The second leg of what would eventually be five visits with my extended Gill and Collins families as an adult occurred the month after meeting much of my extended Gill family in Houston in April ’94. This second visit was very different from the first. It was part of a three-city trip, between research for my dissertation in DC (and a visit with my friend Laurell in the process) and going up to Mount Vernon to visit my Mom and siblings. Plus, like the Houston-New Orleans trip, I’d come to the Atlanta area to present at a conference, one at the University of Georgia on the 40th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
I’d been invited to talk about multiculturalism as it related to desegregation in terms of curriculum by Layli Phillips, then an Assistant Professor in African American Studies and Psychology at the Athens campus, about sixty miles from my uncle’s place in Gwinnett County. It was an invite and acceptance my advisor Joe Trotter wasn’t happy about, as it was “too soon” for me to discuss my topic “in front of strangers.” But Phillips had already bought the round-trip tickets for me to fly from DC to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to LaGuardia, per my request. Oh well!
I came to Hartsfield all tired and stuffed up from hay-fever-heavy DC that Saturday afternoon in mid-May, a couple of days before my UGA presentation. There, I met my Uncle Paul right at the gate, along with his seventeen-year-old son. Like my Uncles Sam and Robert, Uncle Paul was taller than me, a still wiry six-five at thirty-eight, still fit enough to stop, pop and hit a J despite his swollen knees. His son was built just like him, and a star basketball player at his high school in Gwinnett County.
They didn’t give me any time to rest. I was immediately taken to their two-bedroom apartment in some off-the-main route beaten path, a gated community with stucco walls and plastic pink flamingos to boot. There, I’d also meet one of my uncle’s girlfriends, an older woman who apparently understood that my Uncle Paul wasn’t exactly ready to settle down.
My Uncle Paul’s playing days in Houston (college and NBA) and overseas had ended long before I’d learn how to shoot a J myself. He’d gone back to school — specifically ITT Technical Institute — in the mid-1980s and become an A/V expert who specialized in special effects, including laser lights, smoke and other technologies meant to enhance the concert-going experience. He’d worked before on tours, with Earth, Wind + Fire (when Maurice White was still healthy enough to tour) and New Edition. That’s how our family learned that Johnny Gill was a distant cousin, as his great-grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters, one staying in the Texas-Arkansas area, the other moving to Seattle for some reason or other.
There was a jazz and blues extravaganza going on at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta that evening, and so within hours of landing, we were back in the heart of the city, setting up equipment on what normally was the playing field for the Atlanta Falcons. I was so mesmerized thinking about losing a football in the lights of the Georgia Dome that my uncle yelled at me to “get my ass in gear,” because he needed help unloading some heavy equipment. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the quality of music, but having a backstage view of the whole thing, and to see what my uncle Paul did for a living, I was truly, truly impressed.
That Sunday I spent in my uncle’s home, hearing about his playing days, his knee issues, his knowledge of basketball as a game, his travels to play in Europe, and indirectly, his sexual conquests. That last part I could’ve done without — I’d spent two days hearing the same thing from my other uncles the month before. Then he grilled me with questions about Mount Vernon, about New York, about why I didn’t play sports, about “the chicks in college.” My Uncle Paul assumed, incorrectly, that living in New York was heaven compared to being tenant farmers in southwestern Arkansas, and that I was in grad school for the sex. “I wouldn’t have made it to where I am if that was what it was all about,” I said in shocked response.
He made a jambalaya dinner for us and his lady friend, all the while talking about each other’s work. My uncle’s son was bored to tears. Then, after dinner, and after his girlfriend had left and his son had gone to hang out with friends, my uncle took me out in his vintage Porsche 911 (it had been covered in the parking lot up to that point) to some high-class, late-night, members-only club somewhere in Gwinnett. Between him doing somewhere around eighty in a fifty-five and taking me to this place to “meet a girl,” I was in more shock. “I like looking for women on my own, thank you very much,” I yelled through the Mary J. Blige at one point.
I went off that Monday morning to Athens for the Brown Decision conference, and was gone for thirty hours. I did get a ride back from a presenter, and then a ride back my uncle’s place. That’s when I walked into the place to see my cousin on the black-leather living room couch, stripped down and on top of a young woman. He only stopped when I yelled for a second time, “I’m back!” Then, the proverbial scattering of two youngins’ caught up in lust occurred. They left, presumably to finish what they had started.
I left for New York that Wednesday morning, having enjoyed my time with my Uncle Paul, but also seeing some downside to a lifestyle that left him busy and his son without supervision. That some dumb thug killed my cousin four years later was still very much a surprise, as he wasn’t a violent person, at least the person I met in ’94. I felt so horrible for him and for my Uncle Paul, as I couldn’t imagine the totality of the pain of such a tragedy.
But good, bad or otherwise, it felt good to get to know my people, my family. I’d grown up with a family that was one in name only. Poverty, religion, abuse had all rendered the meaning of family useless for me growing up, and seeing more examples of the same thing in my time in Mount Vernon didn’t help. I knew that my Uncle Paul wasn’t perfect. Nor were my uncles in Houston. But I knew they loved each other, had dreams and plans for their lives, and had acted on many of these things in living their lives. I knew that I needed to keep doing the same.