A TRIBUTE TO BELOVED PARENTS
By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.
Thursday, August 20, 2009.
The night before my father died in February of 2008, I sat in the auditorium at the Nasher Museum in Durham, NC listening to a head-banging public conversation between critic Greg Tate and filmmaker and artist Arthur Jaffa. I went home with many cerebral gifts that evening, not the least of which was an introduction to the music of Imani Uzuri and the brilliant Pierre Bennu produced video for her track “Sun Moon Child.” At the time I couldn’t quite grasp why the song and video were so magical to me.
When I returned back to Durham and my classroom at Duke University 10 days later, I began my class on “The Cultural Politics of Soul” with a screening of the video and nearly collapsed in an emotional release. Still processing, if not yet fully grieving my father’s death, “Sun Moon Child” provided me with the philosophical logic to place his death and his impact on me in proper context.
It’s about the rhythm of the thing and the rhythm is timeless and renewable like the Sun and the Moon. What I understood is that my father’s rhythms—his walk, his southern drawl, his deliberate speed, that damn slewfoot dance of his—we’re all part of my rhythms, in my writing, my public speech patterns, the way I move my body when my daughters tell me that I can’t dance—and it’s their rhythm too; in the baby gurl’s own unique approach to time and the quirkiness that marks my oldest daughter’s curiosity, something like molasses in a cup of rooibos.
It had been sometime since I listened to “Sun Moon Child”—a daily affair last autumn—when I prepared to bury my mother some 18-plus months after my father. My mother didn’t live amongst my rhythms—that was my dad’s province.
Her province was the ambition and independence that took her from her momma’s house in Baltimore’s MD in 1958 at age 17 and led her to New York City. That ambition and independence became mine. My mother was neither surprised nor shy about my achievements. Nevertheless, I struggled to find the rhythms--the music to get me through the passing of another parent.
That music came early in the afternoon on August 7th 2009 at a going home ceremony presided over by an uncle, auntie and cousin who all ply their trade as men and women of the cloth. The cousin who was there with his children and grandchildren, all products of a once blended family that after two divorces he still claims as one. The second cousins—beautiful songbirds in their own right—who reminded us, as Baraka always does, that the “spirits do not descend until there is music.”
The now grown God-sister, whose momma was one of my momma’s best friends, the God-sister who taught me how listen to my own daughters because of what she taught me when she was a toddler.
The cousin and uncle—my daddy’s people—who traveled from New York, as in the uncle who taught my daddy how to navigate the streets of New York and the cousin whose momma introduced my momma to my daddy.
The aunties and the uncles, all dressed in white, who represent the remaining 6 of the 8. The best friend, who has been either to my left or my right (literally and metaphorically) since we met in 2nd grade some 37 years ago. The wife, who 18 years into this thing, knew everything I felt without me uttering a word. T
he grandmother—who we funeralized in the same space 19 months earlier, when the four generations of us remaining stood to say goodbye to her singing “I’ll Fly Away” in unison.
11 years earlier, in August of 1998, my mother’s family celebrated the 85th birthday of my grandmother. It was two weeks before the birth of my first daughter, who we adopted a month later.
For the occasion I wrote original verse, which was mixed with the lyrics of Duke Ellington’s “Heritage (My Mother, My Father)” Of note were the lyrics to Ellington’s song, which was originally recorded with Jimmy McPhail, though I was introduced to the song some 16 years ago when Nnenna Freelon recorded it.
My favorite version was recorded by the late Joe Williams.
Anyway, this is Duke:
My mother, the greatest and the prettiest.
My father, just handsome, but the wittiest.
My grand-daddy, natural born proud.
Grandma, so gentle, so fine.
The men before them worked hard and sang loud
About the beautiful women, in this family of mine.
Our homestead, the warmest hospitality.
In me you see, the least of the, family tree personality.
I was raised in the palm of the hand of the very best people in the land.
From sun to sun, their hearts beat as one.
My mother, my father. And Love.
As we left the funeral home that afternoon, and I looked out at all the family and friends in the audience and thought about the many who eloquently sent their condolences (a big up to Facebook).
I thought about the families who helped raise me on Fulton avenue in the Bronx, including mama Morgan and that daughter of hers, the famous feminist scribe, who was my first friend.
I thought about the teachers at that Seventh Day Adventist school on Forest Avenue, my daddy’s people in Georgia and Connecticut, the men, who I knew would check in on me in a few days, to make sure their boy was ok. And yes, there was music, Ellington’s “Heritage” ringing in my head as if the great bandleader was himself, reminding me about how this thing’s supposed to work..
There’s always a rhythm to this thing. Call it heritage and it's renewable
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, North Carolina. He is also the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999) and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003). He is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for NYU Press.