Hwesu S. Murray
When I was a young man, I use to write a great deal. Writing still remains important to me, and the subject of love is high on my list. Several years ago, I wrote a book based on the movie, “Casablanca,” called, “The Meaning of Love In the 21st Century,” under the pseudonym, Zig Paris. (It’s on Amazon). The subject of Black love has become significant to public discourse. From my perspective, a bit of historical context is needed.
During my undergraduate days at Queens College I was an English major, with an emphasis in writing. The 1960s were very exciting politically. For many of us who were young in those days, the civil rights movement evolved into the Black Power movement. Student demonstrations were common, and we confronted the white power structure with our demands for change.
As a young writer during the late 1960s I was very isolated. On a predominately white campus I had very little connection with other Black writers. Moreover, from kindergarten to my last day of earning my B.A., I was never in a class in which the subject was something written by a Black, (Negro), author. At least, however, I found a couple of books by James Baldwin and Langston Hughes on my own at the Cambria Heights branch of the New York Public Library. During long summer days I sometimes would spent many hours at the library examining many rows of books. In addition, in those days, it was so rare to see a Black person on television that we used to call our friends on the phone and tell them to turn on the TV.
There have been very few movies with a story line that was primarily based upon Black love. Sidney Poitier starred in two of the best: “For Love of Ivy,” 1968, with Abbey Lincoln; and, “A Warm December,” 1973, with Esther Anderson. Black love was also the sub-plot of “Paris Blues,” 1961, which starred Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. “Chef,” the BBC series, 1993-1996, starring Lenny Henry and Caroline Lee Johnson, was one of the best television programs about a loving Black couple. (If you ever want to see a Black romantic horror film, with a stylish sexy couple, try “Ganja and Hess,” 1973, starring Marlene Clark and Duane Jones).
Queens College had only a handful of Black students on campus when I arrived. In early 1967, during the second semester of my freshman year, I participated in our Afro American students’ organization. As I recall, the goal was to get Afro American studies courses and Afro American professors to teach those courses.
A large group of non-matriculated Black students arrived on campus in 1968 as part of the Search for Education, Enrichment and Knowledge, (SEEK), program. I was a tutor for a few SEEK students. I also participated in the Queens College Black and Puerto Rican Student Faculty Coalition during 1969 and 1970 in demonstrations for Black Studies and Black professors. SEEK expanded the Black student base, and we all talked about every topic under the sun, including Black men, Black women and Black love.
In addition to protests for Black Power and against the war in Vietnam, the 1960s were also some of the greatest days of Black romantic love. Those days of political activism during the 1960s were some of the greatest days in which we as a people expressed, enjoyed and understood Black love, primarily though the lyrics to our music. People know how to dress, how to talk and how to respect each other. Girls wore mini-skirts because they knew that they would be appreciated and that the boys knew how to act properly.
Long before I got to college, when I was a boy getting my first serious crush on a girl, we had music that expressed every facet of love. When we went to parties in the late 50s and early 60s, all of the music to which we danced was centered upon love. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Love is full of ups and downs. I was blessed to learn about Black love from my parents; and, also, from the many families that attended Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem, Calvary Baptist Church, (located in Jamaica, Queens), and the St. Albans Congregational Church.
I am also very proud to say that, as a young man during the 1960s, I learned a great deal about Black love from the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi here in New York and wherever we traveled. The Nupes always had the finest ladies, especially the Silhouettes of New York Alumni, and the Kappa Kourt of Omicron Chapter. If the walls of the Kappa Kastle could talk – oh boy!
I was 11 years old when The Miracles released, “Way Over There.” There was something about that song that change me; or, reflected the change in me. That was when something about the experience of romantic love clicked for me personally. It was one thing to see other older people in love. It was another thing to feel and want love, even as a young boy.
In 2008, Herb Jordan, a buddy of mine from law school at Michigan, edited and introduced a book called, “Motown In Love: Lyrics from the Golden Era.” It is full of the most beautiful words of love ever written, many from the hand, heart and soul of Smokey Robinson. The book runs 184 pages, and I when I purchased it I already knew 99% of the lyrics of the songs contained in the book. It is probably the finest book of Black love ever published.
In my opinion, “My Girl” is the greatest love song, and expression of Black romantic love, of all time. (It was followed by Smokey’s nearly-equally brilliant, “It’s Growing”). “My Girl” combines the masterpiece of Smokey’s lyrics, Ronnie White’s musical composition, Paul Rizer’s arrangements, musical performances by The Funk Brothers and The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, background vocals by Louvain Demps and The Andantes, and the wonderful harmonies of Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams with the immortal lead by the incomparable David Ruffin. Ironically, the word, “love” is not contained in the lyrics to “My Girl.” (However, at the very end of the Italian version, David sings, in English, “I love you, girl).” Yet, the song is all about love.
