I was at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis county this morning to observe the burial of my uncle, Bethel Smith. It’s the second trip in about 2.5 months to a military cemetery that I’ve had to make to bury one of my father’s younger siblings; we lost my aunt, Carolyn Mitchell, in February in Chicago right as the pandemic was making its appearance outside of the west coast. Aunt Carolyn rests across the Mississippi River in Illinois about 200 miles north at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and Uncle Bethel joins his wife, my aunt Delores at the second largest military burial ground in the country here in Missouri.
It was a pretty day outside. You can see in the picture how blue the sky was. I saw some deer slowly roaming through the headstones. You could see the sparkling edge of south leg of the Gateway Arch up the river. It was a peaceful scene. It wasn’t a normal day. But it was pretty.
We were surrounded by about 200,000 Americans, but we couldn’t have been much more socially distant. My uncle couldn’t get the gun salute that he earned because of COVID; staffing was cut. We had to stand outside of our cars about 50 yards away from the shared plot with masks on as they lowered his casket so as to keep those of us still on this side of the grass healthy. My cousins had to wait for an hour so that the workers could cover everything up before they could approach the spot where their parents rested to say a final goodbye. They went to see their other relatives that were buried there to pass the time.
My dad had had enough though, and rightfully so. He’d done what he could for his best friend. I’d one-day, round-tripped a drive for us to the other side of the state to Kansas City four days ago for the funeral 250 miles away. There was a personal and funny eulogy by their mutual friend, a pastor, that flew up from Texas just for the day. Dad did his tribute to his childhood bedmate and knocked it out of the park, as expected, but somehow even better than expected. But it was getting warmer outside. He’d more than represented already. He’d more than done his duty. It was time for me to do mine.
I drove him, my sister, and brother-in-law the 30 minutes or so back to U. City so they could carry on with their day. I dropped them off at the houses and stayed in the car since I needed to make a rare fill-up for the car. I took off for the gas station. It was still a pretty day, but getting warmer.
I’d been basically incapable of leaving the house much in the past couple of weeks because I’d been suffering from a particularly bad flair-up from my home country’s congenital birth defect. This breakout was a bad one, but predictable. I’d been on a really big roller coaster ride this time.
At times I was feverish…beyond angry and seeing red, which made me pace around. I felt the blues…as depressingly similar spoonfuls of pablum and bile were both swallowed and spewed, seemingly all around me, if tried to read anything. But this time I kept trying to avoid seeing an orange mass that kept trying to pop into my line of sight if I tried to look at a screen; but it kept showing up and getting in the way of my vision like a pesky floater in your eye that you have no control over.
But my nature wills out and I’m a traveler by nature. Roaming is as congenital in me as what forever ills this land. I will literally get sicker if I’m not traveling and exploring and doing something novel, regularly. Today was a great driving day. I’d already psyched myself up the night before to go out to the cemetery to do what I had to do. And after I’d arrived at Jefferson Barracks the first time, I’d already felt better about having to go. I was more chill. I was OK. So I sanitized the 87 octane pump handle, filled up, took off my mask, and rolled out. It was almost hot now, but it was still pretty.
My mom, Jamae Milam, died 3 years ago on Thursday. She was out at the cemetery too. I hadn’t been to see her yet. My uncle, Clyde Turner, who’s house was around the corner from ours, died about 2.5 months before mom did. I hadn’t been out to see him yet either. My mom’s younger and only brother, James Scott, Jr., was out there as well, and I’d never seen his plot; I had attended the funeral at the time in 2011, but not been back for a look. And my great aunt, Irma Milam French, aka “Auntie”, was out there. My first time ever out at JB was for her funeral in 1997. I don’t think I’d seen her headstone though.
I was fine with not having made this tour before. I didn’t feel guilty, but it was time. I was ready. I wanted to say “hi” to my people. I needed to be around some people that knew me and that I knew. I wanted to be around some folks that had been through worse than I’ve been through, been called worse things more frequently than I’ve been, and been called un-American and not worthy by so many in this country (and even at that cemetery) because of their existence and resistance then, let alone what they what they would think about what was going on right now.
