I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Explaining the Blues

(Explaining the Blues – Ma Rainey) Before I even began my trip a number of things were running through my mind -- typical for a writer who is still gestating a novel to digest and regurgitate ideas and images endlessly to see what they are made of. On that platform, for the next hour, the only thing I had to chew on was my own thoughts. I listened to and thought about the blues.

In Blues People, Leroy Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) writes that
the blues, had, and still has, a certain weight in the psyches of its inventor;
and when writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ralph Ellison wrote that
the specific folk-art form which helped shape the writer’s attitude towards his life …and embodied…quality and tone of his autobiography was the Negro blues,
but, in truth, the blues are all black folks’ autobiography.

I mean, I’m not saying anything new when I say that the blues are the definitive American music and that jazz and rock have their blues in their blood. So when I downloaded or recorded over 200 songs, blues and jazz, I did so because I wanted a soundtrack that was older than my own. The soundtrack of my life features The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Ripperton, Hall and Oates, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan with Rufus, Cameo, Prince, and (remodeled) Michael Jackson, ad nauseum. These days, it’s more about Miles than I care to admit but, in my mind, the soundtrack of this trip included Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Memphis Millie and a whole list of anonymous singers, guitar, banjo and piano players who had travelled by train or by car from the South to the cities of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Los Angeles. The stories of the folks I want to write about, the stories of what they left and what they found were in those songs. It seemed to me if I was retracing their steps, as best as I could, I should do so with those same stories in my ears. (Counting the Blues – Ma Rainey)

Ralph Ellison also wrote that
the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.
In my African American literature course, I discuss with my students a literary concept called a blues ethos or blues aesthetic, which is a way of looking at the world that is grounded in the black experience – or the way black folks look at the world -- and how that way of looking at the world, permeates much more than music. The best example of that that I can think of is watching Richard Pryor’s performance in Live on the Sunset Strip. When the man talks about setting himself on fire and you want to laugh and cry at the same time, that is the blues, creating art of pain.

(Non-sequitar – This is precisely what most of these comedians who admired Richard Pryor don’t understand – the ability to make the autobiographical experience into a universal one, to explore its pathos and its absurdity and all their complexity rather than targeting the easy laugh. They lack either the life experience or the emotionally maturity ~Copyrighting the n-word, chile please~ to create blues and therefore, genius.)

Also embodied in that blues ethos is an ability to recognize irony and embrace contradiction. The story of Pullman porters is just like that. Somehow, in that car, they were both master and servant and their survival depended upon understanding that. The irony of being, in many ways, the one of the best professions available and still being paid far less than your peers, subject to random acts of humiliation and pettiness, yet signifying all that is elegant and civilized, is innate to this story and unfortunately not uncommon.

Leroy Jones also wrote …
that the weight of the blues for the slave…differs radically the weight of that same music in the psyches of most contemporary Negroes.
Jones concludes that
the one peculiar referent to the drastic change in the Negro from slavery to “citizenship” was his music.
Music marks the period in which the African ceases to be African and becomes an American – that you are no longer going home and that; indeed, there is no home to go to. Recognizing that this place, crazy as it is, IS your home and your destiny lies with it --- Honey, that would have given me the blues, too.

(Non-sequitar – Viewed this way doesn’t it seem disturbingly like an abusive relationship? Just a thought.)

Blues aren’t entirely about politics of, for that matter, tragedy. In the blues is the possibility, the hope of (if not the actuality) of triumph, redemption. So it was with my journey, when I finally get downtown. (Downtown Blues – Frank Stokes)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Chicago Blues Shuffle, p. 3

(Whatta You Gonna Do? – Louis Armstrong) How could I screw this up? I planned this entire trip just to get here. How did I miss this? Why didn’t I call? Because I had been checking the website.

Now I was certain that this was a mistake. Obviously, the heat and the lack of food had diminished my hearing, so I called back (If anyone is recalling what my dad said about insanity, just shut up). I get the same message. I don’t know whether I should cry or bitch but since I am facing certain dehydration, I elect bitch.

So I called my friend – in New York because I figured she was at home, at a computer and maybe a sympathetic ear. Thankfully, she answers the phone. She patiently listens to me wail the blues. I ask her to check the website because maybe I made a mistake. I thought I knew the dates when the museum was open. I feel some vindication when she tells me that nowhere on the site does it mention that the museum will be closed; (she even called) however, this small comfort was doused when she asked why I didn’t call. (Don’t Explain – Billie Holiday)

Pick a reason -- I assumed (erroneously) that the website information was current. I lived out-of-state and I was cheap. A telephone call seemed obsessive. I’m shy. (Arrgh) Regardless, I was still hoping that I could salvage this excursion. I was going to go to the museum anyway. (Look, I still had to get back to the Metra station.) With any luck, (though I don’t know why I’d begin to have any now) someone might be around. I could leave a note and maybe get a contact as a result. Also note that the entire time that this exchange is taking place, I haven’t stopped walking. I still don’t see anything remotely looking like Maryland Avenue, so I give my girl the number of the nearest address and she uses MapQuest to get directions. She tells me that I have over a mile to go to get there.

