An Elegy for Good Black Men

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Honorée Fanonne JeffersThose of you who have followed my blog know that I am very hard on Black men—affectionately called “The Brothers.” I will call them out on their wrongdoings and I will advise them how to be better, as if my own opinion is The Last Word.

It’s true, I get really scared about what is happening in our Black communities, and I keep hoping that one day, (most of these) present Brothers walking around will be hit with the Spirit of Old School Brothers, who admittedly weren’t perfect, but at least held up their part of the bargain.

But what most of you don’t know is that I feel I can talk so strongly about the lacks in Brothers nowadays because I have had the example of a truly good Black man in my life for fifteen years, so I know how a brother is supposed to be. More than that, I have had the example of a superlative Black man.  That man was James W. Richardson, Jr., one of my best friends in the world.

Last week, I was supposed to be celebrating the two-year anniversary of this blog. I started it on October 10 with a post about my fascination with Phillis Wheatley and writing. But right before I was preparing to write something about my blogging experience, James died. (I wish I had a better picture of James than the one on the right, but I don’t. But what I hope you can gather from that picture is that James had the prettiest teeth and smile God ever gave a human being.)

Those of us who knew James knew how smart he was—I mean, James was scary smart. I used to tell him he was so brilliant, he was near-abouts crazy. He was both knowledgeable of Hip Hop and opera, as well-versed in the novels of Iceberg Slim as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He played a mean violin, too.

And man, was James a fabulous poet! He could throw down on the page. But also, he was an insightful critic, too. Half the poems in my first book, all of the poems in my second and third books, and all of the short stories I ever wrote, I read to James on the phone. He would listen patiently for an hour or more, then say, “Now, go back to that line you read about the [whatever it was]. Read it to me again.” Then he would proceed to tell me how to make the poem better.

Only a few people in my life know that, along with my mother, James was my creative muse. Everything I wrote, I wanted to make sure James would say, “Well done.” That includes this blog.

James and I weren’t romantically involved. We weren’t physical lovers, but we were passionately-loving, platonic friends. He is the only person in my life who was as mushy as I was.  At the end of nearly every phone conversation we ever had, I would say, “I love you” and James would say back, “And I, you.” Sometimes, I would call him “Big Poppa” and he would call me “Big Country.” (Very few people know me well enough to use that pet name.)

I could say that I loved James because he was kind. He was. I could say he was brilliant. He was that, too. And I could say he was loyal, and James was the most loyal man I ever met. He would—and almost did several times—beat somebody in the middle of the street who insulted me. James did not play when it came to me, any of his other friends, or his family.

But the real reason I loved James so completely is that he knew how much I loved him, but he never tried to take advantage of that love.

When I met James, I was in my late twenties, a survivor of rape, and I just beginning to recover memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of my father. Let me tell y’all, I was a walking, throbbing emotional wound. I was a grown woman but I might as well have been ten years old, for all the sense and wisdom I had. I don’t even know how I survived that time.

I needed a lot of emotional care and I needed a Black man to trust, someone who would not try to exploit my emotional naïvete for his own purposes. James was that man. He was a true brother to me. I always felt safe with James, and I stayed many times in his apartment–he would give me his bed while he slept on the living room floor–just him and me, cooking for him, and helping him fold his laundry while watching The Jerry Springer Show, which as brilliant and cultured as James was, remained his guilty pleasure.

And yes, James was a straight man. He had several romantic relationships with women during the time I knew him. But he didn’t need to be having sex with every non-relative woman in his life to feel good and powerful—he already was that.

James used to tell me that once someone had been loved by me, that person never forgot the depth of my love,that I loved so well and so strongly. I wished I had been able to tell him that same thing. I think about something that James used to say, which is that most Black men who behave badly—or even, abusively—are responding out of need to be loved. But they don’t know that; instead, they turn against the people who could give them the love they need–their Sisters.

James used to say, “I’m glad I know the power of a Black woman’s love.” Well, I know the power of a Black man’s love, because I’ve had the best kind there ever was. I had it from James. No, what James and I shared wasn’t romantic love, but that’s all right. I finally know that now. I’m just sorry it took me all these years to realize, any kind of love is its own excuse, protection and gift. How many of us have realized that?

How many of us have known the power of having another human being to look us in the eyes and say, “I accept, love, cherish, and respect you, just the way you are, with all your flaws and all your profundities and I will never harm you”? I’m blessed to have known that power, and not a moment too soon.

When I think about James, and the unconditional, strong—and clean—brother-love he gave me, I think of the last line in one of my favorite movies, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. (A movie about flawed but good, honorable Black men.)

“Rich men could never have that kind of power. And precious few lovers could be that satisfied.”

I miss you and I love you, Big Poppa, you do-right, stand-up, Black man. If I play my cards right down here, I’ll see you one day up in heaven, and I promise, Big Country will make you all the biscuits and fried chicken you want.

8 thoughts on “An Elegy for Good Black Men

  1. What a tribute you’ve written about this “honorable ” black man, James W. Richardson Jr.. They are out there and it’s wonderful that you took the time and energy to introduce us to one of them.
    Peace to him and to all….

  2. Miss Honoree, I wish I had the ability to write so that I could offer you the words you need to help you through this time, so I will just say that it has been an honor to be introduced to your friend, James, and I am happy that he was a part of your life. Thank you James.

  3. A beautiful story about a wonderful man, Miss Honoree. I wish I knew the right words, but please know that I feel honored just to have read the tribute about James W. Richardson, a very good man. He seems to have brought much love and peace to you.

  4. This is beautiful, Honi! Thank you so much — for rekindling my memories of James and for honoring him in such a fabulous way. “…he was so brilliant, he was near-bouts crazy.” I love that. And know/knew a few other Black men like that. (One of them was Vincent Woodard. Another was my cousin, Charles Freeney.) Funny thing, they also had the same sort of kindness and loyalty you experienced in James.

    I know this is a rough patch you’re going through right about in here, my dear. But you said some GOOD words for your brother. And I’m sure many more are coming…



  5. O, Honorée, that is beautiful, a truly heartfelt and loving tribute… I knew James only briefly and not nearly as well as I would have wished–but I too felt his good spirit whenever I was around him. One year ago, on October 11, my “James”–my dearest brother-friend, Reginald Moseley–died, and reading your tribute to James resonated so much for me, because Reggie was just that kind of “do-fight, stand-up, Black man” too.” I know now that he and James would have recognized and bonded with each other if they’d ever met. Perhaps they will now–in spirit. I send you healing, loving energy as you grieve the loss of your wonderful brother. But don’t despair; that kind of deep, abiding love never loses its power to nurture, protect, and sustain you. Continue to dwell in it. I wish you peace and acceptance in time. Love, Sharan

  6. PS: I meant “do-right, stand-up, Black man” (after your words)–but I guess my typo stands as well… Rest in Peace, Brother James!

  7. Devastated. James mentored me. We founded a secret society called the Denmark Vesey Club and our motto was: “You bet not tell nobody.” James taught me how to slip my wild, Black and crazy into a gentleman’s lexicon. We shared a love of signifying and guarding it from the whitefolk. I tried to keep in touch with him over the last years but he was always just out reach. He is loved and missed.

    Postscript: James, when you get to heaven, keep that slice of watermelon behind your back until St. Peter lets you through the gates 😉

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