FICTION SKETCH: BLACK VIRGIN

Black Virgin

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“Please man. Just this time… take care of me, Co?”

“Come on,” I said, and lead the man whose voice had broken the dark and the woman he had with him to the back of the store.

The woman was young and quiet, too fucking quiet. She was wearing a pair of men’s jean shorts and a sports bra. Not fat, but her middle was loose and fleshy. She had this wide-eyed look of perpetual surprise. I gave them what they needed and tried not to look her in the face.

Back in front the store this girl was talking on a battered cell phone. Arguing with someone about shoe insoles and washing powder. She was a real pretty girl, with hair that looked like if she uncoiled it from the nape of her neck, would probably reach her butt. Once she walked inside the store, she hung up on whoever she was talking to. I watched the way the black and white stripes of her leggings moved across her legs, as she walked around the store all lazy-like, picking shit up, looking at it a long time, then putting it down. She’s stared at two boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix, like it made a difference.

I went inside to holler at Fadi for a second. Maybe get a little closer to her too. “I’m done. You know her?” I asked and motioned in the girl’s direction.

“Who? Panda? Yeah. She works across the street at the club. You never seen her in there?”

I glanced in her direction. Her eyes were red. I figured she had been smoking, but she could have been crying or both.

“How much?” she asked Fadi, holding up a toilet scrubber.

Fadi made a motion that suggested she look at the sticker. “It’s not marked, must be free.”

She walked up to the counter with a basket full of things. Toothbrush, ten boxes of cornbread mix, toilet-scrubber, detergent, a pack of sponge rollers, Lysol, and hand sanitizer.

“How’s it going over there?” Fadi nodded his head in the direction of the club across the street.

“You work over at Bottoms?” I asked. “How come I never seen you in there?”

“I’m only there a couple nights. But I know him,” she flung her hand in Fadi’s direction and laughed. “But I don’t know you. What’s your name?”

“Corey.”

“Well Corey…how about this… even if he stays home, you come see me, tonight, ok?”

“Why?” I asked. “Look like I got money or something?”
Panda giggled.

“No, but I think you’re cute,” Panda reached out and gave a few of my dreads a light tug.

I should have said something back. Anything. Squeezed the side of her waist. She would have liked that. Instead, I just stood there.

Panda stared at me like she was reading my mind. My eyes followed her out the door.

“I not going to lie, man,” I said, as I watched her stripes move through the glass. “I like lil’ one’s style.”

“Slow your roll, Co. You know that girl Peanutt? That’s her sister. They’re trouble.” Fadi laughed, but I could tell he meant it.

“That’s exactly what I’m looking for, dog” I answered.

I meant that too.

The power was out. My Paw was out of town and forgot to pay the light bill. I had the money to turn the lights back on but fuck it.  I was about to cop an apartment and some real work of my own. I could sleep without lights for a couple days. I lit all the candles I kept on my drawing table. I needed to clean myself. I smelled like outside. Like a puppy dog, my mama would have said if she could smell me. The hot water from the bathroom steamed up my entire room. The tiny bathroom connected to my bedroom reminded me of a cell. Once in the shower, the sweat started to pour. I had to sit down to keep from passing out.

The water rushed over my head and Peanutt popped up in my mind when I closed my eyes. She worked at Bottoms from time to time and always needed two things when she saw me. That shit to get her up, before work, and that shit to get her back down, once she was home. I didn’t know she had a sister. But I was gonna pretend like I still didn’t. I had messed around with her a few times before I realized how bad off, she was. Then there was Kalo. My baby girl. All I could do was lie to her about it all.

Damn near two in the morning, and still too hot to sleep. My Pa was trying to wait me out, make me pay the bill, probably, but whatever. He had been doing this shit since I was ten years old. Leaving and returning with little warning. I called Fadi to see if he was done at Habibti’s and felt like dipping through Bottoms. I was really trying to see that girl. When he pulled up, I was happier for the air conditioner than the blunt he passed to me.

