Models Monday: On Being “Caught Up”

It was Mother’s Day yesterday and I spent a lot of my wonderful time in peace and quiet thinking about my father. I guess about a week ago now, I wrote in a post that the rapper T.I. reminded me of my father because he is “a talented, charming guy with lots of potential who keeps getting caught up in things far beneath his thoughtfulness.” I knew that I would need to return to those words because I am still struggling through the idea that people get “caught up” in as many things that go wrong in their lives as they claim; or better yet, to stay current, I should use President Obama’s language here, and say that I am “still evolving” concerning my views, which I think is fair when you’re trying to be a thoughtful person. Anyway, I was writing to a cousin who was in prison several years ago and in his letters, he never failed to express his desire for a better life outside of prison in language that forewarned of his doom–as far as I was concerned, at least. He would say things like, “I just hope that I don’t get caught up in the same stupid stuff that got me here in the first place.” And I thought but did not say, “well, if your mistakes resulted from mindlessness, then you will get “caught up.” In part though, I didn’t say that because I don’t fully believe that people who are imprisoned are always guilty or that they aren’t targeted. I do believe that people of color are targeted and made into criminals by the criminal justice system. I believe that what Angela Davis refers to as the “prison industrial complex” is profitable and in America, if it is profitable it persists.

Marcus Garvey in ceremonial robe. Visit UCLA’s African Studies Center as the original source of this image and others.

So I’m not fully convinced by my own critique of being “caught up.” I do know that it can happen. Marcus  Garvey informs my views on this as well; especially as they merge with Hip Hop. Marcus Garvey was the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who proffered an oppositional message regarding the value of seeking a homeplace through a return to Africa and a beauty ideal that privileged blackness. Together, these views galvanized a vast majority of poor and working class black men and women in reference to being “caught up” in the everyday indignities of discriminatory cruelty. Garvey’s vision of going back to Africa involved building a shipping line, the Black Star Line, that would provide for the passage of blacks throughout the diaspora on their journeys home. The Black Star Line was incorporated in 1919 but three years later, it had fallen prey to internal dissension, mismanagement, and expensive repairs. The UNIA had been the subject of harsh criticism and they suffered harassment from the U.S. government. In 1922, the federal government indicted Garvey for mail fraud involving the Black Star Lines’ promotional claims and sentenced Garvey to prison. In Garvey’s letter to his supporters upon his incarceration, “First Message to the Negroes of the World from the Atlanta Prison (1925),” he tells them that he has not abandoned them in life nor will he abandon them in the afterlife. Garvey writes:

If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live, in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory. When I am dead wrap the mantle of the Red, Black and Green around me, for in the new life I shall rise with God’s grace and blessing to lead the millions up the heights of triumph with the colors that you well know. Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.

“Look for me in the whirlwind…” I think about Garvey when I hear Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend (1996).” I hear it as an interpretation of this Garveyian sentiment to remain relevant despite an apparent demise. It offers hope to those in a storm.

“Me and My Girlfriend” appears on Tupac’s final studio album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, recorded before his fatal shooting on September 7, 1996. Death and resurrection as they appear in tandem in Garvey’s letter to his supporters also serves as a theme in Tupac’s lyrics. In fact, ‘Pac was rapping under the stage name “Makaveli” on this CD in tribute to his rebirth. “Me and My Girlfriend” entangles love and violence quite seamlessly. The “girlfriend” being the 45mm gun that he keeps as a faithful and loyal companion while navigating the harsh ghetto life that confines him. This personification suggests that there is much truth to the claim that despite their previous beef, ‘Pac was greatly informed by Nas’s “I Gave You Power.” In addition to this text as one that informed him, I think that ‘Pac’s reading life and his legacy as a child of a Black Panther suggests Garvey’s influence. The tone of Garvey’s letter from prison that looks directly at his bleak fate and yet remains defiant before it finds a place in Tupac’s voice as an echo of Garvey’s words. The first words Tupac utters after the gun, personified through the voice of a “Bonnie,” are “Look for me/Lost in the whirlwind.” He also ends the song with these words. The passion that Tupac has in this song authenticates his claims of feeling lost. His choices are so constrained by the violence of the world he was born into that he can’t see “another model by which to live,” it just doesn’t seem possible or plausible given the world he’s in. His resides in a world where romantic love is indistinguishable from violence. While this seems to be just the kind of experience that calls for “another model by which to live,” I also understand how impossible it might seem. A great many ‘hood tales show that the outcome of “having other models by which to live” only sets in relief the tragedy of the alternative through the death of one of its members (think Boyz n the Hood). That is to say, staying “n the hood” with “another idea” about how to live risks your very breath or at the very least, your potential for sustained joy. So how do we live in different worlds with our new ideas? How does one forsake the good that they know to exist in the place that they knew as the world, for a chance at a new world with no assurance of any of those same goods? We don’t talk about this a lot in the States, but people’s choices are often constrained (by poverty, race, gender, age, outlook, education, health care, disability, geography, transportation, language, etc.). So how do we redefine our worlds in light of these pervasive constraints? Garvey was a figure of hope for just this sort of spirit that felt “lost” in the whirlwind. His promise suggests that there could be hope even in turbulence. I think this is precisely why so many people found Tupac attractive. He seemed to understand their turbulence and his voice offered them at least the hope of recognition.

In part, I think any way out, any way of seeing sunlight in a storm, involves being alert. If you are really paying attention to your life, the patterns that come to define the rhythm of your days and that of those around you, then you are the recipient of  valuable information. This is true of the hustler’s days as well as the homemaker’s. I remember finding myself in situations where I would ask, “how did I get here?” But when I heard myself say, “how did I get here again,” I knew that I needed to do some serious thinking. Of course, I prized the tools of critical reflection. So maybe I can’t answer those big questions that I posed above today, but I can at least make a pitch for valuing non-material things like getting still and being quiet; about valuing self-reflection, honesty, courage, thoroughness, meticulousness, reading, and writing that don’t require any money but are necessary for living a good life in the face of the constraints that set the plot for where we find ourselves. I can’t say enough about sharpening these skills for improving the quality of your days.

I wish we still had my grandfather’s presence and his thoughts “that would bust yo’ brain wide open,” to influence us from his position on the porch. Our front porch was a gathering place for people who came by to talk about the ways they felt trapped or “lost in the whirlwind.” I try to use my blog to extend my front porch. To have a place for healing, recuperative talk. To have a place to remind us that a good day can be one where you rejoice over the slide of cucumbers and tomatoes from your home garden chillin’ in vinegar mixed with water and a touch of sugar; a good day can be spent looking through photo albums and thinking about the lives of loved ones long before you were ever considered; a good day can be one spent reading books or listening to old records thinking about what it was like to live under the influence of those words and those songs; a good day can be one where not a single dime gets spent, but where you get “lost” in your own thoughts about what life has been and what it could be if you adapted “another model” for it.

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