Dondrie Burnham

Writer. Creator. Shapeshifter.

Moondust.

I saw Moonlight.  I’d been waiting to see this film for over a year. It’s no surprise to hear that this is transformative and splendid work.  It has now won an Oscar for Best Picture, in a moment that will go down in hot mess history.  The Academy now knows what it’s like to sit there with what my mom calls ‘the booty look’.  You know, that look when you’re embarrassed for what’s happening in front of you but you can’t look away and you kind of want to smile, cry and laugh at the same time, so you just end up looking like an ass?  I digress.

I knew that I would be moved.  I knew that I would be utterly beguiled.  I knew that I would sob buckets.  I did not know that it would awaken parts of my soul like a sleeping bear.  Did not know that it would crawl into my cave and start chipping away at the ice. I did not know that I’d be ground into dust.

I expected to be pleased and impressed by seeing black men portrayed as complex humans with layers other than revenge or desire.  I did not expect to see myself.  You see, I was Little.  I came from a two-parent household and I had a brother.  But, I grew up alone.  I would walk myself home from school, let myself in, make myself lunch, sometimes dinner and entertain myself.  I ran my own baths, did the dishes, cooked my meals and watched a lot of TV.  My parents came home from work around 10.  I was usually in bed.  My brother came home whenever he wanted but he tormented me when he was there so I preferred to be alone. My dad started doing crack when I was about 7 or 8.  Sometimes there would be no electricity.  Sometimes there would be no gas.  I learned to work around it.

I was shy and talkative all at the same time.  Shy around people my own age, talkative to the point of being called ‘motor mouth’ to those who knew me well.  They thought I was annoying.  Truth is, I was just starved for human connection.  I spent my time with books and television, so when someone asked me something and they seemed receptive, the floodgates would open.  I would quickly learn that I’d said too much and I’d revert back to shy.  I learned that people only liked me to speak in performance.  Otherwise, they preferred my silence.  I did have some friends, I did have some sleepovers…but mostly I felt alone because I knew who I truly was and I could never show all the cards at once.

Sometimes, I’d go to my grandparent’s house after school.  They were old, but my grandfather loved me desperately.  He taught me to whittle, to shoot and how to sew leather. He let me talk his ear off and never interrupted me.  My grandmother was envious and distant.  She also quickly sensed that I was queer and found me a bit repulsive. They’d buy me fast food and books and they’d leave me to myself.  I wasn’t allowed out of the yard.  I didn’t talk to anyone.  I was alone with the TV...and my books.  My grandfather died of colon cancer when I was 10.  A part of me also died and he took that with him.  It was quick. It was painful.  It sent my father on a downward spiral into darkness.  It stole my youth.

Not soon after, my grandmother came to live with us.  My mother’s, mother.  I loved Ma’dea.  I didn’t much like going to visit her in Clarence, because it was SO country.  Limited…everything.  Lots of outdoors time, snakes, boys, hogs and dirt; these things did not interest me.  My grandmother fascinated me though.  I liked watching her hull peas and shuck corn.  I liked that she called pop ‘soda water’.  I liked traveling several miles into town with her to go to the post office.  She had a sweet smile and warm hugs.  She really loved my brother and me but I got the sense, she didn’t really care for children.  It made me feel special. I enjoyed spending time with her and her friends.  Watching them make meat pies and picking fresh plums from the trees while they chatted about nothing in particular.  I’ve always gotten along better with older people.  They call me an old soul.

Ma’dea had breast cancer.  She moved in with us toward the end and I cared for her, not alone, of course.  But, my parents worked and my brother had sports and band and I was asked to sacrifice extra-curricular activities for family.  I had just made the ‘pep squad’ at school.  It was super cool because I went to a predominantly white middle school, where I was bussed in.  But the pep squad was the motley cru of the bunch, a diverse group of bodies and shades, and I looked good in my uniform.  But I never got to break it in.  I don’t remember much from this period.  I do remember a trip to Wal-Mart, in which my grandmother had an accident and the humiliation and anger she displayed as a grown woman with shit on her pants.  She was already self-conscience, because she only had one eye.  I remember not really knowing what to say, but making damn sure she knew that she had not shrunken my eyes.  I held her hand, I helped her conceal and I made jokes and sang to the radio on the way home.I can’t remember if we were alone.

Peppered through these streets of silence and sacrifice were also several grown men’s laps and quite a bit of inappropriate touching.  These were mostly ‘men of God’ and influence.  I was told that it was a part of being a girl.  I was too polite to mention it.  I was too confused to be incensed. I mostly wanted another book to read or a new show to watch.  

I think what makes Moonlight so compelling is its tenderness.  Black folks aren’t treated with much tenderness on screen or in life.  Our boys and girls are made men and women at a moments notice.  We raise families and we raise ourselves. We protect and serve.  But there are those moments, those tiny gestures and chapters. There is a Juan and Teresa in every hood.  There is a Paula and a Chiron. There is addiction and loss and love and tenderness.

We look after each other.  There is no one else there. 

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