(READ Part 1)
“It is such an honor to meet you”.
A smile preceded her words. But when she responded I realized that I was not prepared for the person I was about to encounter.
“Why, thank you so much.” It was a simple phrase in part, but she spoke it with such power in her voice that I was taken aback. When I admitted this to her toward the end of our visit, she responded, "What did you expect?" Even in her 80's she refused to be defined by perceived limitations. She would be understood on her own terms. I know now that this approach was inevitably behind her rise to the spot light and her enigmatic existence since purposely leaving from in front of it.
Her words were immediately followed by a hot plate of food with a taste and smell so good that they still linger in my memory today (two weeks later). I was sitting down for a meal with Joyce Bryant.
I raved and raved about the food. I publically confessed that the only reason there was food still on the plate was because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
“Eat! That’s what it’s there for! You don’t have to sit up here trying to eat pretty on account of us. Eat son.” I smiled. Everyone else laughed. It was a laughter that suggested they knew very well that she would then and for the rest of our time together speak exactly what was on her mind.
“Obviously, not very well if you have to take that long to think about it”. The same laughter ensued. This time I was prepared for it. I felt like part of the family.
“I know my way around the kitchen; let’s just say that.” I was curbing my comments knowing that I was in the presence of the person, her niece Robyn, who invited me…an organic chef who had prepared meals for Aunt Joyce and A-listers for years.
“What is one of your best dishes?” she asked. I told her about my new favorite kale dish and my honey Dijon mustard, pecan encrusted salmon. She was affirming but not overly impressed.
I gobbled down the rest of my food and played friskily with Jazz, the adorable Rottweiler puppy that had been weaving between our feet. When Aunt Joyce finished her food we picked up the conversation and followed it wherever it lead. Like kids running down a trail in the woods for the first time there was both the mystery of the unknown but the confidence that the trail would be safe -the grass beaten down before us signaling that others have been this way before.
We talked about race relations in the American South. When I told here I was in Atlanta now she asked if they were still lynching folks down there and if I felt safe. When I said that I did (for the most part), she seemed to have a flash back to her days performing and touring in the south. She lifted her head and peered off in to the distance commenting that they’d lynch you in a heartbeat back in the day.
I stared at her beautiful skin. It was dark and smooth. There were no wrinkles in sight. When I asked her what her secret was, she invited me to touch it. It felt like her voice sounded. She asked to touch mine. I leaned in closer and she touched my face –forehead then cheeks. She told me some ‘beauty secrets’ and warned about keeping it moist. The advice was followed by a very interesting conversation about dark skin wrinkling less than light skin.
With a sudden turn on the trail, we ended up somewhere that totally caught me by surprise. What seemed like out of the blue she commented on my voice and asked me if I could sing. Like earlier when she asked me about my cooking, I paused.
“Oooh, I guess not. Here you go taking forever to think about your answer,” she responded. Everyone erupted with laughter…again. I told her that I could definitely hold a tune and that I was raised in the Baptist church. She knew exactly what I meant by that. The moments that followed will forever be etched in my memory.
“It’s all in your breathing,” she said as she sat straight up in her chair. For the next 15 minutes, Joyce Bryant coached me on how to breathe. It was a lesson that surpassed any expectations that I had of my visit. It was a lesson with meaning that stretched far beyond any implications on bettering my vocal ability. It was a lesson about centering. It was about being present. It was about being fully present. It was a lesson about being whole. As we sat exhaling and inhaling together, I felt connected to myself and to a woman who I had just met for the first time –a woman who as I was seeking so hard to know more about, so many before me seemed to have forgotten.
There at that dinner table, I was remembering how to breathe by someone who probably doesn’t have as many breaths in front of her as those she has already taken but insisted on teaching someone else while reminding herself to make each one count.
For that I’m forever grateful. For that, I want to work harder to ensure that who she is, the breaths she has taken, the lives she has touched, and the breaths that she has helped others take more deeply are not forgotten.
It’s not every day you get to meet a legend. Yesterday I did. I’d like to introduce you to her. Her name is Joyce Bryant.
Creator of 50 Shades of Black
**A Special Tribute and Exclusive Reflection by Joyce Bryant's Niece is featured in our Coffee Table Book, 50 Shades of Black Vol. 1!