©Camille Yarbrough,2016, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
“…The neighborhood I was born and raised in was frequently referred to as one of the” Bucket Of Blood” neighborhoods in America’s many Black-Belted- In African American communities…
“…over a period of years, like today’s Chicago South Side youth, I too jumped and stiffened when I heard gunshots pow powing around me. heard screams and saw muzzle flashes, blood.
……yet, in the middle of the Black Belt, in the”Bucket of Blood” South Side of Chicago with all of it’s hand me down wounds,fears, anger and frustrations I and others struggled not to become casualties nor to add to the lists of casualties but, to each find ways to use our very personal brilliance to unbuckle the Black Belt and step away from the blood.” Yes, it had to be personal but, it had to be Strip-Down personal.
“Mina, she ah ol’ head.
Um hum, She know sumum and hear thangs too.”
Thank so? That’s how come she act thata way?
“Um hum, you see her. Mina be watchin’, watchin’ all da’ time.She one of dam churin what see thangs.
She gonna talk about it too. You’ll see..” I seen churin like that befo’.
“Can’t you see it? watch her. Watch her.
She got ways, cause she got sumpum to do, sumpum to say about thangs.
Um hum, Mina, she one o dem old,old heads.”
I was maybe seven years old when I heard my grandmother and her friend say these things about me. Of course, at that age, I did not understand what they meant. It took me years of life lessons to see in myself what she then saw in me, that “old head” thing. years of being outside of the “ go along to get along flow,” years of watching myself and asking myself why I was feeling, saying and making what ordinarily would be ‘shoot yourself in the foot’ choices yet surviving and learning from the emotional and physical consequences of those choices. It took time but, I began to understand and accept what an “old head is, what it means to be an “old head,” to live the always challenging and demanding life of an “old head” and to learn to love that gift and the responsibility and joy of being an”old head.” It was very personal.
Sunday, April 13, 1969
The Washington Post/ Lifestyles Review
…”Miss Yarbrough finds herself getting the spirit of that ‘Old Time Religion’ eight times a week on stage. She is easily the most dynamic and moving member of the show’s chorus in “Trumpets Of The Lord,” now playing at Ford’s Theater. Miss Yarbrough’s rendition of “Run Sinner Run” coming near the midpoint of the show, receives one of the best hands of the evening.
Emerging from a near trance in the Amen Corner, she runs, leaps and yells as one possessed.”…
The excerpt above is from a review written by Nancy L. Ross in The Washington Post. I was thankful for the compliment but, she had no idea of what she was seeing on that opening night on the stage of Washington’s Ford’s Theater or of what would come later.
Yes, it was exciting theater but, to me, it was so much more. I was having my very own personal opening night. I was in my early thirties and it had taken years of me discovering me, years of paying dues and growing wiser with each payment. In the African diaspora, yes, outside of the traditional rites of passage rituals in Africa I had come through what I feel was an ancestrally directed rite of passage, had crossed over from one level of self- discovery to a deeper level. What happened to me on that stage at the end of the play was an announcement of my successful passage. That night, on that stage I was being publicly accepted. Those in the audience who know knew and understood what was happening to me … I did not at that point. The wisdom would come later. When it did, I felt honored, empowered and at peace.
The play “Trumpets of the Lord” is a blending of “Negro Spirituals” and sermons. It was written by poet James Weldon Johnson in the style and tradition of the Black Church. I was in the Amen Corner choir and understudying Hilda Sims who played Rev. Marian Alexander. Cicely Tyson was originally signed to play that part but, had to reschedule and would later join the cast in New York.
There was a riser platform center stage and an Amen Corner bench on either side. I was on the bench stage left with singer/actresses Teresa Merritt, Bernice Hall and Ella Hure. On that opening night at the historic Ford’s Theater where President Abraham Lincoln, a century before, was fatally shot, I felt honored to be there and to be doing James Weldon Johnson’s magnificent play. I was determined to be in control and be up to the greatness of that honor. I was in for a surprise. That night, I experienced an even greater honor.
Some theater openings are important sociopolitical events. It was 1969 and America was in racial turmoil. The demands of the Civil Rights Movement included the funding of and respect for “Black theater, Black dance, Black poetry, Black history, Black literature. for the all-inclusive Black life experience. James Weldon Johnson’s “Trumpets Of The Lord” fell within those categories. So, politicians and the glamorous were there in numbers but, most of the audience was the community of African American church people.
The show opens with the cast walking onto the stage in our church robes singing “So Glad I’m Here, so glad I’m here, so glad I’m here in Jesus name.” In that spirit, we all sat down. But, as the first minister, Lex Munson, stood up, upstage on the riser, to begin his sermon I found myself staring at the audience and beginning to feel out of my professional self. I wanted to stand up. I didn’t. Tears came. Rocking came. I kept control. We had rehearsed for two weeks in New York at Ted Mann’s Circle In The Square Theater and at every rehearsal I had had that same energy pull. But I kept control then.
