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“You’re going to be someone’s ancestor–act accordingly.”
A big guy–I didn’t catch his name, but I’m sure he’s someone with standing–held forth at the Hollywood Bowl last Sunday, doing his part at a Juneteenth celebration. He repeated the line over and over and over again in a preacherly way, a kind of mantra he wouldn’t let you miss.
That single line reminded me of someone else’s discussion, something I read somewhere recently, to the effect that we would, as a nation and culture, as groups and individuals, be more responsible if we thought more often about the lives of our grandchildren. Went here with the argument: if people didn’t so much live “for the day,” they might live “for the future,” and the world would be a whole lot better place. Sure, I told myself, makes all kinds of sense.
Meanwhile, this man, a big guy, kept saying it: “You’re going to be someone’s ancestor–act accordingly.” I couldn’t help hearing a reprimand in his tone, and, being white, I couldn’t help thinking of absent fathers in the Black community. I’m sure some conservatives–and the new brand of white nationalist hate squads–would have applauded what the big guy kept repeating.
But the line has resonance in any community, in any neighborhood, mine too, and in my family. Here’s the promise, it seems to me: If I thought more about my grandchildren’s world and less about my own, all our neighborhoods would be kinder places.
Confession: I haven’t. That’s for sure.
Over and over, he said it, and I remembered doing a story a couple decades ago on the Robinsons, an African-American couple from Albuquerque, who had chanced upon a Christian radio program called the Back to God Hour (BtGH) years before, and became, thereafter, devoted listeners. I was doing a series of stories for the BtGH, stories that invited readers into the lives of people who were enriched and encouraged by the Word the BtGH was offering on radio waves.
I’ve always believed that we are, in so many ways, created mightily by the identities of those who’ve come before us. I’ve admitted more than once that while my great-grandfather Hemkes was a Calvin Sem prof, my great-grandpa Hartman was something of a likeable, randy drunk. They both have a place in me.
Anyway, I like to begin an interview, like I did with the Robinsons, with a simple question: “Reach back and tell me about grandparents and great-grandparents. . .” I’ve always found that info useful in understanding character.
The Robinsons of Albuquerque were native-born Southerners whose parents had come north in the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow and find jobs, mid-Depression. “But I don’t know much, and I can’t go back any farther than that,” Mr. Robinson told me. “You know–slavery.”
He knew nothing about his great-grandparents and little more than that about his grandparents. Neither did his wife. “You know, slavery.”
The truth is, I didn’t know slavery. I hadn’t come anywhere close to understanding its fulsome reality. I mean, I knew something of the horrors, but I’d never sat in the living room of a married couple who claimed to know very little about their own sweet kin because, well, “You know, slavery.”
I thought of the Robinsons when that big guy was speaking last Sunday. I thought of how we all should think more about legacies than moments. I thought of my own grandfather, who used to tell my father, or so Dad said, that as a grandpa he’d be able to determine what kind of father he was when he observed his grandkids–for the record, the Rev. Schaap is long gone, but I’m one of his. It’s a line of thought that’s stuck to my soul as if it were actually in my DNA.
Truth be told, last Sunday afternoon I didn’t spend more than fifteen minutes watching that Juneteenth celebration. I didn’t spend much time at all thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, none of that because we were busy. We’ve got an anniversary coming up–a big one, our 50th, on Monday, so my wife and I have been putting together a half-million photos of our selves, our kids and grandkids, a job that’s taken us most of last week, a wearying task with gold-leaf reminiscence. Showing them all next week will be a ball. We’ll have the whole bunch around us when we gather tomorrow in Arizona, where Barbara and I, so long go, began our married life.
Maybe I should have been thinking about Juneteenth more than I was–it’s a holiday, after all, a national holiday. Praise be.
But somehow I felt forgiven because, believe me, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandkids, riffling through absolutely darling pictures from what was–but doesn’t seem–all that long ago.
“You’re going to be someone’s ancestors,” the big guy said, over and over, behind him some jazz accompaniment, and then, just as powerfully, time after time, “–act accordingly.”
That line, that mantra, just stuck with me.
Yes, if you’re wondering; those are all Schaaps at the top of the page, plus two more lambs have joined the flock, and they’re just plain gorgeous. I could show pictures.