defection, Paul McGuire, UPN’s senior vice president for media relations, was barely able to swallow his fury. The network, said McGuire, “does not and will not let special-interest groups dictate its programming.” McGuire questioned the credibility of the Crusade, going so far as to call it a “mosquito.” In what reads like an effort to save face, UPN intends to finish production on all 13 episodes of Pfeiffer, despite having no immediate broadcast plans.

By objecting to Pfeiffer, blacks have been chided for “overreacting” and being too “sensitive.” How predictable. Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg, for instance, spent his
entire review scolding blacks who insist on being offended as if he were eminently more qualified to judge Pfeiffer‘s racist content than any of us could ever be. This raises old questions of what is racism and who is qualified to decide. In Rosenberg’s limited purview, racism is an antique corridor of segregated drinking fountains, not an enigmatic field of institutional racism and regurgitated stereotypes as prime-time entertainment.

Indeed complaints about our “hypersensitivity” have become a familiar means of invalidating African American critical opinion. The inference here is we should get over it already— hate crimes, discrimination, redlining, educational inequities— because they are tried of hearing about them, not because such outrages no longer exist. Anyone who thinks that African Americans— or any Americans— don’t have the right to get queasy over darky jokes as sitcom fodder circa 1998, must have slept through Jasper, Texas, and Broad Channel.

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Hair Police State

The evidence: styling gel, a pair of scissors, a page torn from an appointment book, and a single hair clip. On July 1, three undercover investigators from California’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), posing as state police officers, staged a “sting” operation at a popular braiding salon in West Los Angeles, Braids by Sabrina. Investigator Ayn Lauderdale spent five hours having her hair braided by shop owner Sabrina Reece, then slipped into the bathroom and reappeared in a police jacket. Joined by two more investigators, the three carried guns, says Reece, and rifled through the shop without a warrant, threatening to arrest her. After taking photographs and the social security numbers of everyone present, the investigators left with the so-called evidence sealed in a plastic baggie. A DCA supervisor confirmed the raid had taken place, but refused further comment. The alleged crime: not running drugs or carrying a concealed weapon, but braiding hair. Welcome to the hair police state.

What Sabrina Reece is being charged with, to be exact, is braiding hair without a cosmetology license, in violation of a law whose constitutionality is now being challenged in a federal class action lawsuit, as are similar laws around the country, including New York. The issue on the table is whether hair braiders’ 14th amendment rights—in this case, the ability to pursue a livelihood—are being violated by arbitrary and excessive licensing requirements.

Reece and other African-style braiders refuse to be licensed, and say that their profession, which they’ve practiced for years without state intervention, does not fall under the rubric of traditional cosmetology. (They don’t use chemicals, special equipment, or cut hair.) State cosmetology boards, on the other hand, claim jurisdiction over anyone who touches hair.

Braiders in the Los Angeles area have been fined and threatened for several years now, but Sabrina Reece is the first to be subjected to a raid. This isn’t Reece’s first run-in with the board. The 32-year-old mother of two was fined for the same charge last October. That the sting was authorized while the lawsuit filed on behalf of California braiders is still pending was a heavy-handed show of authority, rather than a case of pressing public concern. Insiders consider the incident a testament to the board’s power and the overall clout of the billion-dollar-plus cosmetology industry.

Recent legal victories favoring braiders have led state boards to step up enforcement of licensing laws and engage in what braiders characterize as undue harassment. In the past year, the various investigative arms of the boards—called the “cosmetology police” by attorney Dana Berliner of the Washington, D.C.­based Institute for Justice, which is representing braiders in several of the civil rights cases—have moved from issuing fines to more hardball tactics, like the sting at Braids by Sabrina.

In states such as Texas, California, Ohio, and South Carolina, investigators, often accompanied by police, have threatened to lock up braiders, put them out of business, and penalize their landlords. Some incidents have taken on the timbre of Black Panther­era raids, as in Dallas last October, where seven cops were sent to arrest one braider, who was led away in handcuffs. The majority of those being charged and threatened so far are African American women—some of whom started braiding to make the transition from welfare to work.

Tales of extremism keep piling up: Take Roxsanna Robins. In South Carolina, Robins, owner of For Girls Only Braiding Salon in Columbia, feels she’s being made a scapegoat. Robins’s shop is the only all-braiding salon in the capital city. The state board issued her a cease and desist order but hasn’t gone any further—officially, that is. Robins believes the board is reluctant to bar her from braiding hair. But, she says, that’s not stopping them from harassing her. David Bagwell, chairman of the South Carolina State Board of Cosmetology, would not comment directly on the case but said the board is obligated to enforce the law.

The salon has been open for only two months, but investigators have cased the place at least seven times. When Robins and her staff leave for the evening, there is often police presence outside of the shop, and her customers have been stopped and questioned. (The county sheriff’s office told Robins this was due to a rash of burglaries, but so far, none have taken place in the office park where the salon is located.) Robins’s landlord has said he would not renew her lease and says he plans to break it if he can find a way. (The landlord confirmed this, but said it was because Robins has “unsupervised” children in her shop, not because of the nature of her business.)

