Kenturah Davis, A Mirror of a Mirror (detail)2019, oil paint applied with rubber stamp letters on color ground with chine-collé paper

Any Other Way

Kaitlyn Greenidge, a New York Times contributing op-ed writer and author of the novel "We Love You Charlie Freeman," pens a story about two girls growing up in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

by Kaitlyn Greenidge
|
Nov 6 2020, 1:45pm

Kenturah Davis, A Mirror of a Mirror (detail)2019, oil paint applied with rubber stamp letters on color ground with chine-collé paper

The sky is a deep purple when Devonne steps out onto Greenwood Avenue, looking for Melody. It’s Melody’s 21st birthday, and Devonne thinks that maybe, just maybe, today is the day she can coax her from behind her screen, get her to pause the game she’s playing and come sit with Devonne in the cool night air.

They’ve known each other since they were kids. Two sissy boys thrown together at Thurgood Marshall Elementary. Bullied by the boys, alternately loved up on and shunned by the girls, they hadn’t wanted to be friends, at first. Or, Melody hadn’t wanted to be friends with Devonne. “Your face too pretty” is what she’d said back then, when both of them knew it wasn’t safe to be girls. It was safest, still, to pretend they were what the world told them: little Black boys packed into the school uniform of a bow tie and blazer.  

But the thing about Devonne is, she’s persistent. So she’d sat close to Melody at lunch, watched her fingers worry the knot of her tie at her neck. She’d stood beside her on the playground, watching as Melody dribbled a basketball with the boys who allowed it. Devonne had followed Melody to her home, every day, from one end of Greenwood to the other. Melody lived on the Straford Estates, a tidy green subdivision of McMansions that went up in the ’80s, where the descendants of the founders of Greenwood mostly lived. Melody’s house had rose-pink walls and black marble floors. Her parents were Tulsa royalty—both sides of the family old money, here since the 1890s, don’t you forget, sweetie. There are portraits of all of them on the walls of that house. All the men on the wall are bank presidents and university presidents and CEOs. Melody’s picture is expected to join them—in a suit and tie and a shape-up—when she grows up and takes over her daddy’s business or starts her own. Her old, old Tulsa family, the people who built this place, have a spot for her there on the wall, waiting—but only if she ignores her self.

Devonne’s family is definitely not Tulsa royalty. Her daddy moved here in the ’90s, after the last recession, looking to make it rich on Black Wall Street like so many before him. A big yellow man from Georgia, he’d tried to break into the barbershop game—Greenwood was famous for its barbershops, luxurious places, each one topping the last. The best ones had solid gold basins and chairs upholstered with real zebra skin. But Devonne’s daddy couldn’t raise the capital to start a shop that fine, so he settled for a his-and-hers salon over on First Street—a modest affair, catering to the teachers and cleaners and nannies and gardeners who make Tulsa run. It is Devonne’s favorite place in the world, after anywhere Melody happens to be. She turns onto First Street and sees it in front of her—a squat red brick building that’s part of the older Tulsa architecture, not the gleaming glass skyscrapers and bamboo modern A-frames that are closer to Melody’s part of town. The cornerstone on Devonne’s daddy’s shop reads 1921, and Devonne likes that, likes that her family, too, has a piece of old Tulsa, a stake made with her daddy’s hope, to match Melody’s claim of blood. Through the darkened glass front window, Devonne can see the light on in the back of the shop—a warm glowing gold. She can hear the laughter of her sister, Missy, and their Aunt Jack now, floating out onto the street.

Devonne jiggles the door handle, twice left, once right, then steps into the shop. She walks past the row of barber chairs, each covered in a ghostly white smock. She can see dusk pooling over the surface of each station’s mirror. The laughter is louder and she pushes through to the back of the shop, to the bright, warm, and yellow warren of rooms where everyone hangs after work and where Aunt Jack lives with his cot and his hot plate.

“Your face too pretty” is what she’d said back then, when both of them knew it wasn’t safe to be girls.

It’s just Missy and Aunt Jack there tonight—it’s a Monday and everyone else has gone home early, recovering from the party last night. This past weekend was Greenwood’s 115th Rodeo Africanus, and the salon’s been busy for a week—everyone coming in to look their best for the hundred Black cowboys about to ride through town. Devonne’s still wearing her outfit from the night before because she looks so cute in it—Daisy Dukes and a rose-colored bandanna tied across her slim chest for a top, pink cowgirl boots with a heel, her hair in carefully disarrayed curls. She catches a glimpse of herself in the big mirror on the wall of the back room and feels the reassurance that comes from knowing she looks good, at least.

