Cira 1980s ~ My Father, Silas J. Jones in his back yard in Albany, GA after a miraculous snow fall. Yep, that’s a dusting of snow on the car…

Independence Day Musings ~

My father, Silas Jones, was born in 1921 in Putney, Georgia—a widening-in-the-road near Albany. I remember one summer when I was home—most likely during my Brooklyn, New York years: 1979-1985, we drove “down home” to visit my mother’s people in Bainbridge/Camilla. We were at a cousin’s house where the TV played perpetually. My cousin’s daughter, a toddler, sat too close to the set, spell-bound. My 6’2 father took her hand and said, “C’mon baby.” The child looked up with a blank stare and took his hand. I remember her little legs were bowed and she had trouble walking. He walked her around the front yard saying “Ya’ll need to walk this baby.”

This image of my father’s vulnerability and tenderness stayed with me. Here was a man who had seen many atrocities, having been born and raised in the Deep South between the fall of Reconstruction and the beginning of Civil Rights; who spent the bulk of his 77 years a few miles from the house where he had been born the youngest of twenty-one, a sharecropper’s son, a member of The Greatest Generation; who found time to be the toddler’s hero in one of life’s small moments.

When he was a young man in the Deep South, men like my father where blocked from the vote and considered less than a pedigree pet when they stepped out into a world controlled by white supremacy. They were not widely read or traveled, many, like my father, went to night school to earn a high school diploma. They served proudly in the military which afforded them the rare chance to travel. They believed in the stars and stripes and, for a fleeting time—just as freedmen had during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War—believed that their government was finally looking upon them as equal to the white man.

My father polished and cherished the high times those experiences left behind; even as he became aware of the truth: his service was not even a wink or a nod toward equality. This was another lie, proven when the ships came in and American service men—who had mingled on board, out on the water where borders are blurred by the waves—walked down the plank and split once their feet hit American soil: one table to the left, one to the right—black and white, separate and unequal .

Despite bigotry and institutional racism, American Black men built themselves up to middle-class citizenry and lead rich, memorable, lives contributing much to the fabric of their communities and this country. I grew up under the guidance of such men: my father, uncles, elder cousins and friends. I watched with fascination the quiet, tenacious spirit of these  men who worked hard in their homes, churches and communities and lead with strength—men who stuck by their wives and children and built families.

As a daughter and as an artist, I am left with the question: how did they accomplish this? How did Black southern men of what was also known as the G.I. Generation navigate the starkly different worlds in which they lived? How do Black men today manage the same journey? This core question was the inspiration for my novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey. As I approach the final revisions after a decade (!) that question leads to more introspective, complicated answers for me, a Black woman living in the largely white, affluent world in northern California during the fledgling Trump regime. (another story for another time!)

I’ve been working on this novel through seven generations of the iPhone and now, sadly, into what some call the most absurd, maniacal political period the US has ever produced—and that’s saying a lot about the country that condoned slavery and gave birth to the KKK (and if you believe all those things are not related, think again).

As artist, we writers are tasked with telling society the truth about itself. I witness, through my pen on the page, as this truth—one I could never have imagined in 2007 when the writing began—affects the story I am telling in the novel; a story of three generations of modern Black men in America,which is more relevant and important than ever. As writer A.J. Verdelle said, “Our literature is hungry for the truth of strong black men.”

To answer the question How? these words from James Baldwin give the best answer:

“One could not be in any Southern community for long and not be confronted with the question of what a man is, should do, or become….What brought this question to the front of my mind, of course, was the fact that so many black men I talked to in the south in those years were—I can find no other word for them—heroic….Their heroism was to be found less in the large things than in small ones, less in public than in private… What impressed me was how they went about their daily tasks, in the teeth of the Southern terror.”  ~ James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, 1972

My father passed away in 1999. He had survived my mother’s death by five years. We’re left to speculate as to which was the first president they voted for. Perhaps Harry S. Truman? (even though that was 1948, before LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act 1965). I know that they celebrated JFK and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Would that I could’ve seen them both witness President Barack Obama’s election nine years after my dad’s death.

And at the same time I’m content that my parents don’t have to witness the tragedy of a Trump presidency. My father does not have to sit, at the age of ninety-six, holding his shiny memories of serving his country as Private First Class Jones in the Philippines and wonder “how can this man be our president?”