Mulenga Harangua sat on his front porch with a gigantic white cowboy hat perched on his wide, round head. A bunch of chickens wandered around on the porch and the front yard, pecking at the feed he had spread around and clucking their pleasure.
“Who let the chickens out?” I asked as a hen wandered over my foot.
“These ain’t chickens,” Mulenga said. “No scaredy cats around here. These are yardbirds. It’s my tribute to the great jazzman Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker.”
“Are you planning on eating them or playing music with them?”
“That depends on if you can show me how to fry chicken like your mama did.”
I had a vision of a platter of crisp, spicy fried chicken like my mother made for Sunday dinner. Every Sunday we had the same meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, canned corn, and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes. At my house if you saw what was on the dinner table then you knew what day of the week it was most of the time. On Mondays we had pot roast and potatoes; on Tuesdays we had red beans and rice, and so on. Friday was always fried fish — generally caught in the Detroit River. We were Catholics and religiously followed the no-meat-on-Fridays rule.
“I can’t cook chicken like mama did,” I confessed. “Maybe I can get a recipe out of my sister. Where did you get these birds?”
“I got them from a friend on the North End. I get an egg a day from each of them.”
“That’s a lot of eggs.” I eyed the assembled group strutting around.
“Yep, I sell them and trade them with people. There are a lot of folks who like fresh eggs.” Mulenga stood up at the top of the stairs. The brim of his hat spread out around his head like a great halo. He looked out as though he were about to address an assembled audience. He lifted one of his hands to lean against a post holding up the porch railing and I noticed band-aids on some of his fingers.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said as though ready to reveal a great truth. “They like to sit on the front porch and eat chicken.”
“I think the hat you’re wearing is too tight on your head, Mr. Cliven Bundy. Maybe you should take that hat off and put on a bandana. It’s more culturally appropriate.”
“I’m just trying to be better off. My chickens are happy. Happy chickens lay tastier eggs. I think chicken eggs may be the new currency. I can trade them for stuff. It’s not free stuff; it’s commodities. I think I can get into the new economy with this. I’m tapping into the proud tradition of conservative black farmers. We’re spread across the land like specks of black pepper in a bowl of flour.
“And besides,” Mulenga waved his bandaged fingers in my face, “There’s lots of money to be made as a black Republican.
“See, now that Democrat Mike Duggan has usurped black political power in Detroit, I figure there’s a spot for a black man on the Republican side. Pretty soon I’ll be up there with the likes of Herman Cain and Condoleezza Rice.”
“I think you’re more of an Alan Keyes, the wayward child of Little Richard and Amy Holmes,” I said. “By the way, what’s up with your fingers all bandaged?”
“I was trying to learn how to pick cotton,” he said. “I needed something to do with my time so I wouldn’t be idle.”
“Picking cotton? There’s no cotton around here to pick.”
“I was just practicing. I got a bag of cotton balls and let the wind blow them into the raspberry bushes in the lot back there. Then I picked it,” he paused and winced at the memory. “Those thorns are sharp.” Mulenga rubbed his hands as though to soothe the pain.
“You must be out of your cotton-picking mind,” I said. “Didn’t you see 12 Years a Slave? Those folks weren’t picking cotton for recreation. They were doing it to avoid the lash. That one sister was picking 500 pounds a day and having to sleep with massa at night. Then she had his wife kicking her butt all the time. I guess that was better off. People grabbing you off the street and just selling you into slavery? Yeah, that was better off.
“And you better get these chickens back in the coop. The city may turn a blind eye to this chicken farming, but letting them wander all over creation is a sure way to attract unwanted attention from the city government.”
“I don’t recognize the Detroit government as even existing,” Mulenga said. “In fact it doesn’t exist. Kevyn Orr runs things around here, and he wasn’t elected by anybody — not one vote.”
“What? One minute you’re talking about being the black Republican around here, and the next you’re talking about not recognizing the government. That’s just nonsense. You got some militia friends who are going to come by and surround your free-range chickens in order to protect them?”
“I know a few brothers with guns.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re going to shoot it out with the police?”
“Well, if I get arrested, I have the perfect defense.”
“I’m a ghetto child who doesn’t know any better?”
“Now you’re gonna try the ‘affluenza’ defense?”
“It worked for that rich kid in Texas. His parents spoiled him so he didn’t know right from wrong. I figure it should work right here in Detroit. Folks say we’re so terrible, I figure I should be able to say that I didn’t know any better.”
“Of course, that you’re even discussing it now shows that you do know better.”
“Shhh,” Mulenga put one of his bandaged fingers to his lips. “Let’s just drop the subject right now. Let’s just say I’m willing to use what I can to achieve my ends.”
“So you’re not a Republican, you’re an opportunist. Well the truth is I’m not sure I know who you are. Are you growing weed back there in that garden?”
“I’m not growing weed … back there,” he said, leaving it open the possibility that it was growing somewhere else. “But you have to use the right conservative words. I’ve been paying attention to that. It’s not weed; it’s hemp. You make rope out of it. Now that’s a good American commodity.”
A breeze picked up and started flapping the brim of Mulenga’s 20-gallon hat around. He held the hat down with one bandaged hand, and held on to a post of his porch with another. He looked at me, grinned and let go of the post. The wind lifted him, and he took off like the Flying Nun.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he yelled as he drifted down the street. “We can fly.”
Some folks change with whichever way the wind blows.