I recently attended a funeral for a woman in the south coastal area of the United States, in an area known for the ancient Gullah-Geechee culture, that was transferred to America from Africa, during the brutal Atlantic slave trade. I was fascinated to observe that remnants of the old culture were still alive in her surviving husband, an African American man, who held the funeral. Note: To preserve the privacy of the family, we will call the deceased woman Marie and her widower husband Fred.
Marie and Fred were raised as neighbors in a small coastal town, and fell in love during their teenage years. After Marie graduated as valedictorian of her high school she went away to college but, after a year she missed Fred so much she returned home to marry him and start their family of two sons and one daughter. For 60 years, Fred worked as a mariner and fisherman, and is a fundamental part of the local fishing industry. Marie and Fred were married for 62 years and for 30 of those years, Marie suffered from a long-term debilitating illness. However, despite her illness Fred displayed six decades of love and loyalty to her. Truth is, Fred’s behavior is not unique, it is replicated by African American men thousands of times throughout America but, is rarely acknowledged in the media, families, churches or communities.
During the funeral proceedings, I was struck with how seldom we celebrate examples of African American men who quietly lead their families with poise and grace. Every day, we see news coverage of African American men who are accused of committing violent crimes and are presented as representatives of the African American race. But, what I saw in Fred was a dignified, ordinary man who stood before his family, his church and his city to demonstrate behavior that all young men should imitate—behavior that shows what a man looks like when he acts responsibly and takes care of his family. Since the media declines to highlight black men demonstrating such behavior, I will outline four (4) lessons I observed from Fred and hopefully readers will share these lessons with young men and women.
I asked Fred who organized the funeral services and he responded, “My son…that’s why I sent him to school.” Although Fred was not an academic himself, he sent his sons to outstanding universities in Massachusetts and Maryland. The oldest son became a Superior Court Judge in a southern state, and the second son became a career federal employee. And, today one of Fred’s grandsons works on Wall Street as an analyst, at a national investment firm. Lesson #1: Educate Your Children.
Marie’s 30-year illness required her to be moved from medical facility to medical facility but, regardless of where she was, Fred drove hours to visit her week after week, month after month, year after year. Given the length of her illness many men would not have had the stamina to drive hundreds of miles regularly to visit a long-term terminally ill wife. Some men would have turned away and handed off responsibility to other family members. However, Fred did not do this—during his regular visits he lifted Marie’s spirits and the spirits of the nursing staffs, who grew to love him. Lesson # 2: Be caring, consistent and loving.
As I watched Fred interact with his children, grandchildren and extended family I was pleased to see they were comfortable with him and that he found a way for everyone to have a role. He was gracious and provided opportunities for his brothers-in-law, nephews, nieces and children to take the microphone at the funeral service, to express their feelings about losing Marie. Lesson # 3: Stay connected to your extended family.
Fred received gifts and acts of kindness from some of the wealthy and non-wealthy white and black “City Fathers and Mothers” in his small town. They came to his home, sent food and refreshments for out of town guests, and personally attended the funeral at a Black church. They clearly regarded Fred and Marie as valuable parts of their lives and commented on how Fred’s care for Marie was a local legend. During the funeral Fred received three standing ovations and the City Fathers and Mothers joined in. Lesson #4: A man who conducts his personal and family business in a loving and dignified manner, will be publicly and openly praised.
Fred demonstrates what a strong, solid, dependable man looks like. I recognized it because my father and husband have the same characteristics. We can all learn a lot from watching Fred. Both young and old people can learn from his example. We must show our young men and young women that there are positive and negative role models they can follow but, if they imitate the positive behaviors of a man like Fred, we can help restore the strength, love and unity we so badly need in our African American communities today.
STEPHANIE E. MYERS is Co-Founder and National Co-Chair of Black Women for Positive Change. She is Vice President and Co-Owner of R.J. Myers Publishing and Consulting Company, a minority owned business headquartered in the District of Columbia. For 4 years, she served as a Presidential Appointee as Director, Office of Commercial Space Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, where she authorized the first U.S. commercial space launch. For five years she served as Senate-Confirmed Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she was responsible for the first national PR campaigns on HIV/AIDS and Child Support Enforcement. She was also a founding member of the Minority Health Task Force that created the federal Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 30 year old federal agency focused on minority health and health disparities. She is an author and script writer and is married to Roy J. Myers, President of R.J. Myers Publishing Company. She is proud step-mom to three adult/married adult children and grandmother to five.