Writer’s Note: the very recent passing of first Gil Scott-Heron (with whom, I’m afraid, I seem to be falling into a bit of posthumous love) and Geronimo Pratt has made me call to mind the key work of my graduate thesis: a long short story titled, “A Revolution Like Vinyl,” penned in 2006. It won the fiction award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Creative Writing Conference four or five years ago, but it’s never been published. I’m going to serialize it here, while I start another, possibly stronger story with similar subject matter.
* * *
Abiza jabs her fist at the drizzling air, curling her fingers into her palm until a dull pain shoots through her forearm and bicep. She imagines herself as a snapshot—just now, as her mouth widens to a roar and her lips twist to a scowl. Click.
Then she envisions a foreigner examining the frozen image—someone who would not immediately recognize the much older man behind her, the one into whose chest she’s leaning, as the infamous Clap Turner, and might instead assume that he is Abiza’s much older lover. Their eyes share the same fire, so the foreigner could deduce that she’s adopted the elder’s causes as a contingency to their affair and that most of their dates involve picket lines and rallies like this one, in the background of their snapshot.
Abiza is here, though. She is living the moment. There’s no camera nearby to capture it. She knows truths an assumptive glance could not ascertain.
“The truth is a burden,” she tells herself.
“Damn right,” her father answers.
She feels his chest puff out as he lifts his picket sign high over their heads and chants, “Free all political prisoners now! Free all political prisoners now! Free all political prisoners now!”
It isn’t catchy, this chant. They’re never catchy. Because when you live a life of perpetual protest, there’s no glamour. No cinema. Just a long stretch of adjoining injustices.
“Free Mumia!” she calls out, half-heartedly. “Remember Fred Hampton!”
Clap kisses her cheek as she begins a mental list of ways she’d rather be spending her Saturday, and soon it begins to rain outright. She knows better than to hope that this will mean an early end to the demonstration. If anything, this could prolong it. The voices around them swell, competing with the loud rhythm of rain.
Throngs unnerve her. She was raised to anticipate a pair of White hands closing in from behind—one clapped over her mouth, the other hooked around her torso—dragging her off into an undocumented abyss for an indeterminate number of days, months, years. “It’s bound to happen at least once in your life,” her daddy often says. It’s like a Black Boy Scout aphorism for him. “Always be prepared.”
He pulls her to a tented table set up at the perimeter of the thinning crowd and she recognizes the men manning it as George and Dragon, men her father’s known since before she was born.
George quickly casts his eyes up at Abiza as he trails his tongue along a thin hem of paper and closes the damp edge over a line of tobacco. His eyes are cold, and Abiza remembers how he’d hit on her the last time he’d seen her—while her father was off somewhere, giving a talk or signing an autograph. George adds the cig to a can on Dragon’s side of the table. Her father gestures to bum one from Dragon, whose long fingers tremble as he extends the cigarette between them. Dragon’s nerves are shot. He once told Abiza, “It’s because of the Agent Orange. Been like that since a couple years after I got back from the rice paddies.”
She scans the table, strewn with photocopied pamphlets, empty chip bags, wadded napkins streaked with powdered cheese fingerprints. Dragon has a can of Pepsi with a straw in it. The tip is chewed to shreds. It’s a pretty chaotic scene, she thinks, her eyes crossing over the clutter. Her artwork, neatly arranged to face out toward passersby, is on the outermost rim of their table. Tiny glass-blown replicas of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their fists at a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony, are nestled in a bed of black fabric. On the fists are little leather gloves. Those figurines took her months to master. On either side of them are porcelain pickaninnies and paintings on five-by-eight-inch canvases of watermelon slices with a single bite at the center. The box she’d dropped off that morning had hand-sewn wall-hangings of David Hammons “African-American flag,” with its red and black stripes around ebony stars emblazoned on a patch of green. Those aren’t on display.
“Have you sold anything?” she asks, thinking that the scene before her—the chaos and the crafts—would make a great monochrome still.
“We’re all out of the flags,” Dragon announces, grinning.
Will that have an effect on her father—knowing that her fine arts education in Vermont is yielding revenue for his Revolution? She doesn’t know or care now. It only mattered when he was fiercely opposed to her attendance, when he “refused to invest his Black dollar in a White miseducational institution.” In the end, she’d applied for a series of scholarships—three of which she won—and told him to keep his Black dollar for causes he felt as passionately about as she did about painting and sculpting in Vermont. And he’d done just that, using her college fund to self-publish his memoirs, even though he’d always maintained that he wouldn’t write down his life story until all the Black children in all the ghettos of the world had learned to read.
