Dear Uncle Jimmy,
As a black boy growing up in Mississippi, I learned that there was a rickety bridge between right and wrong. And I learned that I would be disciplined more harshly than white boys for even leaning towards the wrong side. But like you, Uncle Jimmy, I sadly didn’t give a fuck. I broke bets I made with myself, got kicked out of high school a number of times, was suspended from college, and had run-ins with police that broke Mama and Grandma’s heart. Unlike you, though, I did all of this in close proximity to a lanky, living, breathing warning.
Uncle Jimmy, that warning was you.
On July 4th, you threw down your crack pipe, scrubbed yourself clean and bought my Grandma some meat. “This Mama’s meat,” you wrote in loopy black letters on a bloody paper sack. When your sister, my Mama, called me in my office at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, she had no idea that the 4th of July would be the last day she would see you alive.
You joked with your sisters before taking little Tre’ to get more bottle rockets. Reeking of that familiar mix of sour scalp and Jordan cologne, you probably blinked those huge webbed eyes more than usual and actually asked questions of our family.
As with many of Mama’s stories, you weren’t the star, but you were the precocious paroled man on whom our family’s emotional stability really rested. There was a terrible clarity in Mama’s voice when she told me the story of July 4th. Mama’s voice sounded like this any time you followed a crack binge or run-in with the police with something graceful like leading a Sunday school session or using your pension to buy that house over off Highway 35.
“You driving my sister crazy now,” Aunt Sue told me, over twenty years ago, the night I drove my Mama into a nervous breakdown. “You heading down that same road as Jimmy.”
I learned that night that the Uncle Jimmy road ran adjacent to the refined, curbed avenues that nearly all sisters, aunts, mamas and grandmas wanted their black boys to travel. Aunt Sue and Mama wanted me to know, without a doubt, that whatever consumed you would eventually consume me unless I prayed diligently, obeyed the law, remained clean, and got out of Mississippi by any means necessary. But even as I sprinted away from Mississippi to Ohio, then Indiana, and now New York, if I looked down I could never really distinguish your footprints from my own.
That’s what I felt before July 7th.
On July 7th, three days after you toted a bag of meat to Grandma’s house, I got a call. Grandma was looking for you. She drove over to your house because you wouldn’t answer the phone. Grandma opened the screen door, and pounded on your door that evening. Grandma yelled your name over and over again, but you didn’t answer.
On July 12th, eight days after bringing Grandma her meat, your sisters walked into Mapp Funeral Home and readied your body, the body of Grandma’s first child, and their only brother, for public viewing. Your sisters made the funeral director change your shirt.
Your sister, Sue, the most mesmerizing preacher in Mississippi, eulogized you in Concord Baptist Church. We were all were baptized there. At the core of Sue’s eulogy were three ideas: 1. “Niggers” do not exist. 2. Perfectly sanitized, wholly responsible black people do not exist. 3. You, Jimmy Alexander, were equally wicked and wonderful and we had far more in common with you than we wanted to admit.
Sue made the church know that you lived a life of bad; not bad meaning good, or bad meaning evil, but bad meaning bad at being human. In traditional Old Testament style, she explored justice and recreated in you someone who had prepared themselves for death by finally accepting and earning life in the days before your passing. Sue told the Church the story of your bringing that meat to Grandma’s house. She told us how you wrote, “This Mama’s meat.” She told us that you had gotten your finances in order.
“Jimmy wasn’t that different than no one this church,” she told the church. “No better or no worse. And that’s what we have to accept. He was a part of our family. He was our brother.”
While Sue stood in the pulpit teaching us about acceptance of our badness, I realized that you were the only child of Grandma who did not become a teacher. If you taught for a living, you might not have been any physically or emotionally healthier since we know that occupations are never shields from reckless sex, drug abuse, cowardice, deceptiveness and desperation. But Grandma would have found far more peace the day of your funeral if she knew her oldest child, a paroled black boy born in the late 1940s, taught somebody somewhere something before he died.
As Grandma’s youngest daughter gave the church words to lean on, your mother, our teacher, the thickest, most present human being either of us has known, folded up at the end of the pew. Grandma cried herself breathless as your bloodless body lay right over the site of your baptism fifty-five years ago. I held Grandma, though, Uncle Jimmy. I held her just like she would have wanted you to hold her if I were stretched out in that casket.
