All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Looking for My Secular Church

When I was a little girl, I'd take my sister's boom box and set it against the garage door while I jiggled around in the driveway. Eventually, my sister locked up her box (I think to save me from humiliation), but she made up for it by introducing me to Billie Holiday and the Afro-everything dancer Katherine Dunham. A mystical world of raw and refined sorrow and joy opened up to me, and all I wanted was to plunge right in.That was my first appreciation of a living art form, and ever since, I've been a devotee of black music. It's more than entertainment to me; my heart and soul lie in the music of my people. I recently found an old African maxim that describes what I've felt all along: The Spirit will not descend without song.The sadness I felt in this world could always be washed away by a good jam, but listening to recordings in my room was too solitary a form of worship. I wanted company, and the idea of being in a roomful of groove-minded people was much more appealing to me than the playground or the mall. I waited for the day when I could join a collective celebration of life. I dreamed of nightclubs, and waited to turn 21.Once I became an adult, I believed, I would become a member of this timeless secular church. I grew up expecting that famous Ernest Wilson painting featured in the credits of "Good Times" to be the standard for folks working it out, and "21" was my ticket in.But a year has passed since my twenty-first birthday, and the Bay Area nightlife has only left me frustrated. I've spent evening after evening propped up on my platforms, nursing stinking cigarettes, dreaming of a satisfying night out in the city. I'm starting to think I missed my moment.When I was too young to groove, it was the seventies, and everyone was doing it, even my mom (she never wore platforms for fear of breaking her neck, but lord bless her, she took chances in polyester plenty of times). But I feel my generation of black young adults has been stripped of this pleasure principle. The stage of desegregation we find ourselves in has left us with no place to go to listen to our music and enjoy each other's company. Integration has elevated the "cross-over" performer above all others, and black music has been Americanized to the point where it can be ordered on a dish, a la mode.Like many cities, San Francisco has the potential for a pretty live scene: huge dance floors, high-tech speaker systems, and plenty of talented musicians and DJs. Black music in some form--hip-hop, jazz or blues--seeps out of some crack in the wall every night. But the problem I find is that it's all rigged up for dabblers--yuppies looking to blow off some steam, if only for one night.Still I keep searching for my church in the city. I hit up events advertised as "hip-hop night," only to find outdated commercial hits of the eighties served up for the amusement of new fans who were too busy rocking with Van Halen to pay attention the first time around. The hipper spots, featuring jazz and its various hybrids, are full of "Friends"-types out looking for a little taste of the other. There's nothing less uplifting than watching people trying to get down to music when they cannot take seriously the issues of the people who have created it. I've often felt so desperate for a spiritual gathering that I've considered going back to my Baptist roots and getting a Sunday morning surge. Meanwhile, the sourpuss in me grows and grows.My disappointment only mounted at last year's San Francisco Jazz Festival. My girl and I got all dolled up in halter-topped dresses and chiffon, looking forward to an evening mixing with cool cats and other divas, only to be met by a motley crew of grunge rockers decked out in plaid shorts. We spent the evening feeling hopelessly overdressed and getting hit on by every 50-year-old in the crowd.I do luck out occasionally, finding myself lifted by a passionate drum beat that threatens to take me back to Africa. Usually, this happens in a crowded joint with no dance floor, and it's all I can do to stay in my seat and take the waves of funk. If, by some fluke, this painfully familiar feeling strikes in a place with room to dance, watch out. Energy springs from limber, twisted bodies, and all that matters is the expression of your personal funkiness.But these true nights out are more than rare. As many blacks are being shoved across the Bay by gentrification and the destruction of public housing, the future looks bleak for the erection of a temple that I could call my own. What's left of the legacy of San Francisco's Fillmore District nightlife belongs to yuppies who, thanks to "urban renewal," tramp around what they know as Lower Pacific Heights with no knowledge of all that has been lost.But every time I enter the district, I can't help thinking about the past I was too young to experience except vicariously. I dream about the old days, and wonder what it would be like to be part of congregation whose holy ghost answered to a bass line and a drum.

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