My Dear Uncle Carlton,
First off, happy Veteran’s Day. Even though we’ve never met, with each turn of the earth, on this day you are especially present with me in mind and spirit. I am your baby brother Paul’s youngest son, and due to the separation of time, you don’t know me at all. But I have grown up trying to get to know you through the loving stories of my father, about his big brother Carlton. You were his mentor, his teacher, his protector, his shining example of black manhood that he strove to emulate in his life, and in turn, so have I. He always spoke of you as a man of honor and conviction, a man who never backed down from a challenge, a man who stood tall for his beliefs and who taught him to do the same. Your trait that my father spoke of the most however, was your powerful intellect, your fierce curiosity, and how you would DEVOUR books together. This love and reverence for the power of the printed word is another one of your many gifts that my father has paid forward to me.
My father also spoke of your love of chess, and how you taught him to play this great game. He passed your love of chess onto me at a very young age. Each game that I’ve played over the years, every lesson that I’ve learned from a chess board, I like to imagine that it is you who taught me. Counseling me before each crucial move, giving me silent nods of approval after each attack parried, each successful gambit or victory, reaching across time and space to guide my hand through my openings and attacks. Through this, you taught me to have patience. To trust myself and the process of working diligently and consistently to achieve my goals, to always think before I act, and to anticipate the moves of others. To think through every possible scenario and outcome, and the ways that the consequences of my actions might ripple through time to impact future outcomes, either limiting or expanding the options of my future self. To see the gifts and attributes in every person, and to do whatever I can to position those around me to reach their full potential, weather Pawn, Knight, or Rook. To honor the woman in my life, my powerful Queen, as my strongest and fiercest protector, and to always respect and return her love, devotion, and loyalty…
When you left home to join the Air Force, my father told me how proud everyone was of you, I imagined you in your clean, creased uniform, and imagined drying my grandmother’s tears when you left Harlem for Korea, in the proud tradition of the Tuskegee Airmen.
I’ve read much about the tragically brief window of your life, the 30s, 40s and 50s as being a particularly terrifying time for Blacks. Growing up in Harlem, the world’s vanguard of black art, music and culture in America during its great Renaissance, must have been a stark contrast with Jim Crow, public lynchings, the growing pains of the Civil Rights Movement and our 2nd Reconstruction. We were and still are a nation very much haunted by the ghosts of slavery. These were the years of Emmet Till and many other extrajudicial killings of blacks by whites with impunity. A word or a look was enough to be murdered or sent to prison by any white person who was just having a bad day. It breaks my heart to inform you that not much has changed. The racism that your children face has simply adapted to the times, entrenching itself deeper within the souls and institutions of our nation through camouflage and subterfuge. Freedom, being relative, it is still being denied to us, as we continue to share the bottom of every totem pole in society with other non-whites. Each scientific measure of life, death and disease corroborates our claims of injustice, yet our continual demands for equality fall on deaf ears. While much has been gained, including my matriculation into medical school, and your daughter’s successful campaign for a seat on her CIty Council, your children and I must still fight to justify our right to exist in peace and love in the land of our birth.
In your day as in ours, whenever we hold a mirror up to White America’s face, its collective outrage is directed at us for holding the mirror, rather than at their own reflection. The beautiful words of our constitution, ideas that you carried with you across the globe, do not match our deeds. Our nation still has yet to live up to these lofty ideals, ideals that you believed that you were fighting for, while raining death from the skies. The 2 Koreas are technically still at war, and so are we. The psychological pain of this contradiction of ideals and reality is still very much a defining feature of black life in America. Is this why you enlisted? Why you suited up to fight? So that your children, grandchildren, and the children of your siblings, wouldn’t have to face this same brutal reality? Did you leave your family to risk your life in the service of our nation, in the hopes that we would grow up in a different America than you did? An America where blackness wasn’t enough to justify one’s criminalization, assault, or murder? Each time you got into the cockpit of your Boeing B-47 Stratojet Bomber, did you bring your hopes, your fears, your aspirations for us, the next generation of our family, with you?
Taken from us well before your 30th birthday, the shock and pain of your loss would fracture our family for decades, causing me to shed many tears in yearning for cousins and an aunt that I never knew. I want you to know that our family is whole again, and always will be. This strength of faith and family has seen our people through each generation, each governmental and interpersonal assault on our bodies, minds, and spirits. These same bonds will see us through the challenges of the next generation, and the resurgence of hate and white supremacy that has been unleashed on us this past week. I will pass your many lessons onto my children, and the spirit of your courage and sacrifice will continue to be my moral compass, guiding me through this maze of death and pain, to triumph and success, with the mind of a scholar, the integrity of a gentleman, and the heart of a warrior. Thank you for your love and your sacrifice. Rest easy dear uncle.
- Your nephew, Asi-Yahola Boutelle