My grandfather died when I was 10. I still remember vividly bits and pieces of his funeral. I recall we had a funeral limo that came to pick my family up and take us to the wake and funeral. I don’t remember the exact spot where my grandfather was buried, but I know he was buried at Burr Oaks.
My grandfather was a true patriarch of his family. When he moved to Chicago from California, his children followed to be by their daddy. My grandfather’s influence over his children was unbridled. My aunts and uncle would always preface everything they said with, “Daddy this” or “Daddy that.”
My grandfather owned a large plot of land out in Robbins. I can still recall the cornfields and his huge vegetable garden and my mother warning me about “garden snakes” whenever I played outside. I also can still hear that special sound my grandfather’s car made whenever we drove down the gravel road that led to his house. When I recall his house, I remember an attached garage, which he used as a store to sell Cokes that were kept in a chest-like cooler and how it was like a maze to get the pop out once you put your money in the coin slot.
I was only at Burr Oaks one additional time, that I can remember, after my grandfather’s funeral. It was years later – to bury my friend, Charles Coleman, when he was killed by a fellow student while we were in high school. Charles was the kind of kid who was so well liked by everyone at Wells High School, his funeral was attended by the many different ethnic groups that made up the school. Now this was back in the turbulent 1960s, at a time when there was a lot of civil unrest going on. But the feelings for Charles transcended race. I still remember sitting in home room with Charles, and he had on his ROTC uniform and put his legs up on the drafting table, then challenged me to do the same, knowing that I had on a dress.
Why am I reminiscing so much about these memories? Because a lot of them were stirred up and brought to the forefront when the original story about Burr Oaks broke last summer. I admit I am not a person who goes to the cemetery to visit the graves of my loved ones. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love them or think of them often.
When the Burr Oak story first broke – and I know I am not alone – I immediately felt guilty for not having visited my grandfather’s grave. Guilty because the bones of my ancestor may have been disturbed from his final resting place. Guilty because as a member of the black community I hadn’t done anything to make sure what happened didn’t happen. Yes, I know it is not my fault, but that doesn’t make the guilt any less palpable.
I admit I have avoided writing about Burr Oaks. Even now as I write this column, the tears are streaming down my face because the African-American community has always had a special relationship with our “ancestors.” Anyone who has ever attended an African-centered event knows that during the Libation Ceremony, water is poured into a plant while members of the audience call out the names of those who are no longer with us. The importance of keeping the memory of our ancestors alive is underscored by speaking their names. The more we speak their names and tell their stories, the more those ancestors continue to live.
Think of New Orleans and their funeral services. Unlike the solemnity of white observances, the funeral march is a party-joyful rather than somber. We call our funerals “Homegoing” ceremonies. And the best food ever is served at the Repast. We take pictures of our dead in their caskets and often display those photos in the dining room underneath the glass top of a buffet.
So for politicians to use Burr Oaks as the basis for their re-election bid to office has stirred anger in me – because my dead relatives and friends are not political fodder for those who want to gain the “black vote.” Anger because there is enough guilt to go around for everyone to share when it comes to Burr Oaks. Anger because politicians, black and white, are so willing to use the dead that I, too, get caught up in it by having to write about it.
Election Day is next Tuesday, Feb. 2. Although the joke in Chicago has always been that even the dead vote, we must encourage everyone we know to get to the polls. Vote into office those who will best represent us and send out of office those who continue to believe they can use us.