  On the walls of the cramped back room are the posters of fades and updos long past—cheesy ’70s models smiling through a haze of Afro sheen and ’90s models peeking up at the camera through stiff black bangs. There’s a mannequin head with a half-done weave and a tower of bottles full of essential oils, giving off the smell of citrus that Devonne knows means home. There’s Missy sitting up on the busted-down leather couch, knees to her chest, laughing. She holds her phone in her hand and Aunt Jack is standing up, hands on his creaking knees, pretending to twerk to Patti LaBelle singing “On My Own.”

“What you all doing?” Devonne says, and Missy puts down her phone and sputters, “Just watching Auntie Jack act a fool.”

Aunt Jack is actually Devonne’s daddy’s uncle. He raised daddy back in Georgia for a bit, and when he was down on his luck, couldn’t make Macon work on a social security check or the bond he got for reparations, he came here to Tulsa, to the back room of the salon, ostensibly to teach everyone how to do box braids, but that’s just what Devonne’s daddy said so as not to hurt Aunt Jack’s pride. 

Devonne feels a mixture of affection, gratitude, and embarrassment whenever she’s around Aunt Jack. She knows that her own daddy took it easier on her, accepted her as a girl, because he’d had his Aunt Jack. When Devonne was 16 and told her daddy about herself, finally, daddy had left for three days to go shooting. When he came back, he’d walked right up to Devonne and caught her up in a hug and said, “Be whoever you want, just always stay mine.”  

Devonne is grateful for that, but hates that she has to feel grateful and that Aunt Jack won’t let her forget it. And Aunt Jack can be cruel. “I’m not like you new people,” he says, all the time, to Devonne. By which he means, “I had it hard and you don’t have it so hard, so I can say anything I want to you.” Aunt Jack was a tent-show queen in her younger days—dressing up in evening gowns and opera gloves to sing like a woman on the Chitlin’ Circuit, alongside Aretha and Otis and Little Richard, before they crossed over to white people. No crossing over for Aunt Jack back then. Aunt Jack is a man, he reminds Devonne all the time. “But I still look better in a dress than any of you little T girls,” he says, and because it is Aunt Jack, because Aunt Jack sleeps in this back room, because Devonne’s daddy didn’t burn her dresses like Melody’s parents did when they found out about her, because of all that, Devonne has to take that insult and smile.

SR_Tschaba_032917_004 (1).jpg
TSCHABALALA SELF, "CHANDELIER 2," 2017, GOUACHE, COLOR PENCIL, XEROX, PAPER, PLASTIC, OIL, ACRYLIC AND FLASHE ON CANVAS. Courtesy of the artist

Now Aunt Jack straightens, theatrically places his hand on his lower back. “I’m as good as any of you babies,” he says, and shuffles over to the couch.

“Why you here?” Missy asks. “I thought tonight was the night.”

“I’m nervous,” Devonne says. 

“You can’t be serious.” That’s Aunt Jack. Devonne tenses, waits for the cut. “I don’t know why you making such a fuss over that little nigga. What he call himself these days? Harmony? He still wear braces!” 

Devonne winces. 

There’s a gush of loud laughter that smells like peppermint schnapps and old people’s breath, and Devonne focuses on that, on how the air inside Aunt Jack is still musty, despite mints, to keep from standing up and slapping him.

The best bet, when Aunt Jack is in a mood like this, is to ignore him.  

Devonne cocks her head at Missy and Missy sighs, sits down on the couch, opens her knees, and says, “All right, scoot down.”

“I don’t even get a chair?” Devonne settles down onto the floor, instantly calmed by the ritual, knowing that her sister is about to do her hair and that beauty, the thing she relies on, the thing that protects her, is being affirmed. Melody says Devonne has it easy—“You light, you pretty, you pass.” And Devonne wants to protest, but she knows it’s true. Prettiness is a shield, a flimsy one, but one worth having.

“Can’t believe you got my pretty ass on this floor,” Devonne says now.

“You gettin’ me when I’m hungover as shit,” Missy says. “You get what you get.”

The night before had been joyful chaos. When Devonne had left the after-party at 3 am, Missy was still there—laughing hard and grinding her hips into the front of the jeans of some goofy brother from church. Now, in the late afternoon, her eyes are still puffy and she’s clearly hurting. She grunts as she rubs oil onto her hands. Devonne smells the flash of lemongrass and basil and orange. Missy’s been trying to get daddy to let her go natural at the salon. “Baby, Tulsa is home of the updo,” daddy said, laughing, but he’s let her stock the shop with what she needs, and she comes back here to mix up her oils under the eye of a disapproving Aunt Jack. 

