Notes on a dying generation

I began this essay the day my great aunt Lucy Biggers died in 2009.  Known throughout the family and the neighborhood as Big Mama, Lucy was the second-youngest of my maternal grandfather’s six siblings, and with her passing, only one of my grandfather’s siblings remained.

Our family buried the last of his generation on December 17, 2010.  I grieved for the loss of a spunky, artistic woman and homemaker adored my many, but something else burdened me.  With my great aunt Rosa Lee Mayfield’s death went my window to a world I’ll never know: the childhood world of people I’ve known only as adults.

I wish I had asked her what my grandfather was like as a child.  Did he always like to fix things?  The boys far outnumbered the girls in the Thornton household, and his own family was the reverse.  How did he learn to deal with a house full of women?  I wonder how they all interacted as siblings.  What mischief did they get into?  What did they do for fun?  Who was the favorite?

I wonder, over all, what shaped the people who came to shape me.  All the funerals I attended over 2009 for my grandparents’ siblings and friends made me concerned that I might not find out.  Receiving a grant for this blog gave me more incentive to investigate, but in writing the final grant report this morning, I had to acknowledge that it’s been difficult to get the answers.  Even asking the questions has been a challenge.  I should have expected as much; in a country where our chief concern about our elders is how to pay for their social security checks without raising taxes, what are old people to make of a 30-something interested in what they have to say?  Of course there’s an inquisitive look and a shrug or a one-sentence response to open-ended questions.  Why would those who grew up poor and black and female, who lived simply, and who were disregarded and silenced think they had anything of substance to offer?

But they do.  Our collective national history is nothing without the experiences of individuals.  As my cousin Stephanie said at the funeral when she recounted how her grandmother began to share her own Civil Rights stories after attending The King Center in Atlanta, “I’ve been listening to all this stuff about Rosa Parks.  I need to listen to Rosa Mayfield.”

Given that my grandmothers and great-grandmother range in age from late 80s to early 100s, I doubt a museum exhibit will spur more conversation.  Plus, I missed out on Michele Norris’ Louisville appearance during which she discussed and signed her family memoir, The Grace of Silence, and I think Story Corps’ National Day of Listening was a little too set for me.  I find that little nuggets of history are passed down organically, conversationally.  But they are there to be passed down.

I don’t have an event to promote family stories, but I do have this blog.  And because I value of my elders, and because I want this blog to serve as a place where all people who want to honor their elders can, I invite you to share your own family stories, right here with mine.  You don’t have to write; I take photos, videos, and audio clips, too.  Just contact me here to let me know what you’d like to share.  And if you’re not sure what you want to share, turn your television off during the next family get together and start talking.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on a dying generation

  1. Sis. Redbone,
    First and foremost Happy New Year! Let me just say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and that you hit it right on the mark…But I would also like to say that the Elders are just at fault as the yunguns are…

    I just recently attended Kwanzaa events for only the 2nd time in my short time on earth..It was a truly enjoyable experience and very much rejuvenated my spirits…However, what was disappointing was the lack of youths there to soak up all the knowledge and wisdom espoused during those sessions, over a week’s period…

    I heard one accomplished elder say that she hopes some of the children would ask her questions about her life and what she had to endure in order to achieve…But the problem is we don’t expose our kids to those narratives that expose the true struggles and hard earned triumphs as well as tragedies of our people…You can not expect a young person to ask you a question if they are not understanding of how to ask due to lack of context and exposure from these impressive yet woefully underdocumented collective and individual histories, a true people’s narrative waiitng to be amplified…

    And these civil rights generation Elders have no clue of how blessed they were to come of age when they were truly forced to confront the great threats, fears and hopes of their generation due to the climate of those times…Many of them were not well versed in their collective histories (and many are not still today for that matter) but there were a fierce sense of the urgency of now…You must remember that we still had ancestors alive who were victims of chattel slavery and have seen loved ones lynched on a daily basis as Amerikkkan justice did not pay no mind nor time…

    You had a Black press that exposed the horrors of what happen to Emmett Till and a black working and middle class that united to start a mini revolution known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott..

    I saw another Elder during the Kwanzaa program who I also admire self-congratulate herself and another Elder for their role as student activists in desegregating Memphis back in the 1950s and 60s…I ask today as I have been asking for awhile now, “Where are all the students activists?” Where’s the heir apparent to the 60s movement? That Elder even admitted that they failed in passing on the history, a history that many of them weren’t aware of to begin with…

    Like the great Rev. CT Vivian told me, one of the great failings of the movement was that they did not teach Black history nor pass it on…

    I have seen up close and personal as how some of the seeds of our exalted Elders from that glory generation have turned out and it makes me wonder do we really have any idea or clue of who we are and from where we come or where we are going?

    I had started talking to my paternal Grandfather about his experiences as a young man in World War 2 just before he died in 2005…He was finally comfortable to talk about what he endured, as painful as it was…I have created a comic strip in his honor as well as to pay homage to those brave African American men and women from that era…It is called The Arthur Soldier Boy Grip Taylor Chronicles and some of my efforts can viewed at the following link:

    I have more to say but I fear I am writing a book so I will save it for later…Keep up the great work!
    Bro. Ron

    1. There are so many levels to this topic. I think it’s a combination of not wanting rehash bad times, not being valued and therefore not thinking your story is important, and on the part of the yunguns, not being interested in the stories. There’s also the issue of not having a context in which to discuss such things. For example, my parents and I go to events together, have some of the same interests, etc. My grandmothers and I don’t. So my parents and I have a starting point and my grandmothers and I don’t.

    2. And to continue, I’ve been surprised at how difficult it can be to just start a conversation. But I know I’m not alone in that regard (see links within the post).

      We also have to remember that those who endured Jim Crowe were many, but those who were active in the Civil Rights Movement were few. I don’t think it’s that the elders don’t appreciate what they went through so much as it is, again, they may not feel their individual experience is valuable if they weren’t a “radical.” As disconnected as so many younger generations are from history, it’s hard for me to imagine the Elders not knowing how “blessed” they were to have survived the era.

      There’s a slight typo in your link. I think it’s:

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