Updated: Jun 27, 2020
I came across this today it immediately took me back to my pageant days, this is the song l sang as my talent. As a young girl ‘Mahogany’ starring my all time favorite icon Dianne Ross l loved her music. l believe if you were a lil black girl in the ‘70’s you’ve sung her songs, at least l know my sisters and l did! This movie after recently viewing l now see the struggle of the inner city and the racism in it, but as a young girl, l only knew that it was a movie of hope dreams and determination. It’s still a must see...#Mahogany1975#doyouknowwhereyougoing #myblackhistory #listengoodmusic#mynightlyrambling🖤💚❤️✊🏾
Mahogany and Me
Diana Ross was the woman she wanted to be and I wanted to have...
Sep 18, 2014
In the fall of 1978, when I was fifteen, mom moved me and baby brother from New York City to Baltimore. Having lived in Harlem all of my life, it took about six months of sulking before I finally got into the swing of Charm City, as the town was called back then.
Living on Monroe Street and North Avenue in those pre-crack, pre-heroin, pre-The Wire days, reminded me of the working class images of the Ernie Barnes paintings used in the sitcom Good Times. Our piece of Baltimore was a pleasant lower-middle class community where small businesses thrived. Cheery neighbors greeted one another warmly as their brown-skinned children cleaned the white marble steps of their row houses on Saturday morning.
After tenth grade, mom was determined that I wouldn’t spend my days drowning in the four-color daydreams of Marvel comics and Harlan Ellison short stories while listening to “Ziggy Stardust,” so she found me a job at a local youth program.
A day after my sixteenth birthday on June 23, I walked the two blocks to the office located inside a renovated row house. Inside, the walls were painted blue and overhead rows of fluorescent lights gently hummed. Slowly walking to the front room, an overweight light-skinned woman sat at a paper-cluttered desk.
“My mom sent me,” I blurted.
The lady looked me in the closely and smiled. “Your mother? Who is your mother?”
“Frances Gonzales. My name is Michael.”
“Yes, yes, I remember her,” she said.
Her voice was heavy, but not mean. She reached into a stack of papers next to a black telephone and handed me a few sheets. “Here, fill out these applications.” Shy by nature, I was a little scared, but also excited. Quickly finishing, I handed the forms back and was instructed to return to the office the following Monday. “And don’t wear anything fancy. You’re going to be doing some real work.”
On my first day, after an hour orientation covering the tedious rules and regulations, the crew was assigned to clean the streets. Mrs. Carter broke us off into groups of four, and supplied us with brooms, shovels and black plastic bags. The leader of my group was a cute girl named Virgie. Later she told me, “My real name is Yvonne, but everybody calls me Virgie.”
While short in stature, she was tall in attitude. Besides a little lipstick, Virgie wore no makeup. Like the rest of the bunch, Virgie usually wore t-shirts, jeans and sneakers to work. Below her neatly trimmed Afro, there were gold studs in her ears and her smooth skin was the color of pecans.
Within a few days, Virgie and I were friends and were talking as though we’d known each other forever. Unlike other girls I knew, Virgie didn’t gossip about boys or sex or getting married after high school. Most of our conversations were about music, which I loved, books and where we saw ourselves ten years from now.
In fact, most of the time, we talked about her wanting to be a fashion designer and her feverish love for Diana Ross. For Virgie, the two went hand-in-hand, because it was Diana Ross’ second movie role as an aspiring designer in Mahogany (1975) that inspired Virgie in the first place.
With Virgie’s first paycheck that summer, she bought a Singer machine, yards of colorful material, packages of Simplicity patterns and a few sketchpads to illustrate her own designs. With plans of graduating from Douglass High the following year, her goal was to major in fashion at the University of Baltimore before conquering the world.
“Then, I can move to New York or Hollywood and make clothes for the movies,” she fantasized. “Then, when you get a job as a writer on a big magazine, you can write about me and help make me famous.”
“You’ve got it planned, huh?” I chuckled. “Well, I look forward to making you famous.”
One day after work, Virgie asked if I liked crabs. When I said yes, we detached ourselves from the crew and headed towards Mondawmin Mall a few blocks away. Next to the massive building was a small crab shack. The air was thick with Old Bay seasoning.
“You can wait out here,” she said, pointing towards a paint peeling picnic table. “I’ll go get them.” Attached to the store were frayed speakers playing soul music steadily. Overhead, seagulls squawked. A few feet away, a smelly garage can overflowed with discarded crab shells and a small black cloud of flies buzzed.
