Nashville, 1978

 

RRH final

Sound check.  Cochlea peeling feedback.  Tuning till doomsday, then more tuning.  Roadies flopping and panting across the stage, lion taming cables, speakers, amps.

C to E minor was home for her. Shudder, slide, shudder. Then thump the strings with the right hand, pop ‘em upside the head like a sobering smack for a falling down drunk sprung from a dive.  They were the first chords she got down cold, that gave her a tingle that lasted for hours until Katy intruded with demands to do laundry, wash dishes or practice hymnals she had to memorize until her throat rang raw.  Save the motherfucking prayers, she thought, angry that she hadn’t said something to Divinity in the moment.  Save that dizzy shit for a more willing dupe.  A captive audience.  A roach spinning on its back.

Nothing happened from above.  No heavenly lightning strike, no incinerating rebuke, no ear to ear knife swipe, no primal samurai sword gutting.  Something about Divinity’s posture, her big show with the bible in the studio, gave her an inkling that she knew the jig was up too.  Grasped a bit of it at least, her preacher thing now running on fumes, wheeler dealer theatrics, the knack she’d had since womb dispatch, the prized Negro gift of oratory honed in debate contests, bathroom mirrors, pews damp with waiting, damp with comingled body fluids. She’d always been blessed with speech, magnificent cut-glass diction, the molasses voice that men who couldn’t find other jobs and wormed their way into the ministry would die for.  The thinking was that Divinity never had to really work for it.  Came into a room and owned it with the alchemical curl of her lip.  Spread her arms and poof.  Still, she hadn’t been able to get her own church until some white philanthropist ponied up for the first year’s lease on a storefront nobody wanted.  Becoming the Phoenix rising after years of roof raising to a handful of families, plotting on phone trees, saving their meager Christmas bonuses for her collection plate.  They would help her. An invisible, dear devoted core getting back at all the bishops and prophets and pillar men who’d spewed we shall overcome at marches in Little Rock then blocked her path at every ecumenical board and committee meeting.  She’d memorized their home numbers, spouses, kids’ names, hobbies. Tendencies.

“Get in your fucking places, blokes,” a roadie yelled at the arena attendants picking up junk in the aisles.  “Shit, we don’t need to eat off the floors.  Fuckers will probably trash the place anyway after Jude leaves, judging from those groupie crazies at the radio station. Miss Tharpe, we’re ready for you and your boys.”

Card, Thurston and Butch filed onto the stage silently, corralled by Mick hours before, backbiting put on hold for the moment.  Rory plugged in her guitar, the air rippling with the bustling attendants, some stopping to watch as she cued up a fast arpeggio churning blues number.  The three of them plodded through their parts, Thurston cueing up too fast on the downbeat, Butch letting loose a scattered bridge and Card slapping his bass ragged with his open hand.

“Get it together,” Rory growled as they shambled to a close, the clock ticking down to Jude’s entrance.  It had been years since she’d been in an arena that big, cavernous, bumptious, baby goblins of stage fright coming at her, antsy, suddenly, about Divinity being in the audience, tossed among the record company execs, assassins with submachine guns lurking in the exits sitting in judgment with her cartoon bible.  They would play all the mainstays. Throw in an original that Rory squeaked out after months of stewing inactivity, procrastination, doubt, when she’d tried to write at the end of meals, hiding in the toilet, collapsing on the edge of her motel bed with the guitar, mixing up chords at every angle, the C to E minor old faithfuls failing her in the face of figuring out installments on four months of unpaid doctor’s bills for her back pain and gallstones.

These were all alien matters to Divinity, she was sure. Shielded from calamity by her god force field, her sharp nose for profit and hoarding and saving every penny she got. In the news clips her second cousin sent from back home she’d read about the cathedral and community center Divinity was trying to build with the aid of white donors, rumors that she’d fucked one or several of them spread by her nemeses on the Baptist convention boards. A secret part of her relished the smear, the whiff of freshly ground dirt spread over the old neighborhood’s prudish high regard for the budding junior prophetess of 1930.

They finished the rehearsal and went backstage to their dressing rooms.  Card and Thurston haggled over a joint.  Butch did his ritual finger dunk in warm water and Epsom salts, bracing for the long night. Mick lingered in the corridor, going over the set list, busying himself with the smallest logistics, breaking out his inhaler for strategic hits when no one was looking, avoiding Rory’s orbit, swallowed up in the turbine of Jude’s handlers and sycophants.

