I don’t remember the first time I heard the song Love Child by The Supremes. I just remember that when I was about nine or 10 years old, I stopped hearing it and started being it.
Back then, I was living in Harlem on 116th Street and Morningside Avenue. Harlem of the ’60s and ’70s was post-Renaissance and pre-gentrification, so my neighborhood was neither romantic nor chic. There were many dilapidated and abandoned buildings whose owners’ neglect served as a metaphor for what the city had done to the people of Harlem, namely, decided that we just weren’t worth the time, money and energy to keep us alive and well.
Many street corners were infested with heroin addicts, or as we derisively called them, “junkies.” They would stand there nodding and leaning forward at angles that rivaled the gravity-defying hard tilts of Michael Jackson in the Smooth Criminal video, yet never ever falling. People looked on in amusement, amazement and disgust. Walking down certain streets was like walking a gauntlet of zombies — the living dead — no longer alive as we know it, but yet and still, existing amongst us, haunting and terrorizing us with their grotesquely swollen limbs, often with open, oozing sores.
I lived in my building with 10 other people, consisting of four generations — my mother, brother, grandmother, an aunt, and six cousins. It was a living, breathing crime scene. Its current gentrified sanctity belies its wretched past of rape, robbery, burglary and what seemed like weekly fires. The elevator that rarely worked but always smelled of urine, was both a mode of transportation and a snare where predators would victimize their prey. The staircase was no safer, but at least you were in constant motion while descending or climbing the steps, and, at least you could hold onto the illusion of an escape route as opposed to being captive in a closed, moving box.
We lived directly across the street from Morningside Park. We couldn’t go there alone, and we didn’t go often because we all had working, single mothers, and a grandmother/great-grandmother who was not trying to miss her “stories” (that’s what she called her soap operas) to take a bunch of us kids to the park. Most of the time, we went with my cousin, Butch. He did not live with us, but visited us often. He always seemed like he was far more than eight years my senior because he was so mature and responsible. Even before he enlisted in the Navy, and was only coming from across town, it seemed like he was visiting us from some faraway land.
Butch always came bearing gifts, and we’d all run to greet him at the door, even my dog Pooch. In my eyes, he was like Santa Clause and Superman all rolled into one. He was a rare presence in my family and in my life — a loving, gentle, generous man. Sometimes his gifts were material, like a record he knew we really liked, or money or candy, but his greatest gift to me was his time. When he took us that couple hundred feet across the street to Morningside Park, he gave us the rare opportunity to run around and play and be carefree, as children should be. It meant the world to me.
Living in such a dangerous environment relegated me to a lot of time in the house. I often entertained myself by listening to the radio. I have always loved music and at an early age developed an eclectic taste that I attribute to Motown, AM radio and my mother’s love of country music. A little girl from Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s having an affinity for country music probably sounds odd, but there is something about how the lyrics of country music seem to simultaneously command and implore that drew me to it when I was younger. I have always paid particular attention to lyrics. When Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops pleaded, “Shake me, wake me when it’s over,” I wanted to know when what’s over?
I wanted to know why “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” and I wanted to know what a love child was.
One day, I asked my mother what the Four Tops were talking about, and why Billie Joe jumped, and both times she replied in a curt, annoyed tone:
“I don’t know,” with an implied, unspoken and I don’t care.
So, when I wanted to know what a love child was, I did not ask my mother. Her prior, less-than-thoughtful responses to my earnest questions were definitely a factor, but it was more than that. This song was different. It was personal. It resonated with me in a way that no other song ever had.
It wasn’t a mere curiosity about the people in the song, and although I didn’t know exactly why, I knew I should not ask my mother about it for other reasons still not fully clear to me then. So, I went to Santa-Superman, because in addition to being a loving, gentle, generous man, my cousin was also a smart and honest man. I knew he would know, and I knew he would tell me the truth.
When the song came on the radio when he was visiting, I asked, “Butch, what does that mean — love child?”
I wish I could tell you that I remember his exact words, but I don’t. I just remember him saying something about a man and a woman who were not married, having a baby. And even though I did not understand it intellectually, I understood it intuitively. That song was about me! That’s what I was — a love child.
At that time, and for many years thereafter, I had no idea who the second responsible party for my less-than-immaculate conception was. My entire existence, shrouded in secrecy, shame and lies played out in many of the words of that song. In my mind, I could replace the words “love child” with my name, and I’d be telling the world who I was.
“Marcia, never quite as good, afraid, ashamed, misunderstood.”
