I took the opportunity this past Black History Month to showcase some of my personal heroes. As a writer, many of my heroes come from the arts, because of their contributions to culture and western society. I love Sonia Sanchez and Sam Greenlee personally for their mastery of the written word. Some of my heroes like the brilliant Franz Fanon, or Dr. Ernesto Che Guevera or Malcolm X are martyrs of the world-wide struggle. They sacrificed their lives for the betterment of the lumpen.
I’m a child of the sixties: a time of much turmoil and change. As time has moved forward and life has become seemingly easier, many have forgotten the sacrifice that so many made to get us to this point. There was a lot of discussion last month about the “need” for Black History Month. Many would like to disassociate themselves from the struggle of black people in America. That notion is absurd when one considers the current literacy rates for black Americans; the disproportionate numbers of incarcerated black men and infant mortality rates in urban areas that are higher than some third world countries! This is the 21st century yet a significant portion of the black community finds itself worse off than their ancestors at the turn of the 20th century.
The heroes in my life have kept me grounded and focused. I’d like to introduce you to the heroes that had the greatest impact on me and are responsible for making me the man I am today.
My father Robert Sylvester O’Bryant II was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1922. He abandoned his formal education at 12 years of age to help his mother and sisters after his father died at age 39. My dad joined the Navy after the start of WWII. He was a Navy Seabee and was part of the personnel that supplied fighting men with armaments and sustenance, during the war in the Pacific. While stationed in at Pearl Harbor, at 6’3″ and well over 200 pounds he became a heavyweight boxer. His commander made him a part of the Shore Patrol after knocking out an SP during a brawl! When my father returned to Detroit he was truly a man of the world.
He married my mother Ann Ruth Colquitt shortly after his return to the states. He dabbled in commercial photography for a time. After my older brother was born, my father was hired as a painter on the maintenance crew at Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. During his time at Ford Motor, he became the first elected black official at UAW Local 400. I remember going to the union hall on Manchester in Highland Park. The men-the majority of whom were white-respected my father. Everywhere we went, we traveled with autonomy. I was always at ease and felt safe in his presence.
My father was a fierce man. I, moreso than my brothers, inherited his temperament. By the time I was in my early twenties, I came to understand the adversity that he endured as a large black man in American society. By the time I graduated from college, I understood that he had established a blueprint for me to follow. My father taught me by example to use my cunning instead of my physical attributes to fight my battles. It leaves one’s adversaries defenseless as they always anticipate a physical confrontation and never understand they’ve been outwitted. He also taught me to box, so if pressed I had the ability to knock my opponent to the ground!
I was 18 when my father passed on but not a day passes when I am not emulating him in some way or remembering a lesson he taught me. He is my #1 male hero.
My mother moved to Detroit in the early forties with her sister and her husband from rural Alabama. She met my father when he offered her a ride in his “Cadillac” (she later discovered that it was a Hudson) on a rainy day. They got married and she made Detroit her permanent home.
All through my adult life many women have asked why I never had children. The told me that they thought I would make a good father! My consistent response has been that I have yet to meet a woman who I believe would be as dedicated to her children as my mother was to me and my two brothers. My mother took care of us until her very last breath.
During my childhood, my mother worked alongside my father at Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. She was a sewing machine operator who put together car seat covers. On two separate occasions, she drove a needle into her index finger as she was feeding the material through the machine. Those two days-and 1 other occasion when she had dental surgery and went right to bed-were the only days during my childhood when my mother came home after work and did not prepare a dinner for her family! I worked in female dominated offices for thirty years. I would always cringe and bite my bottom lip when one of my co-workers proclaimed that they were “too tired” to go home and prepare a meal for their children. My mother cooked for us out of love not because of some implied maternal obligation. And she prepared from scratch; what Emeril Lagasse calls ‘food of love’. Fast food was a treat that we had on special occasions.
My mother was an exceptional cook. During my high school years, our home was a place where all my closest friends congregated. My mother’s kitchen was our gathering place. We would sit around the kitchen table talking and enjoying her excellent food. When I went away to college, my friends would look in on her. We were all family. I found out years later that our home also served as temporary refuge for one close friend that had a dispute with his parents.
My mother had a generosity that everyone that she involved herself with benefitted from. She taught me selflessness through example. She gave to others without thought of compensation. When she cooked a meal, she always prepared enough least “the Stranger” grace our door.
In my youth, I wanted to believe that my mother had a tendency to exaggerate and would say things that would boost my self-esteem. Time and experience have shown me that my mother was a visionary imbued with a clarity that only comes from a spiritual connection to God.
My mother departed this plane in 1995, yet she lives in my heart. Each day of my life, I attempt to live and work in her honor. She was a woman of great strength and fortitude. She is my greatest hero.
It took me until adulthood to understand the heroism and conviction of my parents. my parents were born in the depression era. They overcame, economic, racial and social obstacles. I was blessed to have the parents that God gave to me. Too many people succumbed to those pressures and failed properly care for the children they made. My mother and father managed to create a home atmosphere that made my brothers and myself immune to forces that would suggest that men like us could never succeed. I stand on the shoulders of my parents. I stand proudly as a testament to their courage, dedication and convictions.