I was hungry, hurting and lost. Worse, I needed to go to the bathroom. (Baby, Please Don’t Go – Big Joe Williams) I pass the Gwendolyn Brooks Academy and though I was in too much pain to rejoice in signs, I’m glad to see it.(Gwendolyn Brooks Academy is also the former site of the public school built by George Pullman in 1915.)

I first read Gwendolyn Brooks at U.C. Berkeley in a class with the great Barbara Christian as my professor – a course that introduced me to many other writers. Most of my life, I knew very little about black writers, less about black women writers. I suppose the first inkling I had had was when The Color Purple (the movie) generated so much controversy. I read The Bluest Eye for the first time as a senior in high school. My parents had taken me to see A Soldier’s Play, I suppose, when I was in junior high. After all of those experiences, I lay awake in my bed, replaying words and scenes in my head, feeling kinship to these characters, maybe more than the authors. Their lives, maybe their interior lives more than their surroundings, echoed mine more than the cartoony images I saw on television. They were complex and contradictory, the way I knew myself to be, yet felt wasn’t allowed.

(Nobody’s Blues but Mine – Bessie Smith) Most of my adult life I spent doubting my ability to create stories that combine emotional honesty and art, simply because I was afraid to fail. Completing my first novel was a triumph over the fear that dogs me. I also know I’ll face those fears all over again as I create this novel. This wild excursion might be a metaphor for that creative process. Don’t we always begin with enthusiasm and a plan and find ourselves sidetracked and taking unexpected detours, always struggling to get back to that original vision… or maybe it’s just me.

I had finally gotten to the Metra Station and turned onto Cottage Grove. I’m at 111th and I have to get to 104th. I was almost there. I pass this construction site, unidentified but I feel certain that it must be the former site of the Pullman factory, being torn down for development. There are no signs, indicating what it was or what it will become. Even looking at the maps, it is difficult to identify the specific building I was passing. Only a few more blocks, my feet were swollen and I was dehydrated, I distracted myself by looking at the housing, I’m sure George Pullman built. How would he feel -- seeing black folks in the utopian community he tried to build and watching the empire he built being slowly dismantled until all that is left is the name he gave it? (Lord, if that would only happen to Donald Trump. Kidding…I’m kidding, sort of).

After a few blocks, I approach the building and my minute hopes sink when I see an empty parking lot. The building three stories tall, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, looks empty and lonely. The windows, though, uncovered are darkened. I can’t even get close enough to peek through a window or slip my card under the door or in a mailbox slot. Or go to the bathroom. I take pictures. It’s all I can do.
It’s been almost four hours since I left the hotel. Over a week since I left California and it appears that I’ll return to both empty-handed. I leave after only a few minutes and begin the pilgrimage back to the station, trying not to think about my feet and trying not to feel humiliated. (This Bitter Earth – Dinah Washington)

It would take me another hour to get back. The 111th/Pullman station was a local, so several trains passed by without stopping. The station, itself, had neither agent nor bathroom. Mostly it was a shack and a platform. From there, I had a panoramic view of the world that was and is Pullman, re-inventing itself. It crossed my mind to walk to the 115th, where I began but my feet couldn’t take it, so mostly I sat, listening to my iPod and contemplating the blues.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Chicago Blues Shuffle, p. 2

I apologize for the delay. Here's Part Two of the Chicago Blues Shuffle and you might need this, see link below...

(What a Difference a Day Makes – Dinah Washington) The next morning I woke, ready to get started. I figured if I timed everything correctly, I could hit two museums – The Pullman Porter Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History. I knew that I have quite a way to travel and since I had planned on using public transportation of some kind, I just had to organize everything well.
One of my contacts was working and we weren’t meeting until evening but she gave me a general idea of where to begin. I went straight to the concierge, who was helpful, providing me with a map, directions to the nearest Metra station and informing me I had less than fifteen minutes to make my train.

