My village laid one of its greats to rest the other day. It is not enough to say he was a good man. Good men, while possibly hard to find, are not as rare as he- the first African American assistant basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin, and the second to become an administrator in the NBA.
And then, he was lost to cancer. We prepared for his wake.
A wake in my culture is a funny thing, in that everyone walks around smiling and laughing over the good times they’ve shared with the deceased, who lies at the front of the room. The purpose of a funeral arrangement is to celebrate-Laughter is common, and tears are not. My husband was bewildered, waiting for lightning to strike us all for having that much fun before a burial.
Having never entirely bought into that kind of joy at death I sat in the back, the place already teeming with people. They shouted over one another and gave out hugs and kisses, mingling. I walked to the front of the church to view the body, thinking I might pray. As I took a final look I could only think, “Take some rest.” He’d been sick for a long while, and had fought long and hard. I turned from the casket to find his daughter standing with her arms open to comfort me. I hugged her long and hard, feeling selfish, and heard someone say, “Be glad that you were blessed enough to have him”.
On my way back to my seat, I passed his friends, who are the “chiefs” of our village. They were the trailblazers of my childhood-and the friendship between the families has endured for years. The chiefs were also good friends of my father, who took his own rest years ago. They were there at his wake as well, their contraband tears falling like rain, shocked that one of them could die so soon. On this day however, they were prepared and occupying several rows in the center of the church. They are Performers, Reformers, Activists, Athletes, Educators, Politicians… some of them famous, some of them rich, all of them fathers.
They were unbearably beautiful, these men, sitting apart from their women. They crowded together, enjoying each other and their fallen friend. They yelled about the time they protested here, or entered the Hall of Fame at the University, or the charity basketball and football games they’d host to pay for another man to get to college. They also ribbed one another about the way my grandmother promised that she would not pay good money to watch these boys play a game or sing that racket for money, ever.
They hold on to each other because they are the ones who really remember when they were young and hungry, and searching for a way to keep their children safe, healthy, educated and free.
Having been born during the blackouts of the civil rights movement, we were raised by these men to be proud. And, they taught us to be patient while the world caught up with the untapped resources of our people. They taught us, thinking that they were preparing us for a post racial environment, that we really will overcome. We almost felt like the end products of their efforts, the trophies that they won after victory over the hardship of working to desegregate America. We, as their offspring, lived to be worthy of the honor.
A few of the chiefs caught my eye and came to say hello, gripping my hand or just winking from their seat, telling me, “I see you. I remember when you were one of the children here.” Some searched for my daughter and found her at my side, being shown the ways of our clan, and would nod. One of them patted her on the head, and said to me, “You will know a tree by its fruit.” She told him she would be a peach, and his eyes watered as he excused himself to the vestibule.
After a while I couldn’t look at them anymore and turned my head away, speechless. I wanted them to know how much difference their lives have made in thousands of other lives and couldn’t find the words. Then I realized that they already know.
Overwhelmed with gratitude and respect, I thought, “I will be here. I will sit near you so that you can see me, and know that I am in support of you, but I can’t talk with you right now. I need to reserve my strength to pick up where you left off. And you’ve got mighty big shoes.”