Day 24: Lady Sings the Blues
I was twelve years old when I first discovered the blues of Billie Holiday. To tell the truth, I can't remember if I chose to do my Black History Month report on her because I liked her name or if my always-vivacious teacher, Mrs. Barbaro, assigned her to me. All I know is, this was my first encounter with Lady Day
but it wouldn't be the last.
Anyone who was in my seventh grade Social Studies class back in 1998 can probably still recall the way I shimmied into the classroom with a black and silver sequence-filled, floor-length gown, tennis balls in my bosom to help fill out the over sized gown, three white carnations that laid perfectly above my ear, and the shiniest finger waves that my grandmother took her time to do for me, the night before my presentation was due. I looked just like the cover picture of this post!
It was a performance my teacher still can't forget. I sang, "'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do" as a I swayed and rag-time danced all around the classroom, swirling a long, red feathery scarf, which I draped around my shoulders and neck.
When I finally got to the front of my classroom, I cut the music and turned on "Strange Fruit". I played it in the background as I taught my classmates about the gruesome meaning behind the song. Teaching my classmates about how my ancestors were lynched in the south just for the color of their skin and how Billie Holiday used her voice to be an activist for her people, is a moment in my childhood that I will never forget.
Little did I know, over twelve years later, Billie Holiday's tragic life story would help me to understand my own mother's life.
I remember like yesterday... I woke up on a rainy Saturday morning last year, journaled about the highs and lows of my week, and poured a big bowl of Frosted Flakes with bananas on top for breakfast. I decided to watch, "Lady Sings the Blues", a movie about the life of Billie Holiday, portrayed by Diana Ross.
Before watching the movie, I already knew that Holiday died from a drug overdose but I had no idea that Holiday's early life experiences mirrored those of my mother. As I watched Holiday become devastatingly dependent on drugs, it was evident that the traumatic things she was exposed to and endured as a child were what caused her to be lost, forlorn, and depressed as an adult. My heart wept for Billie and I profusely cried for my mother. It was in that moment, while watching that movie, that I realized my mother's childhood was what played such a crucial role in her demise. My entire perspective of her suddenly shifted from complete anger to genuine empathy.
Much like my mother, Holiday was a fierce glamour girl, who had her own style and her own mind. They were both very opinionated and had ambitious dreams. Holiday had all of the money and fame in the world, but like mother, nothing could fill the emptiness that was caused by her vexatious childhood... Although I know it wasn't all bad for my mom growing up, unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good.
When I was twelve, doing that project on Billie Holiday, I never would've guessed that her life would one day foster so much growth for my own. She truly helped me to realize that my mother needed my love, just as much as I needed hers. So I will not forsake her, instead, I will be the one to fill her emptiness... and in doing so, this will ensure that I am able to avoid creating a hollow place in my heart as well.
I am determined not to let the woes of my childhood get the best of me as an adult, in the same way that they got the very best of Billie Holiday and my mom. I found peace in turning my burdens into beauty.. and I will hold on to this coping mechanism for the rest of my days.
So tonight, as I pay tribute to America's fallen song bird, Billie Holiday, I will send a big thank you up to heaven to her.
Thank you for your life,
and your truths.