Hand Me My Griot Clothes: The Autobiography of Junior Baby.
Chanting his signature refrain, "Hand me my griot clothes," Peter J. Harris's character/speaker/poet Junior Baby insists, through the ten poem-chapters of his autobiography, that his life and art must be "full of general style humane wit occasional blues / & insistent toleration for most other folks / not to mention bold face memories / worth retelling." Blending Guinean writer Camara Laye's definition of griot with the approach of the African American vernacular aesthetic practiced by Langston Hughes and Al Young, among many, Peter J. Harris has written a set of poems about postmodern, urban African American men.
Each poem is presented as Junior Baby's taped, "singsong" dictation, his response to the call of particular, but typical, events in 1980s and 1990s African American "hoods." Seeing TV coverage of two Black garbage men who returned the $4,000 in cash they found to the owner or young black men walking down the street, hearing a woman crying in the next-door hotel room or hip hop sampling on his nephew's car radio, overhearing two young black men in the metro talking about using an Uzi to rob Sears, or talking with a group of women in an elevator - to name but a few events - moves Junior Baby to start his tape recorder and record another poem-chapter of his vernacular wit, occasional blues, historical remembrances, and calls to live by the ethical values of a beautiful and powerful black manhood and humanhood.
Harris's Junior Baby raises his voice in celebration of the African American community's love, human connection, and creativity of body and spirit - what Junior Baby calls the "Romance between us" - and in sorrowful criticism of the violence, pain, and disintegration in urban Black America. Using his "open and loving set of eyes," Junior Baby records as many "ties that bind" the community together as instances of fracturing oppression, prejudice, and "either/or" thinking. His purpose in responding is to wear his "griot clothes," to use his verbal arts to teach, to heal, and to create beautiful African American art. Harris's purpose seems to be the same.
Junior Baby's contemporary vernacular creates witty and humorous pictures, such as a "hefty bag[-]sized brother" on the subway wearing "red / green polka dots" on his blue socks to match the "green / tan / purple & red ones / blinking across the face of his black shirt" and humane thoughts about style, the "chewing words of violence" practiced by some young men, the fathers' wisdom addressed to sons in the form of the aphoristic folk saying "You can't have your cake and eat it too," and the homeless brother on the street corner who refuses to eat pork. Harris's Junior Baby poems succeed in painting a vivid portrait of a contemporary African American urban community. What Harris accentuates in this portrait is Junior Baby's positive, energetic, African American, male 1980s and 1990s perspective. Harris's Junior Baby is what bell hooks might call "a site of resistance," an antidote to the despair and nihilism that both she and Cornel West identify as one of the gravest threats to the health and survival of the African American community today, and particularly to the urban Black male community. While Junior Baby emphasizes the history of oppression, discrimination, and prejudice African Americans share - for example, in his serious punning play on the connections between middle passage and middle men - Junior Baby also celebrates the possibilities for black men to be "Breathtaking" griot fathers whose words come from the perspective of a mature black man's moral reasoning, experiences, and desire to demonstrate and teach right(eous) behavior.
In every turn of phrase on the page, Junior Baby is squarely in the tradition of the "Daddys," "the men of Parklands in the Southeast" - the tradition of African American fathers to whom Peter J. Harris dedicates the book. As such an African American man, Junior Baby focuses his world and words on women, the care of children, family, parents, love, African American culture, and concern about how to teach and serve his biological sons and daughters and his community's sons and daughters. The poems often become chants, series of modulated repetitions designed to envelop black sons in words and transform them, move them into their "beautiful Breathtaking Nigger manhood."
One of Junior Baby's other constant - or, as he says, "insistent" - messages is "toleration." Since Harris and Junior Baby believe division in the African American community, internal prejudice, to be just as dangerous as external oppression, Junior Baby sings of embracing homosexual brothers, sisters who straighten their hair, sisters who braid theirs, and multi-cultured men like himself who express themselves in the styles of their multiple heritages (Junior Baby describes putting his silk suit next to his dashiki and his blue suede wingtips next to his Ashanti sandals and loving hip hop, James Brown, Chaka Khan, and Rufus). Through Junior Baby, Harris emphasizes the need to see and accept the many-faceted beauties, the multiplicity of what is African American and what is male.
This "insistent toleration" does not mean that the poems are not written from a particular moral perspective; they are. Junior Baby attacks all the forms of oppression visited on the African American community and all the forms of behavior within the community that degrade community members. He advocates humane and stylish forms of right behavior. Harris seems to intend that his readers agree with Junior Baby as we enjoy his wit in criticizing adults looking at kids like "they was flickering off TV mug shots" or grown men who "disforget the righteous tip / of a polite nod or sweet timestopping opening line" and act like they "own" women who walk down the street.
