Category Archives: Family

Why do I have natural hair? Because I hate hairdressers.



Yea, I know that we’re not supposed say that we hate anyone. Maybe what I should say is that I hate the experience of getting my hair done in a salon.

I came to this realization about 15 years ago. A white friend of mine got the idea to have her hair braided. She has gorgeous long blond hair. It was summertime, and she wanted a style that would be easy to care for in the heat. A number of her co-workers are black women with braided hairstyles, and gave her the name of a hairbraiding salon in downtown Brooklyn. She asked me if this was the type of place where she could get her hair done.

I told her the truth: “So far as I know.”

Then she asked if I would come along with her. You know for moral support. I shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t come with you.”

I’m not sure what she thought about my answer. She never asked why. And I never told her why. I didn’t tell her that the last time I set foot in a hair salon was in the late 80s. I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve set foot in a hairdresser as an adult.

Now I’ve read stories ad nauseum about how hairdressers are a woman’s best friend, confidant, and psychologist. There’s even advice on how to break up with your hair stylist. That’s how close the bond is. And that women think of the hair salon as a type of sanctuary, one of the few safe places where we can be themselves and talk about whatever is on their mind. Well, I know nothing about that.

As an adult, the few times when I went to the salon to get my hair braided, it was done so tightly that I went home with a powerful headache, and wound up taking it out before it drove me crazy.

As a child, my mother sent me to the hairdresser to get a perm when I was eleven years old, after I spent the summer with a short afro. This was back in 1969, when sporting an afro was a radical political statement. But my mom didn’t cut my hair into an afro to be political. I liked to sleep with gum in my mouth, and this one time when it fell out and got stuck in my hair, my mom had no choice but to cut it. One of the things that happened to me in a most eventful year.

Before I got the afro, my mom, like all black mothers back then, put my hair under the hot comb in the kitchen. Now I’ve read sentimental essays that where women recalled the love and bonding with their mothers and grandmothers through this weekly ritual. Not me. Every Sunday, I lived in mortal fear of getting burned behind the ears with that hot comb. The worst burn that I ever got was the Sunday when Martin Luther King gave his last public speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” We listened to the TV broadcast while Mom straightened my hair. When he spoke those words, I think my mom had a premonition that he was going to be killed. And sure enough, she was right there at the back of my head—and burned the top of my ear.

Getting my hair straightened with the hot comb was worse than a whipping. If I could’ve gotten out of the hot comb by getting a whipping, I probably would’ve done it—gladly.

That brief summer season when I had my hair in its natural state was the first time that I experienced a relatively painless hairstyle—unless, of course, I didn’t braid my hair up at night. But I’d take that any day over the burns on my ears from the hot comb. Or, when I went to the hairdresser. At first, my mom had the hairdresser use the hot comb to straighten my hair. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t get my ears burned. I couldn’t believe this was ever possible. But the damage was already done. I was traumatized by my experience at home, so I was a nervous wreck when I sat down at the hairdresser. So my mom agreed to give me a perm.

I thought that I that the hot comb was bad, but I didn’t know about bad until I got that perm. Back then, we didn’t have the variety of products available today. We had few options, and all of them were lye-based. The hairdresser treated my thick, kinky hair like it was an enemy combatant. She permed my hair to within an inch of its life so it was bone straight. I was under the dryer for so long that all the other customers had left, and the hairdressers were sweeping up the place. The next day, there would be scabs in my hair from the burns. And sleeping in rollers, to me, is a contradiction in terms.

When I got to my senior year of high school, and mom said she couldn’t afford to send me to the hairdresser anymore, I didn’t say a word. In my mind, I thought, “Thank you, Jesus!” I grew out my curly perm, then went back to the short afro. In the 80s, I wore cornrows, then went to box braids. In the 90s, I just couldn’t take the tight braids anymore, and went to twists. Except for the few times when I went to the hair dresser, I’ve always done my own hair.

My best experience at a hairdresser was actually in a barbershop. For the New Year in 1980, I wanted to get a nice cut for my afro. On the last Saturday before the New Year, I went to the local beauty school, hoping to get a cheap cut from one of the students. But the school was closed for the Christmas holiday, so I ended up going to a nearby barbershop. I was the first customer, and the barber gladly cut my hair. Best haircut I ever had. If I ever get to the point where I can no longer do my own hair, I’ll go right back down to the barber, tell him to chop off these twists, and give me a brush-and-go. No qualms about it.

