I always come back to this picture.
The lessons my father taught me while I grew up were largely dissatisfying to my young self. They were a handful of seeds. They had little to nothing to do with immediate gratification, crystalline directives, or easily assimilable answers to my near-constant questions to my parents about why people acted like they did in the world outside our close-knit circle. The lessons most often took one of two forms. The first form would be a saying, dropped like a riddle that rolled to my feet to be puzzled over while he turned his attention to something else. These sayings ranged from the well-worn and popular, like, “slow and steady wins the race”, to far more opaque pronouncements. The second form was more common—action. My father would just do something. Most often, doing something meant not talking about it, but just leaving the house and attending to a need that someone had, somewhere. Whether it be going to the grocery store for an infirm neighbor, or rolling up unannounced to counsel a neglectful parent of one of the kids he mentored, or spending hours setting up any number of activities for any number of events for any number of community organizations of which he was a vital part. The most profound lessons invariably were tied to an palpable, kinetic energy I can best call “getting on with it”. I have to scrape the sides of my memory to recall my father complaining. And when I do, on those rare instances, not once, to my memory, did he complain about something that disappointed him personally. His concern was almost always, rhetorically, focussed on others.
I used to get mad at my father for spending so much time and energy on other people, when I was young. Less so because he wasn’t spending it on me or my family, though that sometimes stung, but more so because I felt that people didn’t appreciate what he gave them. I saw, even as a very young child, how vital he was to others’ well-being. How his profoundly thoughtful presence, consistently activated by real-world-follow-through, kept so very many lives from tipping over the edge—and this is not hyperbole. I loathed the ways that over the years many of his white colleagues and friends would leapfrog over him for opportunities, access and status, though the vast majority of them were, to my mind, intellectually and ethically inferior to him. I resented the way that other black men in the community would step nimbly into the spotlight after he had done the majority of the work to take credit and sometimes not even mention his name for major community initiatives or successful programs at church or other institutions. But, these were my fiery takes on matters. My father, just got on with it.
My father’s family were all from South Carolina. Some from the Charleston area, more from the Columbia area. The Joneses, like so many other participants in the Great Migration, came northward to seek something better. And, like so many others, a lynching was the direct spur; I’ve written of my grandmother’s experience losing her cousin to lynching as a little girl—she found the body, the blood dripping on her face from the tree. In Springfield, Massachusetts, her church for many years (she lived doors down the street from it) and my father’s church to this day, is Bethel A.M.E. And so, I have been thinking especially of my father this week. The massacre at Charleston put the names and faces of those killed into the mainstream media. But within their community, from the reports given, they, too, were cut from the same kind of cloth as my father.
The lessons my father taught me, I now realize, were meant for my adult self, my fully-grown self. Like some magical seeds from a fairy tale, many of them have cracked open and unfolded in the past several years to reveal their nuanced yet potent wisdom. I carry some, still dormant, in my pocket, hopeful they will guide me through future challenges. But, I am so profoundly grateful that my father taught me the way he did. He made me have to journey and experience life before assessing it. He did not limit me with his opinion, but rather gave me clues, so that when I began to see patterns emerging in my own or others behavior, I’d be led back to check on that handful of seeds.
One of my father's favorite sayings goes: "People speak their minds, and betray their attitudes". As we witness unchecked violence and hatred consume, maim and destroy lives with abandon here in this country and abroad, much of it utilizing the particular, violent philosophies and vocabularies of racism and homophobia, I find my own rage against these machines met in the mirror by the wise gazes of my parents and my ancestors. They caution me. They remind me that if I've compromised my capacity for love and compassion, I am walking down the wrong path. I struggled as a child with the ethos of non-violence that my parents embodied. (My Uncle Gus would offer a salty balance to this ethos in the ranging conversations and tale-telling visits and philosophical arguments he’d have with my parents.) This year I wonder more than ever if I will someday master the transmutation of anger before it tips over into rage and hatred toward those committing atrocity; or, if I even should.
There is something so powerful about seeing the evidence of your lineage assert itself as you age. I see physical traits manifest (my father's gait, my mother's posture, the curve of my Grandma Daisy Mae's hand, my grandmother Bunny's gaze, the Jones family's inimitable laugh). But also I feel those philosophical insights that used to annoy me (like any kid gets tired of hearing the same sayings) but now prove truer than I could have imagined. I am so grateful for them. I've met few more loving and compassionate people than my parents. My personal dis/ease with so much of what passes for contemporary socio-political/cultural discourse is rooted in the apparent near-absence of love and compassion, and the framing of love and compassion as ancillary, passive, pie-in-the-sky weakness. Perhaps, I feel the way I do because through my family’s example I understood love to be action. And so, in lieu of answers, I will, in honor of my father, using my own medium of the arts, “get on with it”.