While Junior Baby does preach, wittily, and Harris seems to agree, the character and the poems do more than that. Junior Baby is created with enough narrative detail to become believable, and the style of the words and lines structured on the basis of the forms of African American speech, dance, and music and within a dense framework of casual, vernacular allusions to African American history and culture adds to the sensation of being within the community listening to a community member talking. Readers can hear Junior Baby's poems sing the blues of lost opportunities, lost love, middle passage, South Africa, and today's black men, and can almost enter into the transformative mode a griot's healing, connecting celebration of remembrances and possibilities creates. The poem "The Romance Between Us" exemplifies Harris's techniques of repeated refrain ("hand me my griot clothes"), repetition, punning, rhythmic insistence recalling contemporary African American musical and oral arts, vernacular lexicon and structures, embedded allusions, and believable narrative:
hand me my griot clothes
I'm changing everybody I meet from now on I'm changing everybody I meet from now on
I don't want to own nobody (I don't want the responsibility) but I will chance the romance between us
I will chant the romance between us
repeating myself repeating myself
till I break up the congestion locking vinegar in our blood till I got respect hiphopping in out between & beside up & down
the sidewalks winding through the neighborhoods stretching past the horizons of all our hungry lives
Junior Baby hear the car horn
he turn off the tape recorder press the rewind button walk out on the porch wave to his nephew lock the door behind him
glance up & down the sidewalk
the kids gone about their business left the concrete menthol & romantic Junior Baby walk down the stairs
got a lot of rounds to make on a bright young Saturday
The message of respect and connection, the call to love is embodied effectively in the form. Harris's combination of narrative incident and characterization with the vernacular-based lexicon, puns, words reverberating with meanings in African American history and culture, and line structures determined by the rhythmical sound values of African American music and speech works well. Many of Harris's lines resonate with the multiple, layered meanings created by a poet who has transformed the clever metaphors, aphoristic turns and snaps, witty exaggerations, and puns into mascon words, phrases, and images (like owning someone, as opposed to owning up and respecting someone) described by Stephen Henderson as characteristic of Black poetry.
The weaknesses of this collection are part of the strengths: the difficulty of transforming communal oral arts into page poetry and making the needed wisdom or messages and meanings clear, insistent, and artful. The use of the vernacular as the basis of the poetry requires that the reader know or learn the meanings of all the words and allusions, like hip-hop, sampling, bogard, and talking about your mama, to name a few. When oral arts are created in the call-and-response mode in a particular community, the community shares the knowledge of the denotations and connotations of the words and can modify and clarify the meanings on the spot. When the words move out of the immediate, shared context onto the page, the readers and the poet do not always share the meaning of terms, particularly the shaded nuances of the meaning upon which the power of Junior Baby's verbal magic depends. Vernacular terms and signifying allusions also date rapidly, pass out of style and usage quickly, or become, with the passage of time, just inappropriate interpretations. What is known as talking about your mama or playing the dozens in one time and place is "snappin" or "dissin" in another day and place. Harris's use of Winnie and Nelson Mandela walking hand-in-hand, signifying continuing fidelity and love under oppressive conditions, is just one example of how such contemporary vernacular allusions can date.
Secondly, words meant to testify, preach, and become communal wisdom in the griot way can easily become abstract, cliched, general statements on the page. Some of Junior Baby's poems are arbitrary statements and flat pronouncements that lack the subtle indirection and multiple connotations of art. The poem "Life Ain't NO Product" offers one example of these occasional lapses into direct, flat statements - all the more jarring because most of the poems work so well.
Junior Baby, and possibly his creator, anticipates and answers such criticism when he says, "I swear I don't mean to ride my high horse / but when you hear your young brother / courting an early grave / cause he like the clickclack / a bullet make shifting into the barrel of a gun / rally ain't no more time for subtlety." The message of the poems and their mature orality are urgently needed, but for me the power of that message comes from being drawn into the experience and perspective of Junior Baby by Harris's subtle version of vernacular style and narrative characterization. When the wit, play, and subtle indirection of narrative and poetry are lost, the memorability of an urgently needed message can also be lost.
Harris's collection Hand Me My Griot Clothes: The Autobiography of Junior Baby brings an important postmodern, '80s and '90s black-male perspective to the ongoing conversation in the African American community about manhood, ethics, ways to resist racism and oppression, ways to live with pain and grief, and ways to celebrate living in African American styles. Whether Harris has achieved his desire to make the poems "timeless and hip on all sides of the ocean" and join the company of poets like Langston Hughes depends on whether the witty, engaging, vernacular-based style of poems with fully realized narrative characterization like "That Day Was a New Year" are strong enough to carry the reader over the flatter sections. Whatever the ultimate critical judgment on the timelessness of the art, the wisdom of Junior Baby is certainly worth reading. In these divisive times, we would all benefit from following Junior Baby's ethical advice on how to live:
keep your solos clean & shining don't nobody need all that signifying treat the man like a human being he liable to treat you like one right back at you . . . I'm treating human beings like human beings
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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