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.