Robyne's Hood

Other TV news personalities stay planted behind the desk. Then there's Robyne Robinson, who claims the whole Twin Cities for her stage.

Today's speaking engagement should be the usual hit-and-run. Coat comes off. On-screen persona gets demystified. Hands get shaken. And you're back in your shiny silver Benz before the seat goes cold. But that's not Robyne Robinson's agenda. Sitting in a plastic chair with the kind of pert posture that suggests crisp diction and pearly whites, she waits--only a bit nonchalantly now--as a busload's worth of the dwindling hopes and overactive imaginations that public education has never known what to do with spreads out around the classroom. Three feet to her left is a dry-erase board with the phrase "Catch 22" written on it in green marker. Directly in front of her is Kenny Johnson--a jostling, out-of-turn-talking, hormonal time bomb.

"I'm with you, Robyne," he says, almost yanking her up for a hug she doesn't flinch from one bit.

"OK," she responds, laughing. "But you gotta work." And so she works him. For the next hour, Robyne Robinson will make these 17-and 18-year-olds think.

First question comes from a girl in front: What is your racial background?

A: "I am African-American. Black people come in every color of the rainbow. We are the ultimate melting pot. This is my badge, and I wear it with pride."

Next question from a slouching white kid in the back: How do you feel about the way black people are portrayed in the media?

A: "TV news gives you a steady diet of 'be afraid of the person next to you,' when it should be creating a bond. We'll do stories on crime and pull out stock footage of two brothers on their knees in front of a squad car, and when people see that, they think: 'Crime equals black. Crime equals male. Crime equals young.'"

So what can you do about that? we all wonder as she pauses.

"It's hard for me to fight that fight," Robyne Robinson says, "and there's only one of me there to do it."

Hard to imagine Diana Pierce saying that.

 

Then try to imagine this. The home of Warith Dean Muhammad (son of the late Elijah Muhammad) on the corner of 38th and Woodlawn on the South Side of Chicago, which is no more a home than the Taj Mahal is a truck stop in Tampa. It's a palace.

Cream-colored marble walls and a clear glass dome on top and a courtyard in the center. It's 1975, and Robyne is sitting in the basement with her cousin Layla watching the Thrilla in Manila on closed-circuit TV. Near her on a couch, Khalilah Ali sits in quiet shock as her husband Muhammad gorgeously, spectacularly discombobulates Joe Frazier on the screen across the room. The 15-year-old Robyne is mesmerized, not with the cross between James Brown and Alkibiades halfway across the world, but with his wife 5 feet away. Her presence. Her stature. Like everyone else in the house, she's beautiful, unapproachable, larger than life.

Robyne's uncles by marriage, Warith Dean and Herbert Muhammad, are so enraptured by the fight they hardly notice when Khalilah rises and walks out of the room. But Robyne follows her upstairs, and there the girl sees her Aunt Shirley (Warith Dean's wife) and Khalilah, who is crying.

"He can't win," the queen to the King of the World is saying. "He can't win. If he wins, he'll think he's God." This is astonishing. This is the kind of thing Robyne is not supposed to see. But she can't turn away.

Life at Layla's has never been boring. There's the Fruit of Islam security detail who frisk Robinson at the door. The waterfall in the middle of the house. All very weird, very cool. But this goddess in tears? This is harder to get one's 15-year-old head around.

There will be a moment when Robyne Robinson will look back and her visits to the Nation of Islam's National Compound ("The Big House," they called it) will make sense. A time when the dinners with Louis Farrakhan and the influence of the giants will be an ingrained part of her person. But as Khalilah Ali starts to break down, that moment has not yet arrived.

Tonight will be just another story to bring back to Mom. Mom, I was at the Big House and saw a lion...Mom, Layla asked her dad for the coolest birthday gift in the world. So her dad's gonna get Kool & the Gang to play at her party. Isn't thatbad!"

Robyne, mom will respond. What time is it?

"It's, I dunno, 7:30."

Is your English homework done?

"No."

And why not?

"Uh..."

"Do you understand me?

"Yeah."

Yeah, I'll have it by 8:30. Yeah, I'll be home before midnight. Yeah, I'll study harder. Yeah. Yeah. A thousand times Yeah. Yeah to the inner-city summer camp her mother found to serve as a foil to the Morgan Park Academy, a military school where her daughter would be one of the first African Americans to be chosen for homecoming royalty. Yeah to the dates with the most eligible black bachelors in Chicago.

Until Yeah becomes a resounding Yes, as when Winnie Theodore the assistant principal of Morgan Park stops Robyne and her sister Angela in the hall and asks: Do you Robinson girls think you're gonna run this place? "Yes. Of course we are." And when Robyne gets home and repeats the exchange, Mom looks down coolly at her daughter. "That's the right answer."

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