On opening night in Washington, I began to feel that pull again. When my solo dance came as part of the song “Run Sinner Run” I was more than ready. I returned to my seat after the dance, embraced myself to still myself and worked hard to get back into the play.
There were 21 songs that lifted the sermons in the play but,
at the end of the show, when the whole cast moved downstage to the apron just above the audience. everyone was singing and clapping but me. I was shaking, jerking. I could no longer clap or sing in time with the song. I just wept, bent over trembling, rocking. I reached out to and wanted to talk to the audience but not from the script.
Somehow, at the end of the song, I managed to exit the stage with the cast and stood backstage trembling as fans and friends of members of the cast rushed back to hug, kiss and congratulate us. I stood there with them smiling and thanking them until Ted Mann, the producer joined us. He too was congratulated and hugged by the admiring fans. But, he was angry. He turned to me and hissed, “What were you doing out there? What was that?”
I looked at him but had not yet recovered from what ”that” was, nor had the time to think it through. Ted Mann started to say more to me but the fans stopped him.
“Leave her alone Ted.”
They whooped and stepped between us.
“We know what she’s’doing. She’s’ doing what she’s supposed to do. Everybody knows what she was doing except you, Ted.”
They laughed and embraced me and him.
I gratefully thanked them and hoped they would go on to explain to him their understanding of what they had witnessed happening to me on the stage that night. They said I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was wondering, What was I supposed to be doing? How-some-ever, it was celebration time and the conversation turned to how great the show was and where we should go to eat.
I congratulated everyone then went to my hotel to order some food, to be quiet and think.
After that opening night, I managed to stay in character, to keep control of whatever it was that had energized and directed me to lose control on the stage during the performance and to almost losing my job.
When the show closed we had an opening in Baltimore then went on to New York for the opening there at the Broadway Theater. Cicely Tyson joined us there. After the closing, Cicely left the show and I took over the role of Reverend Marian Alexander for the tour which included St. Louis and Los Angeles.
But I had to stop. Shortly after the tour ended I was asked to rejoin for a new tour. I told the director ‘Thank you, but no. I had to take time to find out what was happening to me.” He didn’t understand. I didn’t explain, couldn’t.
The Washington experience focused, confused and enlarged me. I had heard of people getting the ‘spirit’ in Black churches but, I have raised a Catholic, went to Catholic school, to Mass every morning before school. I had never been in a Black church or seen anyone get the ‘spirit.’ I had danced and sung in Haitian/Cuban rituals while in the Katherine Dunham Company, even danced the solo “Spiritual” ballet in that company. But, none of that experience released in me the kind of energy that took over my performance on the stage at Ford’s Theater that opening night.. Leading up to that, I had had other such experiences that came out of nowhere but, not on the stage. I had to find out what and why. So, I stayed in my small studio apartment and let my memories speak to me of me. When did all of this start?
Years later, in 1996 I visited Chicago to do a book signing for my book “The Shimmershine Queens “at a South Side bookstore and was reminded of my growing up years.
Some of my Englewood High School classmates were at the bookstore to welcome me.
They told me, “You were so quiet back then, so laid back.” I agreed and laughed with them while remembering what those years with them were like.
I remembered there was nothing humorous about my childhood. I had been stilled and quieted into the role of observer, silenced by what I saw, felt, and heard around me in my family and community. In 1996 I could discuss it with my classmates because in 1971 in the seclusion of my small studio apartment on W. 81st Street in New York I stopped to remember, to revisit and to relive my youth on the South Side of Chicago.
I had written poetry and songs before but, the songs and monologue on my first album The Iron Pot Cooker were fully written then, there at that time. It was ‘Black is Beautiful time, ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud time, Nation Time, Sister Woman, Brotherman time,’ We Shall Overcome’ time. While carrying centuries-old pain, wounds and memories of slavery, Black codes and Jim Crow terror on our backs, people of African ancestry were rebelling, confronting, exposing, challenging racist laws, customs and behavior to the point where positive change was unavoidable. No longer bucks, bitches, darkies, niggers, negroes, blacks, whatever, we were defining, claiming and renaming ourselves Africans. We took names we had to learn how to pronounce, bought African fabric we had to learn how to wear, what the symbols and colors on it meant. Well, we learned, we pronounced, and we wore. And our hair? We started a whole new braiding industry in America. I remembered one day, standing in front of the mirror getting ready to wash my hair. For years I had been straightening my hair and putting it in rollers every night so that I had the “blow hair”straight bouffant white hair look that was encouraged and supported in our race molded society. the look that would support my getting a job. How-some-ever, I had been remembering and writing all day while listening to radio station WBAI playing tapes of Malcolm X and Dr. King. I washed my hair, looked in the mirror at myself with my natural hair, put the hair relaxer down and walked over to my bed and sat down.
