Uncle Red

Here is my piece from the recent published anthology by Ajuan Mance entitled “1001 Black Men: Portraits of Masculinity at the Intersection.”

https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/1001-black-men-portraits-of-masculinity-at-the-intersections/

Joe Camel was everywhere when I was a child. He was on television, he was on bus stop benches, and he was selling cigarettes on billboards in the same manner that Billy Dee Williams was hawking Colt 45. This was the late 1980s which represented the last days that such blatant targeted advertisements would be allowed in the African-American community. My childhood was impacted by Joe Camel in the same way that kids of today are being impacted by Blueberry vape pens. The drawing of Joe Camel smoking a cigarette as he played a game of pool was hella fly to me. In my young preadolescent opinion, even though he didn’t speak, he was the dopest cartoon image ever. He had more charisma than Bugs Bunny and was a bigger boss than Leonardo from the Ninja turtles. Even more significant than that was the fact that he was the mascot for my Uncle Red’s preferred brand of smokes. Which meant that he was present at my grandmother’s house, family get togethers, or where ever my uncle happened to be.

When I was little I thought my Uncle Red was the coolest man in the world. Partly because he had been to prison and partly because he used to be a pimp, but really because he smoked Camel cigarettes. He would blow smoke rings in the backroom of my grandmother’s house and let the kids break them up with our fingers. He had a thousand stories and never told the same one twice. In retrospect all of them were wildly inappropriate for a boy in elementary school to hear, but I still soaked up all of his game like a sponge. Anytime I was able to walk with him down 3rd Street in the Bayview section of San Francisco or down E14th in East Oakland it was like basking in the light of a celebrity.

 Uncle Red is sure to walk on the outside of me and my cousins so that he is the one closest to the traffic. He lets us run to the corner while he stays behind with a Camel cigarette pursed in between his lips. We make it to the corner and stop to wait for him before we cross the street. I turn around totally out of breath and look back at my uncle who is taking out his lighter to light up another cigarette. He is wearing white leather platform shoes, white bell bottoms, a white button up shirt, a white blazer, and a nappy chest. His hair is combed back. His hairline is barely receding. The sun catches his bronze complected face in a way that makes him look like a mixture of Goldy from The Mack and Joe Camel himself. By the time he catches up with us we have caught our breath. We walk together across the street and into the liquor store where I get animal crackers and a soda. My cousins get Lemonheads, Jolly Ranchers, and Funyuns. My uncle asks for Camel Menthols which are behind the counter. Uncle Red pays for everything. While he steps out of the door he flicks his cigarette butt onto the concrete and I run to step on it first. He opens up the new box of Camel Menthols and shakes another cigarette into his palm, then he places it into his mouth. My cousins and I run ahead to the next corner and I am in the lead.  

My uncle went to prison fairly often for drug related offenses. When he was granted parole he went straight from San Quentin to my grandmother’s house where his shoe collection was there waiting for his release. He had snake skin boots, gator skin shoes, suede platforms,  and loafers of every imaginable color. Most of them were still in their boxes in my grandmother’s backroom. The backroom at my grandmother’s house was central to family life because that was where the television was located. There was another television in the living room, but we couldn’t watch that one. The living room was just for show. It had plastic seat covers on all of the furniture and if it wasn’t a very special occasion my grandmother would slap you for setting your foot in there. So we would watch tv with my Uncle Red in “his room.” 

On this particular day he is fidgety and slightly annoyed. He taps his box of Camels but it is empty. He then takes a deep breath, curses, and asks my sister to go to the corner store and buy him some smokes. My sister is 12-years-old. I am 8. He gives us enough money to buy some candy with the change and we’re off. We walk down Shafter Avenue to get to 3rd Street where the Arab store is. We bring our candy to the register. My sister asks for a pack of Camel menthols. The Arab man behind the counter tells her that she is too young. She replies that they’re not for her. They’re for her uncle. The Arab man says that she needs a note. We go back to my grandmother’s house and tell Uncle Red. He says to my sister “Well write a note.” My sister writes a note in her very best cursive handwriting and signs my uncle’s name on the bottom of it. We go back to the corner store and purchase the cigarettes without a problem.

Over the next few decades there would be a justifiable war on cigarettes and the harm that they had done to generations of people. They would be exposed for lying about all of the health risks that their products cause and for specifically marketing menthols—which is the most addictive form of cigarette—to the African-American community. Billboards and commercials promoting tobacco products would be strictly prohibited. Joe Camel became a relic and places of business that sold cigarettes to minors would face serious sanctions. My grandmother passed away in 2016 and the family lost her home in the Bayview. My uncle, however, is still going.