“Fifty minutes to showtime, motherfuckers,” a voice screeched over the loudspeaker.

“Let’s blast these rednecks back to the swamps,” a tech chortled from behind the towering Marshall stacks anchored in an iron wall around the stage.

Rory walked back out onstage for one last look.  The attendants stood poised in place at the arena exits, seat rows bathed in the dank glow of the footlights.  Katy sat in the back, blue put-on-airs Monday night revival meeting hat perched on her head, nodding to something.  Precious Lord.  Take my hand.

 

Cotton Plant, Arkansas, 1930.

Route 9 quivered with the distant menace of engines.  Congregants walking, driving, getting the hang of the rattle traps handed down to them with a wink and a prayer for at least another hundred more miles before sudden death on a two-lane blacktop.  Backbone of Calvary Church headed to an after Sunday service fish fry for the Browns, Clemons, Langhornes off to Cleveland in the morning for railway jobs, weekend shifts in sanitation, road maintenance.  A damp evening showcasing child prodigies on piano, guitar, drums with the most suspense and anticipation over the first pulpit appearance of little Divinity Brown offering blessings for new beginnings.

She’d practiced her delivery again and again in the mirror.  When everyone had gone to bed she was still practicing, drawing out words, pausing for emphasis, making musical notes of end phrases like she’d heard bishop do, his kindly russet brown face pushing her to new heights of mastery.

Again and again, in front of him with Sunday school finally over and a barrage of lessons baring down on her, she wended through the scripture lines she’d chosen all by herself, Romans, Jeremiah, First Corinthians, full to bursting with pride at her powers of recall.  How clever, what a big smart girl, what a credit to her name.  The others so plain, less blessed. A few paces farther away from God.

It was the russet stench of bishop’s crotch that woke her up, trickling sweat, tingling with exhaustion in her empty hotel bed.  She always asked for queen-sized, to contain her thrashing, blunt the endless chain of night visitors.

Ten years and three months old fingers.  Just long enough to fit over the head of his cock.  To give her the strength to suffer God’s silence.  To give her the strength to devise the countdowns. Count for the missing tiles on the ceiling.  Count for how many floor tiles she could jump on before hitting a crack.  Count for the number of pinstripes on his suit pants, the creases in the long black preacher robe draping like a sickle over the swivel chair in his office.  Count for the time it would take between the end of her practice sermon and the footsteps approaching in the hallway to reach them. For the doorknob to turn, the crescent of Rory’s face rising in front of them as bishop repositioned her cursed with age fingers to his shoulder.

She got up from bed and took an aspirin. The room shifted into soft focus around her. Warm rain pissed in fits and starts on the roof.  It was only the third integrated hotel she’d ever stayed in in the South. She could feel the tremor of the white bodies who’d slept there before, shrouded in comfort and dream, furtive fucks, sour business dealings over a smoke and Kojak reruns. She fished out her concert ticket.  A good night for a first salvo, to root for our electric girl, for Cotton Plant’s long heralded resurrection.  She laughed to herself, went to the closet, picked out a new outfit, new armor, not too pastorly, straight or prim for the rednecks and gutter heathens who’d paid top dollar to see their clay footed goddess Jude.

Pinstripes.

She showered off the night visitors, dressed and went downstairs.

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The Monstrosity

RRH final

On Rory:

It was the humming that got her.  The spontaneous eruptions at the grocery store when Rory was in line with her lethal favorites, a bottle of Jack Beam and a can of creamed corn.  The floating slips of atonality that dragged her by the ear at the gas station putting another round of diesel in the bus with the last of Mick’s state disability checks.  The gurgling snatches from a cracked car window cruising by at the end of the day; the driver finally having settled on a station that wasn’t playing commercials.  Just one motherfucking station, just one.  It was that miserable squealing like a stuck pig summer when it seemed the whole globe was blasting Jude’s new song in unison.  A twelve-bar Monstrosity that she claimed she’d dredged up from the bottom of the Delta, nicotine fingernails dirty and squirming with the muck of the ancestors one generation removed from the Middle Passage, she drawled in exclusive interviews with the European trade mags.

