It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.
Not failure, but low aim is the sin. – Dr. Benjamin E. Mays
When I was a li’l gul, 3450 Sewell Road was just a big old hill with a bunch of trees next to I-285 expressway that we passed if we took the long way to Southwest Hospital. A couple of years and a street name change later, it became Mays High School.
I went to its feeder middle school, but I didn’t go to Mays because I was lazy. While they cleared a number of the trees, the school was built at the tip top of that dang-on hill. My momma didn’t have reliable transportation, so if I had to (or chose to) stay afterschool, I had to hike “The Hill” to get home. Do that in 90 degree August and May Atlanta heat, get on a MARTA bus and then do some homework:
But I digress…
Back in my day, Mays was virtually an all African-American institution at the pinnacle of urban public education. It was located in one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the city and the Math and Science Academy magnet program was literally churning out rocket scientists. My husband was in its first graduating class and he made Urkel look like Waldo when it came to programming a Commodore 64 computer. My brother’s ex is a former Valedictorian who got her undergrad from M.I.T and her PhD from Stanford. Even many of the kids who were failing classes were Obama smart. Get the picture? Try to keep up with all of that in 90 degree August and May Atlanta heat, get on a MARTA bus and then do some homework….
But the biggest reason I didn’t go to Mays had little to do with the rigorous academics or the fact that them folk was living high on the hill (literally and figuratively). My biggest fear regarding Mays High was that I would fail to live up to the legacy, the mandates set by its namesake. I felt that I was not ambitious enough to be a Mays High Raider.
Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was a child of former slaves who would go on to be best known as the most influential President of Morehouse College and the first black head of the Atlanta Board of Education. What many outside of these circles don’t know is that he was also a Pastor and a quite prolific orator. What’s an orator? It’s the fancy word previous generations used for what we now know as rappers, only instead of songs on Itunes, they wrote books to put in libraries. They also spit concerts on Sunday mornings, hence the term “CHUCH!”
Dr. Mays, Howard Thurman, Martin Kings, Sr. & Jr. – a whole crew of them came into their own in The A. Oratory was once a big deal around these parts. So was biting – ripping off the words of others and claiming them as your own. Biting was, back in my day, the un-fancy word for plagiarism. Jesse Jackson could only tell the world he was somebody after Rev. William Holmes Borders told the congregation at Wheat Street Baptist Church that they were first. But who does the rest of the world know as the author of the “I Am (Uh!) Somebody” speech?
Growing up in The SWATS, those words were pumped into you throughout your entire childhood like Catholic kids learned The Rosary. At school, church, summer programs and scouts, you learned stanza after stanza, rhyme after rhyme. You learned that these great men wrote and spoke all the way up until they couldn’t anymore. And when inspiration and life experiences changed, their messages adapted in tone but not in temperament because their words transcended the ages. We didn’t have to do like the Ron Clark Academy kids and adapt a song or poem. The words bequeathed to us were timeless, as is.
So it concerns me to only have Jay-Z out in the mainstream marketplace, the pinnacle of the music business, embracing his maturity on eve of his 20/20th birthday as he still spits his guts out, a man who claims that he didn’t have the same type of role models as we did growing up. For a rapper, he’s old; for an orator, he’s an infant. Dr. Mays was ‘bout 90 when he spat his last spit.
Yet when I speak on Mr. Carter, say that it took three attempts at them blueprints to make me even a casual listener and believer, folks want to come back with all of the excuses: his resources, his track record, his……..gangster? Gangster, to me at this age, is a grown man who was able to leave behind glocks and rocks for a wife and kids and an honest living, and is bold and creative enough to talk about it in a way that relates to someone from all generations, races, colors and creeds. Gangster is a college degree, something plenty of grown “A”** rappers got while playing the game but ain’t never rapped about. It’s easy to shoot and get shot. It ain’t no way to make it easy to get a PhD from Stanford.
Live your life? That’s gangster as all get out when you think about how many people who didn’t get that privilege, for whatever reason. Forty years of living is nothing to hide. You know how many former Raiders I know who didn’t make it? Speak for them. Lead the charge in doing this thing now more how you were raised and less how you were acculturated.
