• Letter From St. Paul: On the Complex Flavors of Black Joy

    Michael Kleber-Diggs Listens to Big Boi and Dances Through Grief

    Ay, just cashed a check
    And I’m ‘bout to blow it all on chocolate
    Yeah, I’m ‘bout to blow it all on chocolate
    Sweet tooth, baby, make that dollar stretch…

    –Big Boi, “Chocolate” (feat. Troze)

    During the disquieting days and violent nights of early June, 2020, Big Boi saved my life.

    I work from home these days. My house is 10 miles or about 15 minutes northeast of where police killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, two miles southeast of where police killed Philando Castile in 2016.

    I’m a middle-age dad with a pandemic mini-fro and a plague beard, both of which grow grayer by the day. My wife and I have a daughter who came home early from her second semester at college. She arrived right after I started working from home. We have two cats, Curly and Mocha, and two miniature golden doodles, Ziggy and Jasper. The dogs demand breaks often, more often than I’d like, so several times a day we walk our neighborhood in St. Paul. The skies are clear now. The sounds of sirens are rare here again. The curfew was lifted, and the phased opening makes the coronavirus seem illusory at times. As Minnesota’s shelter-in-place order was eased and ended, vehicle traffic increased. As the more obvious aspects of the uprising tapered off, white nationalists in menacing trucks and cars stopped zooming around town without license plates and stopped causing mayhem every night. Reports about Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois have been replaced by amplified stories of more common summer violence.

    When I survey the sky around me, I don’t see towers of smoke. I see something resembling the way things were. I wonder what the country would be like if George Floyd hadn’t been killed or if we had sheltered in place a little longer. But he was, and we didn’t.

    In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder—when we were still shocked by the slow assassination, when we were stunned to see eight minutes and 46 seconds of inhumanity dispatched with nonchalance—friends often checked on me to ask how I was doing. Some check-ins were friends who already know the multiple ways state murders affect Black survivors, the ways in which sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration, worry, fear, past trauma, and fatigue affect our bodies and spirits. Other check-ins were friends becoming more aware of racism and its daily wage. Some wanted to know my family was safe from far-right instigators, from agitators and accelerationists.

    Sometimes, I spoke the general truth at that moment: “I feel all the feels all the time, in various ways and amounts,” I said. Sometimes, I offered the kindest lie: “I’m fine.” And in many ways, I was. Being Black in an anti-Black country is like being handed a stone at birth, a thing you have to carry and can never throw. It’s manageable but wearying; it gets heavier the longer you hold it. You know you can’t put it down, so you try to get used to it. From time to time, when people notice the stone, when they remember your burden, when it occurs to them that hauling a stone all the time might weigh a person down, when they recognize how unfair it is, you can almost feel seen or validated.

    I didn’t say what I wanted to say; I held back the full truth.

    Often, when I do this, I wonder if I can love my white friends without being candid with them. I wonder if they can love me if I hold them at a distance, if race and racism function as a veneer, a layer between us obscuring any substance underneath. When I don’t answer fully, am I not saying I don’t trust you to do anything about it?

    What I wanted to say and didn’t say was this: “I’m fine today; the hard part will begin soon. The hard part for me starts when things get comfortable for you again. The hard part begins the day you return to your normal routines.”

    I don’t remember the first time I was called nigger. I know it was on a playground at an elementary school in Kansas City, Kansas. I know it was before I turned eight years old. I know I’d already been taught to say “I ain’t no nigger, I’m a negro. When I become a nigger, I’ll let you know.” I know I didn’t understand what any of it really meant. The last time I was called a nigger was 1990. I was in college. Some men in a truck yelled it out as they drove by. No one else was around but me. I remember thinking they were idiots; I remember walking around on high alert for several days.

    Where I live, my skin, bittersweet like 70 percent cocoa, is conspicuous on good days but felt notorious then, still does. I danced anyway.

    The last time I saw someone else called a nigger was this morning, in a video on Twitter, some white man at a grocery store mad about a sandwich error or a mask mandate or both. The man wanted to get back at the essential worker making his lunch. He paused for several seconds before he said it. I couldn’t tell if he was fighting a base impulse or considering what might happen if he spoke from his heart.

    Modern racism is usually subtle; it’s often expressed through a violent politeness. I often see it in confined expectations. You’re not expected to be in this classroom; you are expected to be in a particular negative circumstance, like an underperforming school or a school-to-prison pipeline or its designed destination. You’re not expected to walk around in certain neighborhoods. Your ideas for how we might achieve racial equity and social justice or your ideas on how we might reimagine policing aren’t expected to be thoughtful. They are expected to result only from anger—a brick thrown through the window of a pawn shop—not scholarship or context, not critical theory. Overt racism hasn’t gone away, but it has lost favor, so covert forms have emerged to replace it. The courtesies that the majority extended George Floyd were strategic. They started to disintegrate the day he was buried.

