In the South, the cookout holds particular precedence in the Black experience. It serves as a respite in the gray area between myth and reality of Southern hospitality. It is the epicenter of rejuvenating Black bodies and spirits, taking place where that feeling of welcome is protected by the good energy shared among a family or community. Hierarchies of power are based on levels of shit-talking and whether you were asked to cook or bring bags of ice, rather than pedigree. Prestige is hard-earned over books taken in spades or bones laid in dominoes. And, above all, the temperature of the cookout is kept by the music. Being in charge of music at the cookout—or, at minimum, offering suggestions for songs to play—is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon any cookout attendee. Of all the iconic renderings of Blackness that a cookout represents, the music is truly where Black folks get to shine.
“Alright, boy, I talked it over with some people and it’s been decided that you can invite someone to the cookout this year,” Pops hollered from the bathroom. Splashing water and the light tap of a razor blade bounce down the hallway. I heard him humming S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time.”
“DO IT RIGHT!” He hollered at the mirror.
My head shakes as I scroll back through my conversation with Kashawn. Did she want to go? The smell of rotten eggs lazily sits at the foot of my room. “Pops, do you have to use that stank Magic shaving powder?” I yell. The carpet bends to what sounds like a crowd of men rushing towards my door. Pops throws his full frame into view, half of his face and head cleanly shaven, the other half still waiting for treatment. He balls the top of his pajama pants into his fist and yanks them up.
“I use the Magic because I got standards. You got a better option for me to maintain this level of sexy?” He laughs from his belly and it swings to his right side. Pops points at my phone. “What? You gone Google it?”
“Maybe.” I flip the phone over in my hand and stare at it. “Hey Google, how do you break it gently to your father he ain’t fine?” Pops winks. “You wish you could ask the internets how to get as fine as me.” He smacks his naked belly and it dances. “Shit, you ain’t got enough body to claim the fineness that is the Barkley genes. Nothing but skin and teeth.”
“Okay, Pops. Okay.” I smile at him and throw my hands up. Pops keeps going.
“Over there looking like an exclamation point and wishing you were a question mark.” He laughs.
“Yeah, son. A woman needs somewhere to lay her head and be comfortable. You over there looking like a matchstick waiting to be set off.”
“C’mon, Pops. That ain’t fair. I can eat.” Pops still stands halfway in the room. “Uh huh. I’ll make an appointment for you next week for worm screening.”
“Pops, that’s nasty.” He laughs. “I’m just giving it to you straight. Waves and a smile will only get you so far. When you ready to learn, holla at the master.”
“I’ll make sure to call Uncle Mookie.” Uncle Mookie was Pops’ older brother and a DJ. I couldn’t wait to see him at the cookout.
“Mookie? Negro, please.” He waves his hand to dismiss Uncle Mookie’s presence. “Mookie got pulled in by your Auntie Bernadette way back in the ‘80s. His game is literally last century.” We laugh together. “Aight Pops, I’m sorry. You the man.” He bows and backs out of my door.
“Don’t forget it, neither.”
I send Kashawn a text. She replies with a smiley face. My chest jumps.
“Pops! You done yet? I need the shower.”
“Sounding mighty urgent,” he throws over his shoulder. “Musta found someone for that invite.”
Nana and Auntie Ruby lived on King Drive by the river in a house that my Gramp built with his own two hands. Nana swore she’d never leave the house because the price was too high. “Your granddaddy and I risked it all to live and love here. I ain’t got enough nerve to turn my back on him or this place he built with his own blood and sweat.” Even after a flood and two major storms got mad enough to shove her house off its foundation, Nana would not be moved. Rows of cars lined up along the street and in the empty lot across from the house. Smoke wafted into the car along with the hooping and hollering of people happy to see each other.
Nana swore she’d never leave the house because the price was too high. “Your granddaddy and I risked it all to live and love here. I ain’t got enough nerve to turn my back on him or this place he built with his own blood and sweat.”
“Barkley Manor,” Pops said grinning at the sight of his childhood home. He ran his hand across the rail of the front porch and his eyes glistened over. He shakes his head, as if willing the water from his eyes to stop, and looks at me.
“I miss him too, Pops.”
He claps my shoulder. “Doesn’t seem like Daddy’s been gone two years.” He reached for the rickety brass door knob and shook it open. Prince yells “Do you want me?!” over staticy speakers into our face. Clusters of cousins sit on Nana’s couch and in folding chairs. Pops’ face brightens. “What all y’all heathens doing here?” he hollers, arms opened wide like a king greeting his people. They turn towards Pops and yell in response.
“There he go!”
“What’s happening witcha kinfolk?”
“The trouble finally done got here!”
