616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Books, Cards, Chanukah, Christmas, Connectedness, Deesha Philyaw, Disconnection, Family, Gifting, Gifts, Kwanzaa, Presents, Sarah Broom, The Secret Lives of Black Church Ladies (2020), The Yellow House (2019), Xmas
The holiday season is a time for giving unto others (apparently unlike the other 11 to eleven-and-a-half months out of the year, when it is your right under capitalism to give to yourself every single day). Except when your own life has shown time and time again that gift-giving without resources is hard. It has meant going years without receiving a gift, without your parents or guardian even buying any of us a card. It is doubly difficult when your birthday is in the middle of the holiday season, two days after Christmas, the second day of Kwanzaa, and at least one year where lunar calendar for Chanukah and my born date aligned.
But, as an adult, I made the most of trying to give to family and sometimes friends. I started buying my mother birthday and Christmas cards when I was 14. I began to buy my siblings cards and presents in 1989, just as I was turning 20. Over the years, I have bought video game systems and clothes, replaced TVs, given money, special-ordered flowers, taken my younger siblings to movies, Toys “R” Us, and other comical holiday ventures for a young man without a car.
Starting in the late 1990s, I began to switch to books as gifts. I figured that to really help my family and to get through to my sibs, books were key. They had been for me, and I assumed that it would be the same for them. I was so wrong! If the books got read by them at all, they generally didn’t say, or they said that they didn’t like them. When I finally got around to buying books for my Mom, she’d say, “What I need this for? I know all about racism already. I done lived it.” I guess my thirty-something years, and not my expertise on the topic, should have been sufficient for me, too.
As with all issues related to my Mount Vernon family, this giving issue became tortuous. It is hard buying gifts for people who only talk to you when they have to or when they want something from me. As adults, I have gotten to know very few of their likes, dislikes, and habits and wants and needs. Also, I found myself in the boom-and-bust cycles of teaching and consulting during the Great Recession years (especially between 2010 and 2015). So, I either sent holiday cards with gift cards or just cards.
But then it dawned on me right about my 45th birthday that none of my younger sibs had ever sent me anything. Yes, I know that gifting need not be transactional or reciprocal. Still, I had struggled every year to remember birthdays, special occasions, and Christmases to send them something from the heart. They never saw me as someone to give unto, as if my degrees and relative career stability made me not need and not want, materially, emotionally, or otherwise.
So in 2015, I stopped with the giving. Except for my older brother Darren and my Mom. And even then I mostly send cards and the occasional gift card. The latter gets reactions like, “What I’m gonna do with this?” It was my Mom’s gut punch to the cliché, “it’s the thought that counts.”
One thing I’d like to do again with family in New York is to send books that I’d think they’d enjoy, books that I found entertaining and educational, books that set my mind and spirit in order. Especially in this year of pandemic-driven isolation and putting my and my family’s safety over travel, my recent excursion to Pittsburgh to help make funeral arrangements for my mother-in-law excepted.
The last two books I have completed in recent weeks stand out because of the things I observed and experienced growing up and growing into grown-ass adulthood, between Mount Vernon, New York, Pittsburgh, and my first three years in DC and Silver Spring, Maryland. The two books happen to be Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Both books are by Black women who grew up in the Deep South but sojourned their way to cold Northern cities like New York and Pittsburgh, just like my Mom. And with those physical and spiritual journeys, family and the connections with family were big themes for them both. Or, really, the fault lines and the disconnection that can and does happen over time. Being unmoored, an outsider to one’s own family, Broom and Philyaw cover so well in their books.
Yes, I know that Broom’s National Book Award winner is both genealogy and memoir at the same time, carefully not revealing certain things about herself until her Acknowledgments. Yes, I know Philyaw’s NBA finalist is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of The Church and hypocrisy, fictionalized but with elements of the author’s life that she unveils anyway. The two books are quite different in their approaches to history and family, but they both address history and family anyway.
And it is how they handle family and family secrets that propelled me through both books. Broom is extremely circumspect about what and whom she does put in The Yellow House, explaining why and her conflict about doing so throughout (she makes me look like a gossip by comparison in Boy @ The Window). “Why do I sometimes feel that I do not have the right to the story of the city I come from? Why, when I want to get down to it, just say the damned thing, do the thoughts pool and ring out in a loop in my head a childish chorus of ‘Oh, oh, oh, don’t tell on your place.’ Telling on. Like giving it all away. Giving what away?,” Broom writes on page 329.
I completely understand, between the Mount Vernonites who have declared my growing-up experiences invalid because I was “weird” and family members who have all but stopped talking to me because I unearthed something they didn’t like about themselves. That, and Broom’s use of “The Water” to demarcate the East New Orleans of her, her family’s, and her ancestors’ lives and the East New Orleans after Katrina in 2005. It was the fire of 1995 that was the break between the chaos of 616 and the life of uncomfortable distance between me and family for me. Broom being unmoored caused her to eventually seek deeper bonds. I tried too many times to count, and failed. But then again, family ain’t just blood, and it’s way deeper than the roots of any marriage.
Philyaw’s collection conjured memories of my Black evangelical Christianity years (and so did Broom’s chapters about her feeling the spirit, speaking in other tongues, and passing out in self-induced trances that lasted for hours, but I digress) and my unfortunate Hebrew-Israelite years. Years where Black patriarchy and toxic hypermasculinity ruled the roost. Some of these men practically dripped pre-cum while preaching the promise of Jesus and Yahweh in those days of temple and Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. Philyaw gets at this in so many ways. For so many of her readers, the stories “Peach Cobbler” and “When Eddie Levert Comes” were their favorites. The amount of behind-the-scenes cheating and familial conflict is enough for anyone on the fence to declare themselves an atheist.
For my money, though, “Jael” is the story that will stay with me. I knew at least one, maybe two Jaels while growing up in the New York City area. One of them tried to molest me when I was 12. I somehow knew — despite forgetting about the particulars of my previous sexual assault until this time six years ago — that telling my Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice, or my father about this was out of the question. But she was a Jael, alright, another traumatized kid, like me, yet willing to prey on others as a coping strategy.
Even though I wasn’t a Jael, my Mom prayed over me like I could be one, in order “to make a man out of you,” as she used to say. That she could actually say the words, “Or you could be a rapist” to me the same month I’d end up homeless at Pitt for five days was so telling. It told me that my Mom didn’t know me very well after all. Philyaw has me considering the possibility that with family, anyone could be a Jael, even the folks responsible for raising us.
Here’s what I know, though. No matter how I’d couch it, most of my family wouldn’t read a single word from The Yellow House or The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Queerness, hypocrisy, intersectionality, symbolism, stories that parallel their own? I might as well be sending my Mom a stereotypical Hollywood version of a voodoo doll with pins for her to push in it. For my younger siblings, a steaming hot plate of fried beef liver and kidneys smothered in onions and gravy over rice would be more appealing. So this post will have to do. A gift, I suppose.