X-Mas For Aunt Ruth

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Probably one of the very few positive vestiges of slavery, along with the church, was a practically-palpable sense that African-Americans then seemed to share that we were all responsible for each other, almost as if our very survival depended on a collective mind-set. This meant that life for me unfolded as an endless string of family gatherings, whether it was a wedding in the Bronx, a baptism in Bed-Stuy, a graduation at Boys High, or a barbecue in St. Albans

Back in the Fifties, when I was growing up in New York City, I was lucky enough to be raised in one of those ever-expanding, yet surprisingly close-knit, extended families where you had an awful lot of cousins and aunts and uncles, many of whom might only be remotely blood-related to you, if at all.

Probably one of the very few positive vestiges of slavery, along with the church, was a practically-palpable sense that African-Americans then seemed to share that we were all responsible for each other, almost as if our very survival depended on a collective mind-set. This meant that life for me unfolded as an endless string of family gatherings, whether it was a wedding in the Bronx, a baptism in Bed-Stuy, a graduation at Boys High, or a barbecue in St. Albans. And it was not unusual on any of these occasions, to find adults lending their expertise, and free of charge, of course, to someone else in need.

For instance, this one was an expert auto mechanic, who’d roll up his sleeves to disappear under the hood of a cranky car. Another one, a brainiac who played the violin and was fluent in five languages, served as the tutor for those of us who were academically-at-risk. And then there was my father, who leveraged white flight by moonlighting as a realtor, helping folks relocate from the ghetto to the suburbs.

Sadly, most of these role models are gone now, the latest to leave us being one of my very favorites, my mother’s sister Ruthie, who just passed away last week. I always enjoyed visiting her and Uncle Jerry, not only because they had two boys about my age, but because they owned a record store right on the ever bustling 125th Street. To this overprotected kid from Queens, Harlem seemed a dizzying world away, and both a little intimidating and a little irresistible at the same time. But whenever I visited the shop, irrepressible Aunt Ruth, a sensitive and supportive soul, always proved to be a one-woman welcoming committee. After a big hug, she’d put me right at ease by cracking a joke or asking me what song I wanted to hear.

And if neither of her sons, Dennis or Billy, were around to play with, she’d introduce me to someone else from the neighborhood. And, later, when I was old enough to date, she even fixed me up with an attractive young lady for an impromptu date a couple of times. Today, my Christmas wish is that something in the power of these words can effectively convey the debt of gratitude I owe to Aunt Ruth and the rest of that greatest generation of African-Americans. For despite having undoubtedly endured some overwhelming hardships during the days of discrimination prior to the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement, they still held on to enough hope to cooperate and to cultivate carefully in us, their offspring, their never-crushed dreams for a better tomorrow.  Rest in peace, Aunt Ruth. And say, “Hiâ€? to Dad and everybody else up there.

Black Star columnist Kam Williams is an attorney and member of the NJ, NY, CT, PA, MA & US Supreme Court bars.


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