It took a while, it took a while. It took some tears and some deep breathing to wash away the distortions, not only the image but, the emotional imprint. Generations of physical and emotional damage had been done to people of African ancestry and was still being handed down to my generation. That living legacy was the heartbeat of my poetry, my songs, my monologues and of what I was to learn, the heartbeat of my life. I threw the hair relaxer away and thereafter wore my liberated hair in the style called “afro or fro.” or cornrows.
Yes, the memories, the writing came.
Every day I began writing at seven a.m., took a break for lunch, dinner and ended at 7 p.m. Early the next morning I would read and edit what I had written the day before then begin writing again. I was living on unemployment compensation and my small savings. When they ended I began to audition for work and to say yes to the calls and letters inviting me to perform at colleges, libraries and community events. The response of the audiences validated what I was writing. They knew the stories.
The neighborhood I was born and raised in was frequently referred to as one of the “Bucket Of Blood,” neighborhoods in America’s many black-belted-in African American communities. Not as deadly as what is happening there today, but deadly. As I remembered, I was amazed and I began to wonder how I survived those years, what directed me, lifted me, what prevented me from becoming a casualty or adding to the list of casualties. Memories became visions and sounds and feelings that burst from me as if they had been waiting for their time, waiting for the ‘old head’ to speak.
In my one-room studio I relived the rootless, wandering, uninformed, uninspired, confused, terrified energy that surrounds, frightens and drives many of those who live there today to tear down, to hurt and to kill others and themselves, to not “give a damn” because it is all about “get mine” and “get them before they get me.” Those same energies once surrounded, frightened and drove me. Yes, I remembered. Let me walk you down my street, 58th, and Indiana.
Over a period of years, like today’s Chicago South Side youth I too jumped and stiffened when I heard the gunshots pow powing around me. I remembered seeing the muzzle flashes, I remembered stiffening when I stood behind adults and stretched to look between their legs down at the blood bubbling through the burning bullet hole in the shirt of a dying gun-shot neighbor breathing his last breath. I relived another hot Chicago summer night quietly standing on the front porch of the building where I lived watching the deathrock of another neighbor, a bloody butcher knife stabbed woman sitting on the railing in front of her building and the next week a bayonet stabbed woman stumbling past my building. Both waited for ambulances that never came in time. And no one came to help one night when a rape victim in the park screamed for it.
I was quiet and still when I found out, one of my brothers was zip-gun shot in the leg. Or when another came home bloodied after being attacked and chased from a white neighborhood where he naively went trying to sell ice cream from his bicycle wagon.
They shouted at him, “Nigger, get out of our neighborhood.”
A teenage bully named BB tried to take my bicycle from me, I didn’t say anything to him, I was quiet then too, just held onto my bicycle. even when he’s punch, gave me a black eye that never went away, I said nothing. I just held onto my bicycle.
And, I watched and felt their anger as many of my neighbors on seeing and feeling the visions of their dreams fade and dim to out, scream at each other, in their homes, in the street and, in their churches about those lost dreams, about their own inability to build a better life in Chicago than they had been able to build in the terror filled life they fled from in the South, at their inability to understand and overcome the controlling racist system in Chicago that muted their protest and limited their rise.
One afternoon without a sound I stepped back when I walked out of a basement grocery store when I saw a two gun carrying black policeman standing on top of a police car in front of the bar near the corner of 58th and Indiana Avenue. He was waving his guns and threatening “the First nigger that moves I’m gonna blow his brains out.” I did not think I was a nigger but, I did not move.
I sat quietly remembering my sister’s smiling, gentle boyfriend as I watched her tearfully tell our gathered family: “I told him not to drive down to Mississippi in his new car but, he was so proud he had a job, he could buy that white Cadillac. He wanted to show his family how well he was doing up in Chicago.” We said to her yes, yes, TT. We know you told him. “The cop shot him dead,” she told us, the cop said he thought he was driving with a white woman sitting next to him. My sister’s boyfriend was light-skinned, you see. His sister was even lighter. The cop wouldn’t listen. So what? They were just two light skinned niggers.”
Not long after that, another sister developed hives on her face and arms. I developed a rash on my face and arms and had a reoccurring dream of a man on fire running down the street in front of our building, my third sister had a nervous breakdown.
One day I sat quietly on the couch next to them as my grandmother and mother agreed that racism would not end in their lifetime. I thought in my nine-year-old mind, it will end in my lifetime.
And I said nothing when I saw and felt my father’s frustration, fear and anger unleashed in attacks on my mother, me and my seven sisters and brothers. I felt the pain of his slaps and chokes. And I remembered sitting quietly at my desk in school barely hearing what was going on, quiet but, always on alert, on guard, watching, listening and preparing myself for the next eruption of violence and the frightened looks of hopelessness that always announced its coming. I saw their weaknesses. I saw their strengths. With few exceptions, everything around me told me not to depend on anyone or anything. I had to take care of myself. I did not protest, complain, cry out or strikeout. I held on and watched what was happening. I felt there was something I did not know, something unspoken. something I had to find out.