(This was my SKALD 10 piece, performed on June 27, 2009)
I was eight years old when I was told I wasn’t black.
My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Opalek, went around the room on a Friday afternoon with the assignment of “What do you want to be when you grow up and why?” She wanted us to think about it over the weekend and we had to be prepared to share with the rest of the class on Monday.
Friday night, I had nothing, no idea or clue of what my future should hold. I lay in bed that night, thinking about it. What was I good at, what could I excel at, do, produce, contribute.....nothing.
Saturday morning came and went without any great revelations, but Saturday afternoon, it all changed.
Saturday in our house was chore day and I got to spend the afternoon dusting in the living room where the stereo was. Our dual 8 track and turntable combo was suspended on a chic 70’s shelf from chains in our ceiling. You had to stand on a little red child’s chair to reach the player and be cautious to avoid making it swing like a jungle vine.
As I stepped up, I carefully leafed through our collection of albums and 8 track tapes, like The Carpenters “A kind of Hush”, Manhattan Transfer “Coming Out”, Pete Fountain “New Orleans”, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis at Newport, and then…..there it was, my answer, my salvation, my future in all it’s glory. I remember holding the album, close to my chest and clutching it like it was the Holy Grail.
I was so overwhelmed with a sense of satisfaction and relief. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t wait to go to school.
Monday morning, Mrs. Opalek goes around the room. Our class room averaged out at about 14 astronauts (one Steve Austin - Six Million Dollar Man, still an astronaut), three ballerinas, a Charlie’s Angel, a weird girl who wanted to be a horse, a vet...because he had a crush on the weird girl who wanted to BE a horse and then, it was my turn.
"Mrs. Opalek, I want to be Aretha Franklin."
"That's very interesting Nicolle,,,,,,why?"
"Because, she’s the Queen of Soul."
"Mmmm,,,have you ever heard of heard of Barbara Streisand."
"Yes, Mrs. Opalek, she’s a good singer, but she isn’t the Queen of anything."
"Yes, but sweetie, your not black."
Dead silence, there was nothing, no comments or questions from the class and I realized I was experiencing my first stage fright, my first flop sweat as I struggled to explain my future brilliance.
Aretha’s voice was different. It carried some signature, a resonance that imprinted itself on your heart when you listened to her to such a degree that it physically hurt me. When she sang “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”, it was like she was pushing her entire being from her toes all the way out through her mouth.
This is what I explained to a genuinely befuddled teacher and a completely clueless class and voila I was the weird kid at recess.
Later that day, as I was quietly banging my head against the monkey bars, Margie McCormick came running up to me. "Hey, who's Aretha Franklin?"
I tried. Oh, I tried to explain to Margie the feminist theories behind the song respect and the ramifications it had on the women’s movement.
"Huh,,have you ever listened to Pat Boon?" I was a stranger...in a strange land.
During parent teacher conferences that month, my mom was told about my “choice” for a future career and her only response was “Yeah, and?” Go Mom.
But, Mrs. Opalek thought I might be confused about the assignment and asked my mom to discuss it with me.
Nov. 1976, Blue Volkswagen Beetle: Mom and Me.
So, you want to be Aretha Franklin?
Yeah Mom, isn’t she groovy?
Yes, she is.
But, I think I'm supposed to change who I want to be because I'm just White.
Well, some people think if you look a certain way, you can only ever be certain things when you grow up.
Is that what you think Mom?
I think you can be and do whatever you want to, as long as you’re happy. It's true, you'll never be Black because you are who you are, but you can become anything you aspire to be in life. Do you understand that?
BEST MOTHER EVER!!!!!
I look back on that moment in my life with increasing pride the older I get. I know I could never have envisioned myself being Aretha Franklin if my mother wasn’t leading by example.
Only by being raised in an open atmosphere could a white suburban girl ever conceive that she could be a soul singer when she grew up. To me, even at eight, I knew it wasn't about race it was about something more personal and meaningful. Aretha wasn’t a black soul singer she was simply A singer,a mentor, and my role model.
So, yes, Mrs. Opalek, Aretha Franklin. It was my answer then, it’s my answer now. I believed it could happen and I believe it could still happen, because I was raised by mother, The Original Queen of Soul.