“Xavier back from Miami yet?”

“Yep,” Fadi said. “I talked to him earlier. He said tomorrow and we’ll be all good.”

Inside Bottoms, we saw each other at the same time. Panda was leaning up against the bar talking into the side of this man’s neck. She stood in place, but moved all the loose flesh on her body, which was just enough for a good show. The man slid money in the little bag she wore around her waist. She looked past him, straight at me. Her hair was all hanging down looking like falling water. Her snow-white top and bottom were slashed all over the place, nipples poked out the holes in her top. I was impressed by how much like a bride she looked. I wished I had flowers for her. I wasn’t really hung up on the good girl shit.

When the song ended, Panda patted the guy’s shoulders, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and headed in my direction.

Fadi was already looking uncomfortable. I knew he was going to leave once he was done taking care of business. I could find my own way home, and if not, Fadi would come back for me. That’s why we were friends. When Panda made it over, I reached out to put my hand around her waist and pull her toward me a little. Not too hard, but just affectionately, to show her I wanted her.

“I think I’m good for the night,” Panda said.

“Oh yeah?” I answered. “Lucky you.”

“Yep, lucky me. I’m ready to leave. Want to go chill somewhere? We can have some real drinks instead of this watered-down shit.”

“Yeah, let’s go. But I don’t have a ride right now. You?”

“Guess we’re flying United. It’s all good.”

Out of her money bag she pulled out this black spool of cloth. When she unrolled it, turned out it was a real thin black dress that reached almost to the floor. I watched as she pulled it over her head. It fell soft and wavy, where it should, on her body and we walked out the club together.

“My place?” she asked.

I nodded.

The cab came quick. Panda said she was a regular customer.

“You talk real cute, you know that? Where you from?” I asked her, as we got into the backseat.

“Here, but I left when I was like fourteen. I just came back to New Orleans like 6 months ago.”

“Where you coming back from?”

“Barbados,” she answered.

“Panda’s your real name?”
“By real, if you mean the one I answer to, yes.”
“What about real by the one your mama gave you in the hospital?”
“My Mama is dead and I was born in a house, so there you have it.”

Usually, when I was with a girl, I didn’t ask many questions. This time I did and it brought something into the small space of the back of the cab that I hadn’t intended. I had blunt in my pocket, the driver seemed cool, so I asked him if it was okay to smoke. We were his last fare, he said, and as long as he could hit it, it was all good. I lit the blunt and the comforting odor made the air around the three of us lighter immediately.

“Where you all going again?” the driver asked.

“The Hill. Schaffield Dr.” Panda responded.

 


We pulled up to the duplex Panda stayed in and I tipped the driver an extra ten, good enough for a dime of his own. I got his number. He was cool people and I always needed a ride.

By the time we made it up the rickety flight of stairs, and Panda unlocked the screen door, and then the two locks on the wooden door, the entire front of my body was lit up. From the weed definitely, but from her mostly. She was so damn pretty. The tail end of her long ass hair rested at her waist. Right where her spine began to curve. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the back of her.

“Damn, man. You’re fine as hell,” I said to her, as she twisted her keys in the door.

“It’s a little messy. Don’t judge.”

 

Panda’s apartment wasn’t messy, so much as there was a lot going on. It was a studio with a real big screened- porch connected to it. Her bed was out there. Plugged up, she had 5 box fans and 3 space heaters. There was a desk with stacks of magazines, adhesive, glue sticks, and pieces of scrap wood stacked on top of it. She had several racks of clothes, like in a department store. A clothesline ran from somewhere on her porch to the hook on the back of her front door. There were a few half-finished projects going on, mostly involving wood, paint, and pictures cut from magazines. One work in progress was a picture of a little- girl Panda, plastered on a background of Jiffy cornbread boxes.

The piece that was complete, she had hanging on the wall. It was a mix of painting and collage. Almost floor to ceiling, it was the body of a big booty, big breasted girl, in an outfit like Panda danced in, except this girl had the head of the Virgin Mary. All around her were other girls, or just their breasts or their butts. There were guns, and jewelry, and angels. All of that was framed by a tangle of tree branches.