Before Soul music and Rhythm and Blues, Doo-Wop, Rock & Roll and Jazz were based upon love. Love ultimately is rooted in our relationship with God, and some of the best love songs are very close to Gospel and Spiritual music. As David sang in Smokey’s lyrics, “My love for you just grows and grows. Oh, oh, oh, oh how it grows and grows. And where it’s gonna stop I’m sure, nobody knows.” A lot of our music came out of the church. A lot of today’s music comes out of the street.
Moreover, many Black folks owe debt of gratitude to many people such as the late and tragic Roger Penzabene, an Italian guy who wrote, among other songs, “You’re My Everything” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” which enabled The Temptations to sing about the human universality of love itself. Love is not a blood sport. Love is not a zero-sum game that requires a winner and a loser. Love is about caring, sharing, and respect not selfishness. It’s about giving, not taking. It’s going to be hard for people to find love if they are staring at the screen of their cell phone and not seeing the stranger seated across the table from them at Starbucks who is actually the love of their life.
From what little that I hear of today’s music, a lot of it is sexually explicit. The old music was more subtle, but it got the message across: “Sixty Minute Man;” “There’s A Thrill On The Hill;” “The Doo (Dew!) Run-Run;” “Ride Your Pony; “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
The feminist movement ultimately had a profound effect on love in America, including Black love. However, in the early 1970s, when feminism became very powerful, most Black women were not feminists because they believed, and understood and said forcefully that they had no sisterhood with white women who formerly had been their oppressors.
However, Black feminism initially took another form. My first impression of it was when I read the book, “Corregidora,” in 1978 by Gayle Jones, a Black woman who, unfortunately, has subsequently has had much tragedy and trouble in her life. She was lecturing at Michigan while I was there in law school. I probably passed her in on the street in Ann Arbor.
I don’t recall the subject matter of “Corregidora.” I just recall being shocked by the publication of a novel that cast the Black man in such a very negative light. It seemed as though an unspoken rule had been broken: Black men and Black women shall never speak ill of one another in public. Nevertheless, the floodgates were open. There followed other books trashing the Black man’s treatment of Black women, all of us tarred with the same brush, all of us equally and unquestionably guilty. All of us are “male chauvinist pigs,” “no good,” or “low-life bums” or worse. Then there came Broadway plays, bus trips to all-star motion pictures, and very popular television talk shows in which the central topic was how bad the Black man was and is to the Black woman.
Those books, plays, movies, and TV shows created a fork in the road of Black love that exists to this day.
The reality is also that a good loving relationship requires an economic foundation. From what I have seen, most Black women don’t want a man who cannot support a family. Most Black men don’t want a woman who wants economic power and domination over him. Feminism, technology, foreign competition, immigration and, not the least of all, good old fashioned racism have ruined the chances for many Black men to become the husbands and fathers that they would love to be. When I see grown men with their pants below their hips, grown men who are high school drops-outs from the best education in the world, grown men riding skateboards, grown men playing video games, grown men dressed like they were still in junior high school, grown men who don’t know how to speak properly, grown men who are smoking weed at 8:00 on a Monday morning, grown men who make nasty remarks to attractive women, I hope that the feminists who attacked all men, not some but all men, as brutes, and derelicts and sexist perverts without discrimination, are satisfied.
If social Darwinism is real, then there really are winners and losers; and, at some point in the distant future, very attractive Ivy League graduates working at international corporations might be willing to resort to extreme measures, perhaps even polygamy, (as depicted in Michael Tolkin’s novel, “The Return of The Player”), in order for themselves and their children to have a stable family life with a husband and father of substance. There just won’t be enough eligible men for all of the high-achieving women to marry.
By late 1968, my junior year in college I had begun writing poetry, including love poetry. In the spring of 1969 I used to read my poetry other Black students, (mostly young ladies), on the lawn under a tree just outside of the Queens College cafeteria. My favorite professor was Marie Ponsot, a celebrated author who is now 96, and who encouraged me when I took her courses.
I graduated in 1970. During the summer of 1970, I met a girl who was part of a theater group in the Bronx called, The Black Magicians. I saw a couple of their performances and attended some of their rehearsals. That was when I, as a lone Black writer, became involved with the much larger Black Arts Movement, which was an element of the Black Power, Black Pride and “Black is Beautiful” cultural revolution.