I mention my hair experience because it seems that a confluence of events has caused the question of black hair to be a topic of discussion this past week. The first was a so-called ‘study’ which reported that “Women with Natural Hair Have Low Self-Esteem.” Frankly, I think this was either a satire, or a bait, because there’s no online reference to the actual study. And if it was commissioned, it was probably done by a company with a vested interested in getting black women to chemically straighten their hair. I won’t dignify this article by providing a link, but Google it, and you’ll see how this has flown around social media.

What I will say it that the trauma of straightening my hair as a child was more of a cause for low self-esteem. What did I hear during all those years of hot comb and perms? “Her head is too hard.” “We can’t do anything with that!” “It’s too nappy!” Even if I wasn’t told those things, just the pain to took for to “look nice” spoke volumes. I swore that if I gave birth to daughters, I would never subject them to that kind of pain in the name of beauty.

Right after I picked up the so-called study about women with natural hair, I saw up an article from Atlanta BlackStar, which said that relaxer sales are slumping, and natural hair is here to stay. Now that I can attest to. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen more women sporting afros, twists, braids, and locks. I’ve also seen women of other ethnicities embrace their curls and ditch the heat and the chemicals. And the beauty industry has taken notice; there’s a lot more products out there for women with natural hair.

Then, there was the whole flap around Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies herself as black. That’s when we get into the whole discussion about race; representations, and societal reactions to those representations. We may not want to admit it, but hair for black women is still ‘political.’ If you don’t think so, well, tell me the last time you saw an African-American female reporter in a natural hairstyle. I’m not talking about commentators like Melissa Harris-Perry. Or the black female reporters on CNN International, or the BBC. I’m talking network television. There was one black woman reporter with a short afro back in the 90s. As soon as her hair got long enough, she straightened it. Blink, and you would’ve missed it.

Now I won’t give the side eye to women who use perms, hot combs, weaves, or dyes. In fact, I’ve complimented many of them, as people have complimented me on my hair. I just can’t do all that for the sake of beauty. But I can’t help but wonder how Rachel Dolezal got her hair to look like that. Did her hairdresser know her secret? (Probably did. “Only your hairdresser knows.”) Maybe that’s one of those things that we need to #AskRachel, if it hasn’t been done already.

...and now.

…and now.


My First St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick's celebration in St. Croix, VI, the birthplace of my maternal grandparents.

St. Patrick’s celebration in St. Croix, VI, the birthplace of my maternal grandparents.

It happened during the first year at my new school. I came home with an announcement from the principal: On St. Patrick’s Day, we had to dress for assembly, in white blouse and blue skirt. But if we were Irish, we could wear a green blouse instead of the white.

This simple announcement caused a flurry of activity within my family. My grandfather insisted that my older sister and I would wear green blouses for this school assembly. It was left up to my mom, grandmother, aunt, and uncle to find these blouses on such short notice. They were fanned out to different parts of the city, from the local department store on Linden Boulevard, to Macy’s at Herald Square and every place in between, in search of just the right color of green blouses for St. Patrick’s.

While the folks searched high and low, I secretly hoped that they would not succeed in their mission. School was tough enough. Here I was in the second grade, among the first blacks to be bused out of my neighborhood in Southeast Queens an all-white school in Northern Queens. Then I was a short, shy, skinny kid who wore white sparkly Catwoman style glasses. So I was already under a microscope.

It looked like things would swing my way when they managed to find a blouse that fit my sister, but they couldn’t find one for me. I was always the difficult one to dress, since I was short, skinny, and, as the old folks would say, I had no waist. I wore suspenders on my skirts to keep them up. My grandfather just felt that they needed to try harder, and sent them back out. His granddaughters were going to be properly attired for this assembly. The evening before St. Patrick’s Day, my mom and uncle arrived home together, tired, but satisfied. Mission accomplished. They’d found green blouses for both me and my sister.

