restricted access Waiting for Smokey Robinson
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168 Are you sure he’s coming?” “Yeah,” my cousin Hayward said with clear conviction. “How do you know that? Just ’cause you saw him the other day doesn’t mean he’s gonna show up today,” I contested. We were sitting on the sidewalk of Belmont Street, directly across from the home of Smokey Robinson. It had only been about fifteen minutes, but it felt like forever, and I was bored waiting for the famous Motown artist to appear. Besides, it was summertime in Detroit—hot, humid—and Hayward,who was seven years old and four years my junior, was notorious for engaging in mischievous pranks. My sister Sandy and I were beginning to suspect that this was another one of his tricks. Usually when we visited my Aunt Odessa’s house, I would nestle next to my older cousin, Bertha Dean, who was twenty-one, and certainly the smartest person in the world—at least the smartest grown-up who would allow me to tag along. As her loyal subject, I was inadvertently in training to become as outspoken as she. After all, we had a special bond.After my grandmother asked my Waiting for Smokey Robinson Melba Joyce Boyd Smokey Robinson, 1976. © Leni Sinclair Collection. “ 169 Melba Joyce Boyd parents to name me “Melba,” Bertha Dean offered my middle name, “Joyce.” But earlier that week, she had suffered a sickle cell anemia crisis and was rushed to the hospital for blood transfusions to arrest the violent eruption of white blood cells attacking the red ones. It was like a war raging throughout her entire body. In another year, I would turn twelve and be old enough to visit her in the hospital. I could not have imagined the extremity of the pain. The family enjoined her suffering, and with a laying-on-of-hands prayed for divine intervention. My first visit was the last attack, and she died later that night. I later came to believe these crises brought her in close proximity to God and, hence, closer to what was true. Bertha Dean never fell for bullshit images on television, especially invented stereotypes of Negroes, nor did she tolerate the internalized stupidity that came out of the mouths of her peers. “Negroes” is what we called ourselves then, because that’s what our parents said we were, and because that’s what the NAACP had proclaimed as the appropriate name for us at the time. It was 1961. Bertha Dean later confirmed that Smokey Robinson and his wife, Bernadette, did indeed live in the two-story, two-family brick house down the block. She had seen him on two occasions—once getting into a car, and again in the neighborhood drugstore around the corner on Oakland Avenue. He was seated on a stool at the soda fountain’s burgundy, linoleum-covered counter. She had also seen the famous preacher Prophet Jones there. He was another neighborhood celebrity who lived around the block on Arden Park Boulevard in a tacky, red-white-and-blue mansion. There was a huge white star painted above the front door between two large windows—a display of patriotism during the height of the civil rights movement. But Bertha thought his house looked ridiculous, as did his neighbors who shook their heads in disapproval whenever it intruded into view. Prophet Jones was known more for encoding the “winning number” in his sermons than for his theological prowess. His faithful flock would decipher digits from scripture and verse and later place bets in the “numbers” gambling enterprise to supplement factory paychecks or more modest incomes (and to fill offering plates). Needless to say, Bertha did not think much of or about Prophet Jones or his religious practices, but she did think that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were impressive and talented. She played “Shop Around,” their first number 1 hit record, and “Everybody’s Got to Pay Some Dues”while my sister and I tried to learn the latest teenage dance.Anyway, since she liked Smokey and the Miracles, so did I. Whenever we visited Belmont Street, Sandy and I would wait for Smokey in sun or shade, playing a game of jacks to bide our time. Upon further investigation, we discovered that Smokey Robinson wasn’t the only popular star from this neighborhood. Before she moved into the Brewster Projects,Diana Ross also lived on Detroit’s North End. Smokey met Aretha Franklin when she was only three years old through his...


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