I have been going through a box of family memorabilia — photographs, invoices, paid and unpaid, documents, certificates… and letters. Lots of letters. Some insignificant, many illegible, many whose relevance has been lost in the intervening years. And here and there I find letters that startle or shock, that move me for their sincerity, urgency, compassion.
I found a letter written by my favorite uncle Neil to Harry and Peggy, my parents, in 1960. It was written from what was then Rhodesia, where he had made his home. He still identified himself as a “European” while his children, he wrote, were Rhodesian in every way. It was their home. They could not imagine any other. My uncle Neil was a handsome, carefree chap, as I knew him. He was reputed in the family to be a bit of a rogue. Perhaps this was why he was the favorite uncle of a boy growing up in the restrained circumstance of an English country village and a boy’s boarding school. He was—gasp!—divorced from his first wife, and had remarried. When he came home to England to visit on occasion, he stood out from the rest of us pale islanders with a face tanned by the African sun and a big, sunny grin that was a rare sight in the crowd of English faces rendered dour not only by the proximity of war but also the inclement weather. He seemed, to this little boy, a joyful, liberated as well as a libertine presence in our midst.
Here’s my favorite memory of my favorite uncle. I was at “prep” school—a boarding school for boys between seven and twelve years old. Always a bit shy, never a good mixer, I felt like a prisoner in that big old Victorian mansion that housed us. I was did not know, I’m sure, what I longed for, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was freedom. We were there for three terms every year, autumn, spring and summer, and those terms seemed, well… interminable. If we were lucky, our parents might come down at half term to “take us out.” My own parents, Mummy and Daddy, would come down once in a very rare while and take a room at a little local hotel, and fetch me from school to spend an afternoon with them there in the hotel’s green garden. If the sun shone, we could sit outside and indulge in the rarest of treats, strawberries and cream. With a dash of white sugar for crunch on the top. I can taste them still.
Imagine my delight, then, to hear that my favorite uncle was stopping by to “take me out”! Imagine the awe, the sheer joy of this little boy in his gray school uniform, when his favorite uncle sped up the long drive in a sporty convertible. (And imagine the envy he knew would be inspired in the heart of every other little boy!) I climbed into the car beside him, prouder than I had ever been in all my young years, and together we drove off, just the two of us, top down, in bright Sussex sunshine. We meandered for a while along country roads, as I recalls, with the gentle slopes of the Downs rising on either side. We may have stopped somewhere for tea and biscuits or cake. But the best still awaited…
Long before motorways were even dreamed of, there was the new-fangled miracle, here and there in England, of the “dual carriageway”—modeled, surely, though it pains me to say it, on the “Autobahns” built in Germany in the 1930s—wide open roads with one-way traffic headed in opposite directions on each side, with a grass border in between. It happened there was one near my school, just a few spanking new miles with virtually no other vehicle to be seen. My uncle Neil’s blue eyes gleamed. He put his foot down on the accelerator and the convertible sped up. He turned and gave me a big grin (am I wrong in remembering a colorful scarf at his neck, flying out in the wind?) and shoved his foot down still further. Pretty soon we were going faster than I’d ever driven before, faster than my father had ever dared to drive, faster than I ever thought possible. Seventy, eighty miles an hour… Thrilled, terrified (there were no seat belts in those days) I watch the needle on the speedometer. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred miles an hour! A hundred miles an hour! And my uncle grinning in triumph, showing off, yes, but enjoying the thrill he was giving his little nephew. Pretty soon, he had to ease off the accelerator, slow down, and drive more sedately as we approached the end of that short stretch of road.
So, yes, here was an uncle I could be proud of! Here was a story I could take back to everyone at school, to amaze and rouse their envy.
I read that letter he wrote to my parents. It was written, of course, at a time when the old British colonies were increasingly under pressure from the rebellion of African nationalists. Old colonials, like my uncle, were rooted in old notions—like the inferiority of black people to the Europeans come to elevate them from their savagery and respect and political power to which they were entitled. His letter—a long and impassioned one—expressed his outrage at the British government for abandoning its responsibility to support the old Empire; and his understanding, even love for the African people who, he wrote, must be assured that a promise—be it a thrashing (his word, my favorite uncle’s) or a gift—must be kept. The indigenous Rhodesians, in this widely-held view, were simple-minded children who, if given their freedom, would soon resort to the barbarity of their nature. He looked to the Congo, then in great turmoil, for evidence for his fears.
At some deep and conveniently hidden place in my consciousness, I am aware that I carry my share of this white man’s heritage. I know that this shameful and unjustified prejudice and fear of the “other” continues to pervade our culture here in America today, in forms subtle and not-so-subtle. The “great replacement” theory that drives some of the darkest behavior in our social and political action today is nothing more than an expression of that prejudice, that fear. It is my work, and the work of everyone with anyone blessed with a human conscience and a sense of what is right, to put this inhumanity of the past behind us. I like to think that my favorite uncle, had he lived on until today, would have wished for no less.