After graduating college, I received my best education from my uncle and his books
Four years of college could not prepare me for this education by my Uncle Wayne.
by Daniel M. Johnson
Lesson 1: Origins
1964-65 was a volatile time for Betty Shabazz. The conclusion of the winter saw her gazing at her husband’s corpse, riddled with bullets, leaving her to care for her four, soon to be six, daughters. Just into her 30s, she moved to Mount Vernon, NY to continue her life as a mother, nurse, and educator.
One day, leaving her home for her work, she began walking towards her car on the street. She closed her door and turned her head to see an act of kindness, a young child holding the front gate for her. The child has been walking with his mother and noticed her making her way towards the street.
“Thank you, young sir,” she said to the boy. She turned her direction towards the woman and complimented her for her son’s actions. Then she proceeded to her car.
The boy and her mother continued their walk.
“Wayne. Do you know who that woman was?”
“No. Who is she?”
Lesson 2: The Box
It was the day before I went back to university for my final semester. I was just walking up and down the house trying to buy time until the next day. I was home alone so I had free range of the house. Eventually, I took one last trip to the garage to make sure I had everything I needed. Then I came across it. A big cardboard box that seemingly came out of nowhere.
I opened the box to find it filled with books. Books on history. Books on people. Books on places. Books on psychology. Books on research. There were two common denominators in each book: They were about Africans and they were owned by my Uncle Wayne.
About a month prior, for health reasons, my uncle had come to live with us. Realizing I was snooping through something not belonging to me and not having an idea on whether or not he wanted me to go through his belongings, I tried to put the books back as best as possible and left.
It did not work.
The next day, as I was moving my belongings down the stairs and loading them into the van, my uncle decided to sit down and give some final words before the drive. In the middle of the talk, he asked if I had touched the box of books. I said yes and that I just found them interesting and didn’t take a book. He walked me over to the box, picked up this book with a blue cover and said anything in the box was up for grabs. Then he hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, and told me good luck.
A six-class schedule and two writing jobs do not provide a lot of spare time for extra reading. Every time I sat down at the desk in my room, I saw the book. He told me that this book was “the real thing” and he talked about how he knew the professor who wrote it. A few days away from turning in my final paper and then attending my graduation ceremony, I finally picked up the book. The blue cover featured four men: Two with whom I was familiar and two with names I feared mispronouncing.
Lesson 3: The Year After
It took about three months to finish “Africans at the Crossroads” by Dr. John Henrik Clarke. His writing and lectures are as dense as anything I have ever studied. Dr. Clarke was a flood of information about the Pan-African movement, the history of the African continent, and giants in the African world. Names like CLR James and George Padmore became common.
I dug deeper into the works of men I already knew like MLK, W.E.B DuBois, and Stokely Carmichael. Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah, the two names I couldn’t pronounce at first, were now men who I tried to learn as much as possible about through archival footage and writings.
I took a few more trips to the box, here and there. I picked up a job at my local grocery store and a portion of my wages always went to buying more books for these African studies. At one point, I was reading “Stolen Legacy” by George G.M. James, re-reading “The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B DuBois, and reading “Stokely Speaks” by Kwame Toure, (which upon learning that I had bought the book prompted my uncle to jokingly feel “betrayed” I didn’t tell him).
When I was not reading, my uncle and I would talk. He or I would mention something I was reading and then he was off and I was just hanging on. Discussions on DuBois would spiral into discussing the importance of Booker T. Washington, which would lead to Black education in general, which would lead to his own perspective on being taught in school and having an older sister, my late aunt Wanda, as a teacher.
Once or twice a week we would have these conversations that could last for who knows how long. I never looked at the clock. After a few weeks, I would bring my phone or laptop down to prepare for all the names he would drop during the conversation.
If I had gone a few days without reading, I felt more embarrassed around him than I ever did around any professor if I missed a reading assignment. Four years of college could not prepare me for this education by my Uncle Wayne.
Uncle: “Say you go to the San Diego Zoo and they have an African elephant, and that elephant mate and have babies and they move the babies to another zoo. What is that animal going to be called?”
Me: “An African elephant.”
Uncle: “Okay, but say they do this over seven generations. What is the animal called?”
Me: “An African elephant (with a flippant smile)”
Uncle: “So does at any point, is that animal, not an African elephant.”
Me: “No. It’s an African elephant wherever it goes.”
Uncle: “Are you an African? Not African American because that’s not an African American elephant. Are you an African?”
Lesson 4: The Transfer
After a year and some change (and exhausting all the journalism jobs applications in my area), I moved back to my college town for a change of scenery. My uncle was the second person I told about the plan to move. I now have a car, money in my checkings and savings that won’t disappear after a single student loan payment, and a few part-time jobs.
I formed a two separate playlist on Youtube of speeches and lectures from Black intellectuals so I can return to their words every now and then, as I search the web for more speeches and lectures.
With books bought at book sales, used book stores, and online, I have three boxes full in total and an extra empty box in my closest when necessary. With the holiday season approaching and the inevitability of meeting with my professor, Uncle Wayne, again, I hope for another line of questions and more lessons.
Daniel M. Johnson has written for TheBlackDetour.com, VozWire.com, and has had poetry published in The Coraddi. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in English. While at university, Daniel worked as a writer and sectional editor for the student newspaper, The Carolinian. Daniel hopes to operate his own independent media in the future.