“I told you,” she said, sounding just a little unsure of herself.

“It’s cool, ma. I’ve seen way worse, believe me. You’re an artist?”
“You could say that.”
“Me too.”

Panda rolled her eyes at me and clicked on the stereo system that was plugged up to a splitter, whose chord ran the length of the apartment and patio. She shut off her overhead lights, clicked another button, and the room was bathed in soft blue and turned on the music. Glow and the dark moons and stars shined as best they could in the dim of the house.

“This makes the mess, a little better, don’t you think?” she asked. “I’ma fix us some drinks. Sit down. Get comfortable. Every spot in here is soft.”

“Sade reminds me of my Mama,” I said as she turned the volume up.

The makeshift sofa, which was made up of two twin mattresses with a few mattress pads stacked on top one another and covered by Bob Marley sheets. Big pillows rested against the wall. It was all bookended by two mismatched end-tables. It was comfortable. The kind of sofa you never wanted to leave. Panda opened up a closet door, which turned out to be a small galley style kitchen. I listened to her clink around behind my back.

When she was done, she came and stood in front me with a tray in her hands.

  “Want some?” she asked, nodding down at the tray, and handing me my glass. The Hennessey smelled sweet and strong. She set a pewter and mother of pearl tray on the beat-up coffee table. Then I could see the perfect, parallel, white lines on it.

  “I didn’t know you fucked around, I said.”

  “Just socially,” Panda laughed. “You here, so this is social.”
“You bought that in Bottoms? That’s Fadi shit. Its good.”

Panda cut the lines in half again.

I sat back and let the tangy, sweet tart taste enter my throat. The drip was the best part. I tried to stay away from it but some things it was hard to do sober. I gestured to the tray on my lap.

“I can help you,” Panda said and ignored my question. Her pupils were as sharp as razors.
“What can you do for me, Panda-bear?” I asked.
She stretched her body across the sofa, rested her feet in my lap. She looked cat-like in the blue light of her apartment.

“I can cook for you. I’m here all day, and most nights.”

“I’m off that.”

She was quiet a few moments.

“They going to do you. You and the A-rab,”
“Who?”
“Xavier and his people.”

What the fuck was she talking about? I was Xavier’s people. I didn’t really know who the fuck this girl was, and how she knew who I dealt with, or what she was getting at. People threw crosses all the time to make you vulnerable. I thought about Fadi’s warning, looked at the door, and halfway expected somebody to kick it in. I had done the same thing myself.

“How do you know me and them?”

“I kind of, used to, fuck with Xavier…”
“Used to?” I cut her off. I didn’t have time for ambiguity; I had to know it all.
“Used to. I knew it was you when you told me your name at the store.”

“So why are you telling me?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t not tell you,” she said, sitting up, her face closer to mine.
“I don’t know either…” was all I could say.
It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know whether or if I believed what she was saying. I had known Xavier almost my entire life. The only thing I knew about Panda was that I had fucked her sister. But when Panda sat on top me, I couldn’t think of much else but where I was in the moment.

Panda’s bedroom on the porch was everything. With the right combination of the window unit from inside, the box fans, and the one space heater she had turned on low, under her sheets was the perfect temperature. I was wrapped in her and her hair and couldn’t move. It was midafternoon. I didn’t want to.

Panda woke up and asked me to stay. She got out of bed, and I sat back, watched as she opened up her little closet kitchen, and put oranges, cheese, and French bread on the tray from last night. She brought the food over to me, and went in the bathroom, ran some water, and did another bump or two.

I tried to ignore that. She could do what she wanted, but she was right on the edge of where her recreation was turning into work. She came back out with a blunt rolled.

“You should’ve rolled up last night,” I said.

“I didn’t know if I was going to let you stay to smoke yet,” Panda laughed.
“Well, I thank you,” I said to her.

