Sometime or other, when my dad was in his forties, midlife crisis yet to happen, he found himself in a small grocery store out somewhere in the boondocks. As he stood at the counter waiting for the person ahead of him to conclude their business, he overheard the cashier, a middle-aged white man much the same as himself, utter a crude racial remark. I remember the telling of this anecdote: my father reddening as he recalled it. It was his turn to step in front of that cashier at which point he leaned in and softly said my wife is black. Staring into that man's eyes; the certain ferocity that said don't fuck with me. He paid for his purchase; left in stony silence.
Back during his childhood in southern Missouri, his best friend was a skinny little black kid who wore raggedy clothes. They climbed trees together, told each other secrets, railed against adults. With the arrival of his little brother my dad had been supplanted as the favorite in his mother's eyes, a wound that never quite healed. His affection for his friend grew over time. They were inseparable: in another era they might have become lovers. Will never know. At 13, his friend ended his own life.
My dad's father was never a particularly religious man until after World War I. My father told of watching him standing on the Levee, bent all the way over, coughing convulsively. He had been gassed, told that he would live a couple of years at most, living on borrowed time. At some point though, possibly out of desperation, he prayed. He prayed like a man looking death in the face. And then he found Jesus. He loved music, art in all kinds of media, wood-carving; he relished beating my Granny at canasta and always grew a beard for the annual Pioneer Days events while she for her part dug out her handmade sunbonnet & they had a joint photograph made. I remember him as a scratchy old man with warm eyes, a thin little smile, hands toughened through hard work getting through the Great Depression. I never heard him utter a single racist remark. I believe that he found such joy in a redeemed life that he didn't have
it in him to hate. Except cheese. He hated cheese.
Now I have to admit this seems like an apologia for my white ancestors. On the paternal side a lot of them are buried not far up the hill from their hometown, spittin' distance from the Arkansas border: Pennington, Davidson, Vaughan, Bunch, coming from the UK, or Uzzell, across the channel from Normandy. One of the grandfathers apparently spoke German to his wife so at some point a story was concocted about Jones having been changed from Johanns, but that turned out to be bunk. The guy was a straight up Jones from Wales. I don't know what the german-speaking stuff was. And everybody is dead so I can't ask them.
Another very weird story that I feel obliged to reveal because it somehow speaks to the inherent bias that we all look past. My American grandmother's side of the family got it in their heads that someone in a previous generation had to put it politely fornicated with someone from another community and forever after it was regarded as a vulgar joke, but still that it might be possible for a child to emerge that would be biracial.
My ridiculous attempt at getting some genetic information about my DNA for a hundred bucks revealed nothing. Both sides remain Caucasianly, insidiously and hideously vulnerable to sunburn, moles and skin cancer.
Oh, you know what? none of this is going to work. I was just walking past a bookshelf downstairs in the hall, past the neatly rearranged collections since my mother died and I inherited her leather bound French language history and architecture; arcane information from late 18th century. She always took care to wax them; they look quite beautiful. There on the top shelf also resides my Maritta Wolff complete works (local author, long story) and right next to it, all of the hardbound Tarzan editions from my childhood.
My grandfather played the fiddle & did blackface with a minstrel group. My father friggin' loved Tarzan and all of the rest of Edgar Rice Burroughs incredibly racist overwrought works, the Mars stuff, all of the fantasy Pellucidar series. He loved theater and invention, craft and storytelling just like his Pop.
And they all passed it on to me.
Joseph Henry “Birl” Jones 1890-1964
Grace Vaughan (Bunch) Jones 1897-1984
Hoyt Wayne Jones 1920-1994
Jacqueline Helene (Bion) Jones 1923-2020