He says nothing now, as Dragon opens the cash box and shakily fans out a handful of twenties.
“Daddy, I’m gonna head to the library before it closes. Can I get anything for you while I’m there?”
“Ain’t nothin’ I need from a public library I ain’t got in my private one. Hurry back, hear?”
She nods, sort of amazed that the library thing worked. There was a time when he wouldn’t have let her go to a library alone. He had to come with her and screen her selections. When she was ten, he banned The Babysitters Club, because only one of the babysitters was Black and “she only got the wards the little white girls didn’t want.”
“They ain’t slick,” he’d said, “They think Black parents ain’t up on what their kids are readin’, but I’m hip, and Abiza, that shit’s encoded. They want all y’all little Black girls to believe that only a white girl would be enterprising enough to start a temp agency at 13—and if an Asian chick or a Black one wants to be down, she better just fall in line and wait on the scraps.”
The Sweet Valley Twins suffered the same fate at Abiza’s house.
“Took them over a hundred volumes to give a Black girl a storyline—and what’s the storyline? Her football-playin’ boyfriend is mad at her and the Sweet Whitey Twins gotta come in and mediate. That’s bullshit, Abiza. Bull. Shit.”
He didn’t like the classics, either, but he approved them because he wanted Abiza to be competitive. “Get Beowulf, the Brontes, Milton, Chaucer, every single James Baldwin book you can find, Austen, Ellison, Chekhov, Nabokov—all that shit. Affirmative action, my ass!”
She did as she was told. And by the time she was fifteen, he trusted her to recognize “subliminal racism” when she read it. She’s twenty-six now. She’s not going to the library.
Evanston Avenue is emptier than she expects, but the playground ahead teems with children. Multicolored chalk adorns the sidewalk in flowers and hopscotch templates. She sits on a swing and listens to the rusty chains squeak while the kids on either side of her sail back and forth, kicking up dust.
When she was little, her father once took her to a playground like this one. She watched him sit frowning on a nearby bench while she scooped clods of pee-dampened sand into and out of a bucket. Without thinking, she called out to him, “Daddy, how come you let your beard grow so wild like that?”
“Excessive facial hair on a Black man intimidates white people, Abiza. It reminds them of slavery.”
She still remembers how the other parents at the park froze. She still remembers the appalled looks on some of their faces.
“Oh,” she had whispered.
“It’s like lookin’ into the face of a ghost for them, baby. Like lookin’ into the face of a ghost.”
Abiza knows about ghosts. She will never tell her father, but she sees them. Her parents’. She sees them cinematically, projecting themselves onto walls and into the blank spaces where she finds herself so often staring—
They are in a room with concrete walls painted mustard. They are hanging felt silhouettes of the African continent on bulletin boards, under fliers that hold leaping black panthers and the words, ‘Free Breakfast Program.’ They are cooking hot links and powdered eggs for the children. They are collecting the crust from little wide eyes and noses into warm, clean washcloths. They are stealing small, sexy glances at each other.
He is so handsome here, without those seemingly ancient furrows of anger, that leathery rage by which Abiza always recognizes him in a crowd. It will be impossible for her mother to resist him, whenever he gets ready to lay down his rap. But her father never makes his move. Eventually, her mother flashes him the kind of smile too radiant to exist anywhere outside the reflective crevices of imagination. And then she leaves him there with the children.
Warmth creeps up from behind and rests on the side of Abiza’s waist. A hand. A large, male hand. It tightens as another palm fastens on her mouth, and she is calm for some reason, the only thought in her mind being: “My father is not a liar.” She lowers her eyes to look at the hand and finds that it is brown, not white. This is when she panics, jumping off the swing and struggling to free herself. The man is doubled over clapping and whooping when she turns to face him.
“Ramsey!” she exclaims. “Fool, don’t sneak. You know how I am about that sneaky shit.”
He laughs harder, then they hug. “Let’s get outta here,” he gasps.
“This is unexpected, Ramsey,” she says when they reach his car. “I usually see you at night.”
“I know,” he grins, opening her door. “I thought just maybe, today, I could feed you.”
Abiza rolls her eyes as Ramsey gets in on the other side and pulls off. They only ride a few blocks before he parks in front of Song’s Vegetarian Soul Kitchen, which isn’t vegetarian at all because it sells fried chicken, and they hop out.
She feels his eyes roaming from the nape of her neck to her ankles as he walks behind her and opens the glass door so she can walk in. He’s going to ask her out, she thinks. It’s finally come to this. And for a second she considers knocking her whole body into his heavy shoulder and bolting. They’re seated before she can follow through.
