25 April 2013

Mr. Leonard and the Big Bill Hill Show

The sound of Momma's body hitting the wall, the dresser, the floor or, heaven forbid, all three, was enough to make me get up off my ass and run out of the house for help.  Thank god that help was only two flights below.  My two eldest brothers, Rufus and Leroy* were in my grandparents flat watching television with their friends Gregory and Smooth*. 

Before the drama jumped off, I'd been upstairs watching a popular dance program with three other siblings. The Big Bill Hill Show (c. 1967-70) was Chicago’s first locally televised dance party for black kids, between the ages of 10 -13.  It preceded the mass appeal, syndication, and longevity of Soul Train (1970-2006).  Black kids from all over the Windy City would show up dressed to impress to a small basement studio on the South Side to pre-record the thirty-minute show exclusively for black entertainment.  And it was a hit as far as I'm concerned.  As a matter of fact, three of us should've been seeing ourselves on that screen that night.  We should've been grinning from ear to ear at the sheer joy it might have been to watch ourselves on television and bask in the glow of fifteen minutes of neighborhood fame.  That's a big fucking deal to an adolescent (who had already been socialized to worship fame, that dreaded spawn of capitalism) and I'm pretty sure we let the whole world know about it.

Instead, and to our dismay, Momma showed up too late.  Another dream deferred...Three small hopes had been dashed and devastated.  We couldn't be any more let down than this.

Momma finally arrived home in the middle of the broadcast, completely wasted.

“Y’all reaaaadeee?” slurred her words, slightly amused.

Image of kids dancing taken from Google Images

We were too pissed off to respond but gave her a stubbornly unified “We hate you right now!” look.  Y’all know that look, right?  Heads tilted to the side, arms crossed tight as drums across your chest, eyes glaring and ready to shoot sharp objects, upside down smiles set in stone faces, concretized. Hurt. Broken in our anger.  We were truly wounded.  It would take a lot for Momma to make this horrible night go away.

Then, a lot happened. In a few shorts minutes--in the time it took for Momma to tipsily walk past us and our tearless rage, move around the plastic covered ottoman where the black-socked feet of Mr. Leonard rested, into the bedroom whose door had been shut so quickly that all that was left was a fading puff of smoke from the last drag I remember seeing Mr. Leonard take from his cigarette--our anger shifted to fear and horror as we realized things were going horribly wrong for Momma.

Mr. Leonard was a bony, dark-skinned, well-groomed man with thinning hair; he smoked Parliament cigarettes and drank his scotch or whiskey on the rocks. His eyes were unkind, unloving, unfriendly as far as my young, probing eyes could tell.  And he was a bit too quiet.  We didn't chop it up, nor did he seemed particularly fond of any of Momma's brood of five boys, two girls.  Kids can sense these things, we possess a kind of bad adult radar and can smell an asshole from a mile away.  Mr. Leonard’s shit stank.  I didn’t like him.  I think this made me uncomfortable. He may have known that, too. He was around all the time, spending the night and shit. It’s difficult being a kid and unable to voice your objections over the mate of your divorced parent because after all, that choice could have a ripple effect.

That night while we'd waited for Momma, Mr. Leonard had been sitting quietly among us; his ashy right elbow rested on the arm of the light green patterned sofa with its slightly battered vinyl covering, a cigarette held snug between his fingers, a sweating glass of brown alcohol within arms length.  He smoked and drank in succession as if pairing the two for the right flavor or effect.  Not once did he say anything to us as we sat, dressed in our Sunday best, smiles vanishing into frowns, hopes dashing with each passing moment.  We had wilted.  Our happiness diluted.  Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.  When parents disappoint, life can suck.  All I/we ever wanted that night was to be on the Big Bill Hill Show.

“Heeeyyy, baaabeeeeee,” Momma garbled at Mr. Leonard. Without a word, he lifted his drink, lightly shook the glass to remix the ice and boose, took a long sip, swallowed, and inhaled deeply from his cigarette before putting it out in an ashtray.  He got up from his seat and silently followed Momma into the bedroom.

