Three men who helped shape my life died during the dark spring of 2020
Between April 25 and May 19, 2020 my father, one of my oldest friends, and my most important mentor all died. Nelson Elmer George from Covid-19 complications in April. Andre Oneal Harrell from a heart attack May 7. Robert ‘Rocky’ Ford May 19 from what his wife described as natural causes. They were black men aged 87, 58 and 70. My father had lived the life of minimum wage worker after serving in the Korean War, his last major gig was as an security guard at City College of New York. Andre had been an MC, president of the crucial new jack swing label Uptown Records and an mentor to many, including Sean Combs. Rocky had been a staffer at Billboard magazine before becoming a record producer and talent scout with Kurtis Blow and Full Force among the many he helped crack the record industry.
None were killed by police, were politically outspoken, or the types he joined marches. Their names will not used as symbols of society’s ills. Their deaths did not turn them into martyrs. Yet in the year Black Lives Matter became an international rallying cry, the passing of these non-controversial, non-activists moved me as deeply as those lives that ended in public. State sanctioned violence should always cause outrage and protest.
But I found my truest heartbreak in the quieter drama of black men who’s lives shaped mine, their families and the corners of America in which they toiled. The lost of these three men altered my perspective on life, sending me into deep introspection and soul searching, a process facilitated by being quarantined in New York during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I looked at the lessons each taught me — bad as well as good — and thought deeply about masculinity, not as a toxic thing, but a human bond to be examined closely and strengthened carefully. The very nature of male friendship has been on my mind as I plot my path through the last decades of my life.
The death of my father, in particular, led me to have some of the frankest, most emotionally naked conversations I’ve ever had with male friends. We talked about how we were raised, what they learned from their fathers, and how they struggled to fulfill the expectations thrust on them. It made me realized how surface many of my male relationships were and how much unspoken pain we carried. I’d reconnected with my father in April 2019, a year before his death, which was so fortunate. Because of that I understood my father better in the last year of his life than I had in the many decades before. Overall it was a reckoning with the emotional inner lives of people I knew, but only really saw the outside edges of. I learned to hear my friends more deeply, advise them with more nuance, and to accept their advise without defensiveness or barriers.
I spent a lot of this winter in Los Angeles during the height of the lockdown out there. On many Sunday nights I scooped up some Cuban cigars, hopped in an Uber and sat in the backyard of Oneal McKnight, Andre’s cousin and the person who found his body. Together we listened to music, talked about our loses and smoked. Sometimes another socially distanced friend would come through. Or we’d What’s App in a friend in another city. In the middle of the COVID darkness these Sunday conversations offered some healing and community.
In this time of life after death I send all praise to my ancestors and teachers. Looking forward to seeing you all again some day.