Editors' Pick

In Praise of Black Lovers

Robert and those who survive the following summer will ask themselves: Did that election season really happen when they were children? Are they re-writing the past to cut the pain? Then their collective trauma unclenches. That summer of romance and air conditioning happened, they assure each other, especially ones that fled North and gather at reunions. Robert comes to believe they have a duty to remind each other, even as the country forgets the memory of those horrors.

I. The Discovery

Beginning on his thirteenth birthday, Robert starts dreaming of The Dreamland. He can’t figure out why since he practically lives at the Oklahoma theater sweeping up popcorn or projecting movies; the family business is good. The dreams, if not quite disturbing, roil, as if there’s an impending flood trapped inside him signaling great change. The sensation is always the same: He’s at the precipice of an unknown future. Is this change only for him or will it affect his family? And why the dreams now, as his voice drops, and he’s begun noticing the opposite sex?

In the family’s courtly kitchen—the Williams aren’t the only affluent Negroes in the Greenwood District, not by any stretch—his father in fine suit despite the Tulsa heat, patiently listens as Robert recounts the precarious feeling after he awakes. “I can’t eat,” Robert says, sitting before his morning’s untouched jam and bread. “Like when we have a movie premiere, and I can’t sleep the night before. I’m excited but also nervous thinking I might mess up the screening.”

After his confession, his knowing father takes Robert’s sleepy head in his hands like taking the measure of a flower. His father, proprietor of The Dreamland, kisses the crown of his head.  “Everything’s fine,” his father assures him, “especially now that we’ve found your grandfather’s film. You’re feeling young men’s feelings. You’re growing up.” What Robert hears unspoken: Life in Tulsa is stable. Your grandfather’s film is changing our fortune and you are the inheritor of my theater.

This intimate anointing is not common among men in 1920. Robert recognizes this from watching his friends with their fathers. He holds those moments with his own like gold coins. Running the projector from the small room floating above the seats, he watches movies his father chooses that certainly don’t show that kind of parental love. Instead, he witnesses other types of love: Either very dramatic –Valentino, for “Tulsa’s lovers” his mother says with a wink towards his father (embarrassing Robert)—or films melodramatically representing the race.

The latter Robert notices, those movies of respectability, are saturated with grave, tragic themes that leave spinsters sad but righteous as they depart the theater. Despite their white villains Robert recognizes in life, those films of respectability bore him. Those are for the upright citizens who cheer the one-dimensional white villain’s demise. Robert knows life, and love, has to be more complex, if his budding internal roller coaster is evidence.

Before finding his grandfather’s film, Robert’s father had already taken to cutting out the sad endings from the movies he projected, instead replacing them with endings from happier films. Robert sees the results and learns: Ticket sales go up. Customers buy candy for their sweethearts as they leave the theater. Few complain that the couple kissing at the end of the movie look nothing like actors at the beginning. Happy endings, Robert grasps, are important.

The Dreamland, a vaudeville theater, produced unexpected bounty when his father began screening short films—anything he could get his hands on—in those early days of cinema, playing them after sultry evenings of comedy and dance.  (The early films: Think one minute of movement such as a train hurling towards the viewer. Robert laughed looking down from the projection room at awakening drunks screaming, thinking the train real.) The success of the shorts is leading to longer films on evenings they haven’t booked live acts. The Dreamland is slowly becoming a fully realized cinema.

Robert has swallowed his parent’s cinematic ambitions: “Our destiny—your destiny—is intertwined with the movies, Robert,” his father, the dreamer, instills in him as he tallies rising sales in the theater’s back office. “Why else would Providence bless us with finding your grandfather’s film?” None of Robert’s family had seen the film until his father stumbled onto it. How? A traveling black salesman they’d known for years made the discovery. The salesman and his father spent the cool early morning hours screening anything the salesman said that he could find featuring Negroes.