When I was about 12 years old, I had a crush on Christie Love.
She was the main character of a ’70s cop show called Get Christie Love! She was absolutely beautiful. She was tall and slim, and wore these stylish, one-piece jumpsuits and fur coats. Her skin was the color of milk chocolate and her smile, with her perfectly straight, blindingly white teeth, seemed to brighten the dull screen of my black-and-white TV. She had a curly Afro that was beyond fierce.
I was so tender-headed that the thought of a comb coming in contact with my head brought tears to my eyes. Despite that, I willingly endured the torture my friend Shirley, who lived across the hall from me, put me through to get me a curly Afro. I’d wash my hair, and while it was still wet, she would roll it up in those pink foam curlers. The curlers would be so tight that I felt like someone was trying to yank my hair out by the roots. Then, I’d take them out the next day, leaving more than a few strands of my hair stuck to the pink foam, and Shirley would pick out my ‘fro as I fought back the tears.
It was all worth it though. If I could get my ‘fro to look like Christie Love’s, maybe I could be beautiful too.
Christie Love wasn’t just beautiful, she was badass! She was a female undercover cop who worked without a partner. She fought grown men and won every time. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to have the physical strength and mental courage to fight anyone who would try to hurt me. Each week for one hour I was mesmerized as I watched her make some dumb criminal pay not only for his crimes but for underestimating her strength. As the fool lay there dazed from the ass-whooping she had just put on him, my heart pounded as she cuffed him, smiled that smile, and said in this sassy, sweet accent that sometimes had a little Southern twang thrown in for good measure, “You’re under arrest, Sugar.”
Truth is, my heart started pounding during the opening theme song and didn’t stop until the closing credits rolled. I not only wanted to be like her, but I was in love with Christie Love. There were a lot of cop shows in the 1970s — Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Kojak, Mannix — and many more. I watched them all, but none of the men in those shows, including the guest characters, made my heart race like Christie Love did. The only other characters that came close were Pepper Anderson from Police Woman and Sabrina Duncan on Charlie’s Angels. The word lesbian was not in my vocabulary at the time, but the word pattern was, and the pattern was clear to me. I liked girls. But I knew I wasn’t supposed to like girls. And that’s when I stepped into the closet.
Much to my disappointment, Get Christie Love only lasted for one season. My life in the closet lasted much longer. Being in the closet was extremely stressful for me. I was always on high alert. Always self-censoring. Always afraid of being exposed. Never feeling like I really belonged no matter where I was. I was the worst version of myself. I never saw Teresa Graves, the actress who played Christie Love, in anything else after that. Many years later, I learned that she left the show and the business because they conflicted with her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. I think it’s ironic that my first crush was on a fictional character played by a person who would have told me I was going to hell because of who I am.
People talk about “coming out” as though it is a once in a lifetime event, like being born or losing your virginity. It is, in fact, something that recurs like doing your laundry or going grocery shopping. After the first time, it’s not so much a “coming out,” but more of a sexuality reveal.
Every time I meet someone new and form any type of meaningful interpersonal relationship with them, I have to reveal my sexuality to them. It’s not like I say, “Hi, my name is Marcia and I’m a lesbian.” It generally happens organically, because it’s impossible for me to talk about the people who matter most to me, without revealing that fact. My sexuality, like who raised me, where and when I grew up, and my race, is one small component of what makes me, me. But once some people know about that small part, they act like I am only a sexual being and nothing else — like all I do all the time is have sex.
To be honest, if people knew how much sex I am not having, they would quickly be disabused of that notion.
My mother was the embodiment of what happens to a dream deferred. I’m not quite sure what those dreams were, but we all have them until they are either fulfilled, or we give up hope that they ever will be. My mother gave up hope. She was profoundly sad. She had convinced herself that she deserved no more than what the racist, sexist world she was born into was willing to give her. And she acted accordingly.
When I look in the mirror, I see my mother looking back at me, and I am frightened.
My relationship with her was complicated to say the least. But even with all its complications, I can recall countless times my mother did something kind and thoughtful for me. Whether it was buying me the boots I wanted when I was 10years old — the ones that made my Aunt Betty say “$20?!” in shock and disbelief when she heard how much they cost; or taking us to Palisades Amusement Park. Disneyland in California, and later Disney World in Florida, might as well have been on the moon, because the chances of me going to any of those places were the same.
