Abha Clark takes a deep breath, crosses to the lectern and addresses the audience.
“I belong to a tribe. A kinship. An extensive extended family of people in the United States with African ancestry. The people who were called 'African American' and are in search of a name. Let's call them 'Afrodescentes,' for now — a condensation of the Spanish term, 'Afrodescendientes' — until we determine our own terms."
She clicks on an app and an image pops up on the screen behind her.
"Most of these Afrodescentes identify primarily with their African ancestry but quite a few identify as black and something else.
Mixed people who identify more (rather than evenly), with their non-black ancestry and social experience would decline membership in this kinship but are relations. Some people who look black do not strongly feel that way.”
Abha paused, considering whether to cite Tiger Woods as a well-known example of “relations.”
Once she would have readily called Tiger Woods out on this. But now she understood that leaning to the far white was preordained for him by his father because the consequences of assimilation have been as repressive as progressive. But she wasn't sure she could cite Woods without sounding disparaging.
Watching Abha from the audience, Rain Clark knows what’s going on in her niece’s head. They are more alike than Abha and her mother.
The next slide flashes on the screen.
“And, conversely, some of these Afrodescentes who do not look particularly African descended never-the-less feel that way. So kinship is not just based on percentage of African DNA. Some people with less than 51% African ancestry identify as black because they were raised with strong social, cultural and family ties to black people.
“In some old film footage of minstrels emulating white folks, I saw one of the dandies do a turn that looks like a James Brown spin! Go on, godfather of ‘The Godfather of Soul’! I was reminded that Afrodescentes have been archetypically black while continuously morphing which makes them essentially black and essentially divergent at the same time.
Some Afrodescentes capitalize black, others don’t. Does it make a difference?”
Abha pauses for rhetorical effect, her eyes sweeping the crowd, and sees Rain.
Rain is beaming and bracing herself at the same time. Rain’s brother and sister-in-law gave their first born a conflation of the Ghanian name Aba and the Hindu name Abha. It’s been a long way to this lecture hall of masked and unmasked people in February 2022, a way that included Rain’s father buying a book in Harlem in 1944. But that purchase really began in a cremation field in ancient India.
Fires glow against a low sky sun. In the distance a spider-like creature whirls and screams. It’s Kali dancing wildly among pyres of bodies sizzling before being consumed by flames.
Swirling, Kali becomes an idol in the temple of Dakshinewar in 19th century India. Swirling again, she dissolves into a small book. A devotee removes the book from a puja table, slips it into a pouch, leaves his hut and places the pouch in a pack on an ox that’s led away.
The Kali Ma book wends its way through the London Theosophical Society reading room in the 1890s to to the Theosophical Society in New York in the 1900s, to a rich man’s library on the Upper East side in the 1920s to trash heap in the street in 1943 where it’s salvaged by a peddler who sells it to Michaux’s bookstore in Harlem.
In fall 1944, Les Clark, was a 22 year old progenitor of bebop.
One afternoon Les was browsing in Michaux’s, scanning shelves of books by familiar authors, Booker T. Washington ... W.E.B. Dubois … Robert Russa Moten ... Alain Locke … Nella Larsen … Rudolph Fisher … the daring upstart Richard Wright, and saw something new.
On a tiny corner shelf, a small book stands alone, Kali the Mother. He opens it. The frontispiece is a hand-tinted lithograph of Kali. Her snake-like red tongue dangles to her neck as she holds a bloody severed head and brandishes a scimitar with two of her four hands.
Les knew, but not why, he was meant to have this old book.
Later that evening, Les sits at a piano at Minton’s Playhouse plunking keys in a quirky way, feeling his way into a new style.
Like this, he thinks, off the beat, off the main time but dead on in a whole ‘nother way.
A few months later, sitting on the side of the bed, Les shows the Kali Ma book to his wife Rosetta.
“Name my baby after a monster?!,” Ro shrieks in horror.
“No, she’s dancing in the graveyard to show it’s a garden! A garden where death — ego death in samsara — is the seed of our true nature. The name Kali means ‘the black one,’ the universal dark field that births the stars that birth us and this baby.” Les rubs Ro’s swollen belly. She pushes his hand away.,
“You’ve been smoking tea with those musicians.”
“No, really, this can be a healing thing. This dark child comes in with a message.”
“I don’t see that message! I just see a crazy picture!”
“It looks crazy but it’s a parable. Kali Ma was created by wise men a long time ago to shock the hell outta the regular folks! Know that you are really not you, but god! God projecting not as some man in the sky but as all knowing awareness! The bloody heads are the selves who were hypnotized by appearances and become separate from god. And the separation is the duality of samsara: good and evil.”
Les holds the book closer to Ro’s face so she can see the small details in the image.
“Mamma Kali slashed her childrens’ arms and wears them as a skirt to show we’re always reaching out for what we think is outside of us. Her necklace of bloody skulls means we totally believe the outside show. So she chopped them off to warn us, ‘don’t get stuck there!,’ and to remind us that we are that in which everything appears.”