“Found this in a box in Ohio! Traded a Paul Robeson film and a washtub for it. It’s that special,” the salesman says. He shoves the reel into Robert’s hands, who scurries upstairs to the projector. “It’s only twenty-nine seconds,” Robert hears the salesman tell his father down below. “But I tell you, love sells!”

Robert knows love sells. From, an early age he’s revealed he has the heart of a lover. He gravitates to the romantic movies his father chooses for the Dreamland so unabashedly that his friends, who initially try to pick on him, soon stop. What’s revealed to Robert on screen from the projection room: A man and woman intertwined in a kiss. He’s immediately drawn to the joy in each actor’s face as they discover the other through touch. “Perfect for after an evening of vaudeville!” his father raves waving his cigar around the blackened theater. “This is how you satisfy an audience, Robert!” he yells up to the projection room. “Hook them with a new medium! Bring women in with romance!” His father’s theater, Robert is learning, is his true education.

What his mother whispers when his father leads her into the theater as Robert starts the newly purchased film, “My God, that’s my father. The film actually exists.”

II. The Request

To describe the kiss: This is Robert’s charge put to him by Talulla Love a week after his grandfather’s film becomes a sensation. Talulla, who he notices always has the answer in class but is hesitant to raise her hand. Ministers look the other way when congregations began whispering about the jerky film that stutters too quickly to an end for them. To show their people’s love on such a large screen is a gift. (The rumor making the rounds: the film is a post-marriage peck so watching is morally acceptable.) As a result, Robert’s father launches Sunday showings after church – groups in-and-out in less than a minute. God’s love in the morning; their people’s in the afternoon. Since the women of Greenwood belonged to multiple clubs, they witness the embrace several times, leading to a boom of “movie” babies months later.

Poor Talulla, Robert thinks. Her mother believes in a Second Coming that won’t include movies. He can’t imagine such a world. “You know Momma won’t let me step inside The Dreamland,” Talulla says. “She says it’s scandalous. Please, Robert, describe the kiss. Everyone in Greenwood has seen it but me.”

Robert takes his problem to his best friend who says, “Damn, you know Talulla just wants her own kiss. Give her some popcorn if you don’t want to kiss her, but don’t lead the girl on.” Another passionate anointing as will happen to Robert all of his life, though in his quiet way he is appreciative—he truly is—but also surprised each time that it’s happening to him: Taller-than-Robert Talulla has declared her desires. Thirteen-year-old love is fraught. Robert instinctively feels that he must honor this type of love as well.

Yet how to describe a kiss? His grandfather’s no less? How to do justice to the man on a screen he never knew? Robert has heard the story of his grandfather all of his life; in fact, his grandfather feels more like lore, something to live up to. His mother sits his younger sisters and him around the fire on evenings his father takes them camping. The stories seemed like tall tales about a vaudevillian who “rode the rails” travelling the country and “who the ladies quite fancied,” his father adds, Robert fascinated as if hearing the stories for the first time. His father’s cinematic ambitions were seeded early by his father-in-law’s mythic story of early filmmaking. His mother nods, daintily taking the rare swig from the beer bottle Robert’s father hands her, as if the story she’s telling demands a drink. “Daddy was a man of extraordinary ambition,” she says gazing at the stars. “In a different time and place…”

She shares how her father stumbled into an audition passing through Chicago looking for work. What he found: A simple stage and canvas hanging down as background. He could sing, dance and quote whole soliloquies from Shakespeare while making you laugh with just a glance. For this role, he was required to do none of those things. For kissing a stranger in less than a minute, “the money was good,” his mother claims. “Two Negro directors messing around with a new invention. Daddy didn’t have any idea about film then; nobody did. He never knew what they did with the reel. He was in and off the simple set in an hour. Never saw the girl again. I always wanted to believe his inheritance lived on somewhere on screen…I guess here’s proof.”