I needed you, Uncle Jimmy. I needed you the day of your funeral. And when we were both alive, I needed you to be better than you were, but I never loved you enough to tell you. I could have shown you by calling you more or walking with you down Old Morton Road when I visited during the summer and Christmas. We could have wondered about the widened roads and the huge dying trees we both imagined fighting off Godzilla and King Kong. We could have joked and tossed ironic jabs back and forth as some nephews and uncles do.
Then, if we really cared, we could have harnessed the courage to knock each other’s hustles.
I could have finally said, “Uncle Jimmy, you drowning yourself with that crack and all that hate. Ain’t nothing really behind that smile, man. I love you and we need you to live.” And you could have told me, “There’s more than one way to drown, nephew. You looking pretty wet yourself. I know I’m under that water. You know where you at?”
But those words were never said. We talked, but we didn’t reckon with each other. Hence, all of our communication created no echo, no meaningful reverberation outside our speculations about each other. The last thing you said to me the Christmas before you died was, “No matter how much right you try to do, white folks do everything they can to make a nigga remember they owned us.” There was a silence after the sentence and I filled that silence with a mechanical nod of my head and a weak, “Yeah. I hear that.”
By that point, though, I believed I knew you. I assumed that you coped with the weight of a paroled life as a black man in Mississippi by laughing, acting a fool, relying on crack cocaine, alcohol and the manipulation of/by women who were just as hopeless as you. And I assumed that you knew that I coped with a paroled life in many of the same ways you did. One of the only differences between you and me was that I fell deeply in love with the possibilities of written and spoken words. I used words to create stories, essays, and novels I thought you’d want to read, hear and see.
When I wasn’t writing things that you might have wanted or needed to read, hear and see, I created fictive versions of you that were, sadly, more interesting, and more loving than I ever allowed you to be in real life. You inspired thousands of paragraphs, hundreds of scenes, but I never even showed you one sentence. I was afraid to know for sure that you thought my work was my hustle, a shinny indulgent waste of time. But more than that, I didn’t want you to know that I wanted you to be better at being human.
I didn’t want you to see that I saw in the real you someone I never wanted to be, a shiftless paroled “Nigger” worthy of only hollow awe or rabid disgust, a smiling “Nigger” who fought a few good rounds before getting his ass whupped fight after fight. I believed that you forfeited your right to be a beautiful black human being, Uncle Jimmy. And predictably I knew that I would become you.
I hated you and me for that.
This is a shameful admission, a confession that is even more sour with indulgent guilt when I acknowledge that all the of the women in my writing who are partially based in the characters of Grandma, Mama, Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda are far less moving, round and paradoxical than the actual women themselves. And this has less to do with my writing than it does about my love and understanding of these human beings, and our love and understanding of each other. I loved the women in our family enough to ask them questions. They loved me enough to answer those questions, often with questions of their own.
Honestly, I don’t know if I ever asked you any real questions other than why you looked so happy in your Vietnam pictures when I was ten, and why you said, “There’s some fine bitches on earth,” when you picked me up from grad school when I was twenty-four.
My recreating more interesting American characters based off of you to fit the specifications of a paragraph doesn’t make me despicable; it makes me an American writer. What makes me despicable is that one of the responsibilities of American writers is to broaden the confines, sensibilities and generative capacity of American literature by broadening the scope of whom is written. You can’t really explore the terror and wonder of being born, as Baldwin says, “captive in the supposed Promised Land” if one never conceives the captives as the crucial critics, not simply consumers or objects, of your work.
Anyway, only a fool doesn’t actively regret. I wish we could have waded in the awkward acceptance that we are neither African, nor conventionally American, neither sub-human, nor superhuman, neither tragic, nor comic, neither defeated, nor victorious. I wish we could have affirmed our awareness that our black southerness is both perpetual burden and benefit, and that our masculinity must be perpetually reckoned with. Mostly, Uncle Jimmy, I wish you could have told me that we are fucked up, and much of the nation wants it that way, but we owe it to our teachers and our students to imagine new routes into unconventional beauty, healthy relationships, compassionate citizenry and imaginative inquiry. We owe it to each other to love and insist on meaningful revision until the day we die.
That’s what I needed to tell you when you were alive. That’s what I needed you to show me. That’s what I need to believe.
One night while revising Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America I thanked God that you weren’t my father while feeling like the luckiest nephew in the world to call someone as tortured as you my Uncle. I wondered who and what I really would have become without you as my warning. I wondered how your life would have been different if I would have told you I loved you. What would you have done differently with your life if you really believed me? What would we have both felt?
Uncle Jimmy, no matter how I contort these words, we will never ever know. I am sorry I didn’t love you.