(Originally published at OnePaper.com)
by J. K. Dowdy, Ph.D.
Lorraine Toussaint graced the stage of the African American Women on Tour as a keynote speaker on Saturday 26 August, 2000. She was simply dazzling in a lime green form fitting dress with a transparent shawl of the same color playfully draped on her arms to set off her beautiful polished brown, just a shade deeper than sapodilla, skin. She spoke about her life from the time her mother left her in Trinidad to work in New York up until the present moment at age forty. She is now the star of a major television series, “Any Day Now”, where she gets to make “creative input” and enjoy the luxury of having writers who are interested in telling the story of a “rounded” Black woman. Being taken seriously by the writers is one of the greatest achievements that she counts in her fifteen years since the beginning of her acting career.
Pictured: The author (left) shares a moment with actress Lorraine Toussaint during the Atlanta, GA leg of African American Women on Tour
In a private dinner with Lorraine, my first Trinidad friend who graduated from the Juilliard acting program in New York, I have the special treat of listening to her rehearse for the next days keynote address. She, of all people, needs to be reminded that the audience is coming to hear about the “star” that they see on TV. They want to listen to the voice that they have fallen in love with, I remind her. The audience, I tell her, suspects that Lorraine is no “overnight wonder” and that she has had some serious challenges to overcome on the way to that major network spot that they get to see her on every week. With that, to my surprise and delight, she launches in to the outline of the presentation.
“You don’t sharpen knife on velvet!”
Lorraine honors two “people” for the success in her life. Her mother, now two years departed, and God, whom she calls her “friend”. The first “person” taught her about God, pride, and the fact that “you don’t sharpen knife on velvet”. It is easy to understand why Lorraine states that she can sum up her success at this point in time as a result of the fact that “every adversity that has come my way, has made me the woman who I am today.” She likes that statement because it is a short form of all the adversity that she endured over her last forty years.
There is the adversity of being the dark-skinned child who was left behind in San Fernando when her mother left the country to do maid work in New York. Also, she counts the challenges of integrating in to Brownsville, New York at ten years old; the difficulty of waiting on line for Welfare checks at 4:30 a.m. in the winter, so that she would not be late for school; and the fact that she took care of her mother from the moment that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to her final days when she took her leave in Trinidad. Adversity is no stranger to Lorraine, and she wears her association with this taskmaster well.
God figures as a star performer in Lorraine’s story. First, God appears as the almighty power figure who absolutely refuses to grant her mother complete recovery when both mother and child journey to an out of town religious gathering to pray for her healing. Then God appears again in the story of pain resulting from the disappointment following that prayer meeting when Lorraine’s mother returned home untouched by the divine “remedy.” Lorraine says that she made “acting my God” and turned to Nietzsche for solace in the face of the unrelenting “bad mind” of the Great One. But that was not the end of the relationship with her “friend”, because when her mother “chose” to die, Lorraine had a serious talk with Him and asked “please” to “cut the c. . . out” and let her mother die with dignity. Such is the story from Trinidad who made her way to the Juilliard Theater School and out to the west coast of the United States so that she could star in several important television productions. This is not the first time that Lorraine and I have spent time talking about “personal” matters. We are fortunate that our relationship is not heavy with the kind of preoccupation that comes when people are in a “mutual admiration” club. Our conversation is filled with nitty gritty details of “making it” in a foreign country.
“This gathering of women”
There is clever analysis of our relationships, family and friends, and our hopes for our own family. Lorraine is thinking about starting a baby in a year or so. She wants to “squeeze one out” before it’s too late. This confession reminds her of another friend, over forty years, who has just had a child and had the fortune, or misfortune, of meeting a Caribbean nurse at the hospital where she was receiving treatment. After much discussion of the new-born and the challenges of motherhood, the nurse is greeted by the child’s father and the young one. The nurse takes a long second looking from father, to mother, to child, and then says, “Or ho, you make your child ol’?” This ‘tory sends Lorraine and I into raucous laughter. We both appreciate the nurse’s directness and the fact that we are both in a situation that could easily lead us to the same kind of treatment if we are lucky to have a Caribbean woman around us when we deliver our first babies. The day on which Lorraine delivers the keynote address, I have the honor of being her guest at the Atlanta Hilton. I sit at the front table as the veritable representative of the whole of Trinidad, and especially her mother. I know that I am only fas’ for playing like I am important, because the crowd of women have gathered to see and hear this “sister friend” strut her stuff. And boy does she show off!!! Is there anything more spectacular than a Trinidadian doing her thing in her time and in a place where people want her to do it? I don’t think so. I cry, I laugh, I applaud, I jump out of my seat when she is done telling her story and being “naked” before this gathering of women. The room full of women and men applauds for a long time.
As Lorraine leaves the podium she is surrounded by women of all ages and colors asking for pictures with her, by herself, or to have an autograph. An hour after the presentation she is still seated at a table signing autographs for the devoted members of the “Lorraine” club. I walk by without saying a word. “You done good, sis,” I say to myself. “Trini is proud, and your mother is proud. She’s right here watching you, too.”
Kilgour Dowdy, Ph. D., is the Assistant Director for Middle and Secondary Education and Instructional Technology, College of Education at Georgia State University