Why did my grandfather insist that my sister and I wear the green on St. Patrick’s Day? We were black folks—or should I say, Negroes, as we were called in the mid-60s, before we evolved to “Black and I’m Proud.” All the Irish folks that I saw in school books and on TV didn’t look like me. They looked like white people. But I couldn’t just straight out ask my grandfather, “Why,” because children were just supposed to do as they were told. Somehow, I needed to know that it would be worth my spending a school day thinking that I could be hauled off to the principal’s office because the teacher might think it audacious for a little black child to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. So I didn’t ask why. Instead, I asked, “What do I say if the teacher asks why I’m wearing green?”

“If anyone asks—you tell them your grandfather’s last name is REILLY!”

Until that moment, I did not know my grandfather’s surname. My second grade mind didn’t think it was possible for my mother’s parents to have a last name—and if they did, what did it matter, because to us kids they were always Moyee and Pa. Sometimes I would hear Pa call my grandmother Mintha—but we were never allowed to call her Mintha, which was short for her first name, Aramintha. That they had a last name at all was a new concept. And my grandfather’s last name was Irish?! That day, I learned something new about my family’s heritage. And I was proud that my grandfather had the conviction to celebrate this part of his heritage by making sure that we were properly dressed.

Well, my pride could not keep my knees from trembling under my skirt as I headed out to the bus stop that morning and tried to get through the day. Every time I saw a teacher in the hallway, I would look up to see if they would see this little black child in green, pluck her out of the class line, and march her down to the principal’s office because I had the audacity to think that I could wear a green blouse, when I should be wearing white. Because, judging by appearance, I wasn’t supposed to be wearing the green.

As it turned out, only one teacher asked, and it wasn’t even my own teacher. That afternoon, as my class was on the way to assembly, the sixth grade teacher caught sight of me, and asked why I was wearing green. Before I could get the answer out of my mouth, she was halfway down the hall with her class. But my knees had stopped trembling.

What Would My Aunt Eliza Say About Thanksgivukkah?

On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and the start of the holiday season, I went over to B & H Photo and Video on 34th Street and 9th Avenue to return some merchandise. The store sells photo and video cameras and equipment, and it’s also a great place to buy computers, TVs and other tech accessories at great prices. The store is owned and operated by Orthodox Jews. After my return transaction was completed, I wished the man behind the counter a Happy Thanksgiving, and a Happy Hanukkah.

“You know it falls on the same day this year—Thanksgivukkah,” the man said.

“Oh yea, that’s right!” I answered.

“Actually, it starts on Wednesday evening.”

“Yes, at sundown. You know, my Aunt Eliza, my grandfather’s sister, converted to Judaism back in the ’60s.”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Oh really?!”

“I know, you can’t tell by looking,” I smiled, referring to my African-American heritage. The man smiled back. “But yea, my Aunt Eliza died and was buried a Jew.”

Anytime one of the Jewish holidays come around, I say a little prayer in memory of my great-aunt, Eliza Reilly. She was one of the sisters of my maternal grandfather, and lived up in the Bronx with her sister, my Aunt Ina. The two of them never married or had children of their own. Back in the day, they would’ve been called a couple of old spinsters.

Aunt Eliza and Aunt Ina argued like cats and dogs. They were of different temperaments. Aunt Eliza was more of a “live and let live” type of person. Aunt Ina was more critical in her ways; everything had to be done in a certain way. Both of them, like the rest of my grandparents’ generation, were Victorian in their approach to children. They were firm believers that “children should be seen and not heard.” In the era of the 60s and 70s with all the social turbulence, and the change in attitudes toward child rearing and the role of women in the family, they were like fish out of water. But it didn’t stop them from taking the grandchildren of their brother for a couple of weeks during the summer, where the highlight would be a bus trip across the Hudson over to the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.

I wonder what my Aunt Eliza would’ve thought of this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of the first day of Hanukkah with Thanksgiving Day. Here in New York City, it’s been a huge deal, with the local news is featuring special recipes and tasting restaurant dishes who have their own special take on dishes like sweet potato latkes and pumpkin pie-filled donuts.

