Category: Family

FamilyGriefHistory

The Color Purple

Joyce Earl, my mother, left this world in her purple room at home surrounded by the people and things that she’d spent a lifetime building. Ultimately that is what we each aspire to — at the end of it all, a reminder of what our lives have meant.

The Color Purple was the last movie that I remember seeing on “the big screen” with her. I was reminded of that a few days ago as my family sat looking at reruns of Fresh Off the Boat. The music brought back memories — fuzzy at first and then like the opening scene of a movie, the memory went from an impressionist canvas to sharp focus.

I have been thinking of how the medical system treats Black women — no I have been enraged at how the medical system in the U.S. kills its most valuable, precious, dear, treasure — the Black women who have held the people of this land to account since their arrival. Calling out that crime demands its own essay, but the important thing here is that in The Color Purple, Alice Walker gives the main character, Celie these words

I curse you. Until you do right by me everything you think about is gonna crumble!

It took me until now to understand who Alice Walker was speaking to. It took me until now to put together as I saw the indifference my mother received from white doctors, nurses against the love and recognition that she received from Black nurses. The Color Purple, among other things is an indictment of a viciously corrupt system.

I was obsessed during those last days that she hold a flower. I brought her a purple orchid. My how she was able to make orchids bloom year to year.

FamilyHistory

Questions I never asked my father about London

The last week of May through the first week of June is an emotional Everest for our family. My wife lost her father, our beloved Nanu, six years ago June 5. My father passed away on the 31st of May thirty four years ago. June 5 is also my brother’s birthday, May 26th is my youngest son’s, and May 29th is mine. The day my father died feels like one continuous day encompassing my college graduation, my birthday and his passing.

We try to keep our fathers in memory my wife and I. It is difficult, but to lose those essential connections is unthinkable.

My father would sometimes recount to my siblings and I — in bits and pieces and partial stories — his memories of the second world war. Any given thing could bring out Daddy’s stories — a question we would ask, a documentary, a book one of us was reading, music on the radio, a rainy day at home.

The media obsession with the “D-Day” event and the particular narrative promoted, which persists in being white Anglo middle/upper class, brings his stories back to mind. The photo in this post is from a page from one of his journals, sometime in 1942/43.

My father was 18 when the event now known as “D-Day” occurred. He was a sailor aboard LST-400, a ship that transported soldiers and tanks and other material to some Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.

He was a Black man-child from Atlanta, one of nine children. He had enlisted in the Navy as a 15 year old. I always liked to think that it was partially just as a way out of the extreme racism and poverty that he found himself situated in. The Great Depression had barely subsided — or at least that is the history book mythology that I have accepted — I really doubt that he or my uncles and aunts experienced any dramatic improvement in their standard of living in the 1930s an 40s. Their father, also a veteran, had died in 1938 from the deep psychic wounds of the First World War.

My mother recounts that my father and a friend had hopped a freight train to Detroit and enlisted there. The Navy had sent my grandmother papers to verify that Daddy was a few years older than he really was (15). It seems that the U.S. had no problem taking child soldiers. I remember him talking about having to jump 100 feet into a tank of water. How was the basic training, what obstacles did he face? Who were his friends? How were Black sailors treated? Was it any better or worse than every day life in 1940s Atlanta?

What did he think as the ship sailed from Virginia across the Atlantic? He would talk about a battle off of the North African coast. How they had to pull badly burned sailors off of a sinking ship. I think that this was a landing in Tunisia called Operation Torch.

I know now from the ship muster rolls that there were Filipino sailors on LST-400 as well. What were there names? How did they spend the hours from one engagement to the next. How did they keep their mind away from the madness. Were they equally as young, conflicted in having to fight for one imperial power against another? Did they will themselves to see hope? Did they come with a dream of U.S. citizenship for their service, or was it simply enough for them to envision a Philippines free of Japanese or U.S. control?

He loved Billie Holiday. Did they allow him to play Billie and Duke aboard the ship? In his journal was an entry listing London clubs to visit — a place called the West Indian Club in London caught my eye. Was jazz played there? Did he spend evenings listening to local musicians playing a melange of jazz and Caribbean rhythms? What was Black London like in 1943?

He would talk about a landing, an invasion I suppose, that they made in Sicily. I looked at the ships logs from that operation recently. It was a small town named Gela, Sicily. According to the logs, other ships in their group had been badly damaged. They were strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft and by the Italian air force. Their home port was Bizerte, Tunisia. Many of the Tunisians would I meet since his passing had the same toffee brown skin. Did he ever consider just slipping into the crowds headed to Tunis?

