Legend has it, that deep in the Mississippi Delta round about 1930, a young black man by the name of Robert Leroy Johnson born 8 May 1911, stood at a local crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight and sold his soul to The Devil personified by a large black man. According to blues folklore, The Devil took Robert’s guitar, tuned it, played a few songs and handed it back to Robert which in turn transferred legendary blues talent to Robert as The Devil took ownership of Robert’s soul. From that moment on, he rose from being a small-time average blues player in the Delta juke joints to a Master of Delta blues. He went on to record two albums between 1936 and 1938 with a total of 29 songs that he is famous for to this day around the blues folk. Unfortunately, he died at age 27 in August 1938 before he could record song number 30. It is believed many generations of blues singers have tried in vain to trace and record what was supposed to be his 30th song and he retained that into his deal with The Devil. Allegedly the song resides within each person’s soul and you have to discover it yourself. This was somewhat captured in the 1986 movie ‘Crossroads’ directed by Walter Hill. The significance of this story is glaringly visible in almost every story/movie that tells the history of Delta black folk, that in almost every production you can always see a rural dirt crossroads that signifies a decision point. The lyrics and melody of ‘Crossroad Blues’ itself painted a vivid picture of a troubled man desperate for direction and a breakthrough. The song and its references went on to become a popular feature in blues to this day. At the start of the song, Robert passionately narrates “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above, ‘Have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please”. In 1954, Elmore James recorded a rendition of the song and titled it Standing At The Crossroads’ with revised lyrics. He poured out how he stood there with his head hung down and crying while thinking about his baby, that he worked hard as a slave for and yet cannot be found. He is wondering if this undoing with his heart right in his hand thinking about his baby being with another man.
Now you might be wondering what this blues rambling is all about, but the significance of Delta Black men ending up at the same old crossroad, at their lowest points seeking help following introspection that is set to define the rest of their young lives, resonates with a black man like me as I look at my life journey. Too often I found myself at decision points which I treated with some level of contempt depending on what I deemed to be the impact they might have on my life and balanced with the limited resources/knowledge I had at that given moment. However, at some point in my life, there was that pivotal point where decision making was at a crossroad set to firmly define the rest of my life. I stood there, symbolic as it all might have been, deciding the four dimensions of my life and the direction they will lead me to, namely:
Although these four complement and feed off each other, often they do contradict each other so violently that as a man, one ends up in perpetual turmoil trying to find out who they truly are and where they fit in life. That search and turmoil will inadvertently have an impact on those who are in and around your life just as they will also impact you and feed into that that turmoil. It’s in that delicate dance of life that we as men often need the most help, guidance and support yet often find ourselves reluctant to reach out for it. Our reluctance could be a result of preconceived ideas that a cry for help is a sign of weakness or simply a fact that we are not used to having outlets that afford us such support structures. Whatever the reason(s) might be, the culture of proactively and openly engaging regarding our challenges is not as widely practiced as it should be and lately, the platforms seem to be in short supply as well which further exacerbates the reluctance to be forthcoming. In an attempt to break the tide and galvanize a renewed sense of engagement, allow me to lay bare my blues at the crossroad.
This is who I am! This is who I have become based on my nature from birth and how my past to current life experiences have nurtured me. From subconscious decisions, I have made to decisions that have been made for me. From circumstances within my control to those beyond my control, silent observations and responses I received to questions I asked. I had to learn and accept that nobody can help me define who I am, it has to be me who interrogates the man in the mirror to understand his core and define him in totality. The fears, dreams, aspirations, hopes, secrets, strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. This is who I am as a human before narrowing it down to being a man, the specific man that I am.
Now I can’t sit around and chew fat all day, a man has to earn a living in some way, shape or form. The environment in which I earn that living might be largely out of my control, but who I am as an individual plays a significant role in deciding where and how I pursue earning a living. I could do it legally, illegally or in between, morally, immoral or amoral. It could be corporate, formal, informal, employee, employer, hustling or simply going with whatever flows my way. We don’t choose what life throws at us, but our character allows us to choose how we react to it.
The Member of Society
External pressure starts to boldly manifest itself as society begins to be more vocal and confrontational about who they expect me to be in my personal and professional capacity. For the most part, the definition of this part of my life is constructed around giving. It is about the contribution I’m expected to make towards strangers, friends, enemies, family and society at large. My character as an individual and my resources as a professional influence how I go about this and I just have to hope that the outcome stacks up to society’s expectations of me. Alternatively, I could simply say “sod what society thinks/expects of me, I am my own man” and that would be ok, except, that on its own defines the member of society I am and does not stop society from having expectations either way.
The “Other Half”
Not only is external pressure bold, but it is now personalized and publicized. We are now in the realm of needs and no longer mere expectations. Others are now defining who they need me to be in their individual lives as a lover and a father. My traits, trends and tendencies are purposefully evaluated and measured against their expectations of the role and value I’m supposed to add to their existence and needs. I’m also starting to define who I need them to be in my life for me to reach a sense of fulfilment to co-exist with them. It is possibly the most delicate dance of all as it can either build or break me as an individual, professional or member of society. A pivotal point where takers tend to dominate the givers and complementing each other borders on combating each other.
Photographer: Adrian MacDonalds