Joni and us

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw

My kids have sent me over the moon with joy.

Is it because they are doing well in school? They are, but that’s not why I’m thrilled.

Is it because their rooms are tidy? Please…

Is it because they are squabbling less and being more patient with each other? Pshaw!

The reason I’m giddy this morning is that my kids have finally “gotten” her—the object of my fanaticism, my Greatest of All Time: Joni Mitchell.

It would be an understatement to say that Joni Mitchell is my favorite artist, and I won’t go into how I wrote the vast majority of my second attempt at a novel while listening to Joni Mitchell and feeling alternately bold and morose. I’ll just talk about how I simply bubble over when 10-year-old Taylor asks to hear “Carey” again and again, even though she still doesn’t understand why Joni likes him if he’s a “mean ol’ daddy.” I’ll just mention how it makes my heart glad to hear five-year-old Peyton croon “Carey”’s opening line, “The wind is in from Africa…and last night, I couldn’t sleep…” and the “shooooooooo-bop-bop-bop-bop”’s from “Big Yellow Taxi”. I even love how Peyton asks me to find the part towards the end of “Woodstock” where Joni’s voice is “broken.”

I love all this not just because it’s her…but because I really want my girls to appreciate music other than insipid bubble gum pop and criminal remakes (Was I the only parent who kept saying through clenched teeth, “Earth, Wind & Fire did it better!” every time B5’s pathetic rendition of “Let’s Groove Tonight” played on Radio Disney?).

Okay, okay, don’t worry…I’m getting to the anti-racism parenting angle…

Of course, the girls have heard Joni Mitchell playing in the house before. But only recently did I pop her Hits CD into my car player. Apparently, hearing her in the car worked some kind of magic on the girls. As we drove home from school yesterday belting out “California”, Peyton asked out of the blue, “Is she brown or white?”

I did the dreaded answering-a-question-with-a-question: “What do you think?”

Without hesitation, Peyton answered, “Brown. She sounds brown.”

Taylor chimed in. “No, I think she’s white.”

Neither of them could tell me why they made the guesses they did or what they think it means to “sound white” or “sound brown”. This was one of those, “It just is.” kinds of things for them, and I didn’t press. For once.

After I pulled into the garage and turned off the ignition, I ejected the CD and showed it to the girls. Joni Mitchell’s head in profile covers the disk. Peyton was surprised, but even Taylor said, “That’s not how I pictured her at all.” Again, she couldn’t tell me how she had pictured her—just not like that.

We talked about how you can’t always predict these things; how skin color alone doesn’t always tell you much, if anything, definitive or meaningful about a person; but how experiences in our skin influence the art we create. I told them how Joni Mitchell has influenced artists of all colors, across disciplines—artists like Prince, Terence Trent D’Arby…and me.

Peyton, as an adopted child, was especially interested in “Little Green”, the song Joni Mitchell wrote to the child she placed for adoption decades ago. “It’s sad,” Peyton told me with a sigh after we went inside and listened to it. To brighten the mood, she wanted to hear “Soy Una Pizza” next.

But again, I’m glad. Joni Mitchell: artiste extraordinaire, wellspring of teachable moments. Who knew?

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer whose publications include Essence, Wondertime (a Disney publication), Bitch magazine, and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.




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