This piece was originally posted on blerdology.co with the title “What a ‘blerd’ must not forget”.
I was sitting down to write about the stress and strain of working toward the completion of my PhD program when I began to daydream about my great grandfather. In my recollection, I found a more important sentiment to communicate.
I was almost seventeen and I was thinking that I was grown. I had been in a summer program at what would become my alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University. I was living on campus with more freedom than I had ever experienced before. I was excited about starting my senior year in high school. Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” was my theme song. As I would tell others back then, like Aaliyah, I was exploring more of my womanhood. I doubt that I need to say more for anyone to be able to ascertain my mindset at the time. I was a full on teenage know-it-all.
A small group of students in the summer program were invited to go on a trip to the mountains of North Carolina for a few days; I was one of those students. The dates of this trip were to coincide with my seventeenth birthday. I HAD TO GO. My mother gave her permission verbally. However, the powers that were needed my mother’s signature and my mother was out of state. What was I supposed to do???
I fervently and dramatically pleaded with the program directors to cut me some slack because my womanhood and me needed that extra freedom. They finally agreed to allow an adult to sign in my mother’s proxy. My nineteen-year old big brother was on campus as a student. He was an over 18, legal adult, however, he did not meet their criteria as proxy to my mother. I PANICKED! Then I remembered my 87-year old great grandfather lived 30 minutes down the road from campus.
I think that now is an appropriate time to begin to briefly describe my relationship with this man. My great grandfather, PopPop, was that person in my life who thought that I could do no wrong. My mother says still today that I was the sun in his universe. His motto was “if I got a penny, you got a penny”. He was an altogether loving man. Basically, as long as I would be safe and taken care of, he would go through hell and high water to make sure I could go on that trip that I wanted to go on so badly. And on that day, hell and high water meant he was making his way to me.
The last minute decision of the program directors had me waiting for my PopPop’s arrival just as we were supposed to leave for the mountains. My great grandfather was living about 30 minutes from the university at that time, but the two hours it took from the time he left his home until the time he arrived at the office gave me heart palpitations. I could expect him to get there, but I could not expect him to rush.
My PopPop pulled up in his burgundy boat of a car. As was common, the young men in my group were