So far, it’s only Devonne and a few transplants to town who’ve taken her up on this natural-hair thing. The transplants are women who’d moved to Tulsa for a few years to teach at the university or reluctantly work for the oil and gas company, writing pamphlets about indigenous rights in secret at their desk jobs. Women who carry canvas bags slung over their shoulders instead of purses and who like to wear T-shirts with pictures of books on them. “Dusty bitches,” Melody calls them, because they are the kind of women who look at her family’s big mansion, with its pink walls built from oil, and tell her her family’s not free. And Devonne would laugh when Melody said it, even though it felt like a betrayal of Missy. It’s true, it wasn’t always easy between her and Missy. Missy had taken it hard when Devonne told her she was a girl, had accused Devonne of being in a phase, of trying to steal her ideas, of wanting attention. She’d knocked it off when she’d seen Devonne come home with a fat lip the first time, and now, in her reimagining, she has always fiercely recognized Devonne’s girlhood. “I been knowing” is how she puts it, and Devonne wants to say, so many times, “Really?” But it felt like this was a price for Missy’s love. To pretend it has always been there.

 But still, Missy was the one who had helped Devonne when she’d first gone to her to ask how to grow out her hair, how to set it just right. Who, in the early days of Devonne’s girlhood, would open the shop after hours so that Devonne could sit in the chair without scrutiny and get her hair done. Who would growl at the dusty bitches who stared at Devonne. “She a woman just like you. Get it?” 

Devonne would betray all of that understanding just to see Melody smile.

The pressure of Missy’s hands on her scalp suddenly stops. Missy is leaning over her phone again, scrolling and scrolling, typing something into the screen, and out of the tinny speakers comes Nina Simone’s voice. It’s the prelude to Devonne’s favorite song of hers, “I Shall Be Released.” Before the song begins, the organ and backup singers swell in a false start, and then Nina’s voice, hoarse and deep, comes out, says, “You pushin’, you pushin’. Don’t put nothing in it unless you feel it.”

“Listen to that,” Missy says. “I’m playing that for you.”

Missy taught Devonne about Nina. She’d brought home the CDs after her one semester away at college, before she’d had to come live at home because she’d run out of money. When Devonne first heard Nina’s voice, she’d said, “Is that a lady?” and Missy had said, “Of course, dummy.”

Melody says Devonne has it easy—“You light, you pretty, you pass.” And Devonne wants to protest, but she knows it’s true. Prettiness is a shield, a flimsy one, but one worth having.

Nina Simone was probably the first woman Devonne fell in love with. She’d looked at the pictures on the jacket lining—Nina’s angular shoulders jutting through an evening gown, and then her in a turban and a heavy wrap, a princess of an unknown country. She’d traced her nose and lips with her wet pinkie finger. So was it any wonder that when Melody first put on a wig, Devonne had gasped at the sight of her? Melody in her mama’s wig looked just like Miss Nina Simone, but when Devonne had said that to her, breathlessly, Melody had scowled and pulled the wig off, assuming that Devonne was making fun.

“We can’t all have that good 3C hair,” Melody had sniffed, reaching out to flick the curls in Devonne’s eyes. And Devonne had said no, that’s not what she meant, no, Nina was beautiful and so was Melody. But Melody was stubborn like that. Would rather believe herself rudely unloved than that she’d heard a compliment wrong.

Like Nina, Melody had a strong, broad nose that Devonne wanted only to press her fingers against. Melody had full lips, like a peach, and wide-spaced eyes. And flared, high cheekbones that gave her a haughtiness she lived up to. And her skin was a deep, rich brown that light pinged off of, like stars did in a night sky. Devonne would never be able to understand how Melody did not see she was beautiful. But maybe that was the problem.

“You think you can love someone without understanding them?” she says now to Missy.

Aunt Jack has collapsed on the couch, overcome by his drink, and is slightly snoring.

“It’s tricky to call it love,” Missy says. “You known Melody your whole life. Y’all were boys together. Y’all know each other's secrets. You love her because you know her like yourself. But is that real love? It’s maybe a nice story.”

Devonne’s eyes burn. “Rude,” she says.

“It’s just,” Devonne tries again. “I’ve loved her for so long I wouldn’t know how to stop. And Melody, she don’t believe me when I say it. And maybe it don’t matter anyhow because she says she’s leaving. She says she hates Tulsa—”

“How can a person hate a place they won’t even allow themselves to live in?” Missy stops her work and slaps Devonne’s shoulder in disgust. “Honestly, no one’s seen Melody’s ass out anywhere. Going on years, at this point.”

“She says she hates Tulsa and she’s leaving. I didn’t think she was really planning to, but she told me today she thinks she has enough to leave. She’s been working so hard—”

“At what? She literally never leave the house.”

Devonne feels a flash of anger at her big sister. “You know why she can’t leave.”

“Shiiiit,” Missy says, blowing out air through her lips. “I know what I know, but you don’t want to hear it.”

Devonne tenses. “What?”

“Nah, you ain’t ready and I’m hungover and actin’ ugly, so just leave it.”

“No,” Devonne says. “Say it.”

