Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday
By Wardell Franklin

My mother’s record collection contained a variety of classical, jazz, Latin, and 1960s and ‘70s rock LPs. She also had smattering of R&B and soul albums. Aretha Franklin was far and away her favorite, although she was also very fond of Roberta Flack. There were also two Stevie Wonder records nestled into the small shelves beneath the stereo system in the room that was once the dining room but became my mother’s home office when I was about nine or ten. One of the records was Stevie’s colossal 3LP Anthology. It had a striking double gatefold pink cover and the six sides of music encased within offered an incredible introduction to Stevie’s early catalogue. The songs were hummable and sing-along-able, and ranged from the electricity of “Fingertips” and “Workout, Stevie, Workout” to the soothing reassurances of “My Cherie Amour” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” I spent a lot of time with those records.

But I spent as much – if not more – time with the other Stevie LP my mother owned, Hotter Than July. I was drawn in (again) by the cover art, as well as by the more contemporary sound of the album. And while I had only vaguest sense of the politics embedded in “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” – “Peace has come to Zimbabwe…” – I could nod my head and sing or dance along with many of the songs. However, it was the final song on the album that grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

In 1984 I was a little bi-racial black boy trying to untangle the complicated and confusing webs of race and identity while being raised by my white mother in a multi-ethnic, but still predominantly white, environment.
My West African father was little more than an apparition who lived an ocean away and who passed through my life once a year or so. My mother did her best to help me find my way – taking me to concerts and poetry readings and restaurants that would expose me to black culture and to my Nigerian heritage. I often resisted her efforts, as little boys (and brooding teenagers) are wont to do. There was much that I had to figure out on my own and my mother, to her credit, supported me and allowed me the space to do so.

Among the long list of things I had to figure out was why Martin Luther King, Jr. – the quintessential figure of peace, goodwill, and harmony I had been learning about since I started school – had been murdered and, moreover, why most of my peers were so nonchalant about the holiday that honored him. Stevie’s tribute, “Happy Birthday,” lifted me up and comforted me. I would sometimes sit by my mother’s record player and play it over and over and over again. There was a certain somberness, or at least seriousness, in Stevie’s monologue in the middle of the song that spoke to my own racial questioning and longing and occasional sadness as I tried to figure out exactly what kind of world I was growing up in. But this was always mitigated by the pure joy of the chorus and it was this unbridled celebration and hopefulness that I latched on to and which transfixed me.

Sometimes I remember those moments listening to “Happy Birthday,” reflecting on King and his vision and its relationship to me as solitary ones. Just me. By myself. Alone. But when I really think back, I realize that I was not alone. My mother was there. Sometimes literally, like when she would take me to a King Day service at a local college or a downtown church, or when she would just come into my room to check on me. Just as often, however, she was with me figuratively, supporting me as I traveled on my journey. For that, and for introducing me to the magical world of Stevie Wonder, I am forever grateful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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