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Place No One Above Ya, Sweet Lady

by Jose Vilson on May 8, 2011

in Jose

Recently, I was watching the movie 2Pac Resurrection, the posthumously narrated biographical film about the rapper Tupac Shakur. In one of the segments, 2Pac discusses his prison stint and the people who sent him letters and visited him during his time behind bars. One of those people, of course, was his mother, Afeni Shakur. Their relationship strained over the years, but his prison sentence forced the two back together. The irony, of course, is that they were once together in jail while Ms. Shakur was pregnant with 2Pac during her time as a Black Panther.

When I first heard the song, I couldn’t fully grasp their situation. I knew as much about 2Pac’s life as MTV would reveal. To the general media, he was a chart-topping, record-selling, reckless, Black thug with way too much money on his hands and too much celebrity. I didn’t know much about Dionne Warwick nor C. Dolores Tucker. I also didn’t know he was literally getting followed by the FBI and every law enforcement official within a 5-mile radius of his entourage.

But if there’s one thing I knew about 2Pac, and it’s the same thing every poor kid knew when they ran the “Dear Mama” tape, it’s that this man knew how to make a song. My friends and I would sit there not saying much while the record played, or the video came on, and tried to hold the emotions in. We’d weep while no one was looking, and tried to act tough in front of each other. Usually. 2Pac’s songs still pull people in because it doesn’t let people off the hook. Either you ride with him or you turn the tape off.

So it was with “Dear Mama.”

For a good portion of my life, the only people that my mom and I had were each other. When my stepfather came into our world, and eventually my younger brother, I still remember how much she struggled just to keep a hot plate on our table. She took odd jobs around town, including the factory job that eventually left her incapable of maintaining a full-time job. When that didn’t work out anymore, she took on parenting heroically, piecing together monies she saved up with income from my stepfather and other sources. We rarely if ever missed meals, and our clothes stayed clean. Out of circumstance, I only saw my father once a year on average, but my mother wouldn’t let me feel any sort of way about that.

The more I found out about my mom and the struggles she went through just to ensure I became the man I am today, the more I knew I had to become that, at whatever cost. I blamed myself often for my own shortcomings, and became frustrated with her. That’s what most sons in that situation, my friends included, felt in my predicament. We didn’t have our fathers there, and we kept trying to run away from our fathers’ images until we became lots like them. It’s our ultimate shortcoming, and often, the only way to reverse the anguish of not living up to a certain image is to reflect without the external influences, without the confusion, without the noise.

That’s what Tupac did for a lot of us, so we didn’t have to.

Last year, this song was added to the National Recording Registry. Wikipedia states that “The Library of Congress has called ‘Dear Mama’ ‘a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.’” For those of us who felt like Pac did, we couldn’t agree more.

Jose, whose plan was to show you that I understand …

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Breathe Life

by Jose Vilson on August 24, 2008

in Jose

I took a good look at a little girl, cocoa-brown-skinned, with pony tails on her left and right side of her head. Her face had rather round features. Average-sized little girl. Her pupils were round and black, innocent and longing for her mother and father. She wore a pink dress, a sparkling wristband, and a plastic wrist-watch on her other wrist, a watch that hasn’t and won’t ever be set to real time. She hugged her mother’s leg with her soft hands and arms, tired from playing with her friends all around the room, closing her eyes tightly indicating to her mom that she’s ready to rest. Life is easy then. Yet, my eyes swelled and became flush with sorrow and pride.

She reminded me of my own mom.

The woman who birthed two sons, with the same round face and eyes, soft hands, but more fully grown and mature, tired too from the hard work she’s endured to keep the world’s ills. Her only joy comes from her offspring successes she never could. She was once that little girl, in Dominican Republic, with a stronghold of women who she called “mom” when her mom wasn’t around. She became less of that little girl in Miami, and started to blossom as a young woman, working hard for her father, who at once trusted her with his entire life but on the same end, treated her like the other women he was around.

She was girl no more in between time in Miami and New York when she moved with her mom in New York with her future in her womb and not a cent to her name. While her maternal side of the family took liberties to tolerate her and disown her, she decided to try and make it on her own. She promised her only son at the time, her only companion for four years of this struggle that there wasn’t a job she wouldn’t take, a fire she wouldn’t endure, or a man who would prevent her from getting me to excel.

Decades later, she’s aged gracefully, even if her feet haven’t always let her walk as fast as she used to. She’s seen many highs and lows, a few presidents, 2 apartments, the birth of another son, and a light at the end of a 26 year old journey, raising this author into her strongest supporter. She’s a worry wart, a nervous wreck, a bit of a nagger, with a voice that’s at one moment shrill with excitement and another calming like the matriarch. Every woman makes mistakes, but no one will ever say she wronged another human being. She’s overly generous at times.

And while some Black men think dating their fellow Black women is akin to charity (ugh), my mom (a Black Dominican woman) responded with a solemn vow that, if a Black man wouldn’t treat her right, she’d raise two men who would treat their women right. She’s seen 1/2 a century go by, from a little brown girl with glowing eyes to a woman who smiles at the simple things, glad that she’s done her part to grow boys to men. Even with our disputes, I can’t help but be thankful for the woman she had to be to make me and my brother the men we are.

At some point in her pregnancy, she was given a choice. While I couldn’t choose her, I’m honored that she chose me. Happy birthday, Mom.

jose, who doesn’t like to preach death in his songs, but breathe life …

p.s. – Interesting that her first name is Spanish for “miracle …”

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