As crotch sticky and miserable as the tread of June to August was there was no worse torture than the hijacking of the airwaves and every inch of the audible world by the Monstrosity.  She swore off all media, Jack Beam, creamed corn, Solitaire, any whiff of diversion that would take her away from practicing, going up and down the fret board in her head, on the back of her seat, trying to tame the petty little niggling little argument between her mind, which swooped away, wandering and worrying mid-chord change, and her disobedient fingers.

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Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

book cover Rock Heretic EDITED

“Those white boys on the major labels would never give an inch to a Negro woman playing race music.”

It’s the late 1970s, and ex-Pentecostal Black female electric guitarist Rory Tharpe navigates the cutthroat world of corporate rock, dive bars and dusk-to-dawn recording sessions as she travels the nation in a dilapidated tour bus with her bickering, boozing all-male band.  Much-imitated and little-credited, Rory is in a midlife tailspin when she’s asked to tour with international superstar Jude Justis, a white woman “blues” singer who built a turbulent mega-platinum career out of stealing from black musicians. Frustrated by the racism and sexism of the rock boys club, Rory warily joins forces with Jude then takes a detour through the painful past she shares with childhood nemesis Divinity Mason, an unorthodox pastor at the helm of budding mega church empire Revivals, Inc.

 

A homage to maverick guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic is a bracing look at the power politics, heartbreak and hypocrisy confronting a queer black woman visionary at the intersection of music and commerce, faith and heresy in a segregated music industry forged that eats its black artists.

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White Nights, Black Paradise film: Casting Multi-generational Black Actresses

Black women JT group
We’re currently casting for a short film treatment of White Nights, Black Paradise in the L.A. area, looking for diverse Black women 30s-60s, queer, trans, straight  (and a few white folk):

Abbreviated CAST

Taryn Strayer, an African American accountant in her late 30s. Intelligent and reserved.

Hy Strayer (Taryn’s younger sister), sharp, irreverent but slightly unfocused young woman in her early 30s.

Jess McPherson, a 40-something African American woman and therapist who is also Taryn’s lover. Worldly, confident, calculating.

Ida Lassiter, mid 50s, African American journalist and activist. Regal, tough, a critic of the Temple.

Ernestine Markham, 60-something, African American English teacher, long time Temple member and politicized “race woman” who is loyal but also selectively skeptical.

Devera Medeiros, a Black Latina transwoman and journalist for the Peoples Forum newspaper who is in her late 30s. A Temple true believer, conscious, discerning, keen sense of fairness.

Zephyr Threadgill, a fifty-something African American woman who enjoys her unofficial role as Temple “prosecutor”.

Reverend Jim Jones, a white man in his late 40s. Volatile, insecure, devious, solicitous, endearing.

Carol, a white woman in her early 30s. Shrewd, realist, right hand woman/lieutenant to Jones and mother of one of his children.

Please send queries to: shutch2396@aol.com

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White Nights, Black Paradise: The Players

Who is this novel about?

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the horror of seeing pictures of the 900 plus dead bodies of Peoples Temple church members, the majority of them African American, in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. You may also know that the Jonestown massacre was where the overused misnomer “drink the Kool-aid” originated. Less known and understood are the actual people of Peoples Temple church; their hopes, dreams, world views, and motivations for going to Jonestown. As the largest religious murder-suicide in American history, Jonestown still elicits a resounding “why”?

The characters in my novel (the majority of whom are fictitious) are a cross-section—they’re queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, straight, African American, Latino, multiracial, white, age/class diverse and all over the map in terms of spiritual belief. African American sisters Taryn and Hy Strayer anchor the story with their at times turbulent relationship. The book opens with the sisters’ transition to segregated San Francisco from the Midwest. As an atheist lesbian and straight agnostic, they’re attracted to Peoples Temple’s anti-racist ethos, secularism and seeming tolerance. Their diversity reflects the distinctive tenor of the church and forms the backbone of the novel’s mélange of voices. Each person joined the church, stayed with it, or left, for complex reasons that often reflected deep ambivalence and contradiction. For Black members, emigration to Jonestown embodied just another leg of the African Diaspora. Far from being brainwashed dupes, many of the members actively collaborated in the dream—and nightmare—of Jonestown.

The atheist—Taryn Strayer: “In third grade she learned the unreliability of the Lord. She called on him to annihilate the cackling, drooling pinheads who wanted to see her fuck up. What was the Lord God Almighty good for if he couldn’t pull off a small favor after a week’s worth of goodness from her?”