Now I have to admit that my Aunt Eliza was not the best cook in the world. As a kid, she invited my grandfather to bring us kids over to her house for a Passover Seder. The ceremony was lovely; but extreme caution had to be taken with the food. The turkey she roasted was bone dry, and served without gravy. The pound cake she made for dessert was drier still. You were liable to choke if you didn’t wash it down with some milk. We smiled politely and endured the meal. It became one of the high points in our life with Aunt Eliza.

The importance of the occasion was not lost on us kids. We had been bused out to an all-white school in Flushing that had a sizeable Jewish population. Once a week, this group would leave early in order to attend Jewish lessons. My older sister, my oldest cousin and I were members of the St. Albans Children’s Chorus, and we had a Jewish song in our repertoire. Aunt Eliza’s Passover Seder was an opportunity to give her brother’s grandchildren a living lesson about her chosen faith. It was also an occasion to bring the family together. Her brother and sister-in-law, my grandparents, were the ones who gathered the family together during the holidays. When relatives came up from St. Croix, their visit was not complete without a stop to our home.

I’m not sure if my Aunt Eliza was influenced by the conversion of famed singer/actor Sammy Davis Jr.’s of the time. I don’t know if she, like many black people during the era of civil rights, had wondered about her unquestioned belief in Christianity, a religion that was used to justify the enslavement of African people. What I do know is that a religious conversion in that era could cause such a family controversy that the person could cast out or disowned. Especially in a family like my grandparents, who grew up in St. Croix as members of the Moravian Church, and brought their faith with them to New York. Every time we went to service, we would meet Cousin this, Aunt that, Uncle somebody else. It was like the entire church was made up of family.

While Aunt Eliza caused an uproar when she came to our house and announced that she would become a Jew, it was more important to my grandparents that the family stay together. Later on in the 1980s, my family would change our faith from Christianity to Islam. My grandparents didn’t flinch. Aunt Eliza had already converted to another faith, so for them, our conversion was old hat. But Thanksgiving would be the one occasion where everyone made it a point to come together. It was a non-religious holiday, and one, most importantly, where just about everyone had the day off. I would like to think that, if Aunt Eliza was alive today, that she would’ve relished the chance to bring the family together to celebrate both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving at the same time. This story from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly expresses the sentiment that I think Aunt Eliza would have felt:

The last time I saw my Aunt Eliza was in October 1985 at the funeral for my grandfather, her brother, Eugene Reilly. My grandmother, Aramintha Jackson Reilly, had passed away just months earlier in July, but Aunt Eliza was too sick to attend. In fact, they kept the news from her until my grandfather had passed, and then they broke the news to her that the both of them were gone. When I arrived at the Moravian Church, she was sitting in her wheelchair, tears streaming down her face as she sang a Jewish song of mourning. Aunt Ina tried to shush her, saying, “Nobody wants to hear you singing that!”

I couldn’t tell my Aunt Ina that her sister’s mournful wail reminded me of the time when I was a kid in an all-black chorus, where we sang a Jewish song that would bring people to tears. After all, I was still a child, in her eyes, still supposed to be seen and not heard. So I just smiled at my Aunt Eliza, then bent down to give her a kiss and a hug, hoping it would bring her some comfort. I was still a practicing Muslim at the time, and wore a hijab.

Aunt Eliza stroked my head covering, pointed between the two of us, and said, “You know, we’re not that far away, me and you,” referring to my Islam and her Judaism.

“Yes,” I nodded. And, just as I had done with my grandparents, I placed my one-year-old son, Kintu, in her lap. That April, I had gone over to visit Moyee and Pa, my mother’s parents, and my Grandma Marie, my father’s mother, to give the blessing of the elders to my firstborn child. By that October, all my grandparents were gone. My maternal grandmother passed that July, my father’s mother in August, and my maternal grandfather in October. Aunt Eliza was always one of my favorite aunts, and I was not going to let this occasion pass without the opportunity for her to see my son. My Aunt Ina, still ever critical, did not think my grandfather’s funeral was the place for a child, especially when he began to fidget and make noise. As usual, my Aunt Eliza admonished her; and I knew my grandparents were smiling from above. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

Aunt Eliza passed away in January 1986. Died and buried a Jew. At the United Moravian Church in East Harlem, her name was added to the wall of members who passed on, along with the names of my grandparents.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

“As I was walking down the street one day…”

For anyone who came of age in the 1970s, those nine words set to music will elicit an automatic response. The head nods, the feet start tapping, and folks start humming what is perhaps the most recognized pop tune sung by the group Chicago.