“ You told me you were an artist. What do you do?”

“Draw.” I said fixing my eyes on the scantily clad Madonna. I noticed in the daylight she was holding a child’s hand. A child, who had the body of a skinny dog and walking a lion.

“I think most men worship the woman on my wall.”

“You’re right,” I answered staring at the collaged birds Panda had embedded into the veil of the Madonna.

I had to hit Fadi up, let him know that the plan had gone sour. I had to tell him what this girl said. He had called my phone a million times. We were supposed to meet up with Xavier to pick up our shit the next morning. Kalo and my Dad had called over and over again too, but I couldn’t talk to her or him until things had calmed just a bit. If the shit was true, me and Fadi were going to have to deal with Xavier. The sure way. But first, I would chill out here.

The weed was damn good. We smoked two fat cigars of it back to back, till Panda was able to lie back down. I tossed her ass around. She liked it. She said fucking me was like ballet dancing and tackle football. I bit her on the earlobes and squeezed her on her thighs. Back under her covers, Panda’s bed felt like a womb cut out of the block. It was a place; I could never leave. Lying there face to face, finally too worn out to do it again, there was so much I wanted to say to her. So much to ask. Panda turned on her side, her back to me. I held her tight and waited for some words to fall out of my mouth.

“What do you do if it rains in the middle of the night?” I asked into her neck, finally.

Panda sighed and pressed herself into me.  “Nothing. I just lie here, and let it hit me.”

Bare- Breasted and Cross-Eyed: Performance, Subversion, and Josephine Baker

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Happy Birthday, Josephine! Shrine to Josephine Baker installed at Material Life. New Orleans, 2016.

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her entertainment career as an American vaudeville performer. Broadway roles in Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies, led to an opportunity to go to Paris at nineteen, where she became a literal overnight sensation with her “Danse Sauvage” in the La Revue Negre, a ten week show featuring a compilation of performances by black entertainers crafted for European audiences. In this same period that blackness was being gazed upon, consumed, and reinterpreted by whites, a simultaneous counter and intra-racial conversation was taking place between Black people of the diaspora. It is important to consider the works of Black writers and performers of this time in the context of their positions as both the objects of white Modernist curiosity and the conscious subjects and creators of their own movements that would have long lasting resonance in their communities.

In the years following World War I, Western society would engage a cultural response that would come to be known as Modernism. A marked disillusionment with the bourgeoisie values of “civilized” society colored much of the artistic expression of this time. In the light of the intense violence and the growing cognizance of the harsh realities of urban life, the Western gaze began to look outward for cultural inspiration. In a rebellious shucking of Victorian nineteenth century “decency”, Modernist literature, art, and performance looked to cultures it considered primitive, closer to the earth, and free from the trappings of Western social mores. France can be seen as the epi-center of this hunger with its period of vogue nègre,in which French audiences, and artists and intellectuals of various nationalities, located in Paris, consumed all things black for the purposes of entertainment and artistic inspiration.

Josephine Baker is a performer from this period that epitomizes this dual location of subject and object like none other. She occupies a quintessentially Modernist position in her role as exotic object, yet also is undeniably Black, international, historically, and artistically significant. To examine Josephine Baker, one must master the double gaze, become “cross-eyed”, as Josephine frequently was in her act, and look in at oneself. You must be aware of the dual gazes of both the audience and the performer. To examine Josephine Baker we must consider not just what Paris audiences thought of her, but also what she thought of them.

Josephine Baker successfully tapped into the desires of the time by incorporating Black vernacular expression into her performances. Writer Philip A. Ward described white audiences’ fascination with Josephine’s dance. “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms…” (Cheng 194).  Josephine’s dance was one in which white audience members could be fascinated with, intrigued, and repelled by its difference relative to their own sensibilities.

