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Oddities of the Family: Toward an Intellectual Legacy

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Saturday , February 6, 2016.

My parents were not "intellectuals" in any traditional sense and they were not “movement” folk; just one high school degree (from night school) between them, when I was born. I often measure my parents’ intellectual impact on me in the oddities that found their way into our home--Nikki Giovanni's first album Truth is on The Way; the 45 of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted & Black" (the only Simone record my parents owned); H. Rap. Brown's memoir Die, Nigger, Die and the most random of the oddities, an 8-Track copy of Miriam Makeba’s Keep Me in Mind (1970).

Admittedly I was never inclined to ask either of my parents about some of the shit that was in our apartment--the series of small paintings that seemed to depict my Bronx neighborhood in the late 19th century, the large owl wall clock, and at least at the time, the junior and “adult” volumes The Britannica Encyclopedia; I still remember the day the “white man” came to the door selling what would become my analog search engine.  

I was initially drawn to Nikki Giovanni’s Truth is on the Way, because of the babbling brown baby that adorns its cover; I at least had clues in what it held for my mother, a huge Aretha Franklin fan, who likely heard Giovanni’s recorded version of “Poem for Aretha”.  It was one of the few albums that my parents played that I didn’t try drown out with that Jackson Five Third Album.

I remember those Nikki Giovanni poems-- “Great Pax Whitey”, “Nikki Rosa”, “Poem for a Lady of Leisure Now Retired” and of course “Ego Tripping”-- as easily as I remember the Gospel muisc standards that the New York Community Choir performed behind Giovanni.  To this day, when I hear “Peace be Still” I’m thinking Giovanni’s “Great Pax Whitey” and not the Reverend James Cleveland’s original.  To this end, when I was  in my 12th Grade English Regents exam in 1983, and the exam requested that students analyze a poem, I chose Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” to the likely confusion of the graders, who did not teach Giovanni’s work.

And if I understood why my mother found Giovanni’s Truth is on the Way, I was also always clear about the intent of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black”, well before I knew or could appreciate who Nina Simone was.  Before I could recognize the physical stature of Simone, I could hear the stately nature of her presence in simply how she uttered “to be Young, Gifted, and BLACK.”  Years later, as an adult doing radio in Western New York, my wife would tease me for the way I uttered the word “BLACK”  on air during my program Soul Expressions, me realizing that it was Nina Simone--whose music was prominently featured every Sunday--who taught me to say it that way.

More tellingly, as part of the first cohorts that experienced the Head Start Program--and the very cohort that Sesame Street was developed for, “Young, Gifted, and Black” was seemingly in every Black parent’s parenting tool kit.  There really is no way to truly index how powerful those three word sung by the regal Ms. Simone were for a generation, whose parents imagined so much for the futures of their children.

When I began college in the early 1980s, and was immediately politicized on campus, courtesy of a fully engaged Black Student Union, which was led by a student from Buffalo, who was in the midst of joining the Nation of Islam; he is now the head minister in the city of Buffalo.  As I was introduced to figures like Haki Madhubuti, John Henrik Clarke, Sonia Sanchez, Nathan and Julie Hare, Kwame Toure, Amiri Baraka, Yosef ben-Jochannan (Dr. Ben), and Gil Noble, who all visited my campus, I went back to the small bookshelf in my parent's bedroom, where I remembered that copy of H. Rap Brown’s Die, Nigger, Die.

The book was literally the only inkling that my parents ever provided that they were even aware of the Black Power Movement--we never talked about the Black Panthers, SNCC, or King for that matter, and it was understandable; they were working class Black folk who were simply imagining the best future for the only child.  All they knew was the grind, hoping that grind would provide their son with opportunities that couldn’t imagine for themselves, like private schooling at the local all-Black Seventh Day Adventist school.  

Ironically it was that same small book shelf where I would later find my mother’s copy of Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class--the product of her own grind in the 1980s earning her college degree at the College of New Rochelle’s Bronx campus in Co-Op City.  

My mother’s copy of Women, Race and Class, which I liberated from her shelf during my graduate years working with Alexis De Veaux and later gifted to the hand-picked BFF my mother chose for me when I was a child, remains one of my most treasured connections to a women, who never made it easy to be connected.  Tellingly her ownership of the book--her own signature in the opening pages to mark ownership--tells me more about my mother, than she ever told me.

I was in college learning about Anti-colonial movements--courtesy of Joe Gallagher, the White Professor who  taught the only class in African History--when I was introduced to  Patrice Lumumba and the CIA’s role in his murder.  And yet when I heard that name, I immediately remembered the rhythms of a song that my mother played when I was a child.  Unlike the books that I could liberate, my mother’s copy of Miriam Makeba Keep Me in Mind was an 8-track, and at that time was unplayable.  Long out of print, it would be well in my adulthood when I would finally rip a copy of the song from the soundtrack of a Mario Van Peebles film.  Again there was little clue as to why that album found its way into my parents’ record collection.

To be sure there were other--more regular, if you will--artifacts of my parents that fed a young Black child’s imagination, including the bevy of Al Green and Luther Ingram records that were on regular rotation, The Essence Magazines (when I was a little older), where I first encountered Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Alexis De Veaux, who would later become my graduate advisor.

Having spent a lifetime bearing witness to my mother’s impulsive buying habits, I can’t be sure that these oddities were the by-product of that impulsiveness or something more intentional. Nevertheless for a Black boy from the South Bronx, these oddities provided important connections and landscapes for a budding scholar’s imagination, that were as important as any gleaned from the public square or the narrow rows of E185.

Oddities of the Family: Toward an Intellectual Legacy

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