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An Excerpt from Jenifer Lewis’s The Mother of Black Hollywood

I am a born entertainer. Even as a little girl, I dreamed of being a star.

I went to Miss Vera and asked to sing a solo in the annual church program called “The Old Ship of Zion.” About ten choir members started in the back of the church, singing a song as they moved one by one down the center aisle. After they reached the choir stand, they “boarded the ship,” in recognition of the vessel in the Bible that carried believers to the Promise Land. When the last soloist had reached the stand, the entire choir sang “’Tis the Old Ship of Zion.” I asked Miss Vera if I could sing a song called “Oh, Lord, You’ve Brought Me a Mighty Long Way.”

Miss Vera said, “Jenny, you’re only five years old, honey.”

I said, “But that’s the one I listen to on my pink close ‘n play record player.”

The day of the program, there I stood in the back of the church, in my black patent leather shoes and folded-over lace socks. I had on a blue skirt and a white blouse, the standard choir uniform. I knew this was my moment, and I was totally prepared to show out. My mama, aunts and uncles and cousins, as well as the deacons and the mothers of the church, the entire congregation—all had their eyes on me.

Miss Vera played a glissando on the organ to give me my note. I leaned back and did an exaggerated backbend in an effort to fill my little lungs. Gradually returning to an upright position, I slowly released my first note, “Ohhhh—” and held it for what seemed like an entire minute. “Oh . . . oh . . . oh . . . Lord, you brought meeeee a miiiighty looooong waaay.”

I grabbed the side of the back pew, steadying myself in dramatic fashion. “They said I couldn’t maaaaake it, but you brought meeeee. Jesus, you brought meeee a mi-hi-ty loooong waaaay.”

I knew I had them all in the palm of my hand when I heard my aunts Katherine, Louise, Rosetta, Jean, Shirley, Gloria, Janice, Mary, Margaret, and even my own mama shouting, “Sing, Jenny! Go ’head on, sing, baby!”

I two-stepped down the aisle past five more pews to the spot where an usher, Sister Lorraine Parks, stood erect waiting to catch anyone who got the Holy Spirit and fell out (love me some black church, y’all!). I grabbed Miss Parks’s fan from her hand, leaned against her, and fanned myself furiously, singing, “sum-um-bod-yy help meee.”

Then going limp, I bent over and sucked in a huge breath so I could growl the next phrase as I heard pastors do in their sermons: “Grrrzzyuh yassss, Lawd, a mii-hiii-ty luh-onng waaaay!” One of the deacons jumped up and guided me aboard the “ship.” When I turned around at the standing microphone, I really cut loose. I leaned the mike over like James Brown. I waved it around like Sarah Vaughn. Then I did a little praise dance like I had seen Sister Moten do every Sunday morning to show off her new clothes. When I saw Sister Ethel Miller snatch her big, big hat off her head and throw it in the air, well that was it. I riffed one more time, “Thank ya, Lord. Thank ya, Jesus.”

My solo flowed from my five-year-old self with force and feeling so great the entire congregation of First Baptist Church in Kinloch, Missouri, exploded in a standing ovation. I knocked them out doing my best imitation of the greatest gospel artist Dorothy Love Coates singing with the Gospel Harmonettes. In that moment, my destiny as a singer was sealed. Though we were there to praise God, I loved that I was getting some praise, too. I plugged my mouth with my thumb and stood there a bit cross-eyed. I felt steeped in love and secure in the knowledge that I was indeed a child of God.

Excerpt from The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir by Jenifer Lewis, available now in hardcover, and coming out in paperback November 6 (pre-order here).

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