On screen, the scene begins mid-action as the couple embrace. Robert’s grandfather and the girl lock hands and swing arms, like childhood friends reconnected. The initial moment has a silliness that’s infectious and Robert finds himself smiling, wondering what will happen next. His grandfather, dressed in a bowtie and a showman’s suit, sports wide lapels Robert still sees on old vaudevillians. Robert dissects each moment in detail. He’s never had to put love under the microscope because he’s never kissed a girl. He’s equally apprehensive and curious. The couple tentatively lean in, the movement pure innocence. Robert notices the way they press harder the second time the couple kisses, as if their conviction has grown removed from each other’s lips for just a few seconds. His mother said the whole thing was no big deal for his grandfather. Robert wonders, how could such a kiss not be life changing?

After his hundredth viewing, Robert decides it’s as if the couple were dancing and the fancy had simply taken hold. After parting lips the first time, they keep holding hands. A thread binding the two actors pulls Robert into the scene with each viewing as if he’s standing between them looking at their surprised faces over the revelation of their connection. Nothing about his grandfather’s smile mimics the seriousness he’s seen in their family’s somber sepia portrait of him. There’s something in his expression, like his grandfather had planned to play a part but is surprised by his own swelling emotions. Whatever his grandfather feels for the woman he doesn’t question. Robert, entering adolescence, admires that assuredness, that confidence.

The mystery woman’s tenderness as she steps back from the embrace: a shyness mixed with exuberance. Robert examines her smile in profile as he stands in the projection room night after night. She is as light as his grandfather is dark and wears a modest, ruffled dress that runs down her arms. Despite his parent’s infatuation with each other, Robert believes like all teenagers that they’re too removed from first love to recognize what’s happening on screen. He recognizes the couple’s look from girls at church picnics and from the way he’s begun to feel inside. Robert imagines his grandfather and the girl writing intimate letters back-and-forth for a lifetime. How one kiss must matter that much.

III. The Coolness of Air Conditioning

The idea for ultimately expanding the Dreamland from vaudeville to cinema doesn’t belong to Robert’s father. He wouldn’t have been searching for films if the idea hadn’t begun in Robert’s uncle’s head, as so many things did and drifted away like dust motes. When his uncle announces, slow and grinning in a way some in the community think odd, “What about showing those new talking pictures like Pop-pop was in? I hear they’re nice.” Of course, Robert’s father considers the idea brilliance. His father prizes the way Robert’s uncle sees wonder in a 1920 world.

Robert’s uncle makes daytime movies possible because of a wonderous invention that summer: air conditioning. Now more people can see “the kiss,” as townspeople whisper to each other, during the day, not just those naughty enough to venture out to vaudeville at night. Before Leon returns with air conditioning, only cold beer cools evening customers in the hot theater. His uncle appears one day as what he calls the sole Negro distributor of “Weathermaker” air conditioners. (“Your uncle gets things in his head,” his mother sighs. “Just like your father.”) How can a man who’s taken to outlandish outfits, second-hand band uniforms, be brilliant in turning an oven-of-a-room into everyone’s icy retreat? Before air conditioning, The Dreamland, interior in shadows, lays sadly empty, not making the family a dime in the heat of midday.

Uncle Leon, his mother tells him, is “special. We take care of him as will you.” Robert and his father don’t like the smirks directed at Leon as he lumbers down Main Street looking like a bedraggled band director while he installs his magical cooling boxes. It doesn’t matter that, according to Robert’s mother, the Weathermaker leaves people more drippy-wet than cold. Yes, the air conditioner needs refining but even wet in that dry red-clay land is welcome.

“That’s what people don’t understand.” His father lapses into a tone he takes with Robert, not as a son, but as partners in an amazing venture he’ll inherit. “People poke fun, but under his quirks, my brother has vision. I know you see that.” Again, like with Talulla’s affections, Robert doesn’t question this charge. There’s comfort in knowing his destiny. His uncle is as much of an inheritance as his father’s ambitions.

