As I go along day to day, trying to move beyond the dark clouds that hover over me, I find myself indulging in reviving a few precious memories.
I see me in chorus in junior high school. Mr. Sidney Dawson is coaxing us to “sing it like you mean it” with a soulful expression on his face as he holds his hands over his heart.
I’ll always remember the day when we showed up at the Pioneer Hotel to perform, and the bellman said, “I can’t let you colored people come through the front door.”
And Mr. Dawson said, looking as serious as a heart attack: “Well, the mayor and some other VIPs are expecting us, and you gonna have some tall explaining to do – because we ain’t going in through no back door!”
I’ve never been through a front door so fast in my life. That’s how heroes are born. Loved that man. From him I learned a thing or two about dealing with “The Man.”
That day was in the early ’50s, in Jim Crow Tucson, and it reminds me of a day back in the ’60s when I was visiting my hometown. I was in full Black and Proud mode, wearing an Afro as big as mine could grow and a colorful dashiki, speaking English but thinking in Swahili.
I ran into my man, Roy Junior Walls, a lifetime friend who greeted me with a smooth dance step and a mile wide smile and I came back at him with one of those multidimensional, multifaceted handshakes that brothas throw at each other.
And a white dude, looking on, made a comment about how what we were doing was “why colored people can’t advance.” Before I could cop a stance, Roy Junior told the guy, “Look here, man, I ain’t one of those NON-VIOLENT Negroes you been reading about.” and that yahoo was out of there like a cartoon character about to get his butt kicked. And we laughed and laughed and laughed with Roy Junior going, “There was no way I was going to mess up these Florsheims kicking that sorry fool’s ass.”
Ah this does ease the pain, for a few moments, so I go on, just like the struggle goes on…
I see myself, in one moment, doo-whopping rhythm and blues with my homies, Tommy Lee and Ira Lee, under a shade tree and then there I am, in the next moment, getting the ball at the top of the key and bouncing a no-look pass to Ira Lee for another two points and another victory.
Just thinking of playing basketball at Tucson High and later at the U of A gives me a natural high.
And speaking of “high,” a recollection is coming on of my junior year in high school, a time when my buddies and I thought we were the very essence of cool, drinking Thunderbird or white port and lemon juice, “W-P-L-J,” out of paper bags, talking more trash than a radio.
We never had enough dough between us to really get wasted, but one night I went to a party where booze flowed like the Mississippi. There were drinks as far as you could see. It was like people were celebrating “National Git Yo Head Messed Up Day.” You couldn’t get out of a drink’s way if you tried and I didn’t try.
And from what I hear I put on quite a show, dancing every dance that had ever been danced and dances that were yet to be danced, from the Charleston to the Stroll to the Boogaloo.
Then I shifted to impersonations, doing both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Othello. Old Yellow. Sgt. Bilko. Pinnochio. Satchmo looking for a horn to blow…
But entertainment, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and before the night was over folks were yelling “Get that jive ass drunk mothaf____r out of here!”
Needless to say, my mother wasn’t pleased when a couple of my friends dumped me on my front porch on that Christmas Eve.
Oh, but if we survive, we learn and we grow, don’t you know?
And that thought leads me to a key figure in my growth. My guru: Napolean Wilson. Nap. Four years older than me. One cool dude. We, in the jargon of my youth, were as “tight as Dick’s hatband.” He was my “ace boon coon.” He hipped me to so many things, how to woo a girl, the different ways one could look at the world, how to get a rebound as he was one of the best rebounders around, how not to bogart a doobie…
He was a philosopher and a dreamer, way ahead of his time. And he got too fast for the Old Pueblo, and moved to Chicago and came back home a wreck, literally wasting away, then he died and everybody cried and I, as a pallbearer at his service, realized that there are some paths that can destroy the fulfillment of one’s hopes and dreams.
Whoa, I don’t want to go there as this exercise is about breathing easy.
But these rememberings, and others that have surfaced in my mind, have reminded me of what a rich life I’ve had, letting me know that although for a while I’m going to be a little sad, there are more rich moments to be had.
The dark clouds hanging over me will lift some day. And that day can’t come fast enough. So I keep on keeping on.
Ernie McCray: Thank you for that amazing piece of writing. I’ve read it twice, and my thoughts and feelings keep swirling around. I will read it a few more times to get the full flavor and impact on life for so many of us, no matter what color our skin. I am not a black woman, and so much resonates with me. I can only imagine that being even harder for a person of color. Thank you again.
Dave and Janet Evans says
Great writing and great memories, Ernie. We hope your good memories will replace your current grief, sooner rather than later. BEAR DOWN !!
Dave and Janet Evans
Linda Newsum says
the depth of feeling of joy and sorrow makes you the kind, thoughtful man you are Ernie. May your pain be eased by all the love that is daily sent your way-and yes, what a life you’ve lived!
Such wonderful stories Ernie! I am sure these memories will help lift your spirits. You take care.
David Gangsei says
Ernie – I know you know the how music can both express and relieve sorrow. Happens I’m reading this piece of yours having dialed up Nina Simone on Pandora – led to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Bill Withers, Amy Winehouse, EllaFitzgerald, Sam Cooke- right now Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Seems to fit with the reflective mood of your writing, which along with the music is sparking my own reminiscences. Glad you are keepin’ on keeping’ on
Barbara Lewis says
Yes, “keep on keeping on” that’s all we can do (you’re human) as those dark clouds most times move over and become more and more just beautiful un-replaceable memories…
We missed you very much at the Reunion – you know everyone sends you their love.