My sister Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, a dancer and storyteller, and her son, actor, producer and entrepreneur Lamman Rucker, have devoted their lives to their art. On Sunday, May 15, they talked about their relationship on an online radio program “Phenomenal Saging Mothers.”
Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’ — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.
In the middle of this column, under the heading “The Goodwill Flight “Ebenezer talks about a goodwill flight to the Caribbean and South America that was undertaken by Dr. Albert Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson. They were dubbed the “first transcontinental Negro flyers.”
A New York Times obituary on Forsythe in 1986, said: “In 1933, Dr. Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson became the first black pilots to complete a cross-country flight, traveling from Bader Field in Atlantic City, N.J., to Los Angeles. The flight, along with trips to Montreal and the Caribbean in 1934, was made in an attempt to break down the color barrier in aviation.”
An obituary of Anderson, who died in 1996, recalled: “He and Forsythe made the first land plane flight from Miami to Nassau in 1934. They island hopped throughout the Caribbean, to the Northeastern tip of South America. They overflew the Venezuelan straits and landed in Trinidad as national heroes.” It described Anderson as a mentor to Tuskegee Airmen.
I also found a 1933 Time magazine story about their trip.
The itinerary did not include a visit to Barbados, which was a disappointment to those, including my father, with connections to the island. The column and the letter make it sound like the pilots were black Americans, but according to his obituary, Forsythe was born in the Bahamas. Perhaps there was a little bit of Caribbean rivalry.
The connections here are a little uncanny. Lamman Rucker, Ebenezer’s grandson, is co-producer of Black Angels Over Tuskegee, a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. Lamman, who plays Elijah in the production, is a founding member of the company, The Black Gents of Hollywood, an all-male ensemble devoted to redefining the images of African American men in entertainment.
In a few weeks I’ll be headed for Barbados, my father’s birthplace. I’ve been there only once, back in 1984 and only for a couple of days. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the place, perhaps beginning the journey of finding family. It is interesting that while in his thirties, my father’s emotional connection to the island still seemed very strong. My impression was that later in his life, by the time he was married and living in Pittsburgh, that connection seemed to be lost, or at least frayed.
I can’t tell whether “The little Englander” my dad quotes is him or someone else. (Editor’s update 8/3/11: It’s possible it is his brother, Noel, who worked at the Barbados Advocate.) Perhaps I can find the archives of the Barbados Advocate while I am there.