"Diana Ross: How To Reign Supreme," A Poetic Essay By Jericho Brown

This beautiful essay originally appeared in My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack.

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I am not an objective source. I am a poet.

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When company comes, they play cards and dominoes. My parents put on the Diana album because disco is one life, and some nights, we live it.

I climb from lap to lap, begging for sips of beer, whiskey, and wine until cigarette smoke is thick enough to blind me, and I run to my room.

But my father won’t have it. Everybody here is here to party. This is his house. “Tenderness” is playing, and he’s as drunk as he will be. He calls me from my room and tells me to dance.

I do whatever he tells me. I’m that kind of kid. Our company encircles me with yelps and claps while I stomp and slide all over the den. I do as Daddy tells me. I dance to Diana Ross.

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I was getting all kinds of messages to get off the stage … and I had an electric mic in my hand….but I knew that if I would have left the stage, the lights would go out and there would have been some form of panic, and I knew people would have been hurt. — Diana Ross

I want cartoons—superheroes who fly. The skinny black woman with the widest smile in America wears a beaded orange bodysuit. She raises her arms, and the winds blow. She squints—her eyes delicious and round—the bright blue sky goes black. She tilts her head back and opens her mouth, and her orange cape and mane of black hair rise in the wind. Isn’t she flying?

Then comes the voice. A soprano at once clear and breathy calls to the multitudes screaming her name. She makes it rain.

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I prefer lyric sopranos to dramatic ones. I prefer worship to praise.

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And so I love poems. They are, each of them, part woman, part lioness, all angel, on stage at Central Park in New York City. Poems are the jeopardy involved with making lightning strike, with sing- ing in and against a downpour that might drown us all, a rain the singer herself summons.

Who wouldn’t want all that artifice—the hair, the smile, the costume, the dancers, and dear Jesus, those eyes—just to hear the voice, just to see the way the bones jut as if to escape the body of the thin woman singing? Just to watch her, with her arms wide in triumph, accept and command the ovation that mortals call thunder?

The poem is a woman in danger, who loves danger. Throngs of women and children stand in the rain to see her. So many men miss work to hear her. Diana Ross is a superhero, and so many of the men want to be saved. It’s 1983: so many of the men are dying.

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When I began my life as a writer, I only had in mind to get onto paper some version of that iconic image: a black woman dripping in sequins holding the final note of a song with both her hands raised in praise of astounding applause. She is, somehow, as fero- cious as she is elegant. I wanted to signify the isolation of the lead singer, even when she travels and shares her fame with the back- ground harmonies made popular by the two Supremes singing next to her.

I thought what I knew of that image would be enough for a statement about art and the artist … about the poet, who is expected to be a member of her community and at the same time, as a being possessed by music, separate from that community.

Soon, though, given the time period of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ popularity, I saw in each of my poems an opportunity to make use of history and culture. For my muse, I turned specifi- cally to Ross, the queen of crossover, as a performer who might have something of interest to say about black art and black exis- tence in the United States of the turbulent late ’60s. I attempt to make lyric revelations about the self, about race, and even about the often contradictory life of the minority artist and her relation- ship to a paying establishment—an audience that may know noth- ing firsthand of the background that inspires that artist’s material.

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I seek to be moved. I move to manipulate.

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When I was ten years old, three brothers attending a college near our home rented the house next door. Yes, they were all three beautiful boys. And yes, I knew it.

They were all three beautiful boys, but only one of them mowed the lawn shirtless, trained his dog shirtless. He was, of course, my favorite. He would read holding a book above his head to block the sun with his bare back on the grass of the back yard, and I had only an iron fence—one million diamond-shaped holes—separating me from touching him.
If he was outside, I was outside. And I didn’t need a book or a lawn mower or a dog. I stared in the way we let rude ten-year-olds stare. He waved, or he smiled.

As the months passed, he became inventive. He’d come out- side wearing a shirt just so I could watch him unbutton it or pull it over his head, and no matter the season, as soon as his chest was bare before me, he’d say something about how hot it was.

Only once did he ball a fist and threaten me for swallowing his torso with my eyes:

“Say, little man. For real. Why you come out here being nosy and staring every time I come out the house?”

“Huh? Oh, I’m not staring. I’m practicing.” “Practicing? Practicing what?”

“My song.”

“I never hear you singing.”

“Because I’m singing to myself. I’m not singing all out loud. I’m just practicing, so I ain’t ready for singing it all out loud yet.”

“You been practicing that song a long time. You’re probably ready to sing it by now. It’s a song for church?”

“No. I don’t know no church songs. It’s an old song.”

“You like old songs?”

“Yeah.”

“And where you gon’ sing it?”

“Why you so nosy?”

“Well if you got a song you been singing, I wanna hear it.” And he sat down on the other side of the fence my father had put up when I was born. I was afraid not to sing. The watcher be- came the watched. I knew all the words to only one song, so I sang it:

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to?
Do you know?

From that day on, when he wanted to do some staring of his own, he’d unbutton two, maybe three buttons, motion for me to come over to the fence, and tell me to sing it to him. By the end of the song, every button was undone, and the shirt lie crumpled on the grass that grew on the other side of an iron fence.

Jericho Brown’s book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.

© 2012 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

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