Quiet Secrets

A song I used to dream to…

I remember the first time that I became aware that something I held dear to me was considered downright weird by others around me. But first let me backtrack to the early 1960’s, when my parents owned a nightclub.

I have memories of being there in the early evening, probably as they were getting ready for opening, and peering out of the back window to watch the glow of the sunset and the neighboring neon lights. Jukebox music poured in from the front of the building; Shep and the Limelights were “A Thousand Miles Away”, Mary Wells assured us that “What’s Easy for Two is Too Hard to be Done By One”, Gene Chantler bragged about being the “Duke of Earl”, and night after night, Billy Stewart was “Sitting in the Park Waiting for You”.

Later, after my sitter took me home and tucked me into bed, I fell asleep to the sound of young men singing tight harmonies late at night somewhere nearby.

Music greeted me in the morning; the radio was on in the kitchen as I ate my Cheerios. When walking, my friends seemed to move to an internal rhythm. When we played outside there was music providing accompaniment from an open window down the block. It seemed that everyone around me moved to the sound, and the sound was everywhere. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had us all “Dancing in the Streets”.

This was the soundtrack of my early childhood, sweet soul music. Rhythm as steady as a heartbeat, and vocals infused with the passion and urgency of a gospel choir. The stars themselves seemed to shimmer to the melodies.

Upon entering the fifth grade, I switched schools to one on the other side of town. Unlike my first school, which was comprised of all African American kids, in this one, I was now the only black child. Although I developed deep friendships with some of my new school mates, It was during that first year that I heard my classmates making fun of soul music. They mocked it, saying they couldn’t tell the difference between an “oooo” and an “ow”. To my new peer group, the real music came from groups like Chad and Jeremy, and the Cowsills. At first, this music seemed odd to my ear … but I kept listening. Soon, to my surprise, I developed a liking for the kind of music they preferred. But I also remained painfully aware that they continued to ridicule the music I continued to dream to.

This experience would become the first of many such opportunities to choose whether or not to turn away from that which grounded me with a sense of beauty and comfort in exchange for something more “mainstream”.

Fortunately, I was never tempted to give up Smokey Robinson and the MIracles for the Monkeys. But I also learned that it is indeed possible to encounter something unfamiliar and with time, develop an understanding and appreciation for it. I understood that doing so need not lesson my love and appreciation of what I had before. It in fact only enhanced it, and widened my world view.

Sadly, though, this experience was also my first instance of learning to keep things uniquely African American a quiet secret. The journey of un-learning that has been arduous but worthwhile.