“What you got in the trunk for us this year, Coley?”
Pops smushed himself between cousin Tonya and her girlfriend Sweetie, smacking the table with his hands.
“Who got the deck?” More excited chatter. The smell of brown sugar and molasses grabs my nose and Prince’s yell bows to the sanctified holler of Shirley Caesar coming from the kitchen. Nana is hunched over the sink, shaking the water out of fresh picked collard greens like a tambourine and into the pot waiting next to her. My cousins Tia, Annette, and Doll Baby huddle together near the backdoor, looking for an escape from kitchen duties like pulling off the chicken fat, shucking corn, or snapping peas. They see me first and nod. Doll Baby mouths “help us” and I shrug. Nana looks up to see the girl trio standing there not working.
The smell of brown sugar and molasses grabs my nose and Prince’s yell bows to the sanctified holler of Shirley Caesar coming from the kitchen.
“Tia? What y’all just standing there fuh chile? Gone and shuck that corn. It’s already in the basket out on the porch. Doll Baby, get on those peas. And Annette?” She cautiously moves towards Nana.
“Yes ma’am?” Nana frowns in thought.
“Nana, you want me to do the chicken fat thing?”
“Girl, no. Not after what happened last time. Just gone to the store and fetch some more of those red cups and ice.” Annette’s face falls.
“Nana, I dropped the chicken one time!”
Nana flutters another handful of collards from her hands into the pot.
“And the peas one time and the corn one time and burned all the water out of my good pan. How you burn water?”
The other women in the kitchen laugh and Annette pouts.
“I’ll be back soon.” She runs out of the kitchen. Nana finally sees me as Shirley Caesar sings about dry bones. “Hey dea, Zeke Zeke! Come gimme some sugar.” She stretches the side of her face towards me. “Where Coley be?”
“Pops is in the living room with some of the cousins.” She smiles and thrusts her head towards the oven. “Got your favorite cooking in there.” The smell of sugar, peaches, and nutmeg starts to grow stronger.
“With extra thick crust?”
“Only way I know how to make it.” Nana hums along to the Williams Brothers “Cooling Water.” She squints her eyes to look around the kitchen. “Where Ruby?”
Aunt Ruby sits on a stool by the oven and fiddles with the knobs on her radio. The radio isn’t turned on but she taps the back of the box and smiles and hums.
“Hey Aunt Ruby,” I say sliding an arm across her shoulders. “How you?”
“Quiet boy! Don’t you hear my music playing?” She lifts the radio to my ear. “It’s the good one.” I smile and sing “cooling water from grandma’s well.”
“How you get it to sound so good, Auntie?” She shrugs. “It speaks when I tell it to I guess.” Nana calls out to me.
“Zeke Zeke, gone out there and see if the mens need help with the meat.” She brings over a pan of hot links and bratwursts. “These shouldn’t take too long but it smells like at least one of the grills is ready.” A warm breeze hits my face and the music shifts from saintly to funky. Uncle Tonk and his twin Uncle Torrey stand over their own barrel grills. Uncle Tonk’s grill is black with a gold handle and Uncle Torrey’s grill is purple with a gold handle. The Brothers Johnson set the intentions for the day: “We’re gonna stomp! All night! In the neighborhood, don’t it feel alright?” I hand the pan of sausages to Uncle Tonk. He pounds my fist.
“Hot links for the hottest grill! Yes suh!” Uncle Torrey rolls his eyes.
“Mama only trust you with the sausages because you don’t have the skills for smoking ribs and chicken.” Uncle Tonk glares and Uncle Torrey shrugs his shoulders. Uncle Tonk looks at me. “C’mon over here and let an Alpha man show you how it’s done.”
“Whatever, twin!” Uncle Torrey laughs. “Alpha is just a letter. Omega is the beginning and the end!” My phone buzzes. Kashawn needs the address to Nana’s house.
“You in college yet, boy?” they ask simultaneously, scrunching their faces together as only twins can do.
“No, sirs. Got two more years.” They nod.
“When you ready to talk about being a man, come holler at your best Uncle!” Tonk says.
“Aw brother, you shouldn’t have said such nice things about me,” Uncle Torrey laughs. They start to bicker again. I head towards the game tables. Lakeside tells us all about their fantastic voyage. Pops is at the Spades table. He is talking much shit to Uncle Marty and Cousin Tonya while his partner Cousin Chenae laughs.
“Damn, Marty, I thought you woulda practiced before coming over here this year. You making Tonya look bad in front of her lady.” Cousin Tonya rolls her eyes and Sweetie snorts and smiles behind her hand.
“Shut up and play, Coley!” Uncle Marty buries his face in his cards.
