First Person

Ain’t Nobody’s Business If the Lady Sings the Blues

Ain’t Nobody’s Business If the Lady Sings the Blues

When I was eight years old, I discovered what it meant to be of two minds. I didn’t discover this in any intellectual way; this was brought to bear on me in 1973 because that’s the year my parents got divorced, and I remember, remember vividly, my father’s packing and then his leaving home, and I remember both my sadness to see him go and my relief not to have my parents fight in the unrestrained way they would fight, which would invariably pour out onto the front lawn or, in slightly better times, just pour out of our windows into earshot of our neighbors.

But I loved my father in a way that an eight-year-old can’t quite make sense of or have the words to express, particularly if you’re a boy and an introverted one at that. My father was what we might call today an ambivert, having a great need for and being good at socialization, but also, at home, seeming mostly reticent. He preferred to watch a game and enjoy a beer, and when you’d ask him what just happened, as I often did when I didn’t understand a play in a baseball game, he’d respond in a way that has become an inside joke between my two older brothers and me: “You’re watching it just like I am.” End of discussion.

Unlike my father, I was a well-defined introvert. At that young age, I had no idea what that meant. I just liked, and even thrived on, being alone with my own thoughts, reading a book, or watching a movie. If you were an African American boy in 1973, living in a working-class, predominantly Black neighborhood, being an introvert looked like you had a mental disorder, so I had to find ways to perform normalcy. I took up the trombone, which was a way to “play with others,” and the only sports I had any natural talent for were those that really were about the individual: wrestling and boxing. The other way in which I could look sociable was by sitting in a movie theater. If I were at home reading a book, I would often be asked to go “do something,” which meant rake some leaves or shovel some snow or dust some furniture. But in a movie theater, I could sit and be quiet and everyone around me did the same; it was the one space in which focusing on a subject in silence was socially acceptable. Well, at least to some degree: the theaters I attended, in my Black community, often had the dynamic of “talking back to the screen,” which for me seemed like a big part of the show. I, of course, would never yell out for a character to “look behind you!” or “leave his cheating ass,” but I kind of enjoyed the meta-dialogue.

Going to the movies also allowed me to spend some quality time with my mom or my brothers. And I would sit through anything for some quiet moment with my loved ones, on my terms: in silence but in a joined experience that we could bond over later. One time in 1972, we went to see Lady Sings the Blues, and we saw it again in 1973 and again in 1975. In fact, I think I saw this film possibly three or four times in the ’70s because, for some reason, it became the default double-feature film of all Black films that decade. I don’t know what that was all about, other than it was one of the more successful Black films of that time that didn’t feature a pimp, a martial artist, or a revenge plot. After a while, the film became tedious to me. It is, after all, a fairly sad film, based on the life of Billie Holiday.

Nonetheless, Lady Sings the Blues offered my first on-screen model of a Black masculinity that wasn’t present in the world in which I was living. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of the adult situations on-screen, even though I would go on to try to imitate them later, many times throughout my adult life. Back in the ’70s, to sneak me into R-rated movies, my brother would hide me under a blanket in the back seat of his car at drive-in theaters, and since he was charged with babysitting me, this was a good plan: he could fulfill his duty while still going on a date with his girlfriend. We probably didn’t need the ruse, though, because I could already get into many R-rated films in sit-down theaters; rating restrictions seemed much more relaxed in the ’70s, as long as you were accompanied by an adult. I think the theater workers took the attitude of: Hey, it’s your kid. Take him to a sex- and expletive-filled pimp drama if you want to. My brothers enjoyed explaining the movie as it went along, and I enjoyed their commentary. I wanted to know what these grown-ups were doing up there on-screen. But watching Lady Sings the Blues with my mom, I could see something that I could only see through her as the film’s scenes and colors played on her face, as she smiled through and at times even laughed at scenes—scenes I wouldn’t fully understand until years later as a new model for Black love.

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