four, simple questions posed to C.B.

the art of asking questions:

  1. Why did you go to Black Male Reimagined?
  2. What happened while you were there that you could not have known beforehand?
  3. Who or what inspired you?
  4. Describe the sensory experiences of being either: a) in the cold of the northeast, b) the 2-day event, c) in NYC. What did you taste, hear, see, touch or feel?
Advertisements

Recalling Sophisticated Lady from Charleston to Tuskegee at 92

I called my grandmother, Jane Draine (nee Jackson, Jones), yesterday. At 92, I could hear the surprise and delight that I had called her at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning.

At one point, she used a sentence of appreciation that I had called, signaling that she was wrapping up our call. In those few minutes, Grandmother told me about her health, had humored herself and me about the quality of food that institutions serve our elders and grandparents and remarked about her memory and my mobility. But, I wasn’t done talking since I had more questions for her. I had called to hear her voice as well as pose select questions to her. The mastery of asking questions is increasingly become a tool from the abyss of my soul where I forge history and family.

I asked her about the time and her and Grandfather Hooks’ decisions revolving around my father in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. In 1960, my grandparents moved from Denver back to Tuskegee. I asked how much Emmett Till factored into her thoughts, heart and soul as she readied to move from integrated Colorado to Jim Crow Alabama. I have been reading about Emmett Louis Till in James H. Cone’s “The Cross and The Lynching Tree” (published by Orbis Books in 2011) this week. When Cone reminded me of Till’s barbaric mutilation and how his mother’s choice to “not let her baby die in vain” was an inflection point for Black America. As Cone says himself, and quotes John Lewis as saying, Emmett Till made them and countless other black boys realize “it could have been me.” It was 1955, when my father would have just turned 12 years old. It turns out that my dad and Emmett share the same birthday, Till born two years earlier.

In 1960, my dad would be 17 when his parents moved to Tuskegee. I read Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Sons” a month ago, which reminded me on the barbarism of lynching, schooled me on sharecropping, and illustrated how widespread the brutality pushing Blacks out of the South was. Wilkerson makes the case that the Great Migration of six million African Americans between 1910-1970 was one of the (if not the) greatest historical events of the 20th Century US. This was a tide that my grandparents went against as they returned in 1960.

As Grandmother recounted to me over the phone, she and Grandfather chose to send my dad to Charleston, West Virginia, during his senior year to live with Buddy and Grandad Jackson, his maternal grandparents. Grandmother mentioned how the people at the Tuskegee Institute advised them that the high school was not as good.

53 years later, I cannot know how much of it was the pull of better educational options in Charleston or the push of the possibility of lynching and Jim Crow reality. My father would have been young, black and on the verge of manhood. Perceived as a young adult, yet carrying the simple not-knowingness of childhood in a body that was getting bigger and stronger. He would have been coming into a culture, setting and interpersonal dynamics of Tuskegee far different from the Denver he knew as a youth and teenager.

I asked more questions, about decades earlier when Grandmother’s parents hosted Duke whenever he came to Charleston, WV. She said how they held “all of the social activities” whenever he was in town. I asked her if that meant any meals and down time that Duke and his band were not performing. Yes, she said.

Grandmother mentioned how he began writing “Sophisticated Lady” one time he was in their home. Duke first came when she was 7, 8 or 9 years old. She cannot remember when it was the last time she saw him (as he passed in May 1974), though it was in New York. Grandfather approached “Duke” to let him know that they were there and how Duke affectionately recalled “Janie” from Charleston.

I asked her if she was excited during his visits, which she seemed nonchalant about when he was there. Yet, Grandmother recalled how she attempted to learn some of Duke’s songs, including Sophisticated Lady, on a few instruments she had as a child.

All of this family, legacy and lore in a sweet sixteen minutes on a Sunday morning.

Omnipresent Identity

omnipresent: present everywhere at the same time. 

I have walked much of my 34 years in this life seeing myself, and the world, through the lens of race. My particular racial identity being mixed, mulatto, a half-breed of Black, white. There is a sprinkling of Native American blood in there, too — but I don’t live in a culture where we bother with one-sixteenths. There was a elementary school phase where i was name-called an Oreo; by a handful of white classmates (in an overwhelmingly white school). 2005 was the first time that I began to put my identity in terms of class. In June of that year, I had an epiphany that my white mother came from a working-class, white family. That was the first time that I had uttered that phrase. Seven years later, I am confident that ‘working-class, white family’ is a phrase that my mother will not use for the rest of her life.

I have entered into identity’s abyss in recent years. On Super Bowl Sunday of 2008, one of my two surviving grandparents passed. Dick Uhlenhopp had been in hospice for a month or so. Prior to that he had lived independently and on his own since Grandma Shirley died in October of 1987. Aside from my paternal/maternal great-grandmother, Buddy Jackson, my branch of the Jones/Uhlenhopp family trees had been spared death for the 21 years spanning from 1987 until 2008. What was different, in 2008, was that I was nearly 30 when Grandpa Dick passed. And I had been poking around family history, and asking quesionst hat had never occurred to me before, or topics that I had quietly agreed to remain silent about, as my siblings and others had. But with Grandpa’s death, I began to see how deeply identity goes. How many layers of an infinte onion, identity is.

