Yesterday — December 18, 2021 — we celebrated what would have been my father’s 96th birthday.
Charles Calvin Earl, Sr — always “Daddy” to us — was at the core a writer and thinker who was steadfastly devoted to us, to his siblings and their children, and to the people of our community. He poured soul and mind into teaching his man’s Sunday school class — we were there every Sunday sun, rain, sleet or snow. He was always an open ear when somebody had something to “think through”. He revealed a capacity to listen without judgement but with compassion that I still strive towards.
That devotion to family meant taking the late shift at the Post Office — it gave him time during the day to get us to school, cook most of the dinners, head over to grade school of high school for conferences with teachers if something needed to be sorted out, getting us to band practices, science fairs, athletic events (my brothers), or any other host of things. That devotion meant dreams of being a writer, aspirations of teaching philosophy or theology were deferred indefinitely.
The brilliance of his mind, is displayed in the layers of notes scribbled in his copy of Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, or King’s Chaos or Community. It was poured into the meticulous preparation of his class each Saturday night before church. It was poured into the us, the discussions he would try to start up day after day before heading off to work: “What do you think about Biko?” — cigarette drawing in deeply, I would mutter something and he would go on, an invitation to think, I rarely took the opportunity. “Have you ever listened to Billie Holiday?” I was just listening to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd (maybe he was thinking “Negro please!” in the back of his mind). “There’s a lot that Tolstoy has to say here”. When I started Morehouse, his stories of Dr. Brisbane back in the day, or of McBay — Morehouse sages of History and Chemistry respectively — gave me a deeper view of the place I was stepping into. He tried for a time to explain Tillich and Buber — I still wasn’t listening.
But Baldwin was center, always Baldwin. Every book or essay always devoured. When I listen to Baldwin interviews, the cadence, mannerisms, timing, ways of talking about us, it’s Daddy’s voice that I start hearing. Baldwin spoke for that generation in a way that we’re beginning to lose sense of. Have you listened to Baldwin speak lately? How did it touch you?
There weren’t many avenues in 1950’s Atlanta for aspiring Black philosophers with eight siblings to support. He left high school in 1943 to join the Navy. Sometime in the early 1950’s he entered the marines — the main reason being to support the family that was struggling, that had been struggling since the Depression. Most of the pay from the front lines of Korea — maybe it was behind the lines— went home to keep things together. He’d been in some engineering battalion, he would talk about being sent to view an above ground nuclear test. My mother described letters he’d sent from Korea mentioning fields soaked in blood. I never asked much about those experiences, the nightmares he’d wake from every few nights were enough witness.
What he did mention was the importance of “staying alive” — that his main duty as a sargeant was to get everyone back alive despite people who aspired to be “heroes” or officers more focused on destruction than on finding ways of sustaining life while trapped in a hell of some white imperialist’s creation.
I suppose that there was some bitterness inside of him, most likely the cause of the silences or the tears that would sometimes inextricably stream down his face, when we thought no one was looking. But mostly, mostly every day there was laughter, unrestrained laughter. And fragments of song that would just seem to come out at the right time — a jazz or blues standard, a church hymn. Sometimes whistled.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand
A couple years ago I came across the notion of the Captive Maternal, the revolutionary idea that one can keep care and study and love and resistance going in spaces of oppression. I think of Daddy’s capacity to nurture family in 1930’s Depresssion era apartheid Atlanta, of the capacity to keep faith and laughter before there was a Black president, to nurture and inspire in the midst of co-optation into imperialist genocide, to nurture and inspire and evince masculine care in the presence of violent economic injustice.
To teach, to inspire, to think, to preserve a life of the mind and soul when many of us live in nation-states that still refute the Black capacity to do so. That is timeless brilliance. That is resistance. That is a commitment to struggle that is rooted in love. That is Daddy’s song.
I write this as many of us are grieving the loss of the genius and visionary human bell hooks. We have such weighty grief from the losses of COVID, the losses of being Black in an anti-Black america. But we still have such gems among us.
Who are the individuals in your life now that embody the capacity to love, that struggle on behalf of community? How can you show them care and acknowledge their gift while they walk among us? How will you let them know how deeply they matter?
On behalf of Daddy and in the spirit of a world of different possibilities, I am making a donation to Dissenters.org, an anti-war organization rooted in “Black liberation traditions”. I encourage you to build communities of liberation where ever you are.