“A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yea…”

It’s a common enough occurrence, walking back to my office in Lower Manhattan after a meeting. Over on Church Street, near Barclay, a young woman passing in the opposite direction comes over and asks me for the time.

My watch says 12:53. “It’s five to one,” I answer.

“Thanks,” she says without breaking her stride.

I notice that she is dressed in a black suit and carries a small pocketbook. Maybe she’s on her way to an interview, I thought. I did not see a bulge on her wrist to indicate a watch, nor one at the waist to indicate a cellphone. And nothing clipped to her purse. Apparently, she has no timekeeping devices on her person. Maybe this is her first job; she’s never had the chance to buy a watch, or have one given to her. And so I am happy to oblige. At least she didn’t get to hear me sing, as my two sons have known me to do. They’re not so lucky. When they ask me “What time it is?” I break out into the chorus:

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?

And so I can’t imagine why

We’ve all got time enough to cry.

At that point, my firstborn son Kintu, will groan in annoyance, and Magezi, my number two guy, will just stand and stare. He and I have a special relationship with time, for he is the child who still asks, “Are we there yet? How many stops?” Never mind that he’s grown and in the Navy. Both boys already know that they have to wait until Mom finishes singing before they can even entertain the thought of getting a response from her. I have trained them well, although I must say that this quirk of mine embarrasses them to no end. Their only consolation is that their six cousins must also endure the same treatment from their mom, my sister Karen, who is a year older than I. The both of us spent our formative years singing and studying music, hence the reason why “Mom has a song for everything,” as their cousins would say.

This sister of mine can also be counted on to crowd up my e-mail box with a slew of forwarded messages that I really don’t have the time to read, much less to hit the delete key to clear them out. But every now and then one of those messages will catch my eye, as it did on one particular Sunday when Magezi came out and asked me that famous question about the time.

The subject of this message made me pause before I hit the delete key. It said, Polish Digital Clock (really neat). Hmm…this might be interesting, I thought. What piqued my interest was that a group of science students at the University of Poland created the site, and it took four years to build. I wondered what was so special about an Internet clock that these students would invest so much time out of their lives to build the site.

When I clicked on the hyperlink ( and opened up the site, I saw the reason why this particular clock was so long in the making. Each digit for the date and the time was drawn in pencil on a plain white sheet of paper. As the numbers changed to count the seconds, minutes, hours and days, a hand tore away the old sheet and handwrote the next number in pencil. The sight of the seconds, minutes and hours manually changing was amazing. So this time when Magezi came shuffling out of his bedroom and asked, “What time is it?” instead of singing, I pointed to the computer.

“Hey, look at this,” I said.

His face lit up as he peered at the numbers going by on the computer.

“Cool, isn’t it?”

Magezi smiled in approval. As he kept looking at the website, I stole a glance at the time displayed in the lower left corner of the taskbar on my computer and saw that the clock on the website was in sync. Then I surveyed all the other devices that kept time in my apartment. The timepieces ranged from 11:48 to 11:52, with most of them set at 11:50, and included two computers, an electronic organizer, a clock radio, a stereo, three telephones, a kitchen timer and two wristwatches. And that’s when the song started playing in my head:

As I was walking down the street one day.

A pretty lady looked at me

and said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead

And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is

(I don’t)

Does anybody really care


If so I can’t imagine why

(About time)

We’ve all got time enough to cry

(Oh no, no)

As I thought about the number of times that someone would ask for the time, I wondered how many times I have suppressed my feelings of annoyance because that person doesn’t have a timepiece. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone who asks you for the time. I guess in the U.S., where we are so time-obsessed, and particularly here in New York City, where a minute goes by faster than anyplace else on the planet, a person without a timepiece is seen as lacking a basic social skill. At the same time, I wonder just how it is that this act of coincidence has taken place, when I encounter this young lady on the street at the precise moment that she needed to know the time. Or just when I happen to fall into the right position on the subway stairs when the mother in front of me with a stroller needs a helping hand. Or the minute someone needs a point in the right direction among the maze of Manhattan streets, especially the ones where I work downtown that all have names, not numbers, and seem to have no rhyme or reason.