About a year ago I saw him on Macarthur Boulevard in Oakland. He had checked himself into a program for drug addiction. The program was run through a church. I passed the church and saw him standing out front. He had finally given up the bell bottoms and the platforms for blue jeans and sneakers. Yet he still was wearing a button up shirt and had a nappy chest. I pulled over and called him to my car. I got out and hugged him in the street. He said he was proud of me and he meant it. I told him that I was proud of him too and I thanked him for always making me feel safe as a child. We reminisced for a minute and laughed, but he looked incomplete. When I was about to get in my car to leave he stopped me. 

“Say nephew. Do you have some change? I need some smokes.”

“For sure,” I said with no hesitation.

I gave him a bill and then gave him another hug. As I drove off I saw him walking toward the corner store in my rearview mirror. I sped through the green light at the corner.  

-Roger Porter

I am. All of Us.

The Marvin Gaye sample was enough to have me locked in. Every Black person in America that was raised in a traditionally Black household knows the sultry masterpiece that is “I Want You.” We’ve listened to it in our uncle’s tape decks, and during Sunday night oldies on the radio station. We’ve had it playing in the background as we spoke to girls on the phone in our sexy voice as adolescents. But then Kendrick begins rapping, and it feels even more reassuring. He punctuates every syllable with a hand gesture, a facial expression, rhythmically rocking back and forth as he does his OG dance. His eyes stay averted from the camera. He spasms with each bar as if reacting to a drug. The Marvin Gaye sample is his drug. We (his fans) are his drug–after all, he hasn’t spoken to us from his throne since “DAMN” was released 5 years ago. There is a red backdrop behind Kendrick that resembles a velvet curtain. He’s performing a one man show onstage. Incredible! I get it. Welcome back Kendrick. 

That would have been enough. But enough is never the objective when it comes to a generational talent like Kendrick Lamar. He must have it all.

The first time I saw the video I blinked when I shouldn’t have. Because when I opened my eyes I saw the face of OJ Simpson rapping with dreadlocked hair. I screamed several profanities at the television. I leaned in toward the screen from my seat. I thought, “Is Kendrick trolling?” Why OJ? Why would he want to be provocative in this particular manner? I laughed while trying to figure it out. Then there was the deep fake into Jussie Smollet and it became bizarre. No cap! I got defensive. The Kingdom of Kendrick has no place for Jussie Smollet. The former Empire star who claimed he was attacked by white supremacist and still had the noose around his neck when police came to interview him does not deserve to be immortalized in a Kendrick Lamar video. The fake rapper who claimed to be the Gay Tupac in the immediate wake of that incident needs to be forgotten quickly. I did not approve. 

Then he morphed into Will Smith and I understood the theme, but it wasn’t until the second time I watched the video that it came together for me. Somehow I had missed the most important quote in the entire visual; “I am. All of us.” The video is a highly stylized drone attack against cancel culture, especially when it’s levied out disproportionately against Black men.

The last cameo is that of Nipsey Hustle. Kendrick, a man from a Blood neighborhood, speaks from the perspective of Nipsey, a member of the Rolling Sixties Crips. Through Nipsey he speaks to Nipsey’s children andNipsey’s brother Sam. I became emotional as I saw this rendering of the deceased prophet. The man who literally bought his own block, and spent his entire brief career showing young black rappers the extreme importance of ownership. Nipsey has also been the recent subject of sex tape rumors and other salacious allegations by a Los Angeles gang member turned music manager named Wack 100. Perhaps one could argue, as tough as it may be, that Nipsey Hussle could have been on the brink of cancellation. Kendrick is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to stay hot in between albums. He doesn’t do a lot of features. He isn’t trying his hand at acting. He’s never hosted Saturday Night Live. He just makes really good music then disappears. He escapes into being a normal black man with exceedingly high intelligence and a deep devotion to his people.

Kendrick is an empath who expresses the pain of the world through classic albums. What Kendrick is saying in The Heart Part 5 is that he is not capable of letting his brothers and fellow entertainers be destroyed by a savage system run by sociopaths. He will not surrender Black men who have made mistakes to a justice system controlled by Europeans that have committed the most egregious transgressions in the history of the world. Kendrick will not leave his people to be eaten by wolves on social media because they made mistakes. For he is all of us. When we are cut, he bleeds. He places himself on the cross for us while everyone else celebrates when we are publicly humiliated, snatched out of our mansions, and made to crawl through town square on broken glass.