Leon happily lives in the big room above the Dreamland that doubles as storage. He sees himself as hovering above Greenwood, a king bringing air-conditioned pleasure to his people. That’s what Leon brags to his nephew after Robert gets off shift at the Dreamland and checks on him. Robert doesn’t actually think anything is wrong with his uncle; he’s simply adapted to the life and brain he’s been given. In return, Robert shares his quandary about Talulla’s request and gets some surprisingly helpful advice in the love department.

IV. The Election

The decision to run for mayor is another of his Uncle Leon’s whims, egged on by his popularity after introducing air conditioning. Of course, his father enthusiastically helps, despite Robert’s and his mother’s hesitancy. (“He can’t be worse than the other asses we’ve had in office,” his father quips.)

His uncle’s opponent: Harold Jackson, who strikes Robert as a heavy-jowled mutt draped in a suit. Harold claims Scottish lineage though everyone knows his people are pure Alabama sharecroppers. Harold’s towering, as tall as he is wide and looks as if he’s about to tip over, a redwood bending in the wind. Had Leon not donned his outrageous band outfits, Harold might be Greenwood’s greatest oddity, Robert thinks. He’s rumored to drive the family car out in the country at night with nothing on, the air cooling his parts.

But Robert knows Harold Jackson has respectability on his side. Jackson Insurance insures Black folks when Whites won’t; Jackson Funeral Homes does a proper job without charging an arm-and-a-leg. People respect the Jacksons, and by extension, their bachelor son. After taking on the family business, Harold chose public life instead of a wife: school board president, then mayor.

After two terms as mayor, Harold loses the next election. “They say Harold drove the plains for three days,” his father told Robert, “not a stitch of clothing on, thinking what he could have done different.” Harold turned the family car around when he became determined to win back his mayoral throne next term. Nobody, including Harold, counted on the competition from Leon’s campaign. The mood that election, Robert observes with wonder, turns Greenwood into forgiving lovers; ones willing to accept even Leon when he trades in his second-hand band conductor outfit for something more sober.

His uncle’s presence, dressed in all black now, strikes people as prophetic.

“From out of the Old Testament,” whispers one townswoman.

“Like the prophet Jeremiah,” another says.

“No, like Isaiah,” an elder corrects. “He’s bringing us hope.”

(Robert’s mother says Leon looks like an undertaker.)

When Leon campaigns on the streets shaking hands, people think of air conditioning and the movies. Robert is inspired, as they all are. Even when Leon’s words wander, people feel like it’s an invitation to accept something larger into their hearts. The preachers notice too, as parishioners are freer with donations after talking with Leon. For that summer, the community embraces romance and the miracles of indoor cold. Coming into the last week, the election is neck-and-neck.

Robert has avoided describing the kiss to Talulla because words fail him as he fears they always will. But he is a child of his father’s movies. He can easily conjure an image of their innocent peck as if they’re the couple in the featured matinee. He practices with his uncle, who has been providing sage advice like how he might take Talulla in his arms and what to look for when the time is right. His father reveals that his brother has women across four counties. “I don’t know, Robert,” his father says. “Maybe Leon’s ways have a clarity. We adults make life complicated.” (One girlfriend was a distant cousin. When Robert asks his mother about this, she reluctantly says, “God understands, Robert…Just don’t get ideas.”)

The Greenwood district’s swollen heart is happily divided between the two candidates. This is a season of love—the highest kind, the preachers decide, agape, a love that’s sacrificial, pointing to community and God. God led Leon to air conditioning, the preachers say, and Robert’s father to the twenty-nine second film. In the midst of Jim Crow, a higher power has made this summer possible.

The business community pins bunting up in anticipation of a Harold win like it’s July 4th. The other half, those that answer when Leon knocks on doors, answer like he’s brought Christmas to the summer. This is Negro self-governance; democracy in action, the community proudly declares to itself, Robert’s father insists, and believes his brother has a chance. “A victory party at the Dreamland when he wins!” he says. A platform is constructed across from the courthouse, and the community gathers to vote, to decide their destiny.