Baker was the most photographed women of her time. Performing all over the world, in various incarnations of herself, it is still the image of her at the Follies Bergère Theatre in Paris, the site of her famous “Banana Dance”, that remains her most iconic. Fatou, as this stage character was known, with her bare breasts and skirt of bananas, occupies a dual space as subject and object. Entering the theatre by climbing, slithering, and sliding down a tree limb, Fatou creates an overtly colonial scene for her audience. Fatou encounters a dozing white man, who is unknowingly surrounded by not just Fatou, but other “African” men who play music for her. She teases him with her banana skirt and suggestive movement, but he is not successful at “catching” her; she is only “teasing” after all.

It is in this teasing that Josephine Baker becomes a dynamic figure that resists binary interpretation. It is clear from her own letters and biographers’ quotes attributed to her that Josephine Baker was quite aware of her audiences’ fantasies and expectations of her. She quite successfully played into their notions of the exotic, however staged. Parisian audiences were more than willing to embrace an American girl from St. Louis as “Fatou”, as some exotic jungle primitive, merely based on the notion that her brown skin kept her connected to something inherently wild within her. The racially perverse comedy in their envisioning Josephine as this otherworldly exotic, when she is, in fact, a girl from Missouri, speaks to the comedy present in Josephine’s act. Fatou quite literally shakes her ass at all of western’s society’s desires, beliefs, and fallacies about her. Watching Josephine dance her famous banana dance one does not have to search for these moments. There is a constant preforming for and talking back to her audience that occurs during her encounter with the white man in the jungle. Josephine’s breaks from her dance routine periodically to cross her eyes at the audience, or quickly shimmy her backside at them, both to make them laugh and mocking them for their sense of humor.

The iconic costume, the skirt of bananas, can be viewed as a physical manifestation of all the internal and externals contradictions and ambiguities that made Baker so intriguing for international audiences (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”). The bananas served a dual function in Josephine’s act. They were obviously phallic. Baker teased her audience with her strategic manipulations of them. The bananas strung about her brown body are also undoubtedly minstrel- like in their appeal to white audiences. This beautiful black girl presented a safe journey into the land of miscegenation. Baker was an aware and willing architect of her image as the primitive bombshell. However, we can also see the confrontation and challenge present in her performance. Her dance is the challenge put forth to her audience. For all its “savagery” and “primitivism”, it is a skill not duplicable by her audience. This fact denies her as the butt of the joke. Josephine is funny but it is pretty explicit in her performance that she herself is not the joke.

French audiences were able to accept colonial fantasies and challenges through the body of a Black American woman (not one of their actual African colonial subjects) and Americans soothed the threat of black performers by being able to laugh at them, with the performers themselves being the joke of the show. This comforting element was missing in even Josephine’s most stereotypical character, Fatou. Her show ultimately alienated white Americans and prompted awful reviews of her tusk-like banana skirt in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”).

 In the light of the phallic nature of the banana skirt, even more aggressive when they are re-imagined as tusks for America, it’s clear to see that it is Josephine that holds all the phallic control. She teases and taunts the audience and her white stage mate. Josephine crafts herself as the savage master of ceremonies in this construction of black female sexuality. It is Josephine’s queer space between binaries that is key to understanding her place in history. It is this undefinable quality of her act that preserves the “wild girl’s” agency and resists categorization and pigeon-holing despite its forthright languishing in the tropes of exoticism and primitivism. Besides her sexually provocative costumes, Josephine also performed frequently in men’s clothing. Decidedly un-Hottentot in her physical appearance and in her ability to talk back to her audience, Josephine played with notions of androgyny (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”). Slim and athletically built, Josephine’s body appealed to both genders and a cross-section of sexual orientations. Critic Theodor Lessing remarked, “She dances so primitively and so genderless that one doesn’t now if one is watching a girl or a lovely boy.” (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”).

Josephine Baker’s life off stage stands as an interesting case of the duality that marks the lives and perceptions of Black women in the West. Josephine Baker was a star among whites for her play on the exotic and the erotic and became something of a community role model for her achievements off-stage. Even the morally conservative Crisis magazine embraced Baker’s accomplishments. Nudity and the beliefs of whites being secondary to the impact that of such a famous and well- received black woman had on both society and the psyche of Black people.

