Friday, July 4, 2008

What It Means To Be Uncle Frank...

Billy Johnson loved to set around listening to the entertaining tales his great-Uncle Frank (who had moved in with the family years ago) would spin (hour after hour if he was indulged) while sitting in an old torn and tattered chair in his small (room) apartment.

Uncle Frank was a big (standing 6' 2" in his youth) yet gentle man. His aged and weathered face, highlighted by his white hair and beard, still seemed jolly, as his cheeks would flush red with laughter while regaling a visitor with a comical yarn from his past.

He would often sit next to his fireplace, his large hands clasped around his cane revealing his gnarled knuckles and scared fingers, and tell of of his early years growing up on the old family farm and how they struggled to survive during the Great Depression.

Lighting up his pipe, he would go into detail about the various characters and events he knew throughout his life, as well as the sorrows and joys he had partaken of.
His grey-blue eyes would often grow somber when reflecting on the friends he'd seen killed fighting in WWII, or the brother he lost working on the railroad.
He would often set staring out the window when a sudden shift in the weather (rain, wind etc..) would seem to trigger some forgotten memory that had been lost in a sea of experiences.

His small apartment was decorated with a lifetime of memories and history. On the mantle above the fireplace set various pictures of his wife, son, parents and friends.
On one wall next to a bookcase hung a faded copy of 'George Washington Crossing the Delaware', which had belonged to his grandfather and which his mother had passed on to him. On another wall hung the hammer that had been used by his grandfather to build the small cabin his father was raised in, and which he himself remembered staying in on occasion growing up.
-His father had made a point of keeping the old hammer and passing it along to Frank, and which Frank told Billy would one day be his, as it was his (Billy's) great-great grandfathers' as well.
On the coffee table was a fragile looking old bible with a family tree in the front pages, detailing names, births and marriages going back at least 150 years.

In the small kitchenette stood a sturdy looking (though clearly often patched) China cabinet that had belonged to his grandmother, having been passed down to her from her mother. And he was always apt to point out that the iron skillet he cooked his eggs in, was the very skillet his dearly departed wife Abagail had made their first meal in when they were married over 60 years ago.
"You never knew where your next meal was coming from back then," he would add. "So the ones you had when you were happiest, stuck with you no matter what."

On the floor next to the stove he kept his tools in an old ammo case that he had brought back from the war, often joking that he kept them there because he needed a a hammer and a saw to cut through the eggs he cooked.

Alone on a small shelf next to the refrigerator was a lopsided clay cup that his son Henry ( who had passed away fifteen years ago from cancer) had made for his mother when he was 9 years old.

To Billy, everything his great-Uncle did seemed fascinating. From the way he held a book to the way he always cleared his throat before getting to the "punchline" of one of his stories.

So, for Uncle Frank's 85 birthday, Billy decided to make a collage of Uncle Frank's life by using images from around his small apartment.
He took pictures of the various items around Uncle Frank's place and made a scroll-like family tree based on the information in the old family bible and assembled them altogether in time-line order.
He placed them all together and framed them in a large 3' x3' picture.

The following week, on Uncle Frank's birthday, Billy rushed home from school and went straight for Uncle Frank's apartment.
With the collage tucked under his arm, he rushed into the room and, much to his surprise, a strange looking man was setting in Uncle Frank's chair.

The man was in his thirties, short, with black beady eyes and coal black hair. His face, brown and covered with pock marks, seemed to be held in a constant mocking snarl, as his eyes darted around, examining Billy up and down.
He set hunched over in the old chair, puffing on a cigarette, slightly bobbing his head to a strange music that Billy suddenly became aware was blasting throughout the small apartment.
"Hola" croaked the the little dark man.

After a few moments of stunned silence, Billy asked, "Who are you?"

It was then that his parents emerged from the kitchen accompanied by a woman named Judith, who identified herself as a state official.
Billy was too confused to get the specifics, but the person claimed to be a Representative of a Human Rights And Equality Agency of some kind.

"What's going on?", Billy asked "Where is Uncle Frank?"

"He's right there", answered the official, pointing to the strange little brown man humped up in Uncle Frank's Chair.

"That's not Uncle Frank!", protested Billy.

The official frowned. "Sure it is", she said. "Frank, show the young man your identification."
"Si, si," croaked the little brown man, reaching into his pocket and producing a drivers licence.