People recently cheered when Kevin Samuels was rumored to be dead. Then they celebrated when his death was confirmed. Black folks quickly removed the same R. Kelly songs from their music collections that were played at their weddings and senior proms because everything that he created was deemed to be toxic by the media. A few years ago The Cosby show was taken out of syndication because of the alleged misdeeds of Bill Cosby. When it comes to Black male creatives, society seems to be unwilling to separate their failings from their masterpieces. We aren’t given the same grace as Paul Gauguin, Woody Allen, or Roman Polanski. We are discarded. We are shamed. Our art becomes radioactive. Our legacies are forced into disrepute. And we are given to white people so that they may abuse us until the day that we die. 

Kendrick is here to remind us that this is a practice engaged in by the weak. Strong civilizations don’t allow their enemies to discipline their criminals.For they understand the adage “I can talk about my brother like a dog, but if you ever disrespect him then we’ll have to fight.” Kendrick is saying that I am the greatest black man but I am also the worst. I am all of them and they are all of me. You can not come for them without coming for me. When you hurt them I cry. When you kill them then I die. You will not separate us. I am. All of us.

Notes on Joe Rogan and India Arie

I like India Arie. Her Acoustic Soul album was the second album that I gave to my daughter. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first. India came into my consciousness as a black woman singing about going against the grain of the images that were being disseminated in the Jay-Z and Dr. Dre videos of that time. She wore her hair naturally, she did not show her booty, and she rode a bicycle. Everything that she did was rebellious even if she wasn’t necessarily trying to be. Now she’s gone viral for calling out Joe Rogan and Spotify on her Instagram and I’m kind of upset.

Just to be clear, I’m not mad at Miss Arie. She stated her position very well. She doesn’t like Joe, or any other white person for that matter, using the N word at all, and Joe has used it several times. She thinks Spotify is exploitative because they do not pay their artists very well. I get it. I’m cool with that. What I am mad at is the way she’s being covered by CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and ABC as if they care about her brand. It’s almost as if she’s a regular news consultant. Since when do they care about early 2000’s R&B singers? Did they touch bases with Sunshine Anderson and Tank on this particular issue? I mean come on now. 

Joe Rogan has used his platform to stand up against legacy news media lying to people in excess for going on three years now. Has anyone ever asked how every major news outlet has taken the exact same stance on Covid and the vaccine, even though it’s been the most divisive issue in modern history? None of it is genuine. It isn’t open ended and it’s extremely far from being objective. In essence corporate media is trash. The whole country has been looking for something else. And Joe Rogan, whether you like him or not, is that something else. It’s like when Puff Daddy and Mase ran hip-hop in the Shiny suit era then DMX came into the game like “Let’s take it back to the streets mutha f***a!” That’s what Joe Rogan is, but in a much more white way. He wanted to take it back to the Dick Cavett days when people actually had dialogue and debates about controversial topics and he did just that, bless his heart. The only issue is that he became too successful at it. His narrative began to bump heads with the corporate narrative, especially that of CNN and so they sought to get rid of him. CNN has lost almost half of its viewership in the same time that Rogan’s has doubled. Do the math. They want him out of there–period. And who do liberal pundits always lean on when they want someone canceled? Black people. 

Once a person is accused of being racist in the way that Rogan is now being accused they become radioactive. People no longer question the issues. Critical thinking is suspended. Everyone becomes reactionary and moves based on emotion. No one comes to publicly defend a racist unless they too want to be labeled racists, so the individual is left to fight alone and more often than not after several painful apologies, they lose. But alas, this fight is not about whether Joe Rogan is racist, it’s about free speech versus corporate domination. It’s about the loss of sheep in the fold of corporate media outlets which equates to the loss of money. It’s about Joe Rogan being the embodiment of a different kind of information not to be confused with MISinformation. And this is about the old guard putting him back in his place. This isn’t about blackness, this isn’t about racism, this isn’t about Neil Young, this isn’t about India Arie. We need to look through all of the distractions to focus on what’s really at stake and finally start having real conversations again. 

I used to hate Luther: A Black History Month Confession

I spent my entire young life hating the music of Luther Vandross. It bothered me that he smiled when he sang. Even when I heard his songs on the radio, I could clearly hear that he was happy. I always liked pain. Real pain pouring out of the mouth of another black man always comforted me. The sorrow of losing your lady (Otis Redding). The sting of living a second class citizenship (Sam Cooke). The trauma that comes from having to suppress your natural impulses, being addicted to drugs, and growing up in the slums (Marvin Gaye). Those were the men who I listened to at night while I tried to talk sexy to my girlfriend, hoping my mother wouldn’t get on the line and tell me to get off the phone. But never Luther.