At the center of the licensing debate are questions of economic opportunity for African Americans, particularly women, and control over what many consider to be a cultural art form. The cosmetology lobby insists that health and safety interests demand braiders be regulated. Braiders say the industry’s position has little to do with health and safety and everything to do with economics—wanting to control a cottage industry that is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise. In fact, only a small percentage of cosmetology training is devoted to health and safety. California, for instance, requires only 4 percent.

To their supporters, the burdensome licensing requirements placed on the braiders are entry-level barriers to entrepreneurship. (In New York State, to be licensed as a hair braider requires 900 hours of training, compared to 116 for an EMS technician. New York created a separate license for natural hairstyling in 1992. But so far no cosmetology school in the state offers a course of study to complete such a license.) California’s cosmetology code, similar to those in 48 other states, mandates that braiders like Sabrina Reece attend cosmetology school—at fees of up to $1200 for a nine-month to two-year program—during which time they would learn nothing about their chosen profession. Cosmetology schools don’t teach African-style hair braiding—or any method of treating black hair in its natural state—nor do they test it on licensing exams. Most braiders learn from relatives or friends.

So why is the cosmetology industry trying to regulate a field that it can’t even train people for? “It’s an issue of money, race, control, politics, and power” is the mantra of Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah, founder and executive director of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, which has been instrumental in changing licensing regulations in the District of Columbia and several states, including Michigan and Maryland.

The “braiding wars” are far from over, and braiders and their advocates predict there are ugly battles to come. “Traditional cosmetologists are feeling the financial pinch of a rising and popular hairstyle,” explains Uqdah. “In the effort to recover lost income, they are pressuring states to act as police agents for their cartels by conducting raids like the one in Los Angeles.” Says Reece, “They had to pass a mountain of drug activity at the corner of West Adams to get to me. Is this what my tax dollars are paying for?”

Research: Vicki Shiah

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Soul Lite

I have been transported. I’m in Blockbuster Video eyeing a wall-high display of videotapes of the film Soul Food. In Barnes & Noble I’m thumbing through scores of books under the banner “African American Heritage Cooking.” I go restaurant-hopping at places like the Soul Cafe and the Sugar Bar, surrounded by black people who wear pearls and navy blazers without irony, or mud cloth shawls and cowrie-shell necklaces without irony. Apparently I have left racist-fascist Giuliani land, and wandered intoan upscale theme park called Soul Food Village.

In Soul Food Village, what folks like to do most with their leisure time is rediscover the home cooking of their forebears. And like their white counterparts, they prefer to do this in an atmosphere that is nothing like home at all, but instead evocative of their class ambitions. At such places the walls are usually lined with portraits of the Talented Tenth or antelope masks from Mali. Jazz, of course, is piped in, at proper volume. And you’re never made to feel unwelcome with words or raised eyebrows.

The cuisine? It’s just that, cuisine–accepted and heralded, and made like all food these days, nouvelle. Corn mush is now polenta, and macaroni and cheese, terrine. Say goodbye (yet again) to the pig and its lard. This is comfort food defatted, desalted, and reimaged. But don’t call it soul food–demeaning, far-too-folksy, gone the way of race movies. Call it “Dunbar” food (named by Ishmael Reed after the “dialect” poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar), Southern revival, low-country, and Afro-Atlantic. Rubbing bellies with Europe in broad daylight, though this is less a subversive act than one that lends it culinary respectability. Brand new. Universal.

When Cooking Light magazine named soul food as one of the trends to watch last year, it was clear that those with the purse strings were finally discovering this culinary tradition was more than just a greasy take-out bag of chicken. And the cookbooks, memoirs, scholarly works, restaurants, and entertainment complexes keep coming, fed by deep-pocket buppies, a $350 billion black consumer market, and the American comfort-food revolution.

This latest crossover incarnation dates back to the early ’90s. Gael Greene’s 1994 feature “Soul Food Now” in New York magazine named the trend for the Midtown crowd. The national movement coincided with restaurants opening across the country, from Los Angeles (Georgia) to Hartford, Connecticut (Savannah’s). Since then, New York has seen a few come and go, including such totems of Downtown nouvelle soul as Cafe Beulah and Kwanzaa, which folded last year as others joined the fray. By unofficial count, in the last two years nearly a dozen restaurants reinterpreting African American heritage food (to play it safe with the name game) have opened above and below the city’s Mason-Dixon line.

We’ve seen the Motown Cafe, serving soul food standards, become a 57th Street landmark as entrenched as the Hard Rock Cafe; B. Smith evolved into something like the black Martha Stewart, armed with her own entertaining manual and syndicated style show; Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a black man who cooks Scandinavian food he calls “soul,” has become the most sought-after guest-chef on TV morning shows; and Sylvia Woods, of Harlem’s legendary soul food palace Sylvia’s, has been reborn as a merchandising and franchise queen (with restaurants in Atlanta, and possibly Philly and Brooklyn). By year’s end, Minton’s Playhouse, Harlem’s birthplace of bebop, will reopen as a 225-seat restaurant­ jazz club, backed by Drew Nieporent, Robert DeNiro, and Quincy Jones, and piloted by frontwoman Melba Wilson (niece of Sylvia). This $3 million project is being designed by architect David Rockwell (Planet Hollywood, Vong).