Invariably these type of coincidences happen when I am running late and wondering if maybe I should have spent a little less time trying to find the perfect necklace to match my outfit. They also seem to happen when I have an unexpected change in plans, like the evening when I bumped into my friend Hassan. The boys were still in grade school at the time, and I was 45 minutes late in picking them up after a major subway delay and getting lost trying to find an alternate route. There he stood as I hustled through the turnstile at the Grand Army Plaza station in Brooklyn.

“Hassan! As-salaamu alaiykum!” I gave him a big hug. “How are you? How’s the family?”

“Everyone’s fine! What brings you over here?”

“My boys go to school over on Union Street—and I should’ve been here an hour ago!” I rolled my eyes. “Those trains are such a mess! But it’s so good to see you! What’ve you been up to?”

“Tomorrow I’m going to be on a plane to Mecca.”

“Wow…for the Hajj?”

“Yea! I’ll pray for you!”

“See there—Allah is the best of planners,” I said as I hugged him good-bye. If I hadn’t been held up on the train, who knows if I ever would have got a blessing like that?

Those moments make me wonder whether the universe has a hand in putting us in the right place at the right time. The image that most people have of time seems to be this great universal clock that keeps all the galaxies and their inhabitants in step and in tune. But the concept of time—exactly what time is, how it works, how it will ultimately end up—is still being worked on by scientists. So, how did time come to have such a central place in our society? Time is used as a gathering point, a way to get groups of people together at the same place at the same moment. Time, and the marking or passage thereof, also gives us the means to mark special events.

Scientists do agree about one aspect of time, that it is in itself a moving target—that its measurement is not fixed like, for example, the speed of light. Einstein’s realization through his famous thought experiments that time actually does change relative to your perspective, that it is the speed of light that is constant and doesn’t change, is what lead to his breakthrough and his special theory of relativity; E=mc2.

But no science in the world explains why we as human beings tend to be either in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. So far in my life I have been lucky in that I have been in the right place at the right time, even when I do not plan it that way. Like on September 11, 2001. If I had planned things my way, I would have gotten the train out of Far Rockaway at 7:45 so I could stop by the Farmer’s Market at the World Trade Center before I went to work. However, I was running a little late and wound up getting on the train at 8:05. I really wanted to get to the market in the morning so that I could run another errand on my lunch break. So I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to go straight to work instead. After all, I’ll still get to the office on time, I thought.

As I was walking down the street one day

Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock

Oh, so I just don’t know

I just don’t know

And I said, yes I said

Does anybody really know what time it is

(I don’t)

Does anybody really care


If so I can’t imagine why

(About time)

We’ve all got time enough to die

(Oh no, no)

Had I taken the early train I would have been there at 8:45 when the first plane hit. Tragically, close to 3000 people had time enough to die that day because of a murderous act of terrorism; but it turned out not to be my time. I would sometimes sing that last chorus to my boys, but then after their Mom had come so close to death, they would wince at the word ‘die,’ so I have a little mercy on them and just sing, “We’ve all got time enough to cry…” Our time to die will come soon enough. Until then, I hope to continue to be at the right place and the right time.

My Happy Mother’s Day

…An early gift from the New York Rangers on Saturday night when they won the seventh and deciding game in the NHL Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Washington Capitals. They will now square off against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. GO RANGERS!

…A bear hug from my son Kintu, who’s here with me in New York.

…And tulips from my son Magezi, who’s stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Fair winds and following seas to him and his Navy shipmates.

…An animated text message from my older sister that I forwarded to my niece (one of her daughters!), my best friend, my cousin, and the mother of my grandson, who had to work today. But that’s okay, because this is the first job that she’s had in a long time, she’s just glad to be back in the workforce.

…A prayer for my co-worker John and for my Aunt Dot, who both lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer. John lost his mother to the disease; my Aunt Dot, her husband, my Uncle Gino–my mother’s brother.

…A phone call from my “New York Mom,” who called me singing the Stevie Wonder tune, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” And a call to my own mother, who lives in Lakewood, Washington, being thankful that they are both still around.

Hope that you all had a wonderful and blessed Mother’s Day.

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:

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.