A Life Well Lived: In Loving Memory of My Uncle Gino

This Easter Sunday of 2012 is the first Easter, and the first holiday, that my family will spend without my Uncle Gino, the late Eugene Hilton Reilly (June 21, 1937-March 6, 2012). If he was still here, I’m sure that he would’ve had his head thrown back, singing his heart out with the choir at the Springfield Baptist Church in Beacon, New York, as they rejoice in the resurrection of their risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And I know that many of them sang today with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye, as they did back on Tuesday, March 13th, when we packed the church for the homegoing services for my beloved uncle and their dear Deacon Reilly (read obituary here: http://t.co/fSuL1Hdn).

June 2002: Uncle Gino and me at his surprise 65th birthday celebration.

Uncle Gino was the fourth, and the last, of the children born to my maternal grandparents, the late Aramintha and Eugene Reilly. My uncle Raymond, who passed away four years ago, was the oldest; my mom, Gwendolyn, is the second oldest; and my aunt Sylvia is the third oldest. My mother and her siblings were all born in New York City after my grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from the Virgin Islands, and married in New York. As a child, I grew up with my grandparents, and with my mother’s siblings.

He was part of a second generation of military people on my mother’s side of the family that includes my father, Leo James Carr; my uncle Al, the late Allen Berrell, who was Aunt Sylvia’s husband; my Uncle Raymond; and Paul Cain, the father of my youngest brother. My younger sister Angela, a West Point graduate, is the third generation, and my son Magezi is the fourth. The first generation was my grandfather’s brother, my Uncle Bee, the late Beresford Thomas. Three branches of the service are represented in these ranks—the Army, the Navy, and with my Uncle Gino, the Air Force. What I didn’t know until about three years ago was that my Uncle Gino had served in Vietnam. I found out about this when I was taking an art class in college, and I wanted to make an assemblage that paid tribute to those four generations, using the insignias of the branches, ships, and divisions where my family members had served.

The irony here is that as a teenager, I sat in front of the television and witnessed the Vietnam war—the first war that was brought into our living rooms through the technology of the television. All the while, I argued with the fourth of my mother’s children, my brother Kenneth, about why the war was wrong, and that there was nothing glorious or glamorous about it. Unlike a lot of the adults who were protesting in the streets during the ’70s who used the TV coverage of the war as evidence that the United States needed to pull out and bring the troops home, my brother thought that these daily scenes was most exciting thing that he’d ever seen. All the while, I had no idea that Uncle Gino had first-hand knowledge.

The war was not the only topic up for debate in our household back then. Civil Rights was another hot topic. As I watched events unfold on television, and the reaction and concerns of the adults around me, I wanted to know why a person like Martin Luther King, who advocated non-violence, had to die at the hands of an assassin’s bullet; and why the adults in my community were conflicted about his movement and his message. I wanted to know why other leaders like Bobby Seale and Malcolm X felt that the violence inflicted on the community by law enforcement be met with violence in kind. While the adults were ambivalent about Dr. King and his message, many of them had not heard the words of Malcolm X or members of the Black Panthers firsthand. They’d only heard sound bytes and commentaries from news reporters. And in my house, where folks debated everything from the mayoral candidates to the storylines on the soap opera, they spoke in muted tones about these things.

That is, until evening when my grandfather was doing his usual sorting through the trash before he put it out to the curb, and came across a looseleaf binder of mine that had seen better days. It was covered in blue fabric that I had scribbled in blue ink with doodles, drawings, and slogans, including the infamous “Black Power” that was coined by Stokely Carmichael. For us junior high school kids at the time, it wasn’t much more than a rhyme that we sang on the bus–“Ungawa, Black Power.” But when my grandfather caught sight of those words on the back corner of that old binder, he hauled me into the kitchen and demanded to know what I thought “Black Power” was supposed to mean.

When Uncle Gino caught word of what happened, he quietly came over to the house and handed me a black hardcover book, simply saying, “I want you to have this.” It was Seize the Time by Bobby Seale. His gift reinforced what my teachers had taught us in school; that we needed to hear the opinions of the newsmakers directly from the source, and not the interpretation from some ‘talking heads.’ It also expressed his confidence in my ability to think critically about the ideas put forth in the book, and what place those ideas would have in my world.

Nowadays, in this age of the Kindles, iPads, and audiobooks, such an act may seem rather harmless. But this was the 1970s, in the days of COINTELPRO, where being seen with a book written by a Black Panther was risky business. In high school, a friend of mine who wrote a term paper on the Panthers got a visit at home from “men in suits.” That didn’t stop me from checking out Bobby Seale’s second book, Revolutionary Suicide, from my high school library three years after my uncle gave me the first book. While I kept quiet when one of my teachers mentioned to me that I was only student who had checked the book out of the library, inside I thanked my Uncle Gino for giving me the courage.

He was also an avid photographer, and loved taking pictures at family gatherings. Any talent that I have for taking pictures I inherited from him. He had a fine tenor voice, and was part of a singing group that travelled from base to base when he was in the Air Force. Once he retired from his working career, he was active in the music ministry in his church, and traveled throughout upstate New York and around the country. And, while he was an elder, he kept an active Facebook page, and sent his famous “Gino jokes” to us by e-mail. He was a mentor to many and an inspiration to all.

My Uncle Gino wasn’t a celebrity. He wasn’t famous. And he certainly wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have to be. According to the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, the African-American holiday, the sixth principle, Kuumba, Creativity, states that we should “do always as much as can, in the way that we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.” By all accounts, my Uncle Gino has done just that; he left his part of the world a better place than when he found it. I love you, Unc; Rest in Peace.

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