And the latest unfolding: this year the Smithsonian began planning a major exhibition called “With These Hands: African American Foodways,” which will examine the production, consumption, and serving of food as social history. It will be mounted in 2001 at the Institute’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. One truth the exhibition hopes to relay, says director Steven Cameron Newsome, is that African American food traditions are more diverse than Southern regional cooking because of our many migrations across the country, ties to other ethnic cuisines, and role in the hospitality industry.

Something’s going on here. Several developments make the nouvelle soul movement seem to have more longevity than it did four years ago, not to mention 20 years ago. One, the culinary arts have become an attractive and “legitimate” field for younger African Americans. (There are more young blacks in culinary schools than ever before.) A generation earlier would have shunned it as a symbol of slaving in Miss Ann’s kitchen.

Dining has become a sexy leisure activity to a new generation of middle-class blacks, much like attending black films or poetry readings. Soul food restaurant-hopping and cook-off fundraisers are de rigueur these days.Last month Cognac-Hennessy hosted a “fireside chat” on “African American” (not soul) food at the Harvard Club. The invitation-only event featured a panel discussion with culinary experts and catering by nouvelle hotspot Soul Cafe. Hennessy is staging these chats across the country in hopes of luring affluent black consumers.

How quickly the pendulum swings. Says food historian ­author Jessica B. Harris, a Voice restaurant critic, “Five to 10 years ago, the people who are now up in Justin’s [Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs’s outpost in the Flatiron district] would be proudly proclaiming they didn’t cook this food, couldn’t, and were certainly not gonna eat this food.”

There are signs that culinary circles are finally inching toward regarding African American heritage cooking, and variations on that theme, as cuisine. (American cuisine as distinct from European is itself a very young idea.) Chef Joe Randall, a 30-year vet of the culinary industry and the author of A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine, published this year, points to Paul Prudhomme’s championing of the creole cuisine of Louisiana in the late ’80s as paving the way for this acceptance.

The opening up of the culinary gates is no doubt due in large part to the media attention given to chefs like the late Patrick Clark of Odeon and Tavern on the Green, known for his French- and Southern-accented cuisine. Food & Wine‘s current issue has a piece on the growing reputation of black chefs outside the oeuvre of Southern cooking and describes their creations as “culinary patois” that jumble “conventional notions of ethnicity and food.” An equal contribution, I’d wage, is being made by black culinary scholars and cookbook authors who are also challenging segregated notions of what is American and African American cuisine in their work, and investigating West African and Afro-Caribbean retentions as well. One of these is Harris, whose five books catalogue diaspora culinary traditions from Ghana to Mississippi.

Just what is soul food? is a tangled, well-trod debate not worth revisiting in detail here. Though suffice it to say, it is as much the food as it is the ritual of sharing the food. It is “survival food,” born in slavery, says Harris. As Melba Woods told Gael Greene, “Masters gave us only the food no one wanted, hog’s ears and intestines and the bittersweet greens, and we made it good to eat.” And cooking soul food suggests an almost mystical ability to translate one’s soul, one’s essence to the plate, and presumes more channeling than skill. Soit’s not surprising that contemporary black chefs have almost nothing good to say about the moniker.

Norma Jean Darden, caterer, restaurateur, and coauthor of the influential memoir-cookbook Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (which never once uses the term soul food, though it includes recipes for chitlins and fried chicken) says it implies an ease of preparation and a simplicity of ingredients that just isn’t the case. Cafe Beulah’s Alexander Smalls regards it as an unfortunate carryover from the Black Powerera that has outlived its usefulness and now only serves to box in chefs and establish a code for black-owned restaurants.

Randall, of an earlier generation, isn’t ready to discard it. “Trying to disassociate from soul food is like trying to be a black person and jump out of your skin,” he says. “Soul food may have a negative connotation [as unhealthy food laden with fat and salt], but we have to take the term and market it to our advantage. After all, whites are cooking our food and making good money selling it back to us.” He mentions chains throughout the South such as Cracker Barrel and our favorite in the Northeast, Boston Market.

If the interest in soul culture and soul food represents anything right now, it’s recouping black pleasure in an era increasingly hostile to black people. (Would the Hennessy-Harvard Club fireside chat have drawn the same crowd if it were about affirmative action?) Our visibility in the cultural mirror despite our growing political disenfranchisement is another troubling reminder that comes with the popularity of nouvelle soul. Back in the kitchen, again, but not yet in the boardroom.

Research: Mark Maggiotto

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Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as “Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown—a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved “monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. “Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some “brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some—excuse me—ignorant folk were giggling about “homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that “Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, “Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the “N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara—inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist—and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, “Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, “You can never have too many of these.”

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Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since ”hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as ”Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown–a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved ”monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. ”Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some ”brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some–excuse me–ignorant folk were giggling about ”homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that ”Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, ”Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the ”N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara–inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist–and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, ”Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, ”You can never have too many of these.”