While Josephine achieved initial fame and success due to white people’s desire to consume black female sexuality, she used this success to further an activism she saw fit. It appears for Josephine that what she did initially on-stage to garner attention was less important than what she did with her fame. Her secret role as an agent of the French Resistance during World War II has been noted for its daring and brilliance. Baker’s refusal to play to segregated audiences and her battle with the U.S. press after being refused service in 1951 at the New York Stork Club cost her a true American career. The role of segregated Negro was one role that Josephine was unwilling to play for white consumption or entertainment. The ability to both engage and disassociate from the exotic and primitive stereotypes of the French was not present with the American audience. This brand of racism and fascism for Baker was not distant, exotic, or metaphorical. It was domestic, ugly and she wanted no part of it apparently.

Josephine Baker’s life  journey from Missouri, where she was born, to the stages of New York, to Paris, back to the United States and then to France, where she would die, coupled with the staged Africa of her performances and the real Africa of her descent, personified in one body, the journey black people have taken historically. Baker embodies this journey of Black people dually both in terms of their physical migrations, forced and voluntary, and in the popular imagination of Western Colonial and Imperialist culture. This meeting up of the dual space that black people occupy in terms of their own inner reality and their appraisal by dominant society in all their various locations around the globe embodies the reality of Diasporac experience.

Josephine Baker crafted a portrait of the global Black experience. Yet, her life ends with an interesting paradox when examining her from the inside of this experience. As she was beloved and made into a heroine of sorts in the Black community, she did have to leave it and remain estranged, at least by geographical distance, from its masses until her death to attain success. The decision to expatriate is an important one to consider. It is a question that remains relevant to the contemporary female black performer. What are the consequences for contemporary Black female entertainers that do not occupy the spaces designated for Black women in American pop culture? Many, just as Josephine did,  make their livings overseas.

Approaching Josephine Baker from this vantage point, one can decide that her “life”, the moment when she decides that she will have one, begins with the now archetypal “flight” of the black artist. This flight is taken in response to white supremacy and violence. It is a quest where the search for that “better place”, that freer place, where the real you can exist is paramount. It is Josephine’s witnessing of a race riot in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri that she credits with giving her the desire to travel, to find that freer place, where she could live un-inhibited by white violence. In this regard her quest for something better than the violence from which she comes and her response to it parallels and expands the white Modernist desire for escape of the status quo. Josephine, in her banana skirt, finds some new space within them as they conversely find something “primitive”, yet new, in her. In charting her course, moving to, and leaving behind the boundaries of the United States, Josephine Baker comes to represent the paradox of Black Modernist Expression. Just how does one move genuinely in their own vernacular, while being very aware of its potential appropriation and misunderstanding by the dominant society?

By playing to all the European fantasies and fears about Black female sexuality Josephine Baker was able to subvert the global position of Black femininity. She was the highest paid entertainer in Europe and a woman almost universally accepted as “beautiful.  Baker was from East St. Louis, Missouri where Black women occupied the bottom rungs of economic earning potential. The image of an obviously Black woman as beautiful in any media was literally unheard of. Josephine occupied an inherently subversive position to white supremacy, no matter what she did on stage. For these reasons she is remembered, at least within the Black community, more for her subversion of white supremacy with her success than the stereotypes of the primitive that made her a sensation. Josephine’s ability to embody travel, success, and boundary crossing, to occupy that queer, indefinable place of “freedom” in the imagination of Black people, is what makes her a dynamic figure. Her performances and her life live on and continue to complicate the simple notions of the white and western notions of who is “primitive” and who constitute the “civilized.”

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker & The Modern Surface.New York: Oxford                    University Press, 2011.

Sowinska, Alicja. “Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s    Self -Representation”. Michigan Feminist Studies JournalSpecial Issue no19, “Bodies: Physical and Abstract”: 51-72. Web. Mar 2012. < http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.ark5583.0019.003>