This submissions was part of the #PurpleReigns: A Tribute to Prince event hosted at the New School, Friday, September 23rd.
My Facebook feed filled with amazing stories after Prince died. Revelations sparked by his songs; his mystique. Transformations sparked by fleeting encounters with the enigmatic Artist.
But I hesitated to share my most vivid Prince-related memory. I felt ashamed.
My cousin Paul and I were about 9 years old when we performed a fierce acapella rendition of “Little Red Corvette” (1983) in the kitchen belonging to my Polish Catholic grandmother. Our poor Babu moved slowly on account of terrible arthritis. We’d been sassing her for some time, “Babu, you got to slow down!” But that morning, as she toiled to prepare the weekly Sunday mid-day ‘dinner’ for about 30 relatives, we pushed her too far.
When Paul dropped to his knees to declare, in his perfect pre-adolescent falsetto, that Babu “got an ASS LIKE I NEV-AH-AH SEEEEN!!!” she lost it.
“Gulgan!! You stop singing that filthy devil music right now! Or I’m gonna beat your dupa black and blue!”
Translation: “Rascal! I’m gonna whip your ass!”
It was almost like she had hit us.
We knew the song was raunchy, of course. That was the fun! But Babu never blanched at a bit of bawdiness. When she dragged us to Bobby Vinton concerts, I ducked the grannie-panties (literally) and other lingerie being flung on stage as I fulfilled my duty as the only granddaughter: deliver a kiss and a bouquet of red and white roses to the “Polish Prince” on behalf of Babu’s Polish National Alliance Lodge. Babu adored Liberace, too. So I don’t think it was lewdness or gender-bending that upset her.
No, it was Paul’s soulful delivery.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but Babu didn’t use the word “devil.” She used the “n” word. Our adults taught us That Word was bad, wrong, offensive. Our adults never used That Word. Not in front of us. Not in English.
It was like we’d fallen into some time warp in the middle of my grandmother’s kitchen. Back to the beginning of a three-generation process by which an immigrant working-class Polish Catholic family achieved middle-class status and secured their claim to whiteness.
Paul and I lived in the affluent suburbs west of St. Louis. Babu and her siblings lived in “Wondell Woods.” Her father had developed this little enclave atop a bluff in Belleville, Illinois that overlooked East St. Louis. The Wondolowskis settled there shortly before the race riot of July 1917, just a month before Babu’s birth. At least 39 blacks and 9 whites died when mobs of white working-class ethnics lashed out violently against their competitors for jobs and housing, the African-Americans carried North by the Great Migration.
I interpret the bloodshed in this way as a historian. How did that other Julia — Babu’s mother, my newly-arrived, 8-month pregnant great-grandmother — interpret it?
In 1983, Paul and I discovered that whiteness remained fraught and fragile in Wondell Woods. Babu had navigated the contradiction between striving for success in a nation distinguished by racial apartheid and seeking acceptance in a country that owed so much of its culture to African-Americans. East St. Louis held no more than 80,000 residents in her youth; little geographic distance separated her from her contemporary Miles Davis.
Even in 1983, racial contradictions expressed themselves subtly in the daily occurrences of family life, in the smell of barbequed ribs and stewed collard greens in Babu’s kitchen. We listened to Prince in the suburbs across the Mississippi River with the friends we’d made at private Catholic academies (like the ones our mothers had attended). Babu’s nieces and nephews and their children attended unexceptional public schools in the vicinity of Wondell Woods. Her nephew achieved some local fame as a polka DJ on AM radio. Which branch of the family had succeeded? How did Babu reckon the cost?
The family history Paul and I had learned was about their hard work, their thrift and their sacrifice, their morality and their merit. Babu’s father had owned the grocery in the Polish community, which made him one-part informal banker and, probably, one-part loan-shark. In any case, the Wondolowskis reigned as working-class Polish royalty in East St. Louis. In the early 1960s, they established their new domain because “the neighborhood changed.” East St. Louis was fast on its way to becoming — and today remains — the poorest and most violent city in the United States.