His uncle is invited to speak first. Robert’s mother tells Leon to keep his arms by his side; don’t flail. “You’ve won them with air conditioning,” she says into Leon’s ear before he rises from his chair on the platform. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.” Leon takes her at her word and stands as solemn as a totem pole. He mumbles into the mic. His supporters pretend to understand, yelling, “That’s telling them, Leon!”

Robert watches anxiously with Talulla from the crowd. He knows his uncle is at his best when he limits his words. (Robert thinks Talulla is doing enough anxious chattering for both of them right then.) Maybe his best friend is right: Does she want a kiss? He doesn’t know. Using Leon’s advice, he’s been preparing. He thinks she does.

The way Harold sidles to the mic next troubles Robert. Despite looking as if he might sway off stage, Harold pulls himself together. His words find footing and project clear. Harold doesn’t attack his uncle but praises him. “Here’s a man who’s too good for politics!” Harold preaches. “Let those of us who’ve wallowed in mud before dirty ourselves!” From the platform, Harold speaks of how Leon transformed Jackson Family Insurance into a cool place where people can now contemplate life and all its risks.

Leon, from his chair on stage, takes the compliments with arms folded as if they are his due. The men’s performance resembles Irishmen toasting each other in a bar. Fight, in this heat, feels inappropriate. Harold’s choice not to go on the offensive makes him look wise in a way people hadn’t considered. Even Robert feels Harold might be the better choice. Could he imagine his uncle in the drudgery of city business? Maybe the support Leon has garnered from the community is enough. He hears it in the murmurs among the crowd:

“That Leon, he surprised us all, didn’t he?” says the postman.

“Freak is what I thought,” says the grocer. “Boy, was I wrong. Can you imagine life without air conditioning now? He’s done enough.”

Robert senses where this is going: By end of day, his uncle will not win. Instead, his reward for returning with air conditioning will be transformation to respectable eccentric, and that feels right.

But more important things are pressing in on Robert now: Talulla, gazing at him in expectation, inches closer. She clinches his sleeve. The coat is one his mother makes him keep for church and insisted on it today despite the scorching heat. He’s glad his mother insisted because Leon said he looked a dandy just like Douglas Fairbanks in the The Knickerbocker Buckaroo.

“Robert?” Talulla whispers. They’re both sweating. Leon’s advice: look for the eyes, the way a woman turns inward while still focusing all her energy on him. “You’ll know it when you see it,” Leon had said. “That’s when she wants a kiss.”

Robert sees it, he sees Talulla’s anticipation and wants to grasp it. But her anticipation is weathering. She’s tiring, as they all are in the crowd from the blistering sun. If he is to kiss her, now, he thinks, is the time. He wants to, not just out of obligation to love but because that same emotion he saw in his grandfather is welling up inside him now. The internal torrent he’d felt in his dreams, that had kept him up nights, is ready to burst forth. Is this what the dreams were leading up to? However, he’s thrown an obstacle at the last minute: Harold’s voice interrupts his thoughts.

“Why, what’s going on there?” Harold says, looking down at Robert from stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, I know what that is, that’s young love.” Startled, Robert watches Talulla cower as if she wants to crawl into a shell. He feels her grip on him holding her up. He swivels his head protectively slowly watching the response. The crowd around Talulla and him laugh supportively at Harold’s newfound wit. “That’s Greenwood’s bright future. Go on, young man,” Harold directs. “Kiss the girl if you’re going to. We’ve got an election to decide.”