There are plenty of things she’s used to doing with Ramsey: cleaning guns, visiting the firing range, building small explosives in narrow glass bottles, snatching brown paper bags from groggy bums and pouring out their liquor. Sitting down to a meal with him is somehow unsettling.
He smiles at her and she tenses. He knows good and well that she doesn’t date within the Struggle. Or rather, he knows that she doesn’t date. This is what she tells all the brothers her father mentors, who timidly ask her out at rallies or try surreptitiously to get her number while Clap Turner is at a microphone in the front of a room. She likes the idea of compartmentalizing her romances, sequestering them far away from the rest of her activities within the Movement. She’s probably seen as this beacon of Black womanhood, too focused on eradicating atrocities to be sidetracked by men, when really she is just protecting the only seedling of freedom that’s truly hers to nurture.
The server comes to collect Abiza’s order of curried tempeh. Ramsey asks for fried chicken.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” he begins.
He shifts his girth to the back of his chair, the front two legs lifting off the floor. Ramsey is a drummer, and a beard perpetually infused with the scent of weed obscures most of his face. He is Dragon’s only and biracial son. She’s known him since the days of her father’s playground diatribes. Despite the beard, Ramsey is still a little boy with Play-Doh breath and pudgy palms pushing a mop of sandy brown curls off his forehead.
“Remember that time you said that, when it comes to you, your daddy’s a softie, underneath it all?”
“You lied. I’ve really been watching him lately. He’s sad, maybe, but ain’t a damn thing soft about him.”
“You think my father is sad,” she smirked.
“He could be.”
“Ramsey, Clap Turner is pickled in bitterness. There’s no ‘sad.’ He does eight octaves of angry, but he doesn’t do sad.”
“Even if you’re right—and I don’t think you are—you need to be careful what you try to slide past him. Sad, bitter, or otherwise, we both know gettin’ on his bad side could be lethal. Literally lethal.”
“I get it, Rams.”
She had to admit: she found his concern a little flattering. But people had been trying to tell her things about her father for years, things they’d picked up picketing or letter-writing alongside him, things they thought might help her better relate to him. None of their intel made much of a difference.
The food arrives. “I just thought you should know,” Ramsey shrugs, before shoveling the first heap of baked beans into his mouth.
They don’t speak after that. Abiza barely touches the tempeh, distracted by a scene unfolding between the wooden grooves of their table—
Her mother’s slim back sways in a paisley mini-dress as she smoothes her straightened hair. Clap Turner’s massive mahogany hand presses the base of her spine. They are dancing. They are dancing to what her father would now call “White music,” what her father would now deem undanceable, unlistenable, what he would now deny ever having danced to. It is The Kinks. It is The Kinks’ “Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl.”
Met a girl, fell in love, glad as I can beeeeee…
A blonde is with them. She has threaded her fingers between a Black man’s fingers. The Black man is Dragon. The blonde will soon be Ramsey’s mother. The four of them are whispering, whispering then laughing. Wide-mouthed laughter, startling in its whimsy. Her father has no whimsy.
But I think all the time, ‘Is she true to meeeeee…?”
The blonde points at Abiza’s mother. A fresh peal of laughter erupts. Her father squats in front of her mother and kisses the spot the blonde pointed out. Her mother turns to reveal a lump under the mini-dress, bulging with life.
Ramsey pays the bill and the minute they’re back on the sidewalk out front, the street lamps switch on. The rally-thinning rain still pelts. She knows how they will spend their night. They will pick the unguarded pockets of the truly unsuspecting—the person who concentrates on counting his freshly dispensed bills rather than noticing the hurried, trailing footsteps of the people who stood behind him at the ATM, the women who doze off on overcrowded subways with their wallets sticking handily up from unzipped handbags, the unlicensed vendors hustling candy bars, tube socks, and bootlegs to indifferent commuters, their take tucked in some raggedy envelope between their wares. Should any of these targets prove penniless, Ramsey will leave them a dollar. He likes to think of it as a kind of calling card. Abiza will fold their spoils into money clips while Ramsey cruises up and down Eutaw and Baltimore Streets, beckoning young Black hookers—only the obvious amateurs. Whenever a little girl approaches the car, he will hurl a money clip, usually slapping her face with the folded stack of bills. “Stop hoein’!” he’ll yell, before speeding off.
This routine is rote now. They’ve exacted it to a science in the years since their fifteenth birthdays. Even after Abiza’s four-year absence for college, they were able to resume their work without so much as an overview.
The money they will give is stolen, just like Ramsey’s car. Abiza is fully aware of the thefts, having been an accomplice to several of them. Her father would never approve. But his approval has never been hers to gain.