I had a scholarship to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that I had to postpone for one year. My draft lottery number was 39. Two of my buddies, Tony Powell, Black, and Wayne Bernhardt, white, already had been killed in Viet Nam. So, I joined the 719th Transportation Company of the 369th Battalion of the New York Army National Guard and became a tractor trailer driver.
One night, I wrote the poem, “My Queen,” on powder blue U.S. Army letter stationery in late 1970 on my bunk during Basic Training in Ft. Dix, N.J. I wrote a lot in those days. I was also reading books like “Home” and “Blues People,” by LeRoi Jones, (later known as Imamu Amiri Baraka), and had my subscription of “Downbeat” Magazine, the popular jazz publication, sent directly to me at Ft. Dix.
In the early 1960s, my Dad wrote a poem called “My Queen” for my Mom. He framed it and it was in our living room for many years. When I wrote my poem, I don’t recall thinking of my Dad’s poem. The two are very different; but, the title was probably part of my DNA by then.
In December, 1970, after I returned from Dix, while on my way to a Thursday night drill at the 369th Armory in Harlem, I heard an announcement on WWRL Radio about a writer’s workshop. The following Thursday night, I joined Sister Sonia Sanchez’s Writer’s Workshop at The Countee Cullen Library in Harlem. My line brother, the late John Williams, often attended with me. He was there when I met Damali, who joined in early ’71. The Workshop was a wonderful experience. Sister Sonia took us with her to many places where we read our poetry. Many of the young poets today copy Sister Sonia’s style.
We had many talented writers in those days, including in The Workshop. Each one had his or her own style. There was a lot written about Black love as well as about The Revolution. Ironically, one of my favorite writers of Black love was Nikki Giovanni, whom I met when she was working with Ida Lewis at “Encore” magazine in 1972. Some of Nikki’s best poems appeared in NYU’s “Black Creation” magazine in 1971 and 1972.
The Black Arts Movement of the early1970s was a time of wonderful poetry, music, dance, art and film. “Shaft” and “Superfly” and other Black movies became popular street culture depictions, so we had our work cut out for us. Every weekend brought a new event at The New Lafayette Theater, or The Langston Hughes House of Kuumba, or The African American Total Theater, or The National Black Theater, all in Harlem; or The East, in Brooklyn; or, The Third World in the Bronx; or NYU, or Town Hall, or any other campus or venue in New York City.
From my perspective the fictional nation of Wakanda, now seen in “Black Panther,” depicts the New Dahomey that we were writing about in the Black Arts Movement, when we imagined and commonly referred to a nation of kings and queens. I remember that in 1973, when I showed my baby son to a girl that I knew from college she said, “Ooh, look at the little nation!”
Although I wrote “My Queen” before I joined The Workshop, I usually performed it with The Workshop. My late line brother, Dr. Denis A. Nunez, read it at our wedding when Damali and I were married on January 8, 1972. I felt very honored when Sister Sonia read it on-camera when I she appeared on my cable television program, “Vibrations New York,” in 1973. Fortunately, I have a recording of it when I recited it in October, 1971, in which I explained that I had written it about a girl whom I had not yet met. I remain proud of it to this day.
There’s a Black Queen in my heart
And she is with me – everywhere.
I am not a ruler
I am not a king.
I do not lord over vast lands and
I do not own a wealth of gold
Or fine treasures.
Men do not bow in my presence
Or speak of me with reverence
O pay honor to the sound of my name.
But there is a Black Queen in my heart
And she goes with me – everywhere.
For one as common as I
It is often not easy to deal
With the love of a Queen.
It is often too much for me to hold.
But I keep this Love
And it strengthens me
And makes me a little more proud.
There is a Beautiful Black Queen in my heart
And she is with me – everywhere.
All my all I’d do for her
All my all I’d give.
But I am not a Princely man who
Can lavish her with
Rare and precious gifts.
All I have is what’s in me
What I am – What I can do
And all my Love – which is hers.
There is a Beautiful, Jet-Black Queen in my heart
And she and I are one – Always.
And though I am not mighty, or rich,
Though I do not hold the power of
An Emperor in my hand
This Queens stays in my heart.
For I am all for her.
And I am all to her.
And I looked into her eyes one day,
And saw clear through to her heart
And deep inside – I saw
And I – was a King!!
Samuel M. Murray, Jr.
(Hwesu Samuel Murray)