MY THOUGHTS AFTER having seen “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” the beautiful and moving film about (mostly black) back-up singers:
I don’t believe in an after-life and I don’t believe in reincarnation. However, if I am completely wrong and I do have to come back to this earth after I hang up the ol’ tennis shoes, can I please, please, please put in a request? I would like to come back as a black person.
If you can’t give me that, let me be born a Mexican again, and if not that, at least make me poor white trash.
Here’s my reasoning: I believe that, on average, black people live life more fully and more intensely than the rest of us. I am convinced that a black person’s lifetime is packed with several times more living than the average non-black person’s – not because blacks know how to live a fuller, richer life, but because they really have no choice, at least in the Western world.
Almost every black child entering this earth brings with him a suitcase stuffed with hardships and obstacles and demands that he will carry with him the rest of his life and that will have to strive mightily to overcome every day until the day he dies. And most of those obstacles will be there simply because of the way that baby looks – because of the color of his skin.
I know I’m risking accusations of racism here, but I truly, honestly believe that white people, as a whole, are not born with such life-altering heavy luggage. Latinos – at least the dark-skinned ones – are somewhere in between. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and I know that geography and other factors also play important roles. I know, for instance, that Will Smith’s kid will sail through life never having to worry that his skin color will make his life difficult. And I know that a poor white kid born in Appalachia will have a very difficult life. But I don’t think that we can deny that the average person of color has a much more challenging existence than do other Americans. If nothing else, the death of Trayvon Martin told us that.
My mother was not a racist (she married a man who was darker than many black people). Yet, many times, when she would see black people (there weren’t that many in my hometown) she would sigh and say, “Pobrecitos. I wonder why God created them!”
She wasn’t bemoaning the existence of black people in our midst. What my mother was doing, rather, was wondering why God made black people black – dark-skinned – knowing full well how much suffering that dark skin would inflict on them. My mother was born in Mexico but spent most of her life in South Texas and the agricultural states in the Midwest, where we would go work every summer. She didn’t have to read about racism or hear about it in the news to know how mean and cruel it was.
While she was light-skinned, most of her children – like me – had darker skin, as did most of the people in her immediate world. She knew first-hand of the prejudice against her people and the misery and suffering that meant. She was well aware that even among Mexicans, a light-skinned person had it better than a dark-skinned one. When we were up north working in the sugar beet or cucumber fields under the summer sun, she made certain that we all covered ourselves so that we would be protected from the sun’s effect. I’m sure she was concerned about our health, but she was probably more concerned about our skin’s turning darker and what that would mean for us.
If being Mexican can make life so hard, how much more difficult must it be when your skin is much darker, she no doubt wondered.
So you see, her suspiro was not anti-black at all. Rather, it was a muted wailing against the unfairness inflicted on these people by a God who is supposed to be all-loving. What she was saying was: knowing how difficult it is to be dark-skinned in this world, why would this omniscient God give them dark skin? She would have wondered the same thing about a person born with no legs, or no arms. Why would God do that?
SO, WHAT DOES all this have to do with the movie? Well, let’s call it the eye factor. I am convinced that a person’s eyes can tell us a lot about the kind of life he or she has lived, and every one of those back-up singers featured in the film had eyes that proclaimed loudly, “Mine has been a rough life; mine has been a life that has seen sorrow and pain and misery.”
They sang beautifully and beamed with radiant smiles and their voices were joyful, most of the time. But there was also undeniable pain in their voices, and that pain is reflected in their soulful eyes, the kind of eyes you see only on the faces of people who have lived a challenging life.
I believe that most black people live such lives and I believe that all that suffering and all those challenges and all that overcoming enriches their lives, but also forces them to pack decades of living into one year. Kind of like dog years: a 60-year-old black person has probably lived 120 years in white man’s years.
But it’s more than just their own experiences that affect how they approach life and its challenges. I buy the idea that our souls are molded by the collective lives and experiences – the good, the bad and the horrible – of all those who have come before us. It is those earlier lives of generation after generation of people who have suffered and struggled mightily that can be seen in the eyes of those singers and can be heard in their voices.