Black and Brown Laughter

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 19 September 2012

Tony Robles

If you’re a native San Franciscan you know the sound. It’s as sweet as the smell of BBQ ribs and cornbread and sweet potato pie when the city had soul food restaurants all over with black folks cooking in black kitchens on black grills with black pots and pans bubbling music in the background, in the foreground—all over. Imagine that, black folks cooking soul food in a soul food restaurant—not like what you see when you walk in the city today. The black and brown laughter I grew up with was nourishment, it told me where my mother and father had been, where my ancestors had been, it told me who I was. Black and brown laughter, like the smell of adobo, tortillas and rice, chow mein—nourishing us and keeping us fighting for things that mattered—our elders and children and community; black and brown laughter, the sound of struggle, the sound of strength—the sound of legacy; the laughter of our skin, with the scars and sweat filling the air with the fragrance of our lives. San Francisco, where is the black and brown laughter? All I hear is empty chatter, tinny voiced cell phone code, no laughter, no music, no nothing.

But sometimes you hear it. It comes like a friend who knows you, who’s glad to see you. And the beautiful sound came to me a couple days ago. I was on Muni heading home. I was anticipating a surly driver followed by a bus full of empty faces. The driver was a Filipino guy who grew up in the city—a Filipino who’d grown up in the barrio, the ghetto, the neighborhood. How’d I know? It was his voice and the way he tilted his head to the side. He said 4 words: How you doin’ brother? It was the voice of ungentrified Frisco, the voice of my father, my uncles—the voice of my life. I felt relaxed and alive, like I’d walked into my grandma’s old living room. He drove several blocks before coming to a stop. He rose from his seat to make way for the relief driver. The relief guy got on and the switch took place. It was an African-American brother, from the city too—I could tell by his voice, his laughter. The two drivers talked to each other, laughter of black and brown intertwined and beautiful. It was voices saying, “You ain’t right man” and “All right now” and “Man…you late again…what you doin’, starin’ at all the girls?” And the men looked at me and I said, “No, the brother was on top of it…he wasn’t lollygaggin’…fo’ real”.

And they laughed, their laughter drawing me in. I felt at home in a city that’s feeling less like home.

Powerful. Thank you, Tony.

Beautiful. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, and oh my god, did you take me back! I miss my neighborhood too. It wasn't perfect, but I could go 4 blocks in either direction and somebody knew my mama and daddy,and would say, "Is that you, Faye? You know you too far from home, and if you don't git yo'self back over there on Golden... (the street), I'm gon' call yo' mama." They would send me running right back to my own block where someone could watch over me. People shared everything. My mother and her neighbors could all sew, and being first or second generation immigrants from the south to the north, they all raised gardens. They sewed and repaired warm clothing for widow's children in the neighborhood, and some who were on welfare, etc. They exchanged vegetables, giving away tomatoes, green beans, rhubarb, cabbage, greens, old remedies for colds, measles, flu, eczema, many of which really did work. I remember all the Black owned businesses, and soul food restaurants, and, like you say, there was the sound of music, the beating, grinding, lovely blues of Bobby Bland and Little Johnny Taylor. I remember the sound of Gladys Knight, and the Temptations, playing on Hi-Fi sets, and later on, I was enlightened by John Coltrane and Gil Scott Herring, and Stevie Wonder even way back then. I remember the smell of barbecue, frying chicken, and 'kitchen soup,' the kind made with all the leftovers we had in the refrigerator, chicken and fresh vegetables; I remember the banana puddings, fried fresh fruit pies, and I remember hot fluffy biscuits on Sunday morning. I remember good lunches (hot and cold) at the homes of neighbors when my parents weren't going to be home to give me lunch (this is before you could get breakfast and lunch at school). I remember voices singing in harmony late at night, on the porches, and on corners behind the local mom and pop grocery store, or behind the Pool Room on east 83rd Street and Quincy Avenue; and the way we made our own fun because mostly we couldn't afford the Ice Follies or concerts, just the movies, a couple of junkets to Geauga Lake and Euclid Beach amusement parks, and the Sunday School Picnic during the summer.

I remember that I was raised, not just by my mother and father, but by all my relatives, my mother's wonderful friends who took me to the show, (I was an only child and my mother just couldn't stand the movies), and even by my teachers, all of whom nurtured me, disciplined me, fed me, taught me what it meant to be kind, and honest, and about all the things that were more important than money, than success, than a college degree. Everywhere I turned, there was only one message: Do what is right no matter what, share what you have, and never mistreat anybody for any reason, no matter what the other kids are doing. And these are the things that I remember most, the things that saved my life, and that have sustained me throughout my life. My extended family didn't speak "proper English," (at least not among ourselves) nor were they light-skinned with long hair, or products of an upwardly mobile middle class, or college graduates; and these things were never the most important things to them. I'm glad they weren't. Today, I hear celebrities brag about going to college, or that their people were all "educators," or how they came from "nothing" and became super wealthy... and the list goes on and on. But I'm glad that the people who raised me were exactly who they were. I'm glad I'm who I am.

Blacks were still mostly segregated in Cleveland back then, and I must say, that looking back, I wish, fervently, that we had had more self-esteem, more self-love, because maybe then, when the deceptive hand of integration beckoned to us, we might have been able to see the value in what we already had, rather than in a world we had been kept out of. Perhaps segregation (minus lynching and poverty and self-hatred) was a blessing in disguise. Maybe Blacks were meant to do far more than be included in a self-deprecating, self-hating culture.

There are no rainbows but the ones you create yourself. In the end, there is only our capacity to give love and to receive it, and resisting bad treatment from the government or whomever is an integral part of loving ourselves and cannot be neglected. But just because you get to climb to the top of a sh...t heap, doesn't make it any less a pile of crap.

Thank you for remembering

F. Grinage


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