“Hey, don’t you worry. I got your back. I will always be here for you.”
That’s my brother, Medgar, named after Medgar Evers, talking to his twelve-year-old daughter, Shirley, named after Shirley Chisholm.
I’m Thurgood, yep, tagged after Thurgood Marshall. Our father frequently said if he had known how I would have turned out, he would have branded me Kingfish from Amos & Andy.
Shirley shakes her head in disappointment as she responds to her father, “Daddy dear, nobody is here forever. And, most likely, I will end up caring for you in your old age.”
I add, “Amen to that.”
My brother frowns at me.
Shirley turns her oversized brown eyes in my direction, “And you too, Uncle Thurgood.”
“Not me. No way are you going to be bossing me around like some little dictator. I have long-term care insurance to avoid you ruling my life.”
Shirley gives me a sweet smile, “Uncle, I only try to give you directions because sometimes you seem so utterly rudderless.”
Medgar laughs and gives a hearty, “Amen, back at you, brother.”
Oshun, my brother’s wife and Shirley’s mother, titled after an African goddess of love, beauty, and wealth, enters the room and takes a seat next to her husband. “There is a lot of church going on in here. What’s the occasion for this revival?”
Shirley faces her mother, “Mom, I was asking dad if he would have my back if I married June Chinn when I grow up.”
“Oh, my. Are you and June serious like that?”
“Mom, it’s a hypothetical. I’m polling family members for my sociology project. And since you are here, I would like to get your reaction.”
“What did your father say?”
“He gave me his unequivocal support.”
“Well, I want you to be yourself and live your life on your terms, as much as you can.”
Shirley turns to me, “Alright, Uncle, will you make it unanimous?”
“Hell no! June Chinn is a nasty piece of work. She’s arrogant, abrasive, and argumentative. I would not want her in our family.”
“But if we made each other happy?”
“No, because June makes everyone around her unhappy. No, and no again.”
“But what about my happiness? Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“My happiness is more important to me than your contentment is. I have had a lot of strife in my life, and I don’t want you dragging June and more discontent into the mix.”
“Thurgood, please, brother, this is a hypothetical. It doesn’t have to be about June.”
I lash back. “Of course, it has to be about June. Shirley said, June Chinn. She did that for a reason.”
We all turn to Shirley. She wags her finger at me, “Uncle is right. June is obnoxious on her best days. Thanks, Uncle. Were you for real about your happiness being more important than mine?”
“Hell yeah. You have excellent health, a sound mind, food and shelter, and a family that loves you. I’m not going to sacrifice my limited happiness when you have all those gifts.”
Oshun intervenes, “Thurgood. You do want your niece to be happy, don’t you?”
“Sister-in-law, I have hypertension, arthritis, and hemorrhoids. I have two ex-wives and a slave-driving boss. I don’t have the time, energy, or interest in keeping anybody happy but me.”
My brother adds, “You’ve always been a selfish son-of-a-bitch.”
“And I hope I always will be. Listen, you can’t give people happiness or make them happy. Happiness is something they have to get for themselves.”
Unexpectedly, Shirley comes to my defense. “I agree. June is my friend since the first grade. But I don’t think she will ever be happy. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it but her.”
Medgar asks, “So, why do you hang with her if she is such an unpleasant person? And she is.”
“Because I get her, and she gets me. We can be honest with each other. Now, on to question number two.”
Oshun shouts, “Wait! Are you saying that you would not marry June if she made us unhappy?”
“Heck, no. I agree with Uncle. We are each responsible for our happiness. Now, this is for you, Mom. Do you think you are a good person?”
For a second, Oshun and Medgar share a look of pure terror. They both glance in my direction, I shrug.
Oshun gives her daughter a rather unconvincing smile, “That is a difficult and demanding question. You don’t have sociology in elementary school—”
“Mom, it’s my sociology project. It’s not for school. I need to know if you think you are a good person.”
There is a long moment of silence. Shirley turns to me, “Uncle, would you care to answer my question?”
Before I can respond, Oshun starts talking. “I was a good girl. I mostly obeyed my parents and met their expectations. I’ve worked hard in school and earned outstanding grades. I was a straight A student. That meant a lot to me. That separated me from everyone who wasn’t as successful as I was. I graduated from an Ivy League college, and I have obtained very desirable positions. I married an exceptional man. We live in a prestige neighborhood.”
Oshun pauses and reaches for her husband’s hand. There are tears in her eyes.
“Shirley, I don’t think I’m a very good person. I wasted my whole education trying to give the right answers instead of trying to understand and learn. I never questioned when I knew I should. I didn’t care very much about learning. I cared about grades, success, recognition. I don’t think I was ever a good student.”
Medgar kisses his wife’s cheek, “But you see that now. You understand your—”
“Medgar, I married you because you were a good catch. You were intelligent, ambitious, handsome, the right shade of brown, with excellent social skills. And you are affectionate, and kind.”
Medgar laughs and hugs his wife. “You did good, kid. You did the right thing.”
“No, I didn’t do good. I never thought about doing what is ethical or right. I thought about what was good for me.”
“What do you mean, Mom?”
I give my niece a steely glance. I think Shirley knows the answer to her question all too well.
“I didn’t think about how I could use my skills and advantages to make life better for everyone. I never had that kind of social consciousness. I was too focused on myself. I never made a serious attempt at being a morally effective person. I never concentrated on doing right. I rarely thought about being a good person.”
There is a long uncomfortable silence. Shirley turns to me.
I respond. “Shirley Birdsong, you are an instigator and a disruptor. You are not going to drink the Kool-Aid, but one day you will drink your hemlock.”
My niece rewards me with her brightest smile.
I continue. “I was never a good student. I was not that bright. I couldn’t understand a lot of what I was taught. I was in constant trouble in high school. I got kicked out of college twice. I’ve been fired too many times. I’ve been arrested for demonstrating six times, and I’ve been arrested twice for being a fool. I’ve turned two people who love me against me. And at the age of 43, I’m still in an intense sibling rivalry. Does that answer your question?”
Shirley shakes her head no. “Uncle, that’s just a list of things. Do you think you are a good person?”
I snap at my evil little niece. “I try to do good. I fought for civil rights. I fought against the war in Vietnam. I supported women and gay rights. I believed. From each according to his ability to each according to her needs. I still believe that.”
All eyes are on me as I pause to gather my thoughts.
“I met Eleanor at a demonstration for ethnic studies. We both got kicked out of school at the same time for taking over the administration building. She was a simple White girl from old money. She hadn’t read Karl Marx or Frederick Engels or Mao Zedong. She was a fucking modern dance student. She is the only good person I have ever met in my life. She was way better than me at being good. I married her. And I hated and loved her for being something that I could only aspire to. How could a rich White girl be better at being good than me? I made our lives miserable. I broke us.”
I have to stop for a moment.
“I’m not a good person. I’m the opposite of a good person. I tried to do evil against the person closest to me. I succeeded.”
Oshun comes to me, takes my hand, kisses my salty cheek.
Shirley gives me an odd look of maybe contempt and pity and turns to her father.
Medgar takes his daughter’s hand and turns to look at his wife and me.
“This boy and I fell in love. Both my parents and my grandparents are Baptist ministers. I turned my back on the boy. Surely, you can’t be a good person if you’re not true to yourself.”
I’m shocked, wordless.
Oshun, doesn’t look surprised. She looks resigned.
Shirley kisses her father’s cheek. Medgar stands, glances at us, and walks out of the room. His wife follows him.
Shirley smiles at me. I mean, she really smiles at me as she leaves me to my thoughts.
I smile back, and I think maybe, against all odds, I have stumbled on another good person.