I Loved My Bigoted Uncle, and He Loved Us
My late Uncle Buster, a barrel-chested white man raised in the woody bowels of Louisiana and a self-professed bigot, opened his life, his home and his heart to me. Wendell “Buster” Carson was ours by marriage but, even as he rests in his grave, our bond remains as indelible as the etchings on his marble tombstone.
Buster never hid his views on race from me or anybody else. He saw it as an anathema born of economic tension at our nation’s founding. But, it was my uncle who taught me about the strictures of race, gender and class. Over plates of skillet-fried venison backstrap, smothered in flour gravy made with the grease drippings, he altered the way I saw myself and the world.
A plainspoken man, who had raised my now former husband as his own and who I met for the first time nearly three years into our marriage, Buster taught me that water is sometimes thicker than blood and that, despite the complexities of ethnic heritage, deeply rooted family ties grow and strengthen where you least expect them.
Had he lived to see this day, I have no doubt that Buster would have supported Donald Trump for President. he would’ve pointed to the empty manufacturing plants in northern Illinois—once home to Joliet Steel and General Mills—and to the Caterpillar production lines shifted to Mexico. Over supper, Buster would have railed against government corruption, backroom deals, and a political system rigged in favor of those he’d thought were least deserving of it. Buster would have groused about the bloodshed unfolding in Chicago, an hours-drive up I-57, and people he believed were “living off the government teat.”
Whether that devotion would have lasted through the fall election, I do not know.
I do know that he was outraged about the spread of crack cocaine and reports of gangland killings in Los Angeles. Buster, who nobody had the guts to call by his given name, told me he blamed the HIV/ AIDS epidemic on “sinful living.” He seemed to soften when I told him my older brother Donnie had been diagnosed with the horrific disease and was only alive then because of Medicaid.
But, it’s been a rough few weeks at Trump Tower. What with a disastrous debate performance and that whole dustup with a former beauty queen. Then, of course, somebody went and mailed pages from a decades-old tax return to the New York Times. The idea that Trump may not have paid federal taxes for 18 years wouldn’t have sat right with Buster.
It’s a good thing nobody pre-ordered White House stationary, Aunt Betty would’ve mused while simmering a pot of “throw-together”— the recipe for which included every unspoiled leftover meat and vegetable in the refrigerator. She was the kind to take every day as it came and could find a bright spot in near ’bout anything. Still, Buster would’ve likely been disappointed in the latest turn of events.
Both have since gone on to Glory but, despite our ideological differences, I can honestly say that Buster and Betty were decent people who worked hard, paid their bills on time and reveled in the love of family. I didn’t agree with them on some things, but they weren’t “deplorable.”
If they’d ever had the occasion to visit, I know they would’ve been taken in, at least initially, by the ritzy office towers and sprawling golf resorts bearing Trump’s name. Never one to mince words, Buster would be enamored with the one-time real estate developer’s “straight talking ways.”
Pointing to places like Ferguson and Charlotte, Trump calls the protests in response to high-profile fatal police shootings of black suspects “race riots,” happening “monthly.”
“We’re a divided nation and each week it seems we’re getting more and more divided,” Trump said at a rally. “(We see) race riots on our streets on a monthly basis. Somebody said don’t call them race riots, but that’s what they are. They’re race riots. And it’s happening more and more.”
There is little doubt that Buster would’ve agreed with Trump on the matter. Like so many of those on the right, he would’ve placed the lion’s share of the blame on black-on-black crime, babies born out of wedlock and welfare dependency. However, he also knew something about the role of housing segregation and employment discrimination, though he certainly didn’t find them as significant to the equation as I did.
Racism, Buster believed, was a fact of life.
It would’ve been easy for most progressives I know to turn deaf and blind to a man like Buster. He might’ve been deemed unworthy of even polite conversation and unlovable. For them, Buster represents everything the country should not be—the opposite of the richly diverse society we should more readily embrace.
It should be said that Buster knew police officers were just as capable of racial prejudice as anyone else. I know that because we spent hours talking about Cicero and Skokie—Illinois towns that were infamous for anti-black bias and race riots. Then there were Kenilworth—Chicago's richest suburb which was set up to exclusively white—and the city of Anna, situated near the southern tip of the state, where people of color were forbidden to live or work. Many referred to Anna by its backronym: “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.” Jim Crow was long dead, but Buster and I both knew that segregation and its impacts remained.
It was the summer of 1991—the year before the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing riots that engulfed Los Angeles and the national headlines—when my former husband and I loaded our pick-up truck and drove from Atlanta to Betty and Buster’s house in upstate Illinois. There had been talk of a divorce and Betty, my mother-in-law’s sister, figured we had something worth saving. Maybe, it was decided, if it we spent some time together in their four-room house, painted white, along the Kankakee River, we’d see it too.
Like my enrollment in a high school physics class, Buster was thrust upon me. Knowing what I did about my extended family of in-laws, I made the trip up I-75 north with a belly full of hesitance. To my surprise, Buster met me at the door—unlike my science teacher Mr. Cline—with an effusive greeting and a bear-hug.
“Come on in here, gal.”
We had little in common, Buster and I. He was a mountain of a man, towering somewhere north of six feet tall and weighing in at a clean 300 pounds. By contrast, I was a diminutive, young black woman, “all of a hundred pounds with bricks in my pockets” who “spent too much time studying words when I ought to have been studying life,” he’d say.
