Uncles Know More

I remember the times when I would retrieve correspondence from the mail box with this strange handwriting. After scanning the document it became clear that Uncle Cornelius and his wife were flying to Hawaii and as his customary practice, he took out a life insurance policy and made me the beneficiary, just in case there was a plane crash. I never forgot the insurance policies that were mailed to my address. Nor did I forget the quarters and fifty cent pieces that he would shower me with when he visited. Dad was not there and it was the culture of black folks for the “uncles” to step up to the plate and fill in the void when black dads were out of the home, generally due to abandonment as it was in my case. Uncle Cornelius and Uncle L.J. were paternal “great uncles” the brothers to my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother.


My first memory of that very special bond between an uncle and a nephew came with Uncle Pep, my father’s youngest brother. I became his shadow and wherever he went including the outhouse (an outdoor toilet without plumbing) I was there. There was Uncle A. J (next to my father) who would send me to the store for whatever, soda pop, candy bar, your name it. No sooner than the money touched my hand, he would haul off and hit me on top of the head and say “you’re not back yet?” Like a flash, I would be off and running as fast as my young legs would take me. I learned quickly how to go into their duffle bags and take out the “tent-like” army caps, the green army gloves and learned about “mama-son.” At one time both Uncle AJ and Uncle Pep were in Korea together. Korea appeared to be a heaven for black soldiers and the pictures of the women were indescribable even to a young black nappy headed boy. Later I would learn that the white soldiers had spread the rumors that the black soldiers had “tails.” Much later I would learn that this same lie was told in Germany and Vietnam. Many a half-black child was left behind after the black soldiers return home to a segregated and race conscious nation that neither honored nor respected their military service to the nation. The black soldiers had no problems displaying and using their “tails” as children were left behind to fiend for themselves much like the black children have to do today.


And then there was Uncle Ulysses, my mother’s youngest brother. Many a time he would drive up north from Little Rock to pick up our entire family and take us back to the mother-land, in North Little Rock, AR Like his father, he was a “hell-of-provider” but he could also be a hell-of a man. Uncle Ulysses made national news becoming the first black bus driver in Little Rock. He learned well how to navigate in a white world, being born black.  Once he filled out an employment application he would frequently return back to the employer several weeks later to “update” the application knowing that there was a good chance his application had made it into the trash can. I recalled his statement about being the first black bus driver in Little Rock. How a little old white lady got on the bus and said, “A colored bus driver, and a cute one at that.” When the lady came to her stop she walked back up to the front of the bus to get off and asked my uncle “How many more niggers did they hire?” Being the oldest male in the family, it was an honor and a privilege to have an uncle that I not only look like in appearance but also served as a mentor to learn some good and bad behaviors from.


Recently my last surviving uncle on my mother’s side, “Uncle Brother”, died and hence, I have “Uncles No More.” Uncle Brother was the most unique of all ten uncles that I was blessed to have in my life due to him being mentally challenged. He could not read nor write but he learned early how to travel the country and earn money to take care of himself. He help raised nephews and nieces in St. Louis and Chicago and also learned how to cook and clean and take care of his mother when she became ill until her date of departure came.  Always a very special uncle he was adored by the nephews and nieces in Little Rock who shared his last name. Uncle Brother loved current events and could have a conversation on the latest national and local news. He was beloved of drug addicts and criminal, those least among us and they would look out for his safety and welfare.  A devoted “Christian” he could tell you the date he was “born again” using the backdrop of month and year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “He was always ready for the church van,” said his pastor as Uncle Brother attended church every Sunday unless he was ill.  Funny, I have more than thirty five nephews and great nephews, but only two or three nephews that I share a real mentor kindred spirit relationship like I experienced with my ten uncles.


Uncles Know More. Uncle Abram was a mentor and protector of his nephew Lot, as recorded in Genesis 11:4-6. Lot received blessings beyond measure because of his Uncle Abram who later became known as Father Abraham. Uncles “Truly” Know More.

Locked-Up and Left Out

Hugh  Masekela, a jazz singer and human rights advocate from South Africa, had a song in the early 70”s with the lyrics as follows; “I am in jail in here and I am in jail out there.” Concrete walls, iron bars and barb wire do make a prison, but there are prisons without walls, bars or razor wire. It can be quite beneficial for the mind and the soul to revisit old songs, old speeches and old sermons. Such was the occasion when America recalled fifty years ago the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech. With the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial I also went back into the annals of time and reviewed the words our 16th president recited in June 1857 some three years before he was elected president.


The burning issue of slavery generally was cloaked in the debated over what the founding fathers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant some eighty years earlier, much like the same debate to date as scholars, statesmen and Supreme Court justices attempt to interpret what the founding fathers meant by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “In those days our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed and sneered at, and constructed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if it framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it.”  Lincoln said.


Lincoln went on to talk about how the deck of card was stacked against the Negro, much like it is today. Back then like now every one talked about race relations, America’s problem with dealing with racial issues and that elusive problem of what to do about our people of color. “They have him (The Negro) in his prison-house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key;” Lincoln said. He went on to explain how the hundred keys were given out to a hundred different men all dispersed in different and distant places so as to make the Negro’s escape impossible.


There has been a call for a national discussion on race and this clarion call was really echoed when America revisited the 1963 March on Washington. But America has never addressed the affect of slavery on the master and the slave, both whom were enslaved by this “peculiar institution.” Slavery left the one with a false feeling of “superiority” and the other with a false feeling of “inferiority.” This was the case back then and is also the case today. The prison-house may have been constructed and designed for “the Negro” but in actuality the prison-house now contains “all of us” locked in and bolted by the keys of our mind, still enslaved to yesterday and unable and unwilling to face tomorrow.


Slavery, Sin and Me. A century and a half later, three burning issues that no one wants to talk about, think about and dire not write about. Hmmm.