    June 9th. Fifteen days after he was killed. Pro-police propaganda began in earnest. Today, Floyd’s character assassination is well underway. While activists seek major reforms, the establishment hopes symbolic changes will be enough to allow a return to business as usual. Those who favor the status quo are saying so, but not directly, never directly. They’re not articulating why; they’re not saying the real reason why.

    Fifteen days after George Floyd’s death, a familiar hopelessness descended. I returned to believing nothing would change. I felt reminded that most Americans don’t want things to change. Not really. I was reminded some folks need things not to change, or feel they do. Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep. Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back—twice. Elijah McClain’s murder was almost covered up by darkness; Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was almost covered up in bright daylight. I drove by a Thin Blue Line flag as I ran a few errands. The head of the Minneapolis Police Union appeared on national television to talk about George Floyd’s murder and stand up for his officers. He cautioned against a rush to judgment. Eight minutes and 46 seconds. As I walked Ziggy and Jasper around the neighborhood, many passersby viewed us with concern. The over-eager smiles of late May and early June—smiles communicating concern for my well-being, smiles that said you are welcome here—succumbed to a familiar consternation, suspicious eyes, some friendliness, but also long wary looks from people I’ve lived among more than ten years now. My steps grew leaden and sad. You see, I am carrying this stone.

    Which was where Big Boi came in, with his song, “Chocolate” (feat. Troze). For three weeks, maybe more, “Chocolate” was my bop. My theme song. I had “Chocolate” in heavy rotation. I listened to it whenever we went outside; I listened to it about six times a day. When it was on, I floated.

    Uh, I feel my sweet tooth acting up
    All I need is you to go on ‘head, back it up
    Honey, paper-sack brown, yeah, I’m Black enough
    Never holler “man down” ’cause we’re standing up
    Standing rock, she pretty b…

    “Chocolate” is a club song, set to a club beat. It’s about club culture. It’s sex positive. It’s pro-joy. It pulses like a youthful heart, vibrant and alive. It begins with driving beats and a call and response that is maintained throughout. Early on, there’s a crescendo and decrescendo of a cymbal sound. Hit the high hat seven times. In the background, there is an occasional whoop or whoot; they echo a bit and return in intervals. The bass seems like it’s singing we are choc-late and were choc-o-late. The woodblock sounds like the pitter patter of rain. Hit the high hat eight times. Rest. Hit the high hat six times (wanting seven).

    I left my house, fresh from a cleansing cry (social-media ignorance, the TV news, a word from a friend, some particular worry, or a general malaise), and, within seconds, found myself pulled toward a dance floor that doesn’t exist. I started to shimmy and shake on the sidewalk, on my neighbors’ lawns, in the park one block north of my house, all while Ziggy and Jasper and goodness knows who else watched me quizzically.

    I’m shy in ways and shy about my body. I don’t have much rhythm and overuse the same four dance moves. Where I live, my skin, bittersweet like 70 percent cocoa, is conspicuous on good days but felt notorious then, still does. I danced anyway. I felt like I was supposed to show sadness or mourning, and I was sad. I do mourn. I danced anyway. It felt revolutionary, so I won’t let it feel wrong.

    The music would hit just right, and I’d stop. I’d throw my head back. I’d roll my arm like I was learning how to hit a speed bag, slow like that. I swayed left and right. Sometimes, I thought about second-wave feminism. I thought about how the personal is political, how the lived experiences of people suffering within inhumane systems is inherently political, can spark an uprising. Then both arms, my hips, my feet, their pattern no longer a forward gait, more like a crip walk, or what a crip walk would have looked like if I knew how to crip walk.

    Sometimes, I thought about Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”:

    We smile, but, oh my God, our cries
    To Thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile…

    and how Maya Angelou’s adaptation in “The Mask” honors Dunbar:

    My life has been one great big joke!
    A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
    I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke

    So, you see, my dance was a knowing dance. My dance was my truth, and my dance was my lie. I already knew that where I live—the tree-lined streets, the middle-class people in houses that are mostly well-maintained, the park one block away, the lake, the golf course, the few other Black families anywhere nearby—where I live my dance can never be just a dance. Not during a summer of race-hate and rising up.

    I can bring the club wherever I go. We can spark a revolution just by walking down the street.