It’s still a beautiful weather, cooler than the Chicago I anticipated. I wore a sleeveless dress and some sandals. I thought about purchasing a cheap jacket or sweater at some nearby store but I didn’t have time to stop for breakfast if I was going to catch the train. When I get to the station, which I found easily enough, I discovered that finding my way is a little more challenging; platforms and in-bound and out-bound trains are not identified. I spoke with the only agent I would see the entire day and she directed to the right platform and instructed me to board the third train that came by. This was a little different than what I had told by the concierge but I didn’t think anything of it. (Hobo, Don’t you Ride this Train- Louis Armstrong)

On the Metra, conductor comes by and punches holes in your ticket which I thought was quaint and old-fashioned, like something I had once seen in a black and white movie. The ride, itself, took me away from downtown and I saw the parts of Chicago I had also heard about – crumbling, abandoned houses with boarded windows and vacant lots -- evidence that if there was an economic recovery, it hasn’t reached everywhere.

The train sped past several stops, which didn’t disturb me until I saw my stop (111th/Pullman) fly by. Before I could protest, we were stopping at the next station, some five blocks away from Pullman, where the concierge directed me to go. But it’s five blocks, no big deal, right? (Traveling Light- Billie Holiday) I figured that the street I was looking for probably crossed the street I was on. I’d walk up and cross over. Now the map I had wasn’t detailed enough to provide the streets of the neighborhood I was in. It indicated the district but little else. The concierge had told me that I’d need to get specific directions from the agent but there was no agent at the station. So I asked a young girl walking by me on the street to point me in the direction of Maryland Street.

She told me it would be easier to reach by bus but I had no change or small bills, so I decided to walk until I found a store; besides, I like walking. (Strut That Thing – Cripple Clarence Lofton) I liked the neighborhood, which reminded me of the houses that surrounded the cul-de-sac where my grandparents lived in St. Louis. Small framed houses of brick with little porches, where people sit and stare at folks walking by (in this case, me) fronted by crumbling, gutted sidewalks. I’m not in Bronzeville, where I understand most of the Chicago Porters lived. I’m just outside of Pullman, where George Pullman created housing for his employees who built the Pullman cars. This housing was intended for his white employees only. The black porters, who epitomized the Pullman standard of luxury and glamour, had to make do elsewhere. (He’s a Son of the South – Louis Armstrong)

Of course, that was then and this is now. Black folks were everywhere. Few spoke to me. Some clearly wondered who I was and what I was doing but said very little.

(Well, that isn’t strictly true. A man missing his front teeth and wearing a Black History Month t-shirt asked, “What your name is?” Later, a van, pulled alongside me, with one young man behind the wheel and another hiding behind a curtain in the back, The man behind the curtain told me, “I shore had some pretty feet.” A compliment, I might add I was kind of grateful for since I had done my own pedicure.)

I had been walking for several blocks and still hadn’t seen Maryland. The major intersection I found was Michigan Avenue and that was a slight tickling in the back of my mind which I ignored. I assumed that the streets named after states had to be close to one another, so I just kept walking. After all, both the concierge and the young woman who gave me directions told me I’d have to walk a little ways to get there. (Some Day You’ll Be Sorry – Louis Armstrong) But, of course, the state named streets disappeared and I’m suddenly wondering how a sister can get lost going in the straight line.

Non- sequitar -- If that ain’t a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Sigh, subject for another day.

I have to admit that I’m a little fascinated and awed. Somewhere along the way, I pass Alex Haley School and I feel a little bolstered, as if the sighting of the great writer is a sign I’m on the right track. But by this time, I’m passing the third major intersection and there are no more streets named after states, presidents, colleges or major bodies of water. I’m lost. I’m hungry. My feet hurt. While it isn’t the oppressively humid Chicago I’d heard about, it’s still hot. I’d crossing over Halsted when I finally ask someone where Maryland is. Never heard of it.

Never heard of it? Ain’t this YOUR town? Don’t you live here?

I kept these hostile thoughts to myself and ask the next two people I walked by the same with the same results. To avoid seizure, I compose myself and remember something my dad once told me about insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Non-sequitar – I suppose that also is a metaphor for life. Sigh

So I decided to backtrack, go back to Halstead and walk over to 111th Street and maybe by walking back down 111th, I’ll find Maryland. It was only four blocks and I didn’t come all this quit now. By then, I’ve been out walking almost an hour. I skipped breakfast and my patience decreased at rate greater than the rate my hunger increased. Why didn’t I stop and get some food? Because while I may not be able to understand directions, I do understand myself. The instance, my butt hit a chair, I wasn’t getting up again. Just not going to happen
When I finally get to 111th Street, I no longer trust myself, train attendants, concierges or strangers on the street. I decided I needed help. I call information to get the number to the museum (yeah, remember I was trying to find the museum). Soon, I’m connected and I hear the following message: Thank you for calling the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. The museum will closed until July 26th. Then that nice telephone lady says that the mailbox has been closed. (I Been Mistreated and I Don’t Like it – Bessie Smith)

(to be continued)

DailyLit: What I'm Reading Now


© 2008 L. Rebecca Harris