“I mean, look at you. Over there with all hearts and no bite. Ain’t I right, Chenae?”
“Shole is, Coley Cole. A disgrace.” She flicks the top corner of her last two cards. “Gone and bust out that big joker so Marty don’t feel alone.” Uncle Marty balls his free hand into a fist and slams it on the green table.
“Ya’ll talking across the table!”
Pops laughs. “Said like a man who ain’t used to winning.”
We look at Marty. His cheeks are puffed up and his eyes are starting to bulge.
“Look! Look! He gone say it this time,” Cousin Chenae chirps excitedly.
“Fu... fu... ” Uncle Marty blows the air out of his cheeks hard. “Forget you, Coley!” Everybody lifts their hands and laughs. “Aaaaaw!”
“I thought this would be the year he finally cussed! Coley only talk like that to get him all riled up,” Sweetie hollers. Another text from Kashawn says she’s on her way. Pops talks to me without looking up from dealing new cards. “That ‘lil girl coming to see you, son?” He smiles from the left part of his face.
“Yes, sir. Said she’s on her way.” He nods. “Make sure you give her the lay of the land and introduce her to Nana and Aunt Ruby, hear?”
“Loud and clear.”
Lakeside gives way to War and then the elements of Earth, Wind, and Fire who demand us to sing a song. I finally spot Uncle Mookie, flipping through a crate of albums and nodding his head. His dark blue van’s trunk is open, boasting more albums. He smiles at me and waves me over.
“Took you long enough to come and find me, youngblood,” Uncle Mookie says, his words flowing over the music like water. “Just been following the music to get a feel for the kinfolks like you taught me.” I hug him from the side and find the beat to nod along with him.
“What you know ‘bout this?” he laughs.
“I learned from the master.” Uncle Mookie strokes his goatee. It’s grayer than last year.
“I think it might be time to learn you the real shit behind the music.”
“What’s that mean, Unc?” He passes me a crate of albums labeled “Divine Intervention.”
“Pick me a song.” My eyes widen.
“Yeah. I think you grown enough you can pick a cut or two.” He waves his hand over the crate of albums.
“Lemme see what you got.” Making sure to be extra gentle, I slowly flip through each record. Uncle Mookie frowns.
“Gotta be faster than that. You don’t want no white space.”
He nods. “No dead air between cuts. It’ll change the mood of the party.” I stop on a Teena Marie record and hand it to him. He grins.
“Not a bad pick.” He swipes his face with a sweat rag and taps his finger against the album cover. His eyes light up and he quickly digs to the middle of the crate and pulls out a Rick James record.
“The music and the people gotta talk to each other, youngblood,” he says pushing his head to the side. “The music so serious, man. It tells the people how to feel, how to adjust, and how to be.” Teena Marie’s voice belts out across the yard. The family responds with yelling and thumbs up at Uncle Mookie and me.
“The music and the people gotta talk to each other, youngblood,” he says pushing his head to the side. “The music so serious, man. It tells the people how to feel, how to adjust, and how to be.”
“How you get so good?” I ask. Uncle Mookie sighs.
“Your Gramp. He would just sit there with his records on Saturday night and let me join him if I didn’t ask too many questions. He passed on his ear for good music.” Uncle Mookie smiles at the crates. “Quite a few of these albums came from him. Helped me start my business.” He goes silent for a minute, letting the music from Troop talk for him. “Hell, that’s how I met your Auntie Bernadette. I was deejaying a dorm party and she strolled her fine ass in there like the world was waiting on her.” I think about Keshawn and grin to myself. Uncle Mookie scans the yard and blows a kiss towards Auntie Bernadette. She smiles wide and winks at him over a red cup. I look back at my phone. Keshawn says she is ten minutes away.
“So you were just doing the music and she wanted to come talk to you?”
Uncle Mookie laughs. “Did your gameless daddy tell you that?”
“Naw,” I laugh. “Pops said that your game is last century.” Uncle Mookie shrugs and grins.
“I’ll take that. It got me the best woman in the world.”
“What you do to get and keep Auntie Bernadette?”
“I played a song just for her and kept playing songs just for her.”
“What song?” Uncle Mookie shook his head.
“That’s between us.”
I look back at the crate of records. My phone vibrates again. Kashawn is at the front door. I text her to come to the back.
“A song just for her, huh?”
Uncle Mookie leans over and chuckles. “You got options over there. That lil girl you like here?”
“Make it count.”
I dig through another crate, labeled “The Afterparty.” As soon as I saw the record, I knew this was for Kashawn. I pass the record to Uncle Mookie and he grins in approval.
“I knew I liked you for a reason, nephew.”
Kashawn is at the back door. She waves. Uncle Mookie drops the needle.