That above quote is from Badu’s new song “20 Feet Tall”. A song that I have been bumping on repeat since I bought her album yesterday. It had me “remembering” a conversation with a friend over dinner a couple of weeks ago, where she spoke about finding her “Tea Cake”. Tea Cake for all you non-readers of Zora Neale Hurston’s master piece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, was the much younger lover than husband of a forty year-old widow, named Janie. Tea Cake was eccentric, he was resourceful, a hard worker, a musician, a lover, and heroic. He brought life and love to Janie’s much boring life after, what Hurston describes through Janie as “grieving and mourning”.
I responded, jokingly, “Yeah, I want a Tea Cake too, minus the domestic violence”. My friend gave me a blank stare, “when did Tea Cake beat Janie?” At that moment, I could not remember the place in the book, but I knew Tea Cake had beat Janie. My friend was adamant that it did not happen. Although, I had not read the book since I was 18, I was sure about the beating…or was I? I went home and dusted off my hardcover copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and started reading from the point where Tea Cake came into Janie’s life. After 30 pages of so, I started bugging out that maybe I was wrong. Then on a subway ride this morning, there it was. Chapter 17, page 140.
“Before the week was over, he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior
justified his jealousy, but it reveled that awful fear inside of him. Being able to
whip her reassured him possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped
her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in
the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The ways he
petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed
her made the Women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him, made men
I know my memory rarely lets me down, yet, I wondered why my friend, who cited this book as her favorite, did not remember, such a crucial part of the book; an essential flaw to this magnificent character that she was patterning the perfect man after. Was it that Tea Cake’s other qualities out weighed his physical violence to her? What does that mean in terms of Black female/male relationships? The normalization of the domesticity of Black Women? What does it mean in reference to memory and what our consciousness allows us to retain and negate?
All of these questions had me reaching back to my own relationships in the past, and what I force myself to remember and willingly forget about each one. There was the Five Percenter who I credit as “watering my seeds of consciousness” as a young buck. I am always telling people about being “educated” by this hood scholarship and the presentation by him of scholars/authors in my life, such as Frantz Fanon and Chancellor Williams. But I tend to forget about his violent side in my recollection of him and the fact that he went to prison (amongst other things) for aggression and violence towards Women [once duck taping someone’s mom!]. Then there was the Muslim Saddiq that I met my sophomore year in college. Careful selection of memory, conjures of memories of him as being gentle and equally intelligent, yet when the memory stops being selective, I vividly see his domineering ways, directing me to Feminism. He never once saw me as a valuable equal to him. Oh, and the Jamaican, who still lingers in my afterthoughts, catered to my constant “want” of wining and dining, a CCUUTTEYY, who was probably the most hardworking man I have ever dated. Yet, in quiet moments and stillness, I can commit to my memory of his cataract eyes, wondering just a bit too much and making me feel small in the mix of it. But I try not to become so still in thinking about him, because who wants to remember those things?
But it is memory that can radically change what meanings are conveyed in our lives. Did my friend actually forget about Tea Cake and his abusive incident with Janie? Maybe, but maybe like I had in many of my relationships with Black men, my memory allows me to easily remember the “good” versus the “not so good”. Lately, I have been reading about a collective cultural memory for Black folks, and how it can reconstruct our cultural identity, which is all good and dandy for some type of collective consciousness, but what about an indiviual memory? The ones that are not passively stored in our minds until they come back into the open and the memories that can be important in defining personal identities. I believe that memory instead of forgetting can put things in their proper place…it can allow us to do some healing, and some inner work on ourselves.
Or in the words of Badu:
“…if I get off my knees, I can remember I am 20 feet tall”.