I want to cheer for our old schoolmates who have been rhyming, rehearsing for this stage of the game since Linsey’s Nursery & Preschool. But, all I’m getting at the end of the conversation is, “If I talk about what I’m going through at my age, nobody will buy it. It ain’t hard enough; it ain’t relevant.” Where would grandma have been last weekend if Tyler Perry had given up and said the same thing? What school would my husband have attended if Dr. Mays had as well? What would ya’ll have bought last Friday if 9/11 squashed them other blueprints? Where’s that old school ambition, the spiritual and social (not just financial and political) fulfillment of the legacy, the dream?
Your daughters, mothers, sisters and wives (current and otherwise) want to cheer for your successes, however irrelevant you deem those accomplishments. Your boys and their sons want to quote you in church in sermons where they now quote Dr. Mays. The world needs to know you exist, in this incarnation, at this age, and that you are proud that you came from and through THIS place. The children who currently go to Mays need to know your authentic legacy, in your voice, in order to carry that torch. And they need it now. Right now. Trust.
We love you because you are us, and that love cannot be gauged through record charts. This isn’t groupie, one-night-stand love I’m talking ‘bout. This isn’t “your last cut was funky but this one stinks” love. It isn’t Stanning, fanatical fanship either. You either chose or were chosen to represent us, so do that.
At 40, time is ticking. We’re dealing with some factors that weren’t relevant in Dr. Mays’ day and age. In a minute, there will be less and less uniquely Gen X spit left to spit. And what’s left is gonna get straight bit, re-appropriated (again), if folk don’t start staking that claim, sharing those words, real soon. Bing-bling anyone? Hootie-hoo, boo?
Dr. Mays never became a rap star to the rest of the world. If you Yahoo some of his words, they’re attributed to the most bitten writer in history – Anonymous. But if you grew up in Southwest Atlanta in the ‘80’s and you remember back to the time when they cut the ribbon at the new school up on “The Hill,” you know better. You also know that it is past time to hold the Hip Hop Generation to his standard and to make the marketplace force them to evolve. And if they ain’t upgrading it out west, up north or on the other side of that dirty, what better place to set it off than The A?
If you feel your retro rhymes aren’t appropriate to spit in front of your children (and grandchildren), how about making some new ones for the whole family to enjoy? Ever wrote a (clean, unhunch-worthy) love letter to your wife? There’s a sorority function out there that would love to bump it instead of Hidden Beach instrumentals or “Single Ladies” on repeat for an hour. Bet. They bought movie tickets last weekend. Ask Mr. Perry.
A word of advice in advance, though. Make it sincere. Don’t keep it real; be real. Don’t base it on demographics and sales reports and what an image consultant or publicist suggests. Don’t pay the hottest producer out there a grip to make you dance to their tune. Go back and get your boy who you used to share a two piece with at Campbellton and Delowe. He’s available, right after youth league football practice at Sandtown Park.
Don’t try to be an older Weezy or a younger Rev. Run, but do write a church speech for your mama, an Easter speech about redemption, resurrection and, have mercy, gratitude. Keep your five year marketing plan in the bottom drawer and write in a loose leaf instead of on your Mac. Try less to be “hot” and more to be whole. Live your life. Going hard at this stage is less about cursing and gratuitousness and more about bravery and universality. It takes more smarts to bang a prolific, chart-topping 16 without curse words than it does to make a hot, hit-of-the-week one that’s expletive-filled. Show the world that soul food you were eating at Mays was what made you the soul survivor you are today.
And if you’re just at a loss, have writer’s block and aren’t quite sure how to……..breakthrough? Don’t even know where to start to speak triumphant grown man in a business full of trendy kids who have five left in their fifteen minutes of fame? Here’s some inspiration to get you started:
I have only but a minute,
only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me,
can’t refuse it,
didn’t seek it,
didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me
to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it;
give account if I abuse it.
It is only just a minute,
but eternity is in it.
Feel free to put that on the “A Milli” beat and “leak” it. Yahoo says it was written by Anonymous.
~ Written Exclusively for StraightFromTheA.com by MissAuburn
**O.S.A.M. is an exclusive feature on StraightFromTheA.com. We will be turning back the clock occaisionally to reminisce about Old School ATL. Are you an ATLien? You wanna share your crazy A-Town Stories? Hit us up at [email protected] with your favorite Old School Atlanta Memory. **