Thursday, July 22, 2004

Regina Rodriguez

Regina Rodriguez is the sister I always wished I'd had.

That doesn't mean I don't love my own sisters, Katherine and Regina Rene. They're both intelligent, beautiful, and hard-working, like good working-class sisters ought to be. The only thing is that both of them are very typical working-class Black women with bourgeois aspirations in that they both are very preoccupied with money, status, security, and conventionality. They and the rest of my family love me, but both of them and most of my family too, are a mystified by the fact that I have college degrees but that I never used them to get a good, cut throat corporate job: I have no Mercedes, I don't live in the suburbs of Detroit and have no plans to ever do so (Regina has been in a suburban apartment for a few years now). I don't spend much money on clothes, and I don't own a pastel tuxedo for weddings (I don't even go to weddings and if I did go to weddings, the last one I would want to go to would be a working-class Afrikan-American wedding. Before you assume that statement is self-hating just think about the fact that I mentioned 'pastel tuxedos' just a moment ago. Yeah. Get my point?).

I work as a low-paid journalist ( a step down from the professor posts I held at several universities and walked away from recently--not that 'professor' wasn't already questionable in my sisters' minds, but at least I made more money). I spend all my time reading books, going to museums and films, and sitting in my apartment writing.

My sisters' attitude toward me is vaguely disapproving. I can tell what they and others in my family are thinking: is this why we struggled to make a way in America, guarding our Mandinka/Malian/Choctaw Indian heritage? So that Ray can be a bum? Is this why we rose from slavery, survived the Ku Klux Klan, suffered through Jim Crow? Is this why our family, the Wallers and the Dukeses, left Alabama and migrated to the North to sweat in the factories, steel mills, and streets of Detroit? So Ray can sit around reading books?

Regina probably doesn't remember, but I asked her this question one day thirteen years ago or something like that, standing with her in the kitchen of "Stuart Little", the group house where she lived with various other neo-hippies, vegetarians, pacifists, and humanists, at the edge of Cornell University's campus. She lived  there for years, back when we were graduate students at Cornell. At one point before I left Cornell I lived in my own collectivist, socialist group house--"The Watermargin" down on West Campus at the foot of Libe slope. When I asked Regina the question, a question I knew she could relate to because she too, had grown up on the shoulders of her own Mayan-Aztec ancestors, and ethnic grandparents and parents who fought civil rights battles, overcame racism, and struggled to send her to school and support her in her journey off to an Ivy League paradise.

"Did our ancestors suffer, sacrifice and struggle just so we could come here and read books, Regina?" I asked her.

She stopped chopping vegetables,  turned to me, and stared at me with that blank, dark-eyed gaze of her's, and after a long moment, said, "Damn, Ray. I don't know." Then she turned back to chopping vegetables for the dinner she was cooking that night for the house. 

That was the lesson Regina, my sister, was always teaching me: that the answer to the question of life is life itself, is to live. Breathe (as Marcel Duchamp would say), listen to music, and dance. Philosophy is only as good as what it can do for you. Like Emma Goldman, Regina was always the kind of woman who wouldn't want to participate in any revolution that wouldn't allow her to dance. There were times I would be standing in line with dozens of other graduate students outside of a lecture hall waiting to see some luminary like Jacques Derrida, Ali Mazrui, or Tama Janowitz. Off down the line I would hear funk music. I would look in the direction of the jams and see Regina, in her red dress, her boom box sitting on the ground, blasting funk music, and Regina would be dancing. Students, faculty, and the errant, peripatetic intellectual dead-heads that used to shuttle back and forth between Ivy League campuses following the luminaries, would all be staring stupidly at her, not joining in, but not able to look away from her either. She was so alive, so lacking a shit to give about them all that they just had to look. 

She sat through those seminars, classes and lectures just like me, taught by people like Henry Louis "Skip" Gates (he was my doctoral chair, and I think he might have been Regina's too, for a while), Biodun Jeyifo, Jonathan Culler (for such a brilliant, famous man, he was also a kind man, and a Harrison Ford look-alike), Satya Mohanty (give some people a colonized British accent and they think they ain't colored no more), and Wole Soyinka (Soyinka, a humble and gentle man, that Nobel prize winning rascal; he was somewhat like Regina--he'd wander the campus in that blue jean jacket of his, in worn pants and shoes, demanding of every face in the crowd he thought he recognized from his graduate seminar classes, in that Downing Street and Savile Row British accent of his, 'You there! See here, where's Skip Gates' office??' He was definitely an unassuming man, British accent notwithstanding). She sat through all those classes, studied with a bunch of those famous people, so she was not anti-intellectual, or any less smart than the rest of us. She just had no patience for bullshit, and she was very, very preoccupied not with becoming a professor and getting tenure and a corner office, but with being alive.

She and I shared secrets, hung out, laughed, and backed each other up. We did a few things that nobody knows about but us, and could have ended up in jail if anyone had found out. Despite she and I both being in relationships with other people, I thought for a while that I was in love with Regina. But the closer I got to her, and the more I loved her, the more I realized that she was simply the sister I'd always wanted. She was my buddy, my confessor, my partner, my homegirl. She too, had been consecrated in the fire of President Johnson's "Great Society," and she too, had felt the heat of revolutionary culture around the edges of her childhood in California. With me, it had been my childhood in Michigan. With her, it was La Raza she grew up under the protection of. With me, it had been Black Power.

She was all about courage; about being herself, speaking in her own voice, wearing her own face, no matter what. I took that courage with me when I finally left Cornell, took it everywhere I went. Though Regina and I were not in touch for a decade, she was always with me, I took her with me in my heart. She went with me to Paris and the fifth arrondissement, to Durban and the Transkei bridge, and to Toronto up and down Dundas Street, and to Brixton where I ran into some cats who'd been in Cornell's Africana Studies program and who asked me, "Whatever happened to that little woman with the big heart, that friend of yours, Regina?"

One day I sat on Libe Slope with her under that beautiful blue, high above sea-level sky which disappeared off into the distance over West Campus and seemed to drop downward onto Ithaca Route 13, way down below at the bottom the hill. Off further were the mountains, gleaming in the sunlight. She was crying, because of some stupid, cruel, racist thing that had been said to her by some petrified, dried-up, classist hag on the faculty who felt it her precious duty to put a dark haired, dark eyed brown Chicana down lest that Chicana, and all the other pickaninnies on campus began thinking we were as important or that our cultures were as important as Chaucer or whatever. Regina seemed to bring out cruelty in some people, because she was so unwilling to stop being alive. Because so many of them had become zombies and wanted to use young people to replicate their academic, zombie culture. After I'd become a professor myself  I was even more  appalled to see this process on university campuses than I'd been to see it as a graduate student.

I held Regina in my arms as she cried, and felt all that life, passion, and vulnerability. One thing I'd come to understand about and learn from Regina was that vulnerability is always the price we pay for courage, and not just the courage of rushing into a burning house to rescue babies, but the far more difficult courage of walking around speaking in your own voice, unashamed. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, somebody will always come along trying their best to break your back just because they think they see an opportunity to do so. She had been a model for courage to me for all the years we were together on that campus. So I held her, and lied to her that everything would be okay, and in that moment I had the sister I had always wanted. The sister I could look up to, and depend on, and stand by, who'd always stand by me.

I'll always remember the times I would drop Regina off at Stuart Little on the way home to my apartment. Just before I would turn to head off down the steep 45 degree angle hill that led down off the hill downtown to Ithaca and my place on West Buffalo Street, she would call out to me, "stay black", and I would call back, "stay brown", and then I'd head off down the hill.

Happy Birthday, Regina, and stay brown.