“Nobody’s gonna understand that message unless their head’s messed up like yours. If it’s a girl, let's name her after my grandma Rain. I’ve always loved that name.”
“You would’ve loved Grandma. Her Daddy staked out some land after the war. Virgin land on a tip of Arkansas. Soil was so black that when the first drops of rain hit, it sent up a smell that made folks crazy!" She pointedly adds, "Not reefer crazy!," casting a sideways glance at Les. "Divine crazy. Rain hitting that hot dry rich soil made my greatgrandparents drunk from the strong fragance!" She closes her eyes, recalling from family memory the deliriously musky smell rising from moist earth. "So they named grandma, Rain. That land grew okra the size of squash and watermelons so big kids hid behind ‘em. And Rain grew up to be drunk by nature like she was as a child, a sweet wild spirit. Had a gap in her front teeth and wore her hat brim tilting left.”
“That’s a nice story baby but hear me out.”
Les slides in bed, tilts the lamp shade and a golden flame spreads across the first page of the book. “Here’s a bedtime story.”
He reads, soon lapsing into paraphrasing the story about the battle between good and evil. About how the regular people and the more evolved spirits called “good” (or gods for short) were being massacred by demons.
“The gods raised their strongest forces — not the army — but forces of nature called shakti, like what we call Mother Earth. But shakti’s universal energy. A female force Indians call Mother Kali.
So they summoned shakti in the form of Kali Ma. And boy did she come. Whirling about, slaying the demons every which way. But the demons kept on a-comin’.”
Les licks the tip of his finger and turns another page.
“Kali’s gotta grow baaaaaad as hell to vanquish the demons. And she does, until only one is left, their supreme leader, the Devil.
The Devil sashays up to Kali, all cocky like he’s got it covered. But Mamma clobbers him to a pulp and beheads him for good measure. Billions of lil demons rise from the gushing blood but she reaches out from a dimension where she's one second ahead of them and slays them too.
The mother of all battles is on! Kali wages god almighty terror. Knock-down, drag-out holy war on hell! She’s gotta become deranged to wreak all of the havoc needed to vanquish evil. She greedily laps up the demons' blood gushing out into oceans and flooding the whole world. That’s why Kali's tongue looks like a bloody snake. Yummy yum yum, she draws in her tongue and smacks her lips in delight. How could she not go insane from drinking all that devil poison? How could she not completely crack up from the horror of it all? But it doesn’t kill her. She howls and wails and dances wildly with a nice expression on her face which makes her look even crazier … because she is … and is not.
The people watching the battle from a safe distance become alarmed. Kali’s now comin’ to get them too! Her blind rampage bears down on good folks and sinners alike. “Please!,” they implore Lord Shiva, Kali’s husband. “Save us!”
Shiva bravely entreats Kali but she swats him away like a gnat and goes on rampaging. Desperate and willing to die to save the people, Shiva decides to stop Kali by throwing himself under her feet.
Dimly from her terrible stupor, Kali recognizes Shiva and drops her heads and scimitars. The people are saved.
“And that’s the end of that battle.” Les closes the book. “But there will be more.”
A few months later as Ro is sleeping soundly, Les eases out of bed, picks up the bassinet, carries it to the living room, lights a candle and places the Kali Ma book next to it. Holding the baby over the book and candle, Les whispers, “Kali Ma, please watch over this child and guide her back to the oneness that will be veiled by thinking she’s only Rain. I name her your goddaughter, Kali Rain.”
Seventy-six years later in the auditorium, Rain both smiles and tenses as Abha makes her next point.
“White people are quite happy to capitalize black to right the wrong of black people's oppression. It seems like the anti-racist thing to do. They’re pleased to defer as normative lowercase white. They perceive my people as deficient, as tragically raced, in needing this boost. They’re feeling buff and more than enuff as they capitalize black and keep white low, laid back and lookin’ cool.”
Abha is on to some truth here, Rain thinks, but she's not allowing for white people responding to thinking that most black people want black capped when most black people don't use black as their primary proper names. And Abha’s sarcasm can make the people she's trying to persuade, edgy and push back. A murmur rumbles through the audience of slightly more white than black people.
“But that’s understandable,” Abha says soothingly. “And of course when I say, ‘they,’ I’m generalizing. But what’s not understandable is when they recognize the problematic aspects of capitalizing color-based IDs and don’t want to acknowledge it or don’t know how to. I understand white folks’ reluctance to discuss this problem — it’s sensitive and dicey — but the reluctance is also problematic.”
Abha moves on to another point and Rain exhales. She knows Abha’s heading deep into a discussion about black identity without identifying with who she, herself, really is. They had met for breakfast before the lecture. Abha had sought her advice. But Abha was thinking about what she already was planning to say at the lecture when Rain advised, "... and so white over black, men over women, west over east, rich and strong oppressing poor and weak, it all comes from ignorance trying to prevail as ultimate intelligence. You could note the impact of capitalizing black within this context. Does it help balance the overall oppressive dynamic?"
A new slide comes on the screen.
Strange music comes up. Abha lets it play for a few moments, then slides volume down and speaks over it.