The seeker—Hy Strayer: “The people that are over there building Jonestown say you chop a tree down and it’s got milk and honey for sap. Prime minister, the cabinet, everybody over there in power’s black except for a few Indians who’re taking orders from us.”

The loyalist—Jess McPherson: “That girl’s mother gave up that right when she let her become a drug addict and run the streets all hours. No daddy. Thirteen and running the streets. Think that’s acceptable? That’s the case with most of these parentless kids before they came to Jonestown. If they weren’t here their asses would be dumped or left for dead in juvenile hall. This is the last hope for them to get their lives together.”

CA Historical Society, 1978

Jonestown children, CA Historical Society, 1978

The journalist—Ida Lassiter: “Everywhere, the air changed with the faintest whiff, the hint, of a white woman. When it was crowded to overflowing Goldilocks couldn’t even dip a toe onto a train car north of the Mason-Dixon without a regiment of crackers overseeing every move, making sure no Negro man woman or child twitched, sneezed or batted an eye in her direction. Under the law Negresses could never be raped. And this kept white women safe in their kingdoms.”

The defector—Foster Sutcliffe: “There’s a succession plan. The whites get positioned over us plantation style, load up their offshore accounts and live off the interest until Fidel smuggles them into Cuba or Brezhnev gives Jim Jones the key to Ukraine.”

The doctor-publisher—Hampton Goodwin: “I can still hear the laughter of that first cracker who doubted I would make it through medical school. An Irishman. Naturalized citizen with god given rights as soon as he stepped foot here. Master of the split infinitive, could barely speak English but he knew he wasn’t a nigger and that’s all that mattered.”

The teacher-interrogator—Ernestine Markham: “The church is the people, not any one man. God gave me a purpose with this church. Gossip and innuendo, especially on the Temple, are going to be big hits when all people know about is black people and black organizations being in disarray.”

The white preacher—Jim Jones: “We see white people living up in the hills with serious capital and riches, and black people living in the ghettoes with barely a collective pot to piss in. The fascists want to tell ya’ll that you’re lazy but they’re in collusion with the Judeo Christian ‘God’.”

The enabler—Mother Mabelean Jones: “I’ve turned the other cheek like the righteous leaders, Gandhi, Reverend King, Martin Luther. Even when I saw our people bruised and beaten, witnessed hordes of disgraced members chewed up and spit out like rotten meat, a corner of me protested but said Yes.”

Marceline Jones (Mabelean Reed)

Marceline Jones (Mabelean Jones)

The writer-survivor—Devera Medeiros: “By the time the assassins were through they’d blasted out the roof of the plane. Devera could stand up and touch the clouds from her seat. She could see clear out over the trees, past the bowing rainforest, past the valley of the shadow of death to her people, eating each other alive in Memorex.”

Pre-Order White Nights , due November 2015

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White Nights, Black Paradise book trailer

Due November 2015

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Now Available from Infidel Books

Godless-Americana
“So much conversation regarding atheism and humanism gains no traction, and does little to push beyond areas of comfort and well worn arguments. Sikivu Hutchinson’s work offers an important corrective to this. With clear and sharp insights, Hutchinson pushes readers to recognize and tackle the patterns of thought and action that limit any real ability to respond to issues of race, gender, and sexuality from a transformative and humanist perspective. Read her work, but fasten your seat belt first!” — Anthony Pinn, author African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology View on Amazon

Moral-Combat
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s superbly written and well-researched book stands out like a sore thumb among the books of “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Hutchinson puts forth a bold analysis of the political and religious culture wars raging across the U.S. She examines the Religious Right, scientism amongst white secular humanists, the need for social and economic justice, the ethical imperative to defend the rights of LGBTQ people, etc. She does all of this from the perspective of a progressive African American feminist.” – Norm R. Allen Jr., author African American Humanism
View on Amazon

White Nights Black Paradise
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s vision of Jonestown, of the real people who left behind despair for what they thought was belief and hope, is a valuable one – her take is the one America hasn’t yet seen.” Susan Straight, author Between Heaven and Here and Take One Candle, Light a Room

“Sikivu Hutchinson’s beautifully written novel captures the complicated relationship between remembering the past and attempting to forget. Her work is hauntingly evocative.”
Duchess Harris, Professor of American Studies, MacAlester College, Author Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton/Obama

DUE FALL 2015, Preorder on Amazon

Order On Amazon

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