Five minutes later, Virgie returned with a stained brown bag full of steamed crabs and a stack of old newspapers. After spreading the paper between us, Virgie dumped the crabs on top. Although I wasn’t an expert, I did my best cracking the shells, digging out the warm meat and sucking on the claws. While my mouth burned from the spicy seasoning coated on each crab like an extra shell, Virgie did most of the talking until the radio played “The Boss,” the latest Diana Ross single from her new album of the same name.
As usual, every time the song played, Virgie eyes began shooting skyrockets as she excitedly exclaimed, “That’s my song! That’s my song.” A Diana Ross-loving girl for real, Virgie knew everything about her from the sequined Supremes singing Holland-Dozier-Holland soul jams to the solo days in the studio with the “Le Freak” boys from Chic.
More than a decade after The Supremes released “Where Did Our Love Go,” Virgie’s grandmother had taken her downtown to the Mayfair Theater to see Mahogany (1975) and, as she had told me more than once, “That movie changed my life.”
I too was a fan of Ross as well as the flick, which I had seen when I was twelve at the RKO Coliseum in New York City. My own mother hated Diana Ross, always muttering, “She thinks she’s cute, with her skinny self and no-singing self.” Finally relenting, she finally took me to see Mahogany when my begging got to be too much. The poster outside the theater described Ross’ character as, “The woman every woman wants to be and every man wants to have.”
Years later I realized that Mahogany was more camp than classic, but as teenagers both Virgie and I had both fell for the Windy City rags to high-fashion riches story. Chronicling the rise and loves of Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross), a South Side girl who dreams of life outside her Chicago tenement, the film follows an aspiring fashion designer from who falls for a local politician (Billy Dee Williams), is discovered as a model by a crazy photographer Sean McAlvoy (Anthony Perkins) and becomes a fashion sensation in Europe.
Throughout the film, Mahogany’s saccharine instrumental theme music “Do You Know (Where You’re Going To)” played dramatically. At the end of the picture, Diana Ross finally broke through through the sugary grooves and sang: “Do you like the things that life is showing you, where you’re going to / Do you know?”►
Like something out of a romantic comic strip, the storyline was straight-up corny. Even as a kid, when she left the grandeur of Europe to return to the grime of Chicago to be with Billy Dee Williams, the love-struck ending got on my nerves. But the real story was about chasing your dreams, aspiring higher, making your life better and escaping the ghetto.
“Did you know that Diana Ross designed her own clothes in that movie?” Virgie asked as we dumped them in a nearby trashcan.
“You’ve only told us that like nine thousand times,” I said drolly. “But, if you’d like, please, tell me again.”
“I’m just saying, Diana Ross is real talented.”
Beginning in 1964 with the trios first number one smash hit “Where Did Our Love Go,” written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ross became the archetype for future female vocalists who didn’t process fierce vocal grit but still sounded good in front of a microphone.
Much like her contemporaries Dionne Warwick or Marilyn McCoo (The 5th Dimension), the “penthouse soul” of Diana Ross was a whisper compared to roaring gospel-based sisters Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner. Although Ross also sang in church as a child, her voice had a feathery texture. What she lacked in vocal prowess, however, Ross’ limitations didn’t prevent The Supremes from becoming the biggest group of the Sixties other than The Beatles.
Diana Ross soon crossed over and morphed into a legend. It was only a matter of time before she went solo.
The drama that swept through the pop music scene and Black households when Ross “abandoned” The Supremes in 1970 was unprecedented. In addition, the sad legacy of original member Florence Ballard left a bitter taste for many fans. She was kicked out of the group in 1967 and died penniless nine years later at thirty-two. Yet, none of that kept the next generation of pop women (Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé) from using Miss Ross as their guiding light.
As a young boy, staring at Ross’ pristine image on the covers of Sepia, Ebony, Black Star and Jet, she was always dressed in some wild styled Michael Travis/Bob Mackie gown. She was the perfect pop creation: always a beaming smile and a twinkle in her eyes with the clothes too ornate for mere mortals that were always perfect on her.
Walking Virgie home, the sun began to set as we crossed the street and slowly strolled down of Pennsylvania Avenue. It had been eleven years since the 1968 riots broke out in the area two days after Martin Luther King was killed. In the late-seventies, the once bustling Avenue still looked like a wounded freedom fighter content to lie in a gutter and die.
Seeing the old drunks stumbling down the sidewalk or sloughed on the decaying steps of abandoned houses, I tried to imagine those fallen brothers when they were cleanly shaved, wearing polished shoes and colorful suits and stepping out of shiny cars with fine women on their arms.