After the invasion, did they go ashore to Gela? Who did he meet in Italy, what did they say? He mentioned being involved in providing food and other basics to the people of that town. Were there conversations, encounters that made an impression, made him think differently, informed the compassionate person I knew?

He would tell us about how thick the sky was on June 6, 1944 with aircraft. About soldiers falling in the surf. I remember his stories of attending to starved German soldiers, most younger than him. Were those among his thoughts when he would look off into the distance at something I could not see?

He passed away 34 years ago. I lament that the images that we see as D-Day is “celebrated” (it is a strange word for a period in which 27,000 people were being murdered each day) do not capture what he experienced. Celebration is a strange word for a tragedy that was enabled and abetted by the inability of all countries involved to confront injustice head on. Like the Billie Holiday song, it was bitter fruit.

There are so many questions that remain with me:

What was it like to be a Black teenager thrust into adulthood on a ship, thousands of miles from home?

What did you do after those days after the landing? What did you fear, what did you hope for?

What were the things that gave you hope? What were the soul wounds that you had still to heal from?

My wife, children and I were in Paris during the “Victory in Europe” anniversary this year. I believe that is the day that when most of the savagery came to an end — but how does one ever leave the images and pain. I remember hearing bells ringing. I wonder if it occurred to him to stay, to just find a quiet, humble town in France to just be free.

What difficulties did you face getting the benefits to which you were entitled? The book “When Affirmative Action was White” details the discrimination that Black veterans faced in getting the home and business loans, healthcare, and other benefits provided to white sailors. Was the G.I. Bill just one of the many half-truths you faced? Who heard your frustrations, how did you reconcile them?

You never had a peaceful sleep all the days that I had with you. What were the visions that would not leave? Did anyone delve deeply into them and unlock and free you from the demons of having seen what you did? How does it feel to be free now?

So much of why I try to remember, to keep the questions in mind is simply that he not be erased.

I have over the last thirty years spoken to people who survived this period in forced labor camps, who were child soldiers in the German army, people whose parents lived in India, China, Russia. For many “war” was not a place you went, but a condition that knocked upon the door daily. None of their stories of this time seem to fit into the neat script. They all testify to loss and living with both hope, brokenness, kindness and acknowledgement that some wounds do not heal.

I just hope that the stories live and guide us so that the pain will not be repeated.

Family

For Maria

We celebrated the life of my cousin Maria today. She was a little over a year older than I, and leaves to this world a devoted partner Greg and daughter Morgan and son Jordan.

This day was full of remembrance and thanks, joy and beauty, pain, loss, hope, wisdom.

I think of flowers this day because the sweet Georgia air was full of fragrance, filled with sunlight, with gentle cool breezes. It took me back to the days years ago when she and her family would pull up for a visit — people just showed up back in the pre-text, pre cell, pre messenger days — or we would wind up there after church or when my mother wanted to drop by.

Maria was an artist at heart. I think of her dancing, talking about the books she was writing. There was a lyricism in her voice, it spoke poetry, words seeming formed in a gentle particular authentic Atlanta Sista rhythm.

Maria had a way of telling truth and imparting truth. I think that in every conversation from the ’80s forward there was some kernel of wisdom that I would keep and turn over like gem. My thing has always been science fiction and how imagined realities or worlds give a prism for viewing the here and now. There is this character — The Oracle — in the matrix movies, played by a Sister in both, who in that perceptive way lays out truth and what lies ahead. I always half thought they must have based that character on Maria, because who then in Hollywood would have had the audacity and originality to appreciate the foresight and clarity of an Oracle in Black skin unless they’d encountered it in the flesh? My cousin had that kind of wisdom.

As I write this words like ferocity and indomitable come forth. As the world medicates on the loss of some Parisian cathedral, I’m thinking how miraculous it was for a Black woman to rebuild and reconstruct herself day after day for ten years with cancer. And laughing, and dancing, and writing. I’m thinking about how it’s a story that plays out for so many Black women battling the emotional and physical struggles.

I wish for her precious children that they find for themselves the best dream that she wished for them. I wish for them that they remember her voice in moments joyful and sad, that they treasure those kernels of truth that will come to them in dreams. I wish that they joyfully sing her songs, re-dance her dances, recall her jokes to their children, or nieces, or students, or share them with someone who needs that lift. I wish that they hold themselves dear and sacred. I wish for them that they speak truth and inspire, that they live and with the fire and grace of artists in their own chosen path.