This is not an alternative fact, or a cleverly timed WikiLeaks allegation, this is a story as it happened to me.
Sister (Joni) Sledge has died. Why is that important? One, because she was much too young to die, and yet another in a trend of much-too-early deaths in recent months. And two, because her death evokes one of my first memories of what different truly means.
I would have been nine in fall 1980, roughly one year after the release of Sister Sledge’s breakout hit, We are Family.
We were living in North Arlington, Virginia, in a neighborhood full of spooks, according to my parents.
Vietnamese refugees would have been pouring into the area and there were “international” families connected to Washington; however, our own little enclave was largely a slice of 50’s Americana. A holdover from the ranch style brick split-level construction era. Yes, our house came with the requisite fall-out shelter attached to the live-in basement. The only difference between the two was that the basement rooms had lighting, and the shelter didn’t flood in the hurricaine season.
Tanya. I will call her Tanya.
Though I have forgotten her name, I can still see her face clearly in my mind when I hear Sister Sledge.
Tanya may have been the only one bold enough in our sixth grade class to actually put an act together for the school talent show.
Her performance is in fact the only audition I remember seeing; though, I am not sure if she was the sole act, or the only one worth remembering.
Tanya was a young woman in a classroom of mostly little (white) girls and boys.
She was probably a head taller than the biggest girl in the class, never mind the boys… and when she picked out her luxurious ‘fro, she stood eye to eye with our WWII vet teacher who still referred to “the Japs” when telling war stories.
When I replay Tanya’s performance over in my head, I think she was one of the boldest souls I had encountered until that point in my life, or since then.
She was was from an alternate universe, surrounded by what had to have been an alien race to her. And rather than blend into the woodwork, she chose the most public means possible to show off her blackness. Here was one of maybe 20 black students bussed into a white neighborhood following the desegregation efforts of the 70’s.
The first clue something was about to burn was her outfit.
Fire engine red polyweave bell bottoms and a black satin top (I think), with a purple taffeta head scarf folded and wrapped around her massive hair. Her six inch white platform shoes sealed the deal and made her a good head taller than our teacher Mr. MacDonald whose pallid face on seeing her arrive in the morning said:
“Mother of Jesus!”
Tanya went to her usual seat, stopping briefly to deposit a massive boom box on the heater in the corner by Mr. MacDonald’s desk, reserved for reference materials and pictures of WWII aircraft.
I think the show began after lunch recess.
Tanya nonchalantly prepared herself, maybe a bit self-consciously, retying her headscarf and placing a cassette in the music machine.
We Are Family kicks off in full disco swing. There is no buildup, it just jams out. And on the singles version it plays for over eight minutes.
Tanya didn’t stop moving for the full eight minutes. When it was over, she stood sweating and panting for a moment while we stared on in awed silence. That’s when I knew I was white.
Mr. MacDonald sobered up first, or maybe at the same time as Amy Butler, a wise-beyond-her-years girl in the class, and began the applause — relieved I am sure, that it was all over.
To his credit, Mr. MacDonald let the show go on, no doubt in spite of his better judgment and a heart condition that must have been tested by Tanya’s hip thrusts, black power fist salutes, and near full splits between the cleared away desks.
We were shocked too, but differently.
I think us kids were blown away at this world of cool that existed beyond our suburban walls. I myself was a hippy kid transplanted to suburbia, and maybe her no holds barred show had a particular effect on me.
Even so, I know for a fact that my guy crew of 7-10 snot pickers walked out of class that afternoon talking of nothing else but what a badass Tanya was and how disco-funk wasn’t all bad.
Hearing the sad news of Joni Sledge’s untimely passing, I replay the above story through the dusty cassette head of memory.
Thank you Sister Sledge!