Their explanation for the move always struck me as insufficient. Every weekend, when we traveled over the Mississippi River and into Wondell Woods, we gazed down from the over-passes of the highways that had delivered our forbearers to their promised land: the suburbs, the office parks and hospitals, the private Catholic schools. We drove over miles and miles of desolate tracts en route to Wondell Woods. We knew our adults considered these areas dangerous. We knew that the very few people who lived there were black. We learned these lessons every summer when our Eastern European Catholic mothers fought with our Northern European Catholic fathers. They argued about whether to allow Babu to take us into the North City, to the annual festival at the Falcon’s Athletic Club. They argued about whether to allow Babu to take us to mass at St. Stanislaus, the Polish church situated just in front of the abandoned 60-acre Pruitt-Igoe site.
And once, our mothers drove us through East St. Louis and told us not to tell our fathers. The neighborhoods hadn’t “changed.” It had been destroyed. No group of troublesome neighbors could level the destruction we passed. Individual malfeasance could not account for the desolation. We knew this. We watched it. Sometimes the local nightly news showed the demolitions.
When Babu used That Word, it shocked our ears and opened our eyes. I started to ask questions. I learned that the adults left out some important details in the family history. My grandfather’s white-only union membership, his ability to hold down three jobs because blacks ‘need-not-apply,’ his break with the Democratic Party and leadership in a local taxpayers’ party, the fact that Wondell Woods fell outside of the red-line on the FHA map (which qualified those houses for a federally-guaranteed mortgage), our fathers’ Vietnam draft deferrals, the bizarre system of municipal districting in St. Louis County that kept our neighborhoods white and meant that our police didn’t view us as revenue streams (unlike in nearby Ferguson).
And I’m still learning. Mostly I’m trying to listen, as much as possible to folks who lived beneath over-passes and in places like Ferguson.
In “Little Red Corvette,” Prince fucks this entire history of ‘affirmative action for while people.’ He fucks the entire mid-century social order. And he fucks it all, all the way to the top of the Chevrolet product line.
The automobile, after all, epitomized The Bargain between capital and labor that stood for roughly three decades after World War II. White ethic workers — most importantly auto-workers — were allowed unions. Collective bargaining and federally-subsidized credit helped all white male breadwinners achieve an ‘American’ standard of living for their submissive wives (yeah, right) and children: the single-family suburban house, at least one car, maybe more. Maybe a socially-mobile son would buy a Corvette one day.
African-Americans weren’t part of The Bargain. That Word Babu used dated back to the days when The Bargain was in effect. After it fell apart, Babu and her descendants chose to stop using That Word. They wanted to believe they ‘made it out’ of East St. Louis all on their own. They stopped using That Word as part of the process of forgetting about The Bargain. They kicked away the ladder and they convinced themselves they’d never climbed it in the first place.
Prince fucks all that. He slides right into that Little Red Corvette. And he doesn’t care whether anyone thinks a black man belongs there or not.
(And yes, I know the Corvette’s a metaphor for a woman. But the lyrics aren’t objectifying or misogynistic. She “believes in making out once, love ‘em and leave ‘em fast.” She’s much too fast. She needs to slow down. Prince yearns to find “the love that’s gonna last.” He may want to “tame her little red love machine.” But it doesn’t seem to happen.)
We loved Prince. We loved Babu. Those neighborhoods our adults mourned and feared we found fascinating.
I read that St. Stanislaus recently settled its lawsuits with the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Vatican. It now operates independently as a Polish National Catholic Church, in rejection of Vatican I (1889) proclamations of papal infallibility and supremacy (Catholicism is complicated). Under the leadership of the un-orthodox Fr. Marek Bozek, who supports the ordination of women, married men, and homosexuals, St. Stanislaus thrives with a mix of Polish, Polish-American, African-American and gay congregants. “Open Doors, Open Minds, Open Communion” the parish motto proclaims.
If there is a heaven, both Babu and Prince are smiling.