I wanted to be around some soldiers in my family there where they lay today. Because, while I do not like and cannot stand the jingoistic and nationalistic crap that so many “real Americans” hide behind and wrap themselves up in, I know that, on some level, some of those people will be able to find some sort of humanity in Black people if only because they put on a uniform and their “Americaness” is etched in stone…never to be erased or denied. Somehow, they’ve existed here and they didn’t know that Black military families was a thing, but they might know now. I don’t need their stamp of approval to exist. And I don’t claim valor from my deceased family members’ service (hello Uncle Tilmon) and those of their spouses (hello also Aunt Hazel) either. That’s theirs alone. But I point this fact out in this picture because it’s a possible point of contact for actual communication for some people; it’s an extra credit point that shouldn’t be needed but is part and parcel of all the extra that “we” always have to do to get half as far.
Always having to do that extra just to exist and to be recognized and to matter in this life is nonsense and flat out burdensome. That fact for some of “us” is truly part of why “we” are so pissed off AGAIN this time. One shouldn’t need to have been in the military or have been from a military family to be given respect. One shouldn’t need to change their voice and hope that their names are not too Black sounding so that can try to get the loan they want or the apartment they need. One shouldn’t need to have gone to Harvard and “only” be a bird watcher to be considered not dangerous. And one shouldn’t need three camera angles, good audio, and 8 minutes and 46 seconds of footage to be believed when they say that they get harassed and killed by the police all the time no matter what they do or how much they comply.
But while some people will never understand how much extra we always have to do just to get through the day and think that’s OK, I will never think that. I’ll always think that extra is wrong. Because while all of my relatives here are recognized as humans and Americans because of this military pedigree, they were also literal sharecroppers, cotton pickers, janitors, health care workers, scholars, educators, cartographers, engineers, government intelligence, screw ups, and geniuses…you know…HUMANS. And that should be enough for ANY ONE, not just my family.
This extra shit is unfair and unjust, period, and that’s an understatement. But we’ve done it because we’ve had to, and we do it because WE’RE. NOT. GOING. ANYWHERE. “We’ve” been here since our ancestors were brought here against their will and are entirely integral to the existence of this place whether some people want to acknowledge it or not. We are here. Canada doesn’t want any more Americans, and we’re not going there. It’s too cold up there. And it wasn’t a normal day down here today south of the border, but it was warm and it was pretty.
So I said “hi” to all of my people and I felt much better after the trip. I wasn’t that sad. I was a little, but really not that much at all. I wanted to tell them that we’d all been locked up in our houses for the last 3 months, that more than 100,000 people had died, that there were cities burning all over the country, and that things were still super bad since unemployment was so high, and that 3 inch hornets were coming, and that an orange man was in the White House and he was very bad. But that would have given them the chance to say, “Whew….I’m glad I’m not up there,” and I didn’t want them to laugh at me for being up here…so I withheld that information. (They might know already anyway…) I made it back home and thought about how I could try to start to talk and not yell at 300 decibels about what’s going on; so, I made this barely thought out note.
And with as many words as this was, I really haven’t said anything yet. This isn’t even a preamble to what needs to be said and heard. And things will certainly not only be said and heard by me in the near future.
You see, as much as I’m a congenital traveler, I’m a congenital communicator. I can’t help it. I talk too much and want to hear others and show others even more. But more than that I want all things to be understood by all people. It’s naive, I know, but I don’t care. It’s what allows me to get out of bed every morning to try again another day. And if you don’t have hope, you have almost no reason to try to go on. But I will go on.
In the past, I tried to set up my entire life around these two congenital conditions of mine. Other things got in the way before I could fully complete what I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do it, and life happened; but life happens to everyone. I’m not special, but I do count. And since I know that my life and all other Black lives matter, I’ll carry on. I’ll keep on keepin’ on like my family and people always have. I’ll go on and and continue to try to learn and teach and to be better, because for me that’s what makes up a normal day. And for me, that’s pretty good.