But for Little Marcia, Palisades Amusement Park was the happiest place on earth. It was attainable. I would excitedly watch on that 20-something-inch black-and-white TV with the rabbit-ear antennas, the commercial showing people gleefully riding roller coasters and eating cotton candy there. My cousins and I would sing along in sheer delight “Palisades has the rides … Palisades has the fun, come — on — o-ver.” When my mother took me there, I became one of those gleeful people I saw on the TV commercial.
My mother gave gifts often and to many different people. My brother Gary played the trumpet in the school band, so she bought him a trumpet. The only thing I ever remember him playing was Windy by The Association. My heroin-addicted cousin, Michael, stole that trumpet and sold it. Maybe that’s why I only remember my brother playing one song.
Another cousin, Sandra, who is about 10years older than me, wrote me a beautiful letter shortly after my mother passed away in 1998. She fondly told me the story of how one year, when she was very young, she wanted only two things for Christmas — a cap pistol and a red wagon. My mother bought both for her. I remember when my mother bought sneakers for my friend Cheryl, her little brother and me, just because.
My friend Candi’s kids used to call her granny and loved going to see her because to let them tell it, “granny always has candy and ices at her house.” She helped numerous relatives and friends get jobs at Harlem Hospital, where she was the assistant personnel director. The only person I literally never saw her do anything good for was herself.
My mother lived on this planet for 68 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 4 days and she never traveled beyond the East Coast of the United States. She flew on a plane once, round trip, when she brought my nephew to Atlanta to come visit when I lived down there in the summer of 1984. The fact that she would get on a plane to come see me for no reason other than she just missed me, highlights the complicated nature of our relationship. She was deathly afraid of flying, so for her to face that fear and get on a plane to come see me was nothing short of an act of pure love.
My mother was good at sacrificing herself for others.
I went away to boarding school in 1975 and barely looked back until December of 1984. I was 23 years old, and my mother, at the ripe old age of 54, had a stroke. Her years of smoking and complications from her diabetes had caught up with her. I found out later that my mother had been having what are known as Transient Ischemic Attacks for months. TIA’s are basically ministrokes that don’t leave permanent damage. They are the body’s version of “the canary in the coal mine.” They come to warn you that something is very wrong, and if you don’t address it immediately you will have a full-blown stroke.
My mother would get these bouts of temporary blindness, and she would self-diagnose and attribute them to not having eaten, or not having taken her insulin on time, or God only knows what. She worked in a hospital. She was literally surrounded by doctors for 21 years, yet she only saw a doctor when there was an acute event — like giving birth, having a kidney removed or having a debilitating stroke. When I was in my 30s, she boasted to me about how she had not seen a gynecologist since I was born.
When she had a kidney removed in 1968, she returned to work in two weeks. Two weeks. She acted like those things were badges of courage, and for the longest time I thought they were testaments to her strength. Now I wonder if they were, in actuality, the reckless acts of a person who simply didn’t think she was worthy of being healthy.
Needless to say, her diagnosis regarding the bouts with blindness was wrong. The cause was a blockage in her carotid artery. As arteries go, that’s kind of an important one. It’s the one that takes blood to the brain. She had surgery to remove the plaque from that artery, but the damage the stroke did was irreversible. She never returned to work after that one.
I asked my brother if he remembered any instances of my mother being kind to herself. He is older and was actually around her more. Perhaps she was painting the town red during those years I was away, and I was just out of the loop. He thought for a moment … “Riding the bus down Fifth Avenue to Macy’s,” he said. “She had two Macy’s cards and liked to shop at the Macy’s Down Under for gadgets,” he laughed as he recalled.
I cracked up. “I remember those damn gadgets. She was the only person I know who had an olive pitter.”
“And the cucumber peeler,” he laughed.
“I don’t remember the cucumber peeler.”
“What? Maybe you were away at school during its run.”
And that’s when I thought about the Brach’s candy. My mother used to send me care packages in college that made my friends envious. They would have all kinds of goodies in them that I loved, like olives (sans pitter). But the thing I remember most was the Brach’s candy that she would get from Macy’s. She may have gotten gadgets while she was there, but I’m pretty sure my mother went to Macys primarily to buy me that Brach’s candy.
I heard somewhere (okay it was on Oprah, of course) that your children will learn how to treat themselves not so much based on how you treat them, but how you treat yourself. I think it’s a combination of both. My mother did not always treat me lovingly, but she was downright brutal to herself. And that’s what scares me when I look in the mirror and see her. Although it manifests itself differently, I can be quite brutal to myself as well.
Get Christie Love (Season 1, Ep. 10)
Get Christie Love – Film, 1974