Three decades or more my senior, he was raised in the country and I’d grown up downstate in decidedly more urban East St. Louis. I had been reared in an evangelical, missionary Baptist and Buster only went to church to get married. I talked a lot about God, while Buster preferred to talk about hunting and fishing.
It didn’t help matters that I was a voracious reader and foisted myself in front of his black and white television set every evening at 5 p.m. sharp for the evening news. By contrast, Buster hadn’t watched TV much since “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” was cancelled back in ‘73 and I’m not sure I ever saw him read a newspaper. With little in the way of a formal education, Buster had a dense, almost indecipherable Southern accent. He had kind eyes, wore the same pair of denim bib overalls almost every day and enjoyed almost anything dipped in flour and deep fried in Crisco. Back then, I was the type to pick at my food until it was cold and indigestible.
With a population just under 5,000, situated outside of Joliet and an hour drive southwest of Chicago, Wilmington was an all-white town and, in the months that we spent there, I never saw another black face. Even today, the population of African Americans hovers under one percent. Despite Aunt Betty’s assurances, I didn’t feel comfortable taking our children to the grocery store or even up the road to the filling station.
Everything I feared in life, everything I wanted to guard our children against, lived in Wilmington—the putrid smelling sulfur water we showered in, the winged disease-carrying insects living in flooded old tires in the yard, the hateful stares from passersby who wondered aloud “where the niggers came from.” But I wanted to keep my vows. After all, our daughter Katherine was turning two that fall and Joshua was just six months old. Thus, I was stuck with my new-found uncle and the evil cashier at the quick-mart.
Buster, immediately and eagerly, became our great protector.
Resting in his recliner--the most expensive piece of furniture in the house—with my baby boy hoisted onto his broad lap, Buster frequently listened as I read Katie a bedtime story on the paisley sofa every evening. I don’t mind telling you that I didn’t sleep most nights and bumps in the darkness made me flinch. I did feel better knowing Buster was asleep in an adjoining room with a 12-gauge double barrel, pump action shotgun. When I was too scared to go to the grocery store by myself to get a can of formula, he said he’d drive me. The cashier suddenly addressed me more kindly and the guy over at the road-side fruit stand sprang to my aid.
“You’re Buster’s niece, right?”
Folks knew better than to go messing with Buster’s family— largely on account that Betty had 17 sisters and brothers, spread out from Joliet to Kankakee, and we were a phone call away from dozens of young, hardscrabble Hall family grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.
Buster wanted everybody to know that I was one of them.
Uncle Jimmy, a virulently racist old drunk for whom I developed a strange sense of admiration, passed away last month. But the annual family reunion remains a beauty to behold. It helped some that Jimmy, Betty’s younger brother and a Vietnam veteran, took one look at me and thought I was a “mixed breed.” He was the first to uncap a cold beer and hand it to me.
“You ain’t still breastfeeding that baby of yours, are you?”
Nearly two decades before the election of the nation’s first black commander-in-chief, and 25 years before a woman would claim the Democratic nomination, when I first met Buster that summer the nation was in the midst of an economic downturn and the culture wars were in full-swing. Aunt Betty didn’t have as much to say about politics as Buster did, but I’d like to believe that they wouldn’t have minded having a black president—even if they didn’t much agree with him on the issues. I’d like to think they wouldn’t have bought into all that business about Barack Obama being a Kenyan-born secret Muslim.
Or maybe, they would have. They didn’t know him like they knew me.
Try as I might, and at Betty’s urging, I never grew to like that cashier. Ironically, though, it was there in that tiny northern Illinois town—living amongst extended family and others who viewed me with suspicion and animus—that I learned the value of celebrating and embracing cultural differences. We mostly kept to ourselves and I was never naïve enough to think our presence would advance social progress. Being there felt like wearing a wool coat in the springtime and weathering it was the best I could muster. In a few months’ time, my marriage (and our 1990 Ford Ranger) ran out of gas on a dirt back road and I filed for divorce shortly after we returned home to Atlanta. Our third child was born that spring.
A lot has changed since then. My ex-husband is now happily re-married to a wonderful woman who was made just for him. Katherine is now 27, an Ivy League graduate with a newborn son of her own. Joshua—an architecture student, self-taught chef (like his father) and would-be restaurateur who oddly looks a lot like Buster—turned 25 with the New Year. Our “baby daughter” Haley, a soon-to-be lawyer named for author Alex Haley and the mother of our three-year-old granddaughter, is 24. And, well, I’ve had an unexpected 25-year career as a journalist and communications executive.
I lost the only picture I had of Buster-- the one of him and my baby son staring seriously into the lens-- and it breaks my heart. Buster wasn’t the kind to pose for a lot of photographs and Joshua appears has inherited a similar aversion to preening. The ink is dry on my decades-old divorce, but I do wish that our kids would have maintained a closer relationship with their father’s family.
I’ll readily take the blame for that, though I am certain now—even as a social justice activist and writer who has managed to raised three socially conscious children—that Buster is smiling down on all of us.
Looking back, it’s quite possible that our stay in Wilmington—cooled by area fans under that failing roof by the riverside—changed Buster as much as it changed me. I wonder now if even he would understand now how hurtful and divisive the Trump candidacy has been or the inherent dangers he would present as president.
In our brief time together, despite the complications of race and our differing politics, I came to know the full of his love—and I hope he felt mine.