This is an old piece, but it speaks to me as I have been thinking about family, and missing them. I wrote this in 1996 after the death of my Grandfather, Edward B. Pollock, and no harm is meant to anyone mention herein. My grandfather, Edward Benjamin Pollock is the first on the left, 3 away from the Great Ma Rainey.
Smiling black faces straining; sweat pouring to the pavement, watering the past. Torn, worn red keds, clicking, ticking back to a time before now, before then. Quarter blues and jazz swirling and twirling making white faces smile easy, hateful. Laughter without joy tumbling from mouths thrown open wide. I was seven, and all I knew was that the movements and music should have been mine. Should have felt good. But my stomach ached, and I wanted to be somewhere else, someone else. Yet the dancers never stopped. They just waited for the next crowd to appear.
I remember my grandfather, Edward Benjamin Pollock. He was always a strong, hard man. I remember that he never wanted to throw anything away. He thought he could do, could fix anything. He would try to force things to work, sometimes breaking them beyond repair in his attempt to bring the pieces together again. I can see coffee pots taped together and chairs held together with string. He thought that he really could force things to work, force things to last longer than nature had intended. Even force people to love him.
I remember his raspy voice. At times he sounded like Louis Armstrong, which was not so surprising, since he was born in New Orleans the year before Sachmo. I always knew that my grandfather had been a jazz musician, yet it wasn’t until I had lived in New Orleans that I understood.
When I was little he still played his clarinet occasionally. It was always such a strange sound – so light that it just floated off. My grandfather never floated. It was so lonely, his music. Before I was 10 he stopped playing, only a guitar after that, but he could never make it sing.
I can see my grandfather; just another of the little black boys roaming the streets of the Quarters. When I first saw these boys I was a 7-year-old girl who had been raised in my father’s – my grandfather’s adopted city- Chicago, I hated those boys. All I could see was blacks putting on a show for white people. Dancing and smiling with bottle caps stuck in the soles of their shoes so that they could use their feet to create the rhythms that those white faces had come to reap. I was sure that the steps of these boys weren’t any different than the shackled shuffles of their great-great-grandfathers as they walked through the same streets, ankles bound , auction block ready. I hated those boys because I knew that somehow, I was them, and I never wanted to beg. I was ashamed of my grandfather because there was always a bit of that little Quarter hustler in him.
That street dancer was always there. He was the one that made my grandfather hold on to thing which should have been allowed to die. He was the part of my grandfather who never allowed anyone to be tired, to be sick, to need a rest. My grandfather made everyone just keep on dancing, keep on smiling, no matter what.
When my grandmother first got sick, it wasn’t so bad, because to some extent, she could still do for herself. But as the years and the strokes continued to drain her, my grandfather could not understand. His entire survival was dependent on his being able to dance, to smile, to say ‘yaz sir’ just one more time. After a while my grandmother could no longer dance and my grandfather made her pay dearly for this. She let him down when she could no longer sing, and he had been with her for so many years that he had forgotten how his own voice sounded without hers. All he could do was try to force her to sing, force her to dance, even though her body had left her years before. By the end, she would push the food out of her mouth, because not even my grandfather could force her to dance again.
When my grandfather looked at his son, he never saw a man. A man was hard and worked for a living. A man danced so hard that he could taste his sweat as it ran between his clenched, barred teeth. My father never danced; he never quite understood the rhythms. He had not been born in New Orleans; he had never seen Congo Square and could not understand. My grandfather could never see that because he had danced so hard, my father didn’t have to. Indeed, my father had already forgotten how.
When my grandfather could no longer sing and dance, no longer please the crowd, his life no longer had a purpose. So he decided to leave those streets which were crowed with young faces who heard rhythms that my grandfather could not even imagine. And so we must take up the dance. Our steps will be different. But I will teach my own daughter the song and dance routine as I learned it from her grandfather. We must dance and sing as if our life depended on it, for it does.
As I walk past the little black boys in the quarters, baby stroller in front of me, I tell my daughter to look. I tell her to love those boys, and not to ever feel shame about who we have been, who we still are. I whisper the names of her black great-grandfather , her black grandfather, and her white father. I tell her to never forget the rhythms that she hears on these streets. I tell her to listen to the echoes of all of the souls who dance before her. And I tell her to take the movement, take the music and form wings with which to soar.