Virgie lived with her mother and grandmother in a house that looked rundown from the outside, but inside was neat and clean. Wearing a flowered housedress, her mother sat on the slip-covered couch watching television and nursing a bottled brew. She looked at me, grinned and slurred, “Hello.”
After that first day, whenever I saw her mom, she always looked slightly buzzed. Not exactly drunk, but she always had a “feeling no pain” expression on her face.
In the rear of the house, her grandmother sat at the kitchen table as the delicious smells of a fresh-cooked meal wafted from the stove. Virgie kissed her old wrinkled face. Her grandmother was sweet, but always looked worried, as though anticipating the ceiling might fall at any moment.
“You kids hungry?”
“Not right now, grandma,” Virgie said quickly. “We’ll be down later.”
“You can’t fool me young lady,” grandma sighed, “I can smell the crabs from here.” Heartily, the three of us laughed.
Upstairs, Virgie’s bedroom was a shrine to the Queen of Motown. There were Diana Ross posters on the wall and Supremes records on the floor. Taped to the closet door, there was an 8 x 10 of Diana Ross standing next to Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard on The Ed Sullivan Show, the trio dressed in glittery gowns. As the soundtrack to my visit, Virgie put on The Boss, which opened with the dramatic disco cut “No One Gets the Prize.”
“You wanna see some of the things I’ve made so far?”
“Of course, I do,” I replied.
Opening her closet, Virgie pulled out a few of her own original designs. While Virgie’s clothes weren’t as flamboyant as the ones featured in Mahogany, she had made some stylish treads including a pair of flared pants, a flowing maxi-dress and a floral print dress.
Plotting her escape from the misery of Pennsylvania Avenue, Mahogany played on a continuous loop inside Virgie’s young head. Miss Ross herself had come from the projects in Detroit, a place called Brewster, a ghetto community similar to ours. But, more determined than most, Ross managed to transform herself into pop royalty, proving to the world of poor Black girls that success was possible.
Towards the end of August, I walked to Virgie’s house one Friday night. In the next few days, our summer jobs would be through, and we’d both return to our previous lives: her as a senior at Douglass and me, on the other side of town, at Northwestern High. Yet, from the moment she opened the door, I knew something was wrong.
Inviting me inside, Virgie asked, “You want something to drink?” There was a sadness in her voice that I didn’t recognize. The air was thick with anxiety and, if I’d been older, I would’ve asked for a shot of rum to handle the tension.
“Coke is fine.” Minutes later, she handed me a glass filled with ice and soda. We sat down on the couch.
“I’m pregnant,” Virgie said softly, damn near whispering.
“What? Get the hell out of here. By who?”
“It doesn’t matter, you don’t know him.”
“I never heard you talk about any guys. You don’t even have a boyfriend. What about school? What about designing clothes.”
“You don’t know me as well as you think, Michael,” she screamed. “You don’t know me.”
Virgie’s usual charm had faded, her face revealing nothing: not sadness, not fear or not hope. Her eyes were roamed, as though searching for a safe place.
In my mind, I heard Diana Ross’ delicate voice transitioning from the aspiring “Do You Know” to the depressing “Love Child” to the final declaration of “No One Gets the Prize,” another track from The Boss. There were tears in Virgie’s eyes, but I didn’t care. Scanning the room, she stared at the wall behind me, but never looked at me directly.
“You’re judging me.”
“No, I’m not.” A part of me just wanted to shake her until she woke up. Not knowing what to say, or perhaps believing there wasn’t anything to say, we stayed silent, both aware that her dreams were on the verge of disappearing completely, lost in an onslaught of dirty diapers and sleepless nights.
For a second, I thought about Diana Ross’ character in Mahogany: modeling exotic clothes, jet-setting to foreign lands, hunching over her sewing machine.
However, at the end of the movie Tracy returned to those same shattered glass streets she had left a few years before.
“Well, if it’s a girl, maybe you can name her Tracy,” I suggested. For the first time that night, Virgie smiled.
A few months into the new school year, mom moved us to a nicer house on the other side of town. Occasionally, I’d go see Virgie, but as the days got shorter and her belly got bigger, we began drifting apart. Although we soon vanished from each other’s lives completely, she called me when the baby arrived. It was a boy.
It’s been thirty-five years since I last saw Virgie. I’ve walked through her old neighborhood a few times trying to find her, but the old houses are gone, and none of the faces looked familiar.
Today, whenever I listen to the oldies station and “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love” or any of Diana Ross countless singles plays, sometimes three in a row, I always hope that life could just once be like the 1969 Supremes single: one day Virgie and I will be together.
Cover illustration by Ileana Hunter