The noise we heard coming from the wall behind was intense. It became obvious to me that Mr. Leonard's anger (and embarrassment?) over my mother's behavior had escalated, and knowing what I know now, the blows which we could then hear were coming swifter and harder. By then Momma could barely contain her muffled cry. He was trying to hurt her; he wanted Momma to suffer his wrath, show her he was in charge of her attitude and her body. He was male supreme.  And because we were too afraid to open the door and become eyewitnesses to intimate partner violence, one of us had to run and tell somebody. That bitch-ass mothafucka was hitting Momma!  Mothafucka! That son of a bitch had to go!  One of us had to unclench our mouths, eyes and fists, shut so tight that it hurt, in order to get help for Momma.  I was the one…

A woman with hand up from Google Images

I jumped up and ran out into the front hallway and down the stairs to my grandparent’s front door.  I knocked hard and was nervously jumping up and down when my second eldest brother, Leroy came to the door.  Like a kid needing badly to go to the bathroom, I flitted about anxiously, unable to utter a sound.  I had been rendered speechless.  The trauma I felt was unbearable and it had silenced me. Helpless tears fell from my eyes.  “What’s wrong, Ro?" Leroy asked in alarm.  Intuitively he knew something was going on upstairs that required more hands on deck.  He called to Rufus and motioned for their friends to join them.  They gathered quickly in the small corridor outside my grandparents flat and rushed pass me up the two flights of stairs to Momma’s.

When we entered the apartment Mr. Leonard had returned to the sofa, eyes fixed on the television, a fresh drink in his hand, a cigarette slowly burning and dangling between swollen fingers. How hard had he hit Momma? He had tried to kill her? That bastard! He seemed as calm as he was before Momma had come home, before he put his puny, black hands on her.  My brothers Greer and Gerald, and sister, Claudine, were still frozen in their seats as if moving would shatter them into fragile little pieces.  My anger had grown, but Leroy's rage was what filled the room like a large explosion. Boom!  Mr. cool as a cucumber Leonard was about to get his ass-kicked!  He was outnumbered, baby…Pow!  Whack! Whoosh!  Let’s see if Mr. Leonard can take what he dished out to Momma.  As we used to say, “don’t start none, won’t be none.” Now.

Balled and bruised fists by Google Images
To no one’s surprise Leroy pulled a small handgun from his pocket.  He moved closer to the seemingly unfazed Mr. Leonard, with my brother Rufus and their friends pulling up the rear, and pointed the gun in Mr. Leonard’s face. Momma had been in the bedroom recovering from his blows and what I can only imagine, her embarrassment and shame, but came out when she heard the commotion.  Leroy had detonated and there was no putting the pin back into the grenade.  She stood back and the rest of my siblings joined me in standing a short distance away watching this drama unfold with as much attention and anticipation as we would give to any event that drummed up a hint of danger and the promise of a bad guy getting what he deserved.  Someone had turned down the television between the time I left and the time I'd come back with the calvary.

“You put your hands on my mother, mothafucka?” Leroy screamed at Mr. Leonard. No reply.  He pressed the gun into Mr. Leonard's left temple, cocked it; that dickhead didn’t make a move.  Can you believe that shit? 

“Get your black ass outta here before I blow your brains out nigga!” Leroy bellowed.  Leroy raised his hand and hit Mr. Leonard with the gun. The cracking sound was followed by droplets of blood as Mr. Leonard started to bleed from his eyebrow.  I felt both queasy and satisfied at the sight of crimson-colored stains forming like inkblots from a bottle onto his white tee shirt.  He should’ve known better than to mess with a woman with grown-ass children.  What the hell had he been thinking?

“Okay man, okay!” Mr. Leonard finally pleaded as he stood uneasily and stumbled off into the room, a white monogrammed hanky pressed against his head to absorb the flow of blood.  The sound of dresser drawers opened and closed as he gathered what belongings he had into one medium sized suitcase. "Make sure you get everything, Leonard, because you can't come back here no more" my mother soberly exhaled as we all tried to gather our thoughts about what had happened.

I briefly turned my attention to our floor model Zenith where the Big Bill Hill show was nearing the end of the program and reminding viewers like me to tune in the following Friday, same time. The images on the screen were blurred through the clouds in my eyes left behind by a storm.  In less than half an hour my young life had been interrupted by violence. Intimate, too close for comfort violence. Vigilante violence. Violence that entered a space where I had always felt safe.  My take away from this when it happened was not so much that my mother nor I would always be protected from violence, but that violence is inevitable for black women because men like Mr. Leonard exist.  I think I knew then that watching the Big Bill Hill show would never be the same for me.  

Someone reading this has experienced similar patterns of violence and harm.  Someone’s voice has been silenced as a result of domestic/intimate partner or state violence (I pray that no one has been re-traumatized by this account).  Someone may be willing to tell their own story.   I needed to tell this story to push out unpleasant memories taking an inordinate amount of space in my head and heart.  I needed to tell it because violence affects us all even when we're not the intended targets, we get hit by its impact anyway.  Collateral damage.  I needed to write this because someone out there is ready to jump up and fight back.  That could be you.  Come join me.

* Names have been changed. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I can identify.