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  • Foreword:The Prodigal Son
  • Aisha Karefa-Smart (bio)

Whenever Uncle Jimmy came home to visit (home being 137 West Seventy-first Street), my grandmother would smile widely and say: “Well, the prodigal son has returned!” I loved it when Uncle Jimmy came home. The energy and vitality at 137 elevated to a fever pitch as soon as he hit the door. Even before he arrived, the house was set ablaze with excitement and anticipation just by the mention of his name. The refrain, “Jimmy’s coming!” could be heard all throughout the house as my grandmother, my Aunt Paula, and my mother Gloria would run up and down the stairs of the small, white-brick, four-story apartment building, preparing for the onslaught of visitors. Our family occupied half the building that my uncle purchased on the Upper West Side, and our poor neighbors, who had been used to a quiet life prior to the purchase of the building and my family’s arrival from Harlem, occupied the other half. The neighbors had to contend with the noise and the revelry that often occurred, even when Uncle Jimmy was away. Poor Mr. Kaplan from the first floor would scream at the top of his lungs for us to quiet down. But we never did. And with Uncle Jimmy coming, I felt for him, because his screams for silence would be drowned out by the joy and celebration of a multitude of aunts, uncles, cousins, fellow writers, and comrades in the struggle. Sometimes strangers would simply follow Uncle Jimmy home to 137 from whatever speaking engagement or appearance he had.

Uncle Jimmy’s being home meant that a throng of extraordinary people would stop by to pay homage and to simply be in his presence. The word spread like wild-fire; it was as if a telegram, a village drumbeat, or a trumpet fanfare announced his arrival. Somehow folks just knew: Jimmy was home.

For days on end, a continuous stream of folk from all walks of life would stream through the house bearing gifts, food, and stories about their triumphs, trials, and tribulations. People bore witness to my uncle, sometimes crying tears of deep gratitude, explaining the impact his work had on them. How his writing had saved their lives, or had given them the courage to come out to their family.

One of the best treats that came along with Uncle Jimmy being home was that there was a variety of delicious and exotic food being prepared: African, Caribbean, as well as traditional down-home Southern cuisine; plenty of libations (whiskey was Uncle Jimmy’s favorite); and a mixture of music. Anything from gospel to Motown, R&B, and Nina Simone could be heard blaring from our old, staticky stereo speakers. And of course, there was a crowd of beautiful men of all colors, shapes, and sizes, who all followed my uncle around like he was their guru. And he was.

My uncle’s sexuality was never openly discussed at home, but I remember knowing that my uncle Jimmy was different from my uncle David, whom white women followed around like he had a cure for all of their ills; or my uncle “Lover,” who obviously had quite the reputation of being a ladies’ man because I never knew him by any other name; or my uncle George, who despite his quiet, shy demeanor, always looked dapper in his usual suit and tie, like he had just stepped off the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly. Uncle Jimmy, on the other hand, simply had a way about him—an elegance and grace that was not normally associated with men. I watched with great awe and curiosity at the way he held his cigarette and let it dangle ever so delicately (he almost always had a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Scotch on the rocks in the other); carried his stylish man-purse made of expensive European leather; [End Page 559] and wore on his left pinky a ring with a huge green stone. These were all telltale signs for me that uncle Jimmy was gay. Nevertheless, Uncle Jimmy and all of his friends, a mixture of artists...


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pp. 559-561
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