Oddly, Robert is not terrified. It’s as if the obnoxious Harold is his cue right out of the movies.  The expecting crowd doesn’t bother him; in fact, he believes the community is somehow necessary for his destiny. This is his moment, and he thankfully doesn’t have to speak. Robert’s hands wrap around Talulla’s elbows pulling her close. The motion is intuitive, confident, though it’s his first time. He notices a flash of a smile from Talulla, a shift from fear to a sense of relief, that quickly gives way to abandonment. Her eyes shut. A jittery horse, Robert watches her slide into a silent world when their lips touch for no longer than it takes to blink. Talulla’s emotions become his. This is what it means to kiss. In this moment, Robert thinks he understands his grandfather in those twenty-nine seconds of film. His heart soars while his mind settles into peace.

After the kiss, Robert opens his eyes. He feels like he’s passed through a canyon onto the open plains. He can breathe. His senses are awake to the community, his community, around him; the shuffling of the crowd’s feet. It’s as quiet as his family’s theater before customers invade. Old couples who haven’t held hands in months now do so with fingers intertwined. “Everyone to the Dreamland!” his father suddenly announces. Harold won without a vote; Leon happily conceded: Greenwood is reconciled. Humming, his now-respectable uncle leads them all like the Pied Piper to yet another showing of Something Good—Negro Kiss.

V. Everything After

Robert spends the remainder of his life making films proving trauma isn’t destined to win. Wonder, happiness, and pain can co-exist to reveal a lyrical beauty: Girl in a Field, Lydia’s World, One Fateful Day. A generation of black media critics hold up his ability to “platform” black love. Love is what is at stake in his movies, phileo, agape, eros. Each film tackles a different love as if Robert is Bach pursuing his variations.

After the massacre, he won’t show up in records until he enlists twenty years later. He stays in Europe and eventually buys a small French theater, a reduced-priced gift from the owner who hid Robert for years after he went AWOL. The theater he was to inherit from his father is finally his. This is where his true inheritance, from his grandfather, blossoms.

It takes white critics decades to appreciate Robert’s work. When they do, they declare his last movie, One Fateful Day his masterpiece. The film is shot a year before his death. One afternoon, he simply doesn’t rise from his afternoon nap in his vineyard. An aneurism. Bob, as he was known to his friends, was a fan of Gauloises, two packs a day. Uneasy discussing black love, the late-coming white critics who memorialize him, grasp onto the historic, the allusions to the Tulsa Massacre.

His little French theater becomes the site of One Fateful Day. But Robert runs into problems filming: He’s no longer thirteen. He can cast himself as the old man looking back but not as the boy. And France is not Tulsa. Nothing is known about how Robert returned home, but the end of One Fateful Day is all exterior: the Greenwood District’s main street, still dirt. Like the Old West, still lined by covered sidewalks. Little has changed since white insurance companies refused claims to rebuild. The local Greenwood boy playing him wears a bellhop outfit; the only time he removes his boxy hat at the end. After sneaking her into a movie, the girl he’s innocently pursued in the story grants him a kiss.

In front of the Dreamland, the façade rebuilt, his younger self leans in with an almost comic pucker. The light at dusk behind them dims. What happens next: The facade collapses, falling into the red dirt with a crack and cloud of dust.

Standing before them is the now forgotten community Robert was surrounded by the day he kissed Talulla. The camera holds for what feels like forever as it pans passed close-ups: A man looking uncomfortable in clothes is clearly Harold Jackson; an adoring couple holding hands is his parents. Whether this scene is real or a dream is intentional. At some point in our lives, he seems to be saying, those lines that make up memory don’t matter.

Out front of the townspeople is a man dressed flamboyantly like a band conductor with a marching baton. He’s very old, which launches speculation it’s Uncle Leon, somehow alive. Suddenly, the young girl is no longer there. Standing opposite of young Robert is now a woman. The actress in real life is Robert’s last wife. She mouths words we can’t hear, You can rest now. We’ve come full circle in all that he’s inherited and what he hasn’t.

Uncle Leon speaks for the community when he utters the first words in over three minutes. Until then, the only sound is the wind as the pink light sets. “Go on then if you’re going to!” Leon says. “We can’t go until you kiss!”

 

Join the conversation