Luther sang about heartache in a way that sounded downright bearable. I was too ignorant to appreciate the inherent happiness in his rendering of Soul music. His voice was always there but I never gravitated toward it, until I found myself in a state of confusion and depression. I had been intensely at odds with the mother of my child which therefore put me at odds with my child. I was in an empty kitchen with pictures of my kid on the refrigerator. I was in total despair as my Spotify playlist played in the background; “Don’t you remember, you told me you loved me baby.”  Luther sang a song full of sorrow but he was not downtrodden. He recalled the pain without living in it and somehow, the song which I thought was immensely corny in my younger wilder days, was getting me through my difficult time. And then I started back listening to his catalog. 

“Aunties” used to obsess over Luther. Big women that carried very big purses and had no less than three children were guaranteed to have at least one Luther Vandross tape and they never pronounced the “er” at the end of his name. He was always LUTHA! They adored him. Conversely, I abhorred him but now my first sign of being a mature man in his 30s was my willingness to admit to myself that I had been wrong. 

I had heard “If only for one Night” since I was a child but I hadn’t felt it until I was old enough to have a child of my own. It’s a song about a man trying to seduce a woman that he feels like he can’t actually be in a relationship with, for whatever reason. Maybe she’s married. Maybe he’s married. Maybe she’s devoutly Christian. We do not know. What we do know is that she’s afraid of something, and he’s afraid too. He renders himself completely vulnerable in the song. 

I never hear from you

And my knees are shaking too

But I’m willing, willing to go through

I must be crazy

Standing in this place

But I’m feeling no disgrace   

-Luther Vandross

He’s not begging as much as he’s illustrating the beauty of their potential lovemaking. And he means it. He sounds authentic, as if he isn’t running game at all.  In fact when I listen to other legendary black male singers, sometimes it sounds like they are seeking the approval of men for how they are communicating with women. For example; when Teddy Pendergrast shouts “TURN EM OFF!” in the song “Turn off the lights”, women like it but men can also respect it as well. It’s very dominant and masculine. It represents a certain aggression that men like to bring into romantic relationships. An aggression, I’ve been told several times,  that women don’t always like. But while Teddy is screaming Luther is releasing a single tear as he smiles nose to nose with your lady in a secret location plotting on doing forbidden things that you will never be made aware of. That’s the appeal of his music. Sistas consider him to be safe. There is no barrier between how the Aunties feel and what he says. There is nothing rough about “Lutha’s” voice. There is no depression. There is no angst. He is not overzealous or angry. He is calming. He is happy. He is soulful, and he is love. And I am honored to be at a place in my life when I can finally recognize that.

The Parable of The Fertile

Imagine a woman walking into a Doctor’s Office for the second time in three months. The first time she went into his office she received a dosage of a shot that prevents pregnancy. Two months later she returns to the same office to tell her doctor that she is pregnant. She is upset and bewildered by her condition. Her doctor is very stoic and matter of fact.

“I don’t understand. I thought that the shot would prevent me from getting pregnant,” the woman says.

“Ma’am you are sadly mistaken. As I told you before, the shot only works if you have sex with sterile men.”

“But doctor, my partner isn’t sterile. I thought this shot would stop me from getting pregnant–period.” 

“No. I never said that it would do that. Studies have proven that the shot is 95% effective when given to women with sterile partners and I assure you that there is nothing wrong with the science. The truth is that Fertile men tend to overpower the female reproductive organs and make the shot ineffective.”

The woman sits across from her doctor baffled and frustrated. He goes on to tell her that she should not be upset with him. She should be upset with THE FERTILE. All abandoned children are the offspring of Fertile men. All killers, and rapists are as well. All the single women led households were abandoned by Fertil men. Responsible men get vasectomies, he told her. He had been sterile for years now because sterility in men is the only thing that will save society. He then encourages her to only cavort with THE STERILE after her child is born. 

The woman receives this information begrudgingly at first, but then she transfers her rage. It’s THE FERTILE  that had gotten her pregnant. Why hadn’t she paid closer attention before letting one of them touch her? She leaves the doctor’s office ready to rid her life of all fertiles and she forgets that she was even mad at the doctor in the first place.

Now considering the woman’s predicament and doctor’s position is there anything wrong with how the situation was resolved? Was she taken advantage of by her doctor and the medical establishment? Is it her fault that she got pregnant or was she misled into believing something that isn’t true? Considering the power dynamic between the two of them once again, what do you think were the odds of the doctor admitting that he made any kind of mistake? And finally, what would you do if you were the woman? Would you continue to trust the medical establishment? Would you fight in a war against THE FERTILE? Or would you take the time to arrive at your own truth?      

The Unvaccinated

I’ve been hearing a lot about “The Unvaccinated” in regard to this new Delta strain of the COVID 19 virus so I decided to make a video. Check it out, like, share, subscribe and comment.

-Roger Porter