    My dance was also a mask. In the white gaze, it will always either confirm or disrupt some expectation. My dance was conspicuous and aware it was observed, aware of context. My dance was derived from the art of survival—spirituals and chain gangs, poems and the wobble. My dance reminded me I’m here. It gave me strength to go the length. My dance was resilient and defiant, righteous and right, powered by joy, powered by Big Boi, who asked:

    You ever find yourself stuck in between
    A rock and a dark place, leap for a dream
    I’m hard and a heartless king without a queen…

    “Chocolate” came out in 2017. I heard it for the first time in early June, while watching a Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron movie. It’s easy to explain how I missed the song’s ascendancy and zenith; I listen to a lot of public radio and books on tape. Music is a big part of my life, but my daughter is often embarrassed by my tendency to obsess over songs two or more years after their moment.

    We ain’t throwing rice, I’m just throwing D
    And making music for the people that be feeling me

    (Translation: I don’t want to marry you. I just want to have sex with you.)

    In the kitchen, listening to “Chocolate,” my daughter asked if the song is about what she thought it was about. I said “yes” kinda quickly—too quickly. After I answered, a thought crossed my mind: If it’s a club song and only a club song, how does it mean so much to me? Why?

    I listened again. I felt joy within a broader sorrow. I floated. I was light. I stopped. I threw my head back. I closed my eyes in ecstasy, like I was tasting for the first time a dessert many people have loved for years. Sometimes, I said “I deserve pleasure.” I said it out loud. Whenever I listened to “Chocolate,” I felt connected to something older and more vast than the moment or me. I decided that:

    Ay, just cashed a check
    And I’m ‘bout to blow it all on chocolate
    Yeah, I’m ‘bout to blow it all on chocolate
    Sweet tooth, baby, make that dollar stretch…

    is a utopian manifesto on Black separatism. It’s about the pleasure of payday and the value of spending money in our community. It’s about Black folks supporting each other. Many of the businesses that burned down in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and cities all over America were Black-owned or owned by people of color. The overwhelming majority of the fires weren’t started by us, although a few were. We’ll need to rebuild, like our parents did and their parents did and theirs and theirs.

    But it’s payday, and I have coins for the cause now. I’m going to make my dollars go as far as they can.

    I decided: All I need is you to go on ‘head, back it up

    is about following through on our commitment to meaningful change.

    And yes, I have found myself stuck in-between a rock and a dark place. I have felt like all of my options are bad here. I have realized I don’t feel comfortable anywhere. And I have leapt for a dream and shuffled for one and bobbed my head to one, all knowingly.

    When Big Boi said:

    Never holler “man down” ’cause we’re standing up
    Standing rock…

    I decided it was because we’re still here.

    In spite of everything, we’re still on our feet. And yeah, “standing rock” is doing a lot of work. I saw its connection to sexual readiness, but, at first, for me, it connected the Black experience with injustice to indigenous people’s experience with injustice, to a broader injustice. It made the song intersectional. In early listening, before I got the innuendo, the reference to Standing Rock seemed like a quick aside, like bringing politics to the party.  It made me think even our play is serious. We’re bringing sorrow to our joy now; we’re multi-tasking emotionally, like always, because we don’t have a choice.

    More than anything, one line in “Chocolate” stood out for me. It’s a line connected to a life-preserver that arrived when I felt I couldn’t tread water much longer, when I was tired and felt alone, like there was no safe harbor in sight. It wasn’t that I wanted to let go and sink. It was that it was hard to keep my head above water and carry my stone at the same time. I wanted a place to rest. Okay? I wanted to float, just for a little while. There’s the line that says this song is just for you, Michael. All my songs are for you and for uspeople born into it and people who opt in. The line always arrived right on time. Whenever Big Boi said:

    And making music for the people that be feeling me…

    My pulse rate elevated. My heart beat hard—vibrant and alive. We are vibrant and alive. See? He said: 

    And making music for the people that be feeling me…

    and I had the same thought every time: “Chocolate” is a club song, and I am in the club.

    “Chocolate” is pro-joy, even though our club is bittersweet. We dance anyway.

    “We deserve pleasure.” I say it out loud.

    I can bring the club wherever I go. We can spark a revolution just by walking down the street.

    The club is a place where I belong.

    I’m never alone, I realized. The club is with me wherever I go.

    Michael Kleber-Diggs
    Michael Kleber-Diggs
    Michael Kleber-Diggs lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. Michael's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Poem-a-Day, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Water~Stone Review, City Pages, Paper Darts, Pollen Midwest, Poetry City, North Dakota Quarterly, Midway Review, and a few anthologies. Michael is a past Fellow with the Givens Foundation for African-America Literature, a past-winner of the Loft Mentor Series in Poetry, and just completed his term as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Anoka County libraries. His work has been supported by the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Jerome Foundation. Michael is married to Karen Kleber-Diggs. Karen and Michael have a daughter who is pursuing a BFA in Dance Performance at SUNY Purchase.

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