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I Sing For Tom
Published:
6/11/2014 4:29:00 PM

By Jim French


Such as this belongs in the old blues ballads, Black sharecroppers composed to inform their people of bravery and honor and entertained their small audiences of the beaten, with explanations of valor. Only Tom French, who had a grieving appreciation of the sadness of losers, might do it now if he were here to tell you of pride and faith some men had in desperate crisis. It would have to be narrated by someone who understands pity.

There should also be a realization of terror and a feeling for Black men forced into a kind of life they abhor. It would be a hustler’s song and there must be a night in it and that loneliness which possess a man who thinks there will be no tomorrow.

The era of a time gone by must be appreciated and the splendor of an acceptance of terrible solitude should be related with the simplicity that comes from a man who takes the truth and turns it into a song to keep going. It is not the wild mourning of people chained by racism who are impressed by the thoughts of freedom, but it should tell us that a man has greatness when he fights fear and is courageous in obscurity on dirt roads many of our forefathers endured. My father, Tom French, was not a failure but a loser. He lost as if he were a winner with grace and regretful pride.

Of course, this is about my father, a six-foot, four-inches of a man who died at 80 when I was but eleven-years old who never really understood the poverty of my existence. He spent his years cutting hair in a two-chair shop, shining shoes on the side and picking up extra change as a pool shark on a partitioned-off pool room that he owned.

But it really concerns me and on this Father’s Day, his memory stirs up recollections of my boyhood when the old men were going and their friends talked about them at midnight wakes with wit and savagery, the aged reserved for discussions of death.

To me, my father and those before him, became a symbol for his abused people. By his very decency those who now pretend to be fathers, pale in his shadow.

It does not make me any happier to know that because a man was a man in those terrible times, he had to kill another man to protect my mother’s honor and flee into the darkness of night to avoid being lynched.

And, it was some years later, while growing up in Kansas, did I learn my true name of Jim Perrett, not Jim French, for it was the surname of my father’s father white owners who brought them to these shores as slaves from France and settled in Laurens, S.C., where my grandfather is buried at Old Beaver Dam Baptist Church.

I mention these things because my father and his father is part of the mythology of this generation. During their time on this planet Earth, Black families in South Carolina were just beginning to unshackle themselves from the horrors of that terrifying institution called American Slavery. And they were trying to survive in a land devastated not only from war but also from the exploitation of cotton and tobacco cultivation. My grandfather Peter, and his wife Martha Perrett, must have been of strong character to have endured slavery, and this, their strength, their faith and love,they passed on to my father, Tom, and I hope to pass it on to my children.

My father was one of those beautiful Black men who refused to allow their degrading environment to disfigure their manhood. In all of the time when I was aware of his presence, this decent man never compromised his principles. It would benefit some fathers of today if they could have solicited his advice because no one in my time or before has been more of a force for good, despite the overwhelming obstacles of racism he opposed with the kind of tenacity uncommon in too many fathers of my acquaintance.

Tom French was a stern man and he entertained us by being protective of his six daughters and four sons. He was all the manhood who had gone before I was born and had been maimed by poverty in their childhood. There was wildness in Tom French and a curious tenement poetry, bitter and unuttered, as though the poet was ashamed of his blues.

There were many old men like him in my block but he was a sort of perfection of the kind. They were witty in a bitter way but what they said will not endure. Their talk was only right for that hour. There was mischief in my father, and pride and also violence, and he was a poor man and his last years were hard. He was dark-black, six -four and forever carried a pistol with an eight-inch barrel that protrude from the dark suit he always wore. He was a decent man, I never really knew or understood.

It would embarrass him to read that I thought of him as a poet. But he was, he was. There was an appreciation in him of beauty he never defined. It is in some old blues numbers that I often play in my private moments, that tells me that he and I lacked the ability to articulate feelings to one another.

As a boy growing up in Kansas during those most important formative years., I never really understood the man I saw occasionally and called “father,” not in love or habit but awkwardly and with some bewilderment. Since long ago having arrived at my maturity, and hopefully, having been able to have some insight into myself and those around me, I have arrived at some introspection into the man who was laid to rest when I?was still in my early teens.

Maybe now, after criss-crossing the world as a Navyman of twenty years, I now can understand the “emotional isolation” which plagued him and others, Black men, of his generation and of his time; Black men cut off from the mainstream by denial, limitations, and hopelessness.

Men who were born in the early part of this century, too early to reap the benefits of all the advantages, opportunities, and awareness which came belatedly to those of my generation and, fortunately, which will come to full blossom in the lives of my son and daughters.

Black men who had dreams, aspirations, and hopes which were turned into the most bitter frustrations because they were born into a system which looked upon them as the original “invisible men.”

These are things which turn and twist at the guts of some, which cause them to reject, cast away, and ultimately or eventually, lead them to their own destruction. Others, on the surface at least, can cope,survive, and pick and eke out an existence and some degree of happiness. But, the rising tide of mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, inbred bitterness and hatred among those who reside in the inner cities of our world emphasizes that even those who appear to be the healthiest and the happiest have cracks in the armor which need mending.

Even though we didn’t share the happy boy-father image you see on television, I did know my father well enough to know that he would be embarrassed if I gave you the impression that he was the “victim” of the social order in which he grew up; he would, in the profane and pragmatic way he had of living, brush it off and say in effect that he lived and died in the fashion he selected.

But, deep down inside, down in the secret corners, he’d have to admit that he would have changed things, if he could; he would have wanted it differently. but he couldn’t change the way it was, the way he was.

At his death, my father left little in worldly possessions or goods; a house mortgage, a small insurance policy which took care of burial expenses, hair clippers, razors which were the tools of his trade. Not much one might say for a man to have left on departing this existence? That’s not important, though, because each of us, in his own time and in his own way, must pass through the “valley of the shadow” alone with his own individual thoughts.

I was with my father when he died but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I’m sure as far as he was concerned; he wouldn’t have been able to say what I know must have been one of his great sadness, that of not really knowing the young son who admired, loved and respected him. I learned a lot about life from him and when he took in his last breath, I crept underneath our wood-framed house and cried quietly with my thoughts.

No, I never sang for Tom French, my father. But he sang for me. And I hope I sing for my son. And my daughters. Mercy.
 

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