Long before leading the Revolution, briefly giving up his slave name, using his facial hair to brand himself a corporate slave and slipping into the dawn's early invisibility after playing music's version of George Orwell with the passing of 1999, Prince was defiantly unapologetic, fearless and naked in his attempts to ignite a Punk-Funk identity crisis we're still unable and largely unwilling to solve.
Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay?
As I try to reclaim my birthright and the pieces of my self, I need to get more demandingly specific. Am I Chocolate Genius (black music and godmusic) or Jeff Buckley (Grace)? Am I The Roots (Things Fall Apart) or Everything But the Girl (Walking Wounded)? Where Prince sought metaphysical union — Do I believe in God? — I sometimes seek solace through a literary communion of saints. Do I believe in John Edgar Wideman, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster or Colson Whitehead?
Do I believe in God? / Do I believe in me?
No wonder we subscribe to "Don't ask, don't tell" today.
But where our bumper sticker mentality asks, "What would Jesus do?," we might do well to simply ask a couple of the same questions Jesus sought answers to.
Who do they say that I am?
About a year after the civil unrest in 2001, I was asked to address a small class at a seminary in Cincinnati. There were only seven or eight students, all white. I asked them to describe the man they saw standing before them. They knew my name and that I was Catholic.
Of course, this exercise was akin to a fishing expedition with only one real catch, but everyone was afraid to cast their line. The catch had the potential to snap their rod, drag them under and bash them senseless on the rocks below the surface.
They told me I was confident and intelligent, at ease in my skin. I came across as artistic, a musician possibly, thanks no doubt to the rings on my fingers, black leather blazer, well-worn Doc Marten boots and shoulder-length dreadlocks.
Or maybe I was a teacher. I must admit I attacked the blackboard with the righteous fury of Samuel L. quoting Scripture before creating a new pile of Pulp Fiction out of somebody's butt.
But why was it so difficult to get one of them to say that they saw a black man?
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.
They had said so, in so many words, themselves. Had they not read Ralph Ellison? Maybe the problem was tuning into the lower frequency.
Who do you say that I am?
A few months later, I issued an online call for responses among a select group that I'll simply refer to as Family, Friends and Associates of tt (FFAtt). I was just shy of my 33rd, and I wanted to take stock of my black mojo in my Jesus year. Was it still rising or coming up on its peak, which would of course mean it would have nowhere else to go but down to the depths of the 90th floor?
So, I asked, What kind of black man am I? Not quite the same thing as asking, Who am I?; it's more of a Who do you think I am? or, as my colleague Kathy Y. Wilson put it, Who does he hope to be? Thank you, Kathy, for keeping hope alive.
One woman, a relatively new acquaintance, told me, "You epitomize the challenge to the stereotype while at the same time nurturing the right to be — just be — whoever you are." That seems like a job description with purely existential benefits and no real earning potential, although I fully embraced the notion that I might be "loud on the inside."
The loudest response came from Brotherman, a Philly soul, old-school mentor and early morning b-baller who flipped the script and defined himself through a series of professional and cultural inconsistencies, which presented no revolutionary revelations, just some personal tried-and-truisms. Brotherman gets the blues from Muddy Waters and Led Zeppelin, travels with Mick Jagger's Wandering Spirit, occasionally spits Nelly's Country Grammar and "lives in a city with no black neighbors, works real hard to avoid racist whites but can't seem to avoid racist blacks."
Does that sounds familiar to anyone? Can I get a witness?
Although I've made it through The Last Temptation and The Passion, the questions and the inconsistent answers remain. Maybe I'm just waiting for a second renaissance — more like a sixth or seventh coming, but only the foolish keep counting the black sheep.
On Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, Meshell posits the messiah back in warrior-king mode, with a decidedly Hip Hop twist proclaiming, "If Jesus was alive today, he'd be incarcerated with the brothas, while the devil would have a great apartment on the Upper East Side and be a guest VJ on Total Request Live."
Five years in the rearview, and it's still controversial to ask questions — especially questions with no black and white answers. Well, that's not exactly true.
It's not wrong to ask questions, to try to find out What's Goin' On. If we're finally getting around to questioning whether Judas might have been a hero rather than the goat in the great story, why not consider the notion that we all might be villains in a city — and a country — where the greatest, and most difficult, revolutionary act is treating folks like u want to be treated.
When will we ever find our way home?
CONTACT TT CLINKSCALES: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.