Identity has become a doorway into personality, opinions, values, vantage and feelings.

I remember an exercise in college, where we were asked to compose a list of 20 or so identities for ourselves. Then we narrowed the list down to 5 by eliminating 15. Then we were told to whittle five down to one. In a room full of students of color, most of us had been selected for our leadership in student of color groups. Most of us settled with a singular identity emanating from our racial origins of Blackness, Latino/a lineage, API, immigrant or Native ancestry. That is, all of us saw ourselves as people of color. Except Sherman.

There was one guy who picked ‘friend’ as his one identity. He chose it over all others. I remember sitting near him, perplexed. Unable to fathom how a guy borne of two Chinese immigrants in Canada could see himself first as a “friend.” See himself only as a friend, especially when I saw his black hair, eyeglasses, toothy and nerdy smile wrapped in the skin and features that I had learned was Asian. I had even known that he was majoring in Economics, was raised in Saskatchewan, finished high school in Hong Kong, and had siblings. But at the time, all that I could distill Sherman down to was race.

How things have changed over a decade. I sense identity, multiple identities, everywhere (I suppose that I did with Sherman, too. But I placed a value on one identity over all others). I like to taste identity in the air, as if it is nectar of a flower or the smoke of a fire or from industrial pollution. Identity is that readily available. Identity is omnipresent. I listen to stories similarly to how a serious fan logs a baseball scoreboard. Identity has become a multi-faceted, nth-dimension in each of our souls and characters. Race and class are simply veneer for deeper stories, lives and identities that are buried within. I have come to see identity as including:

  • siblings: number of siblings, and place in sibling order (or an only)?
  • gender:
  • place of birth:
  • hometown: (do you consider this the same as the previous answer? that is indicative of something else)
  • place of current home:
  • closeness to mother/father/grandma/grandpa: relationship, distaste, struggles
  • favorite subject in elementary school: math, spelling, recess, science, p.e.
  • you get a high school diploma, GED or college degree:
  • more street-smarts, more book-smarts, or some of both?
  • math or literature: or as i like to say now-a-days, do you speak more fluently in numbers or letters?
    … aka, MS Word or Excel?
  • major or subject studied:
  • type of work:
  • reader: of fiction, current events, (even that distinct subpopulation passionate about) sci fi
  • paying rent or a mortgage, or multiple mortgages?
  • favorite author:
  • favorite vegetable:
  • favorite meal: breakfast, lunch or dinner?

Embracing more of our identities is vital in order to weave together stories that encapsulate more of the lives each of us has lived. I am unsatisfied with race alone, because as my father has pointed out, he finished high school in an integrated high school in West Virginia rather than attend a segregated school in Tuskegee. It wasn’t even his choice, but his parents sent him to live with family in Charleston, WV.

Back in 2005, I began to sense the nuance of identity by exploring the distinctions between each of my parents. My white mother has certainly had race privilege her entire life. Yet, I have come to appreciate how she lacked many of the class privileges that my father was raised with. Since then, I have explained it simply as “my mother had the race privilege while my father grew up with the class privilege.” The vestiges of my mom being the first in her family to get a four-year degree are alive today. In ways that I choose not to ask my extended family about, but alive, nonetheless.

Taking class identity and blending it with race identity has been an awakening experience. Class, is such an avoided topic, that what that means needs explanation. Middle class for me has been a father who’s entire career was as a white collar employee with the federal government. A father who had union representation, was trained as a lawyer, and has had comprehensive health insurance for as long as I can remember since i got my first physical the summer after kindergarten. I got a physical as a six-year old because the family was headed to Kenya. A gaggle of dependents and a diplomat for the US Embassy in Nairobi.

So I add:

  • health insurance coverage: any or out-of-pocket?
    … PPO, HMO, Medicare or Medicaid?
    … that you have on your own, or are a dependent on someone else’s?

I have honed how i tell my 1984 story, too. After years of telling the chronological story of living in six countries, four states in the country, three continents over 15 years, I now say how I finished kindergarten in Denver and began the first grade in Nairobi.

****

Last year, I was asked: Who are your ancestors?

Such potency in four words. There is a fits-and-starts fascination with history in this culture. For the most part, a historical amnesia when it comes to the history of families. How many people can tell where all four of their grandparents were born, grew up, and lived? How many of us readily know the years that our four grandparents were born, and died?

 I have a much lengthier answer than I did seven years ago because I have slowed down to ask. To explore, and to inquire with family members over the phone, and email messages as well as in person. The stories are too vast and invaluable to not ask now. There is a great risk in waiting until I will see my last living grandparent.