"Comin' From Where I'm From", "Money Earnin' Mount Vernon, "Why I Don't Understand the Black Affluent Class", Al B. Sure, Al Jazeera, Anthony Hamilton, Audre Lorde, Civility, Denzel Washington, Elitism, Histrionics, Inferiority Complex, Narcissism, Respectability Politics
A week and a half ago, I received an email from a reader in response to my latest Al Jazeera piece, “Why I Don’t Understand the Black Affluent Class.” She congratulated me on the article, and agreed with most of my sentiments in the piece. She also revealed that she had spent a decade living in Mount Vernon, NY.
It turned out that this reader lived five blocks from me during my Boy @ The Window years, right off East Lincoln Avenue! Part of my follow-up included, “[m]aybe our paths crossed, maybe they didn’t. But I’m sure my growing up years helped shape some of what went into my Al Jazeera piece from last week.”
I was mildly excited that someone from Mount Vernon had read one of my mainstream articles, and not just the blog. But, even with some shared ideas and a common point of reference, the reader’s response actually reflected some of what I critiqued in the article. She agreed that “Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon” had helped shape my views around the buying in of a relatively materially privileged class into White patriarchial and supremacist ideas like civility and respectability politics. Then she immediately veered toward identifying the great Mount Vernonites — “Denzel Washington, Al B Sure, Heavy D, Sidney Poitier, etc.”
What is it about smaller cities not blessed with the narcissistic largesse of a New York, L.A., or DC that causes people to fall back on the “but we have successful people from here, too” trope? Not only is this not necessary. It points to a sense of competing for attention and importance in a way that can be a bit unseemly, a way of countering a negative narrative from a crowd of self-centered media elites with one that’s just as narcissistic and needy.
The fact is, pick a spot on a map where at least 1,000 people live, and guess what? Someone rich and/or famous either grew up there or lived there for a time. Even if those individuals aren’t nationally known, one can guess that they’re known in that region or state. Dean Martin’s from Steubenville, Ohio. The opera singer Leontyne Price is originally from Laurel, Mississippi. Mr. “The Price Is Right” Bob Barker is from Darrington, Washington. Stand-up comedian Lewis Black’s from Silver Spring (where I’ve lived for nearly 20 years now). I bumped into former NFL player and sports broadcaster Ahmad Rashad at my local pizza shop in 1989. Heck, the Black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde worked for years at Mount Vernon Public Library. None of this could possibly change how I saw my original home base, not in 1976, not in 1987, and certainly not in 2018.
It’s not that I didn’t know the Delaney sisters lived off South Columbus Avenue, or that Stephanie Mills had a house somewhere between Mount Vernon High School and the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border. But what did that really mean to my day-to-day when I was going from one end of Mount Vernon to the other for groceries, for piece of mind, and sometimes, to avoid more physical and emotional abuse at home? How did knowing that a classmate was in a scene on the soap opera General Hospital change the fact that I still needed to hunt down my alcoholic father on Friday for enough money to cover the cost of my AP English exam? What did Al B. Sure or Heavy D’s success in the 1980s have to do with my striving for a college education, or my five days of homelessness in 1988? Nothing, of course, absolutely nothing.
It’s good to know that there are notable people, Black, Afro-Caribbean, African, Latino, Nuyorican, Italian, male, female, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, dead, old, young, and alive, from Mount Vernon. But a community doesn’t hang its hat on notable people or the rich and successful. Its lifeblood is the ordinary, of activists, artists, and educators, students and librarians and postal workers, the grandparent here, the friend of the family there, who takes a real interest in your development and success. For that reason, Denzel doesn’t really matter to me. I can’t tell you how I feel about Albert Brown night and day, because I’ve hardly given his music a thought since Quincy Jones’ 1989 album Back on the Block (the song “The Secret Garden” makes me gag). Sidney Poitier living in Mount Vernon for a time? And?
For me, for better and for worse, it was the crossing guard at the corner of Esplanade and East Lincoln when was at William H. Holmes. Or, it was my mom and dad’s friends (drinking buddies, really), Ms. Pomalee, Ida, Callie Mae, Lo, and Arthur. Or, it was my mom’s Mount Vernon Hospital friends, especially Billie. It was my Uncle Sam. It was Ms. Griffin, Mrs. Shannon, Mrs. O’Daniel, Mrs. Bryant, my school teachers before Humanities and Meltzer. Whatever lessons I learned about aspirations, civility, and respectability politics, and the idea that these ideas aren’t all good or set in stone, they helped me in that process. These were the people who mattered to me outside of 616 and off the street of Mount Vernon.