12:00am Christmas Eve, my Uncle Clemson Russell Joiner passed away…Uncle Russell was a Vietnam Vet, who returned with an able body, but whose mind never quite returned. The smile that was one of the things he was most famous for was dimmed and he would oscillate between fighting the voices in his head, the demons attacking him and the long silences in between.
When I was a young boy, he was much more vibrant than he would later become in his older age. I would go on walks with him around the neighborhood, him dressed in jeans or slacks, superclean , starched, with a razor sharp crease and the both legs rolled out about an inch or two. Then there was was the North Philly bop of a walk that probably would have looked like George Jefferson swagger if my uncle was not so slim and cool. I really valued those walks around the neighborhood because it made me cool be association at a time when i did not feel so cool.
My father always talks about my Uncle Russell with a type sorrow in his voice, which, as I have gotten older and learned more about my Dad and my uncle and the choices they both made, I have begun to understand this sorrow quite a bit more. I think my Dad felt sorrow for the way my Uncle’s life turned out. To hear my father tell it, mu Uncle Russell was the best musician in the family. He played trumpet. I wish I had known this as a younger person, I would have asked him to play. It seems that in my fathers family music is like a second religion, everybody something or sang. In talking about my uncle i think my father always felt like he never really got a chance to live a full life. In some regard I agree, because for the past 30 years leading up to my uncle’s death, it seemed like he was more silent, more distant everyday. He mostly would stare out the window onto my aunts lonely street or out into the backyard. He never quite got a chance to live up the electricity in smile and i think my Dad thought about every time Uncle Russell’s name came up.
So what does all this have to do with Bamako? In no small measure my Uncle Russell is probably one of the biggest reasons why I would be be open to living in Africa. Because on many of those long walks he would tell me in very simple 8 year old terms about how great Africa was. He was the first person to show and explain to me how the United States could fit into the Sahara Desert, he told me about the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and the Kingdom of Mali. My uncle was also a gifted artist (or at least the 8 year old me remembers him that way), he draw the most amazing sculptures similar to the variety that I have been seeing since being here in Mali. I am not quite sure how my Uncle knew about all these things, but they appeared to be so vivid in his mind to the extent that he filled any scrap of paper he could find with these drawings- he gave me a few of them, I pray that I still have them buried somewhere.
But I do find comfort in having made my way here to Africa, I find comfort in the effort I am making to live as an artist and family man here and I find comfort in knowing that my Uncle Russell is with me here and that in some small way I am making a dream of his come true.
I am sure poems will come of this, but right now I prefer to live the poetry instead.