The convocation is a huge annual revival for members of the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C) denomination. It was held in Memphis every fall and I looked forward to it. A few of my relatives would come to town and my aunt would host a dinner for them. The dinner was usually a day or two before my birthday, so my cousin Clyde could be counted on to give me his pocketful of silver coins as soon as I saw him. One year, the coins were enough to warrant my dad taking me to Service Merchandise to get the Pizza Hut Courtney doll. It was a good day.
Aunt Viola lived next door to us in what had been my great-grandmother’s house, so when it was time to start dinner preparations, she had four children at her disposal, ready to do her bidding. One year, I was called upon to give the welcome before we sat down to eat. She had written out a speech for me and asked me to read it aloud to her before sending me on my way. I loved giving speeches – Easter was always my time to shine because my speeches were always memorized and I took the liberty of adding a few sassy hand gestures for emphasis. I don’t remember if I had committed this particular speech to memory, but I do remember the rush I got from the round of applause and my daddy’s proud smile. I danced around the rest of the evening, pleased that my aunt had chosen me and that I had not disappointed her.
I was such a ham as a child. One time, my siblings and I were in the kitchen dancing to MC Hammer for my parents and I raced out of the room at one point, in tears, because my parents weren’t calling my name often enough for my taste. My mom had to come comfort me and then be careful to yell out, “Go, Andre!” as often as she could once I had returned to the dance floor. I loved being the center of attention and dreamed about being an actress, dancer, or some magnificent other. What a shock and disappointment it was to my dad when, as a teenager, I retreated within my awkward, acne-ridden body to perform only for my reflection in the bathroom mirror and the audiences that lived in my bed.
He was so frustrated with me and often tried to shame me out of my introverted ways. When I was around fifteen, we started attending a new church and I began working with the children’s church ministry. The drama ministry put on an Easter production and my baby sister was in the children’s choir, so my dad came to the see the performance. I was one of the stagehands, so I could be seen in my black WWJD shirt, clearing the set and making sure the actors were on their marks. I enjoyed the experience. I delight in being the strong, silent background force moving things along. It’s powerful to be controlling things so silently and effortlessly that people don’t even notice you’re there. It was a fun night for me, but my joy didn’t survive the night.
“Andre, why were you in the background? I saw you in all black, clearing the stage and I was thinking, ‘What happened to my daughter, the girl who loved the spotlight?’”
“Daddy! It was a kids’ program! There were no people my age in it! It was for the kids. I was just helping.”
I tried to roll my eyes and wave away his commentary. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t go to our church and he’s just overreacting as usual, but his words stung. Maybe I had changed and maybe it wasn’t for the better. Sometimes, when we were over his house, we would break out this one home movie from when I was around three. There is nothing special about the video. It was a nothing day. Us kids were just running around on a Saturday morning, playing in the backyard, playing with our toys, to the background music of our family favorite: The King of Pop. Daddy was the official photographer of the family. There is a huge gap in our family memories from post divorce to the period when regular visitation with him began again. In the video, he asks us what we want to be when we grow up and I bashfully look at the camera and say, “I want to be on the cheerleader side.”
“See? That’s’ my daughter right there. That’s my Andre. I don’t know who this is,” gesturing at me.
I sat there silently seething, wishing this were TV and not an old-school black family with an old-school black father who would knock my teeth out for any semblance of disrespect. I wanted to scream out, “You killed her, you asshole! She’s dead!”
But beneath my anger and frustration was a deep longing to be the daughter he so desperately wanted me to be. Nobody was more disappointed in me than I was in myself. Sometimes, I fantasized about a world where my grandmother had not died and my father had been more loving. My parents would not have divorced, my father would not have left, and there would have never been that period of time when we gorged on honey-buns, granola bars, Funyuns, and slushies from the gas station. I never would have gained all of the weight and I would have matured into a pretty, young woman who was just as confident and charismatic as she had been in the nineties. But no, I was like an Unsung episode of a child start who fell short of everyone’s expectations, including her own.
In college, I started to emerge out of my chrysalis and rediscover my voice. When I was voted president of my choir, my first thought was, “I wish my dad were here.” I wanted him to see how I had uncovered my voice. I was no longer unsung. I was starting to take up space again. But, I never became the woman I imagine that I would have been had my life not taken the detours that it had. My star didn’t always shine as brightly as it could. It depended on context. I could be a social butterfly, but I could also become a hermit crab.
This chameleon-like personality of mine didn’t bring me joy. I wanted to be the kind of person who was always on, always happy and laughing and ready to get engaged. I didn’t want my personality to depend on whom I was around because I saw it as a sign that I was still damaged goods and I was trying to bounce back from that.
In law school, I finally confided in a friend about this internal worry and that turned out to be a wise decision on my part. “So, you learned to bend. Maybe the reason you learned to decrease was problematic, but it had benefits. You can bend. You know when to stand back and when to give all. You have levels and most will never have that.” Maybe she was right. I had become so obsessed with the causes that I never appreciated the effects. I was flexible and as a result, could maneuver through life in the way that my dad was never been able to do.
He was so brittle. Because he could not bend, he broke. My dad could be the life of the party, which made him so much fun to be around, but because he only ever knew/wanted to be that, he could also be exhausting. One Thanksgiving, he stormed out of his sister’s house, dragging us kids in his wake, because my cousin had asked him to be quiet during the movie. “I don’t need this! I can watch a movie any old time! But hey, if y’all don’t appreciate our company, then we out!”
The drama was never ending. It was frustrating to get caught up in, but it was also heartbreaking to witness. His insecurities were forever bouncing off of him and encircling him like the birds around Bugs Bunny’s victims. If he could not be the focal point, he did not feel welcome in a space.
His inability to decrease cost him a lifetime of intimacy and quiet moments of peace with others. He was never able to experience the warmth of other people’s spotlights and he never learned that just because you might have to share the stage doesn’t mean that you’re not welcome to the space and that you’re not loved.
Last fall, I fell into a deep Nina Simone groove. During that time, I was reminded of the Ledisi, Kelly Price, Marsha Ambrosia, and Jill Scott performance of “Four Women” that people had posted on Facebook a while back, but that I ignored at the time. I found it on Youtube and watched it on repeat for days on end. I devoted a great many pages in my journal to dissecting all of the small, glorious moments from each artist’s performance, but I was most entranced by Ledisi.
Peaches has always been my favorite of the four women, so I was already eagerly anticipating the song’s finale, but Ledisi took it to unanticipated levels. When it is her turn, she steps out and demands all of the attention. She has none of the soft sullenness, meekness, nor sultriness of the women that preceded her. She is cut from her own cloth and she wastes no time educating the audience to this fact. But when it is time for the other ladies to chime in again, she does not hesitate to step back and resume her place in the circle. She joins them in the echoing refrain of, “What do they call me?” and it is clear that these are her people. She is different, but still, she is them. She is their legacy; they are her community.
Each of the women identifies herself again and then, Ledisi steps back into the light again and screams her name for all to hear as the band echoes her battle cry. Sometimes, I don’t bother replaying the whole song, but just cut to those last thirty seconds because there is so much power in that defiant burst of self-identification. Ledisi’s interpretation of that character ministered to me because she helped me process what I have witnessed in myself. I don’t have to choose between being a lively extrovert or the silent thinker. I can be, and I am, both and both personalities have helped me navigate through life challenges. Sometimes, I will need to step back in line when my community needs a collective chorus and not my solo act. There will also be times when I need to raise my voice above the fray and I need not fear that my voice will fail me in those moments. The power is always there and it will rise to the surface when it is time for me to enter.