From Death Springs Life: “The Best Man Holiday” and African American Death Ideology

best man holiday-mia

Photo Courtesy of Vibe Vixen

For a movie titled “Best Man Holiday,” I was immediately struck with a somber mood from watching just the first few minutes of the film.  It opened with main character Mia (played by Monica Calhoun) sitting in her bedroom quietly writing at her desk.  One of her daughters runs in to turn on the television.  Mia looks up to see her football-star husband, Lance (played by Morris Chestnut) give a post-game interview about his prospects at breaking an NFL record as well as his team’s chances in the playoffs.  But in Mia’s eyes was a tiredness that alerted me to something more.  From her eyes to her physique, it was clear that she was the source of the somber.  But why?  Why had one of the main characters been introduced in the sequel carrying such a heavy burden?  Why had a movie about Christmas – a time of joy and laughter, family and togetherness – been overlaid with a melancholy tone?

“It’s not life or death” Lance says when asked by ESPN sports analyst Pam Oliver if he feels any pressure to perform at an even higher level in order to make the playoffs.  The camera immediately cuts to Mia who has now moved to the bed to watch her husband.  As he says the words, she smiles a bit.  At first, I thought nothing of this very common display of affection.  She was simply admiring the humility of her husband’s words which clearly stated that football was his job and did not rank higher on the rung than his wife and children.  But as I watched on, I soon found out that it was foreshadowing and football, in fact, would become symbolic of life and death.  Even though she was admiring Lance, her small smile was more a quiet laugh at Lance’s words because by the end of the movie Lance would play in a football game where he was supposed to break the record, signifying a simultaneous fight for Mia’s life while ultimately accepting the passing of it – her death.

Toward the end of the movie, Lance and his team had advanced to the Division Finals but were losing miserably in the first half of the game.  By the third quarter they were nearly three touchdowns behind and Lance’s window for breaking the record was closing fast.  Watching the game from home, it was at that moment that Mia asked her best friend Jordan (played by Nia Long) to phone Lance.  Unbeknownst to Jordan or anyone else in the room (not even us viewers), Mia said something to Lance that completely turned his performance around.  He began breaking tackles, catching passes, running faster, and playing harder.  He won the game and broke the NFL all-time rushing record.  While Jordan and everyone in the room were cheering, Mia sank back into her pillow, eyes closed and was at peace.

Shortly thereafter, Mia died.  This led me to believe that she phoned Lance with her dying wishes, which, bottom line, I believe were for him to win the game and break the record because when he heard his wife’s voice and she started to speak, the look on his face that was filled with anger and frustration at his poor performance immediately turned to focus and seriousness.  He threw the phone back to his estranged friend Harper (played by Taye Diggs) who was standing on the sidelines and demanded that his coach put him back in the game.  Lance was determined to fulfill his wife’s dying wishes.  With seconds left on the clock and only four yards to go for a touchdown and the win, Lance was handed the ball.  He ran into three defenders.  The normal player would have been defeated, unable to cross the goal line for the touchdown.  But he was not just struggling to fulfill Mia’s dying wishes, he was playing for his wife.  He was symbolically fighting for her life!  His struggle with the three defenders represented the fight he was having with himself about accepting his wife’s death.  The defenders pushing him back was symbolic of him holding himself back in denial of Mia’s inevitable passing.  He had to struggle and force himself to accept that his wife was dying.  He would not be able to get pass those defenders until he accepted that nor would she be able to die in peace and be set free until he accepted this fact.  And Lance knew this.  Therefore, with his strength and hers, he pushed past all three defenders and miraculously scored the most important touchdown of his life.  Kneeling down on one knee and looking toward the heaven, he was free and so was Mia.  With a police escort, he sped home to embrace Mia once more.  She held on just long enough to see that her husband had accepted the inevitable.  Just then, the camera showed a framed picture of Lance and Mia in a happier time which faded to a religious sculpture that signified not just her passing and eternal rest but her eternal peace and happiness within a heavenly life thereafter.

Mia dies!  I honestly could not believe that writer and director, Malcolm Lee, would steer his sequel in this direction.  Throughout the first half of the movie Mia’s somber tone seemed to serve as a point of contention with the holiday mood.  In some sense, it seemed that Mia’s sadness was in a tug-o-war match with the ever-present holiday cheer.  It was Christmas and she and Lance had invited their family and friends to stay at their home for the holiday.  Yet, with every scene she was struggling to mask a sadness, a burden displayed within moments of her first screen appearance.  This burden was the fact that she had been diagnosed with cancer and her and Lance decided to tell no one but their parents.  This secret was weighing her down but once she gathered all close family and friends, she would be unburdened.  Not in the way she might have planned, but eventually all her friends learned of her terminal illness.  In the middle of the night Harper saw her coughing up blood.  During the middle of the day, with all her children around, she fainted while trying to put an ornament on the Christmas tree.  Jordan and her friend Shelby (played by Melissa De Sousa) were there to lift her to her feet.  In each moment of weakness brought on by the illness, she was forced to tell her friend she had cancer until everyone knew.

However, within the context of death ideology, Mia’s somber tone symbolically pointed to so much more.  For starters, with the secret out and her inevitable death hanging on every scene, something incredible happened – life found itself present.  Joining in to sing “O Holy Night” with her and Shelby’s daughter, on the surface was the culmination of Mia hearing angels calling her home.  In African American culture, death is a home going.  No matter how tragic, one was still headed home to continue life.  But this scene was juxtaposed with Harper cradling his pregnant wife’s stomach.  And right at the moment the lyrics “do you hear the angel’s voices” does Harper put his ear to Robyn’s stomach.  This was representative of him hearing the angel that is coming.  And at the same time, Mia reaches her hands upward.  She hears the call as well.  Her call is to go home and on to the next journey of her life.  Mia was preparing to pass into her afterlife; she is preparing for death.  Whereas Harper hears the voice of his unborn child; he is preparing for birth.

Death springing from life was even more present at the very end of the movie.  At the moment that Mia was finally laid to rest, Robyn went into labor.  In this way, life was literally springing from death.  The idea that a child was born when a relative died was a deeply rooted cultural belief in the African American community.  Stemming from ideas of honoring one’s ancestors, children born within a relatively short time frame of relatives dying were said to embody the spirit and physical characteristics of the deceased relatives.  Many times children are named for these ancestors as was Harper and Robyn’s child.

Life springing forth from death is about memory and memory-making resulting in the funeral and cemetery seen as an important part of this process.  Death is an abrupt separation from life and the funeral, as well as the cemetery, becomes a salient place to deal with the death of the loved one.  From the eulogy to a poster-sized picture of the deceased kin present at the funeral, the event is about eventually accepting the recent death by remembering the life.  The life is what is important and the funeral is an acknowledgement of this passing on to another life that we as the friends and family here on Earth, unfortunately, will not get to witness.

But at the funeral in “Best Man Holiday” a peculiar yet wonderful remembrance was occurring – Jordan was wearing white.  In Western cultures, Black is the symbol of death and therefore traditionally worn during mourning rituals, i.e. funerals.  However, Jordan was wearing white and sitting on the same row with Lance and Lance and Mia’s children.  The imagery was powerful!  She represented Mia and symbolically represented the life that was flowing from the death.  In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, she wrote of the African ethnic group called the Olinka and how the women would paint their faces white and wear white garments to signal the passing of a relative.  Walker referenced the important role African women have historically had in funerals.  In this context, Jordan is carrying on this African cultural tradition.  Standing alone in her white, she is leading the mourning period by simultaneously signaling Mia’s death while serving as a pervasive reminder of her life.

Enslavement meant that death took on a more powerful meaning for African Americans.  It was about freedom and in my research I argue instances of autonomy, citizenship, and wealth-building.  Therefore, African Americans did not fear death and conceive death with negative ideas as other cultures.  The cemetery then was a place to remember ones loved ones.  African Americans would gather (and many still do) around the burial plot with food ready for good conversation.  Recalling stories and accounts of the deceased kin keeps them alive and in this way life flows from the cemetery.  In this way, death is life eternal.

 

Fantastic Primary Source for Black Women’s Intellectual History that has Largely Disappeared

Attendees at the Second Amenia Conference. Original at the LOC

Attendees at the Second Amenia Conference. Original at the LOC

My book project (you can read a description here) began a long time ago as an attempt to recover all the information I could on the women who attended the Second Amenia Conference sponsored by J.E. Spingarn, white Jewish president of the NAACP, and W.E.B. Du Bois in 1933.*  Obviously, recovery work is important but not sufficient for publication, however, I still often find myself in the middle of it. It seems like every time I google the names of the women I’m studying, new sources emerge. I’m not sure how I would have done this work before the advent of google books, where I could search within a book for a name that is discussed in a paragraph or two and may not even be in the index. Google books also has many books from the interwar period that have short comments on “my” women.

However, there is one set of sources I am so dying to get my hands on that seems to have utterly disappeared. It is the Journal of the National Association of College Women. WorldCat has four libraries in their system that claims to have it. One, the National Education Museum in DC, says they used to have it but no longer (stab my heart!), another doesn’t seem to have a copy once you go to their individual catalog, another only has it for long after my period, and the final one has a single copy from 1935. I just received that copy in the mail two days ago and thought I would share a bit about its contents with you.

I will post more on the one issue of this journal as I read its contents, but I thought I would share a bit from one of the last pages entitled “Necrology.” I read that page first because that title struck me as odd and interesting. I read it first as “Negrology” and thought it might have something to do with race consciousness, and since the major purpose of my book is to figure out these women’s interpretations of “interracialism,” which is the form of race consciousness that is the fork to Garvey’s spoon in this era (emphasizing cooperation between educated members of different races in order to overcome prejudice on both sides. You can see my first published exploration of the idea of interracialism as a philosophy prominent during the interracial era here). But no, “Necrology” is not a meditation on racial identity, but rather a column for death announcements. The two people given tribute in this issue were Carrie Williams Clifford, who possessed “a heart at leisure from itself,” and Harlem Renaissance author Rudolph Fisher.

I particularly enjoyed the paragraph about Rudolph Fisher because one of the many things I am interested in with this group of women is how they distanced themselves from some of the raunchier sides of the Harlem Renaissance in an effort to maintain the politics of respectability but not entirely. Real people are often so much more complicated than we allow them to be when analyzing their lives. And, of course, the language is just so wonderfully specific to that period and that group of women. I need to think a bit more to be able to describe exactly what I mean by that. Here is the tribute:

For those who had known Rudolph Fisher, handsome of body and permeated with that wit for clever conversation as well as for just and pithy characterization, it was hard to think of him as suffering. It was harder still to feel that we should read no more of his stories such as “The City of Refuge,” “Blades of Steel,” and “The Conjure Man Dies.” The picaresque always entertains, and the Negro proletariat is no mean subject for the story of that genre; but it is the remarkable objectivity displayed in the portrayal of his rascals that makes Dr. Fisher so unusual among Negro authors. –C.L.B.

The author clearly enjoyed Fisher’s stories, and yet with “picaresque” and “rascals” still distances herself from their subject matter. Black women had to be so incredibly careful about their reputation and yet moving to the cities did give them a greater sense of freedom. What they did with it is part of what I explore in my manuscript. (Hint: A trip around the world was the answer for one).

If anyone has any ideas of how to locate more issues from the 1920s and 1930s, please comment below or email me. I am going to call the National Association of University Women, which the NACW became and which still exists, to see if they maintained an archive.

To pique your interest, here is a picture of the table of contents:

Journal of NACW 1935 ToC

Journal of NACW 1935 (number 12) Table of Contents

 

Unfortunately, none of the women I am focusing on—Juliette Derricotte (who had died four years before this issue came out), Marion Cuthbert, Frances Williams, Lillian Alexander, and Wenonah Bond Logan—are featured in this one 1935 issue. I know that they all were early members of the National Association of College Women (a more obscure NACW that was dedicated to improving college education for black women**) and I believe some contributed to the journal in the 1920s. Derricotte was a close friend to Lucy Slowe, Dean of Women at Howard University, and attended a meeting of the Conference of Deans of Women shortly before her tragic death in a car accident in 1931.***

 

*J.E. Spingarn hoped that the new generation of intellectuals could revitalize the NAACP, which by 1933 was falling out of favor with many African Americans because they perceived it as the “National Association for Certain People.” The first Amenia conference, held at his estate in upstate New York in the early years of the NAACP and right after Booker T. Washington’s passing, had cemented the NAACP as the leading civil rights organization and Du Bois as its greatest luminary. However, the Second Amenia Conference was disappointing for many of the attendees, in part because the young men attending were in a power struggle with the older generation. The “young men” (as Spingarn referred to them) were mostly in their 30s and felt like it was time for them to take leadership, but neither Spingarn nor Du Bois was ready to step back from center stage nor confident in the direction they wanted to take black activism. Indeed, it could be argued that Du Bois’s dramatic departure from the NAACP beginning just six months later derailed any impact the conference might have had. A third of the attendees were women, most of whom were quite prominent in the era (it was Spingarn’s goal to bring the “most intelligent black minds of the younger generation” to his estate), but who have been almost entirely unstudied. Juanita Jackson is beginning to receive the attention due her, as is Anna Arnold Hedgeman. Prudence Cumberbatch studies Jackson and her mother, both prominent figures in the Baltimore civil rights struggle. The one woman Eben Miller included in Born Along the Color Line, his book on the Second Amenia Conference, was Jackson.

**(added 11:15pm 7-21-2014 central time) The National Association of College Women grew out of the College Alumnae Club founded at Howard University. It was only for graduates of accredited colleges, which made many members of HBCUs not eligible because those schools had not yet become accredited. Accreditation was a relatively new thing at that point. The main goal of the NACW was to improve the college education of black women and they worked to help many of those HBCUs become accredited. They were also a corollary to the AAUW, which did not accept black women.

***No one in the town of Dalton, Georgia even considered taking her to the brand new hospital because, as one white bystander explained, “We don’t take ‘em there.” Du Bois and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation each led investigations into her death and came to rather different conclusions. The CIC wrote that “everything that could be done for a Negro was done” and thus nothing needed to be protested. Du Bois quoted one of Derricotte’s white friends, who said that that was precisely the point–she would always be haunted with the knowledge that if it had been her in the car, everything that could have been done would have been done.  I should note that I became interested in Derricotte through Cuthbert, who wrote a slim volume of partial fiction and partial primary source collection, on Derricotte’s life. Derricotte herself had died before the 1933 Second Amenia Conference.

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