Missy stops her work on Devonne’s scalp again. She leans over to the side so that she can see Devonne’s profile. “You really want me to say it?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Here goes. Melody’s a nice enough kid, but she a coward. And daddy didn’t raise us to love no cowards.”

“She not.”

“She is.” Missy slaps her own thigh. “You know I know it’s hard with the whole trans thing. It’s hard. But you had it hard and you able to figure it out. Melody won’t even try. Just sits up in her fancy-ass house, disappearing into a computer screen, pretending to be a centaur or some shit instead of living her life. I don’t want you in that mess. You work so hard, Devonne, to make your life what you want. On your terms. You deserve someone who work as hard as you.”

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Kenturah Davis, "A Mirror of a Mirror," 2019, oil pant applied with rubber stamp letters on color ground with chine-collé paper.

Devonne wants to tell Missy about all the ways she’s wrong. That she’s been in that big pink-and-black house and seen Melody stand in front of the other wall of ancestors—photographs of Melody’s grandmother, mother, and sisters, all beauty queens, each crowned Miss Greenwood for over a century. The pictures are cutouts from the front page of the Tulsa Star. Each woman is in the same pose in front of the Convention Hall on Grady Street, in ballgowns past, hair pressed all the way down their backs to their narrow behinds, no weaves. Devonne has seen Melody stand in front of those pictures, looking up at them, and she thought for the longest time it was longing. But it’s only today that Melody has set her straight. She was studying. The thing that means she’s going to leave, that means she can escape—she’s built a game called Miss Greenwood, that lets anyone become a beauty queen who wants it, and Gurley Industries has bought it. And because Gurley’s the biggest company in town, because her daddy will surely find out and hate her for it, she thinks there’s real danger in taking the money and staying. She thinks there’s no reason to stay.

Devonne is trying to figure out how to say all this in a way that won’t frustrate the severely hungover Missy when they both hear the bell at the front of the shop and they freeze. They hear someone walking quickly down the row of chairs, and then the beaded curtain pushes aside, and there is Melody, in all her beauty, sullen, eyes kept down low because she knows Missy and Aunt Jack don’t like her. 

“Figured it’d be easier if we just met here,” Melody says.

“Happy birthday,” Missy says, her smile too bright. Melody rolls her eyes and Devonne scrambles up off the floor, wipes the dust off the back of her cutoffs. Melody has managed to leave her house in what she’d actually choose to wear—a billowing black shift, like something a woman warrior would put on, with black leggings underneath and a black scarf knotted loosely around her neck. She’s been growing out her hair, but her daddy would kill her if she did anything with it, so it sits, untamed, like a crown. Devonne thinks it is beautiful but knows not to say it. To say it would only make Melody mad.

“I wanted to take you on a walk, but let’s go out back first,” Devonne says. She can feel her own throat quiver, hears her voice shake, is sure Melody will say something, but Melody doesn’t. She just hangs back, against the wall. 

Devonne reaches for her hand and is gladdened when Melody doesn’t pull away. She even feels Melody squeeze her hand, once, and it is all Devonne can do not to break out in a smile. She leads Melody back through the other cramped rooms, past Aunt Jack’s little cot, pushes on the back door of the salon and—they are out, out in the night air of Tulsa.

The back of the shop is a garden. Devonne’s daddy started it, back when he bought the shop, in his confusion of what it meant to live in Tulsa. He wasn’t sure back then what this place was—he knew it was Black wealth, but he always tells Devonne, “It damn sure didn’t feel like freedom.” The only things he could control were the shoots he could coax from the ground, and 20 years later, the garden back here is strong, is beautiful, is tomatoes in white plastic buckets with faded shampoo labels; butterfly weed and wild red columbine and fringed bluestar.

Melody takes a deep breath, but Devonne puts up a finger.

“Hold up,” she says. “Let’s just breathe a minute. Together.”

Melody rolls her eyes again. But she does it. 

The storm that threatened earlier has rolled away. This part of town doesn’t have the same gleaming lights as Melody’s does, so you can still see the night sky. Just above Melody’s head, Devonne spots the bright, white shine of Venus. 

She says, looking at that faraway star, “How can you leave all of this?”

Melody’s face falls. She says, quietly, “I have to.”

“You don’t. You really don’t. You could stay here with me.”

“I want my real life to start,” Melody says.

“But what if, what if, what if it’s already started?” Devonne says. And then she just does it. She has wanted to do it for so long, and she just does—she leans forward and cups Melody’s head in her hands and pulls her close for a kiss. She keeps her eyes closed for a long time when it’s over because she cannot bear to see what the result is, but after a pause, she feels Melody kiss her back.

She opens her eyes. And she says, “Stay here. Stay mine. Stay in Tulsa.”

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Kaitlyn Greenidge