Examining it, Billy saw that indeed it was a picture of the little brown man and that he was identified on the card as Frank Johnson.

Billy look up in confusion at the little brown man who gave him a (yellow) toothy grin while nodding and croaking, " Sí, soy tío Frank".

Billy shook his head in unbelief. Glancing around he noticed that the old picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware had been replaced with a picture of Che Guevara. And that where his great, great-Grandfathers hammer once hung, was now a plaque which read 'Fuck You. This Is Mexico!'

There was a Mexican flag draped over the front room window, and next to the stove where Uncle Frank had kept his old tools, was a case of Miller Lite. (A chicken running out of the Kitchen and startling him, is what drew Billy's attention to this)

"THIS IS NOT UNCLE FRANK!" Billy shouted. "For one thing Uncle Frank is 85 years old. For another thing he is White. And he.."
It was at this point that his parents protested his continuing, and the state official drew a stern look.
"Billy. Do you know what a Hate Crime is?", the official asked.

"What does that have to do with this?" Billy asked incredulously.

"Your parents and I have already had this conversation", the official continued. "You see billy, Uncle Frank is, really, just an idea. A name given out and recognized by the state.
Let me ask you Billy, was uncle Frank a Human? Of course he was. Well, so is Juan here. And what you need to ask yourself Billy, is why do you believe that only a White person can be Uncle Frank."

"Because He is" protested Billy. "Uncle Frank is White!"

"Well obviously not," replied the official, motioning towards the little brown man setting in Uncle Frank's Chair.

Billy looked over at his parents, in disbelief that they were going along with this. The look on their faces was a mix of shame, fear and resignation.

Seeing that Billy was going to be stubborn about this, the state official became more forceful. "Now Billy", she said, "I'm sure I don't need to remind you of the hurt and damage that prejudice and discrimination have done in this country. Now I happen to know that your parents are Christians, and that you go to church. So I'm sure you know that God loves ALL men, not just the White ones, and that He is no respecter of persons. So I think you need to acknowledge that your insistence that only a White man can be Uncle Frank is a rather disturbing surfacing of a deep rooted prejudice on your part, is it not?"

Billy stood there, mouth agape, unable to respond to what had to be the most absurd thing he had ever heard.

Regaining his composure, Billy continued to defy this upside-down logic as best he could. He explained that Juan had not in fact been born in 1923. That he was not the son of Arthur Johnson. That he had not married Abagail Smith. That he had not fathered Henry Johnson. That he had not fought in WWII. That the men, whose names Billy knew, who had died next to Frank Johnson had not been friends of Juan. And so on and so forth.
But at every turn, Billy was continually met with claims of "Racism", "discrimination", "prejudice" and "aren't we all just humans" kinds of rebuttals.

When the official asked, "Well what if the old White Uncle Frank had been born in Mexico? Would you feel the same way about him now?", Billy tried to use logic and explain that his real uncle Frank had not been born a White man in America by pure chance, but that he was, in fact, the culmination of genes passed along from one generation of White people after another for thousands of years. He simply could not have been born in any other place in any other race.

But, to no avail. The official declared Billy a bigot and said she would recommend his case to the Human Equality Commission in hopes that he could come to terms with his racism in his insistence that uncle Frank "must" be a White man.

Before leaving she said goodbye to the new Uncle Frank, assuring him that he would be served with the same financial care and monetary arrangements from Billy's parents that the old White Uncle Frank had had.
She then cautioned Billy's parents to be respectful uncle Frank's culture. She even advised them to enroll in a Spanish language class to show their willingness to heal the wounds White Privilege had perpetrated upon the new uncle Frank and his people.

Lastly she recommended that Billy change his birthday collage into something more inclusive. "Too many White faces", she quipped un-approvingly.

"But these are my people", Billy said. "My Family!"

"No Billy", Judith replied. "The White Race is a social construct......just like the White family.
And if we're ever going to get past the prejudices of the White race, we're going to have to reject such hateful and discriminatory notions as White "Nationalism", "Race", "Ethnicity" and "Family."

So, did Billy accept this twisted reality that denies the history of his people. That denies the very existence of his race and his Family?

Will you?

Are you?

Happy Birth Day , True America.

(The Above story is fictional. Any resemblacne to actual persons living or deceased is purely coincidental)