My mother and father walked everywhere; neither one of them drove a car. My family has its share of dancers, actors and athletes whose bodies are the tools of their trades. Yet on the downside, that same family has been ravaged by the devastating consequences of hypertension and heart disease. At the risk of sounding morbid, we’re all going to die of something. But too many of my relatives’ lives were cut short too early by strokes and heart attacks. So I am literally running with the clock. As I say in this video, I think I’ve found what works for me.
From the moment she was born, my daughter, Zuri Adele, talked with her eyes. They took in everything, registered centuries of wisdom, expressed a range of emotion she could not logically understand.
I remember watching her at a birthday party with a group of kids she didn’t know well. They were taking turns acting out a nursery rhyme “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” Zuri, who was about 3 years old, sat quietly, observing. I wasn’t sure she was going to participate. Then, after everyone else had taken a turn, she stood on the bed without fanfare and acted out the pantomime flawlessly, complete with dramatic hand gestures. A star was born.
Not really. Stars, or I should say great performers, no matter how much natural talent they may have, work hard, study, push themselves through disappointments and go back at it.
This summer was a busy and exciting one for her. She performed in Georgia Shakespeare’s Mighty Myths and Legends, had a guest appearance on the CBS hit Under the Dome (the episode airs Monday, Sept. 16 at 10 p.m.); and starred in a short film Plenty. The screenplay was her inspiration. Having her cousin Lamman Rucker join the cast was icing on the cake.
As we speak, Zuri is packing the car to head west to hone her acting chops in the MFA acting program at UCLA. Imagine how fierce she will be after three years of immersion.
CHRIST CHURCH, BARBADOS, May 24, 2012 — Zuri, my sister-in-law Tracy and I are in Barbados for a little R&R after a whirlwind Spelman Commencement Weekend. It also happens to be my father’s birthday. He would be 115.
“It is difficult if not at all impossible for ye paragrapher to forget Empire Day, though we may be many years removed from the British Empire, because it was on that day our late beloved mother told us we ‘came from somewhere in a box.’ Most readers of this column think we should have been left in the box.”
Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a specialist in Barbados genealogy who is going to try to help me get to the bottom of that box.
For today we’ll take a tour of the island, hit the beach and pour a ibation in honor of Ebenezer’s birthday.
I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video in this blog since I launched it. Now it seems like this is my last chance. My good friend Jack Hubbard shot it when my daughter Zuri, whom he calls “The Swan” graduated high school. I can’t believe it’s been four years.
On Sunday, Zuri Adele will graduate from Spelman College, BA in Theatre, Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude.
Ebenezer would have been proud.
She’s all grown up, but her essence has not changed. She is still, as the citation for the Gunn High School Faculty Cup Award, written by teacher Jessica Hawkins, stated:
“Observant, wise, generous and funny. All the light she shines makes the rest of us look better, want to ‘be’ better, on stage and off. She doesn’t steal scenes, she makes you want to give them to her – but she’d never abuse the privilege. She’s impossible not to watch and listen to: a live, beating heart with a ready mile-wide smile and the brains to back it up. The only consolation in her leaving is the understanding that she was meant for greatness beyond the boundaries of the school she’s already helped make great. She walks to a rhythm everyone wants to follow and the world will be a better place with her leading it.”
The other day someone asked me if I was worried that my daughter, Zuri Adele, was pursuing a career as an actress. It’s a question I get a lot. And as always, I responded with a confident no. I’m not. For one thing, she’s talented. For another she works hard. She’s smart, and she’s not going to starve. And, besides, it’s not as if I could discourage her if I wanted to.
Our family is full of people with artists’ souls who chose more “practical” paths out of necessity. I believe she has what it takes to make it.
I admit that today’s news that Tyler Perry had cast Kim Kardashian in his next movie gave me pause, but I recalled the advice veteran producer Reuben Cannon gave Zuri a few weeks ago during a talk at Morehouse College. Zuri asked Cannon what serious actors should do to survive when they are competing for attention with reality stars and people who are famous for being famous. Cannon’s advice was not to worry about them. Focus on the craft, he said. Excellence will win out in the end.
Last Spring, Zuri attended the Cannes Film Festival as an intern with Creative Minds in Cannes. In this video montage, Zuri gets the last word: “It can only get better from here,” she says.
Let’s all hold that thought.
Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’ — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.