by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
For the past decade or so, about 30 to 40 local Black families have traveled to a small, nondescript little town outside Green Bay for a weekend of ‘Play, Praise and Partying.’ Unless natives of the exclusively White city happen to travel by the corner section of the resort where we congregate, they probably would never know we’ve invaded their segregated township. But if they get within a few hundred feet of our lodge they would immediately realize the music blaring isn’t the Polka and the floor isn’t shaking from folks engaged in a square dance. That, however, would probably be the only encounter they would have with us, as most of us rarely venture outside the confines of the resort. Not because we’re inhospitable, but more so because our days and nights are filled with activities.
For three days, a largely isolated section of the resort is converted to 1970 Black Milwaukee, complete with that era’s music and sense of community. It’s a special event, generally held, appropriately, the weekend before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
Usually there’s snow on the ground, covering the resort golf course, and limiting outside activities. But that’s not a handicap, since most of rarely venture outside anyway.
We assemble to party and play in limited space indoors, and even if the heat were off I suspect we’d warm of the housing unit just the same.
There’s generally about four to six ‘party suites,’ each with its own flavor, but essentially overlapping theme. There’s always concurrent bid whist and other games, DJs blasting their interpretation of 70s and 80s music and enough food to feed a small church after a two-hour sermon.
The adjoining rooms allow for movement from event to event, and since we’re all clustered together—separate bed rooms of course—we’re always just a stone’s throw of a different experience with a host of assorted friends. You gotta’ participate to fully appreciate the experience. It’s a full weekend of rejuvenation, reminiscence and old-fashioned fellowship. By the time you leave on Sunday morning, your jaws are tight from laughter, you mind is reeling from memories renewed and your stomach is swollen from a feast of fine foods covering the soul food spectrum.
OK, most of us will drink a little here and there. That too is part of the social structure. But no drugs are allowed, and in fact, don’t bring the cheap bottom shelf stuff.
In fact, there’s no store brought food allowed either. Every couple brings their signature dish, which this year ranged from my super hot and spicy hot wings, to Curt’s 24-inch crab legs, Harper’s Midwest clam chowder, and Sara’s Monkey Bread. Chances are you can’t fully partake of all of the various dishes, although many of us try.
Before the first of several meals, we always gather for a cycle of friendship, which also provides the foundation for our praise reports and prayer. The circle may not be uniquely African, but it is the essence of our culture; for the circle means there is no beginning and no end. It means we are all an equal part of the whole; linked by a higher being and a grand purpose. It is during this libation that we give praise for our good health; for our commonality. For our friendship. For allowing us to meet again. For the president and world peace. For unity of purpose and prosperity, amid all that is happening—and not happening— 80 miles south.
Each year the circle grows as others are admitted to join; adding and enriching those who share the common cultural thread that bends us all. After our libation, we party. Hearty. Bid whist at several tables. Board games command other tables. Loud talk and smackin’ fill the room. Stories morph into imaginable tales (that’s not lying). Reminiscing about the good ole days. Current politics. Community happenings. What’s wrong with today’s generation? What’s right with them? How we survived, and the foundation we laid.
All of this to the beat…. the drum beat…the trumpet, the guitar, a tenor sax and the piano—sweet soul music, the harmony that connects our people, the descendents of the Motherland. The music, played by alternating DJs has a common cord, even if the rhythms are as unique as the performers. Mostly oldies, message music, classic Soul and R&B, some jazz and a little blues…down home and some of that ‘does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night’ stuff. Not my cup of tea, but everybody gets into it, because we share a common history and overlapping memories of the good ole days.
As they do when Marvin Gaye is asking ‘What’s Going on? Or James Brown reminding us to “Be Black and Proud.” Can’t help but tap your feet and collect yourself when Curtis Mayfield declares “We’re a Winner,” or proclaims, “We’re Moving on Up.” Of course we get off on a little Usher and Beyonce, but the DJs always find their way back to the oldies that spark vivid memories. Some may not appreciate our ‘old timers’ weekend.’ But most of us are over 50 and the world we grew up in is vastly different from the Black community most of us left on Thursday or Friday. We grew up in segregated schools and neighborhoods. Discrimination was legal during my youth and there were never any doubt that the wall of apartheid was there even if you couldn’t see it.
But there were many positives. Neighbors actually knew it other. Our teachers, ministers, lawyers and doctors were our neighbors, because in the Milwaukee we grew up in, the walls of apartheid were highly visible.
Nonetheless, we survived in part because we were a community; we shared and cared. We didn’t lock our doors, and nobody ever went hungry. When someone on the block couldn’t pay the rent, we held rent parties. And as in African and Indian cultures, everybody was your mother, and didn’t hesitate to beat your behind if you strayed off the path.
Back in the day, the majority of girls were virgins entering adulthood (or at least we thought). Boys made it through high school without ‘getting any,’ at least from the ‘good girls.’ If a sister got pregnant, she disappeared for five months and came back home with a niece.
That may sound strange to people today, but we grew up Christian; morality was important and Black nuclear families—however poor—were the foundation, following by extended family and then community.
Back in the day, civil rights activities empowered us, and we watched our parents chaining themselves to bulldozers to force the public school system to allow us to attend ‘desegregated’ schools. We were expected to continue the fight, and most of us did.
We fought for each other–for our race–and there was no jealousy if a child down the street made it out, went to college. Education wasn’t only for nerds or White people as some youth feel today. Hell, we contributed our nickels and dimes for the neighborhood kids to go to school, because his or her educational growth, it was a source of pride for all of us.
Think about that reality and you might better understand the people who attend our annual retreat and the mindset we share. Our history is part of us, as was the beat, the bush and the battle.
So between bites of good food, slamming down that trump card or singing along to the Temptations or Smokey, we talked about the good ole days and how we can bring a sense of that unity and purpose to today’s society. We take pride in our battle scars, whether they came from a Southside kid who hit us in the head with a brick during the open housing marches, or from bumping our head against the lamp during a ‘blue or red light’ party in somebody’s basement.
Yeah, it was an enriching, entertaining and reinvigorating weekend. Each year we bring someone new, someone younger into the mix. That’s something we should really focus on because ours are stories, not just bout civil rights and survival, but of the music, our mission and our muse.