Farewell to a Patriarch
My cousin, Oscar Charles Brown, died last night, almost exactly one month from his 89th birthday. I was the first to visit him on his birthday this year. He’d been admitted into the hospital that morning and I didn’t think he was going to make it, but he regained consciousness, laughed, and joked with me. I honestly believed he was out of the woods and would be with us longer.
Sonny Boy was my cousin, but he was much more like an uncle or grandfather figure to me. He was the keeper of the family history. He was 18 years older than my father, but lived with my father’s mother (Sonny Boy’s aunt) and father ever since he was a little boy because his mother died when he was only 4, and his father couldn’t raise him alone. Because he felt such enormous gratitude for being taken in, Sonny Boy was extremely devoted to family and treated all extended relatives like his own children. He helped raise my dad, whom the family calls Little Sonny. And as all of my grandparents were born at the turn of the century and have passed away long, long ago, Sonny Boy was indeed the patriarch of my father’s side of the family for many years.
Sonny Boy also spent several years in the United States military. And like me, he was an English major and a former English teacher. He was principal of the segregated high school in Winnfield, Louisiana, my hometown. Even as recently as last month, he had former students visiting and calling him.
Sonny Boy grew up in the segregated South at a time when being a black man, especially an educated, politically active, and opinionated one, was extraordinarily dangerous. Yet he remained a courageous man who always spoke his mind. But one thing Sonny Boy kept very, very quiet was a truth that I did not learn until I reached adulthood: Sonny Boy was also gay.
Sonny Boy’s sexuality, combined with his education and political activism, made him a threat to the power structure under which he lived, and therefore a target. They used his sexuality as a tool to run him out of education and out of town. He moved to Houston in the 1950s and lived with my great aunt Mama Lessie until her death and stayed on in her home with her daughter, Sister Baby (a Spanish teacher), until two years ago, when his health began to fail.
I never knew him to have a long-term partner, and he never had a family of his own. I often wanted to ask him about how that made him feel, about the loneliness he surely must have faced and the ostracism he endured. But I never had the courage to do so. The only time I came close to broaching the subject with him was when I read the news story about Annise Parker’s election as mayor aloud to him. I wanted him to understand the amazing progress that had been made in his lifetime.
This man, born in 1922, lived to see his country elect Barack Obama president and his city elect an openly gay mayor.
More than any other person, Sonny Boy instilled in me not only the importance and power of education, but a fervent, lifelong love of learning. When I met Alice Walker in 2002, I had her sign my only copy of The Color Purple and gave it to him as a gift. And till his dying day, he kept up a subscription to the Houston Chronicle and Rolling Stone magazine. (He was cool like that.)
I can never truly express what Sonny Boy has meant to me and to my family. He was a man who showed me unconditional love, respect, and devotion all my life. If he taught me anything, it’s that everyone deserves to love and be loved—unconditionally.
May he rest in peace knowing that he was loved—unconditionally and deeply—by those he leaves behind.