“There are innumerable cultural influences in this kinship! Ever hear of the ancient black-South Asian connection? It continues in this country in various ways!
That’s from ‘Meditations,’ one of Coltrane’s final recordings. Sounds like the universe howling into form from eternal silence! Go with it! He’s taking ‘om’ all the way out!
In the liner notes, Trane explains that ‘Mediations’ is an extension of the ‘A Love Supreme’ album. He says, ‘Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it.’
What he’s sayin’ applies to this talk because unity and duality — self and other — are the bases of all identity.”
Rain nods, remembering “Uncle Trane.” She called him that because Les helped John kick smack and was like a big brother to him.
The room is filled with African and Asian musical instruments, a baby grand piano, an audiophile’s dream stereo component system, records, lots of books and a small altar.
Coming down the hall, Rain looks into the room. She starts to enter but doesn't want to intrude.
Ravi Shankar, Coltrane and Les sit cross-legged on the carpet. Shankar is teaching Trane and Les how to play a sitar that's passed back and forth between them.
Les notices Rain's hesitation and beckons to her. “That’s my daughter, Rain.”
Shankar looks up. “'Rain' like the weather?”
Rain enters. "Un huh, well kinda. I’m named after my great grandmother."
Shankar doesn’t understand the rain-mother association but it resonates because just this morning he was sitting by a sunny hotel window, sipping chai and reading about RabindranathTagore's visit to the Soviet Union in 1930.
“‘You know in our agro-based country the first shower of the rainy season makes people feel ecstatic,” Tagore told a workers group before reciting his poem, Nababarsha (New Rain).
Synchronicity abounds in ways we often don’t recognize.
Les introduces Rain to Shankar. “He’s a master of the sitar.”
Rain bows to the master and sits on the floor. Shankar hands the sitar to Trane who improvises chords on it.
"Since everything is basically rhythms ..." Trane plucks on some strings ... "maybe music can do more — like rhythmically interact with the molecules in cancer cells to destroy them."
Les jumps up. "Or easier, maybe rhythms can stop dogs from barking and wives from bitchin.’ Maybe it can even do more on a mass level. Like covert all the bigots in the state of Mississippi!""This is going from theory to the theatre of the absurd!" Rain is 21 and feeling sufficiently grown to try to score a point at the expense of her dad. Les, unperturbed, sits at the piano. "But hate's definitely got a different vibe than love! What’s thinking? Vibrations! What are feelings? Resonances from those vibrations!" He holds his hand out to Rain for her to slap five. She does. Trane hands the sitar back to Shankar who says, "Sound is holy."
Coltrane slaps the djembe drum. "Right. Like nada."
"Right. Like om," says Les.
"Everything pulsating directly from Brahman as energy," Shankar explains and Rain protests."But Brahmins think they’re better than everyone else!"
Shankar: Brahman — m-a-n — is a different word — doesn’t refer to caste. It's Sanskrit for vast. The vast."
Rain: The vast what?
Shankar: The formless vastness underlying all form.They silently marinate in that openness for a moment. "Just the vast!," Trane says. "That's all. The All. The ground of everything. God!" Les is more comfortable with the power of emptiness explanation. "The emptiness that allows forms to appear, change and disappear! So making sound waves interact with energy waves of matter — if we can figure out how to do that, we'd be making the most out of the vast!"
"I can make 'em interact — weave them together in a dance!" Rain jumps up, shouts "Play!," and begins to do the Philly Dog. rf
Les glares at Rain who sits her butt back down.
Coltrane beats on the djembe. "That’s okay. Let’s just play with the idea so Rain can dance.
"Imagine going deep into this room ...," Shankar's voice trails off to let the others follow. Les and Rain close their eyes to go deeper but Trane lets his eyes zoom out to encompass the whole space. The June evening sun washes the room with the color of saffron robes he saw a monk wearing when Ravi took him to a talk at the New York Vedanta Society."... everything is flowing back and forth — popping in and out of existence," Shankar continues. "Shiva’s blissful dance.
Les plunks out “popping in and out of existence” notes on the piano. Shankar joins in. Rain moves to the music.
Les chants Om namah shivaya ... om ... namah ... shivaaaaaaya … Rain, the mantra means surrender your separate, little ego self to unity.
Rain (dancing ecstatically): Oh yes, I surrender! Om namah shivaya. Whooooooooooo!
Rosetta rushes down the hallway to see why they’re making such a racket. She’s very striking like a model but is dressed a bit too chic for a summer evening at home. She stands in the doorway with arms folded against chest and frowns.
A little later. The session has ended but spirits are still high. Coltrane and Shankar are departing as Shankar notices a small book, Kali The Mother, on Les’ altar. It’s open to the scary frontispiece.
Shankar: Kali Ma in New Jersey!
“She found me and saved me,” Les says, remembering …
... that night in 1948 at Mintons….
Les shoots up heroin in the toilet and collapses.
Medics slide his limp body on a stretcher into an ambulance which speeds off with lights flashing.
To be continued ...