By: Gazzmine Wilkins
“Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist.” – Franz List
The most useful skill violin taught me is to recognize music in the ordinary, in the everyday. When I first started playing, I didn’t have the ear that I do now. I didn’t realize the sounds around me were the symphony of my life. I wanted to compose the sounds of my family and of my neighborhood, Hiram Clarke. Especially after I read the supposed horrors of life there, of how, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, it was “written off as ghetto by everyone else.” What in hell would someone from Fort Worth know about what living in Hiram Clarke was like? They’ve never listened to her music. But what happens when that music is unavailable? When no one has ever bothered to compose her? What then? How do I capture a sound I no longer hear? Like the bass vibrato of my dad’s clippers in the early gray morning or the bell tinkle of my brothers’ laughter before their voices dropped? In this case, words will just have to do.
I grew up in the dirty south of Houston, Lil Keke’s “Southside,” Big Mello’s “The Clarke,” “HC” to H niggas who know what’s going on—Hiram Clarke. Famous for Crips and birthplace of the Southside Fade. Known as “the mean streets” by The Dallas Morning News and “run-down” and “drug-infested” by The New York Daily News. CSTV named HC as “one of Houston’s most dangerous neighborhoods.” A place where niggas ain’t ever even heard of a sonata. For them that don’t know it: a movement in sonata form has two counteracting masculine and feminine melodies in competition to expose one another. When I think of an HC sonata, I hear bass subwoofers in candy-painted droptops swanging and banging on South Post Oak Boulevard and the splayed pizzicato of 9mm bullets. I hear the slow timpani of plastic high heels climbing undulating sidewalk. I hear the bass drumbeat of a dribbling basketball in the street, the hard slam of the ball into a red, bottomed-out crate roped to a streetlight. There’s the crunch of a sour pickle dipped into red Kool-Aid powder bought from the Kool Cup Lady. There’s the high-pitched squeal of sirens and the skidding of sneakers on pavement. The breathy beatboxing and yeah, uh, uhs of the beginning of a freestyle. The creak of the screen door opening and closing and the thick plunk of slimy decapitated okra into a bowl. Sounds of the neighborhood continuously breaking apart and coming back together.
I don’t like to write about myself and especially not about my childhood. But the second movement of a symphony is for reflecting, for taking things at a slower pace, and for connection, un legato. I don’t like to write about my real life because that’s what They want. They revel in stories of underprivileged blacks in the hood. They find it inspiring when some of Us make it out, get an education, and find gainful employment making less than They do. But that’s a tired old song that we’ve all heard before. I will not exploit my people, my culture, my experience. I deserve better. We all deserve better. So, I am writing this for Us, because how We navigate this world deserves to be written about truthfully. We deserve to be sung about, to be composed. HC’s second movement begins in a hot Baptist church with a funky electrical organ and the opening notes of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” bass, tenor, soprano voices melting lyrics, a congregation’s sighs like the closed air in a seashell, the quick whip of paper fans, the slide of stockinged feet on carpet around pews and the muffled bang of knees hitting carpet. The pastor’s voice like the scratch of the needle before the start of the song saying, “God is good all the time.” A short reprisal of bullets and sirens. The congregation’s loud reply, “And all the time God is good.” Joy, joy, joy in the morning.
If I just state the facts, my life does resemble a come-up. Daughter of a teenaged mama and a gangbanger daddy who grew up in a crime-infested area on government assistance makes it out the hood to become the first member of her family to get a higher education—some Lifetime movie-type shit. Never mind that my Grandaddy was addicted to crack and abandoned Daddy, that Grandmama threw Daddy out when he was fifteen, that he joined the Crips to survive, that he was always the smartest kid in an underfunded school, that he could dance like MJ but Grandmama made him stop because they was Pentecostal and dancing was the devil, that had the hood had better opportunities—or just the same goddamn opportunities for everyone – then there’s no doubt he would have been the first one in the family to go college. Never mind that this all happened to Mama, too, except she got pregnant instead of initiated. But how we all danced! Despite all of this! Despite the heartache and the disadvantages and the sadness and the drugs and the gangs and the money and the drive-bys and the unemployment and the barred windows, we made room for dancing! The third movement is a minuet, a dance. An HC minuet is the sh-sh-sh slide of socked feet on carpet as Daddy moonwalked, Mama’s bones popping to an offbeat Hammer and Sprinkler, the clumsy clop of Chucks, Air Forces, Elevens against hardwood floors as we learned to dosey-doe in school, Mooky and ChooChoo’s young skin against cardboard as they breakdanced, standing-dancing on Daddy’s toes to Luther Vandross at Aunt Debra’s wedding. Dancing when there was a reason and when there wasn’t.
IV. Allegro con amore
Fourth movements are by far my favorite. My former conductor called it the “everything finale.” It’s fast and grand and the last opportunity to say what needs to be said. It’s the joyful end to a long emotional journey. The everything. My everything is the metallic sound of Daddy scraping the barbecue grate, the hiss of hot coals under seasoned chicken thighs, the slip of the wet skin of his hand wiping the wet skin of his brow, his flat car horn in the driveway when he got home from work that made me and Mooky and ChooChoo run out and wrap ourselves around his legs like sixty-pound ankle weights he dragged to the front door, the hard thwip of his shoelaces as I unlaced his boots after a long day. It’s Daddy singing Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Anniversary” to Mama every year, the whistle of smoke blown from mouths, Selena Quintanilla in my CD player, Mama singing H-Town’s “Emotions” and “Knockin’ da Boots” (before I knew what that meant) while washing dishes, the fast low sound of air broken by the blades of searching helicopters in the night, ”HOU-STON” clap, clap, clap ”ROCK-ETS” clap, clap, clap when the game was on, Mooky and ChooChoo when they were still small and making up their own songs, even the intermittent gunshots that didn’t bother us at all, the squeak of my bow across cheap strings, the crowd rumble from cupped hands as I gave ChooChoo the People’s Elbow, Baby Miles when he cried at night and would only stop when the Wiggles sang “Fruit Salad,” the sound of Mooky breaking open a chicken bone and sucking out the marrow, their snores through the open doors, snores that are only snored in the comfort of home—music I haven’t heard in a long time. I’m trying to capture it, but I feel it slipping through my fingers. What I wish more than anything is that I could hear these sounds the same way I did when I was young, before I knew what it meant to be poor and black, but I’ll never hear them the same.
Gazzmine Wilkins received a BA in English and History from Houston Baptist University and is currently an MFA candidate at Texas State University.