Distributed February 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Rhett S. Jones
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 850 Words


Rhett S. Jones

Remembering and admiring two hard-working black men
All black men are not drug addicts, pimps or gang members. Work such as that about to be published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science demonstrates this. But that’s not the way I think of black men anyway. I think of them as mostly being shrewd, supportive, sensible, hard-working men like Granddad and Dad.

Just in time for Black History Month, I received an announcement that The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science is devoting one if its special issues to “The African American Male in American Life and Thought.” The Annals provides thought-provoking, well-researched overviews of important issues of the day. It is time for me to buy another issue.

Black males are certainly deserved of study. The announcement reads, “No longer can scholars and practitioners ignore the influence the African American male has on all facets of American culture and academia. ...‘Dope addicts,’ ‘welfare pimps,’ ‘homeboys,’ ‘bloods’ – the images of the African American male portrayed throughout the American media have been distorted to say the least.”

For sure we need to set the record straight. But when I think of black males I think of my maternal grandfather, George W. Tolbert, and my father, Leonard F. Jones. Now that both are dead and I’m a grandfather myself, I see how much they had in common, though growing up as a child in the 1940s I saw them as very different men. Granddad lived most of his life in Carmi, a small southern Illinois town where he was a janitor. He also shined shoes, and during the winter months he laid and built fires for many of the downtown stores and businesses. As this was before automatic furnaces, he would go in early in the morning and build up the fires so that when white men came to work, they would come into warm buildings. This was one of the many jobs black men did that have become forgotten in history. There were no unions for such men.

Dad, though born in rural Mississippi, spent most of his life in Chicago where he did almost everything a black man could do to make a living. He was proud of the fact that he was never without a job, often saying to my brother Gary and me, “I always worked, even during the Depression.” He drove a taxi, served as a streetcar motorman, and for much of his working life was a machinist in a paper mill. As my dad could “pass” for white, he did so to obtain his motorman job. He was a lifelong union man but always ambivalent about unions. He considered his union, the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders, to be racist but once said to me that working people needed unions. “I remember when you had to ask to go to the bathroom and sometimes the boss would laugh and tell you, ‘Just go ahead and pee in your pants.’ ”

What I saw as a difference in temperament I now see resulted at least partly from their idea of their different roles. My grandfather set out to spoil his grandsons. He was caring and indulgent. He made toys more complex, colorful and much better than any that could be bought in a store. When we went for walks in Carmi he would proudly say to people we met, “This is Rhett; he’s my grandson.” I can still feel the love and pride in his voice, as though I had accomplished something. My dad didn’t do warm and loving. He saw his job as getting Gary and me ready for an ugly, unfair, racist world. He seldom told us how to deal with this world; mostly he showed us by example. But once he said to me, “If you say you are going to do a job, then you have to do it. You don’t have to take a job, but once you say you’re going to do it, no matter what, you have to do it. It shows them.” I knew that by “them” he meant whites.

They had in common a love of newspapers. They both read the newspaper each day – thoroughly, carefully and seriously from front page to back. Neither graduated from elementary school and like most black men of their time both were ashamed of this, as though the absence of schools for black children in their communities was somehow their fault. But Granddad liked to read and to talk, and it was from him that I first learned of the Mexican Revolution, Communism, the Kaiser and World War I and Cochise and heard anti-Semitism condemned before I even had a clear idea what it was. Before I was off to study for a Ph.D., I spent that fall with my parents in Chicago. My dad asked me with a fierce, concentrated intensity, “This sociology, I know you’ve explained it to me before, but tell me again. What is it?” He wanted to make sense of what I was doing with my life.

All black men are not drug addicts, pimps or gang members, and we do need work such as that to be published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science to demonstrate this. But that’s not the way I think of black men anyway. I think of them as mostly being shrewd, supportive, sensible, hard-working men like Granddad and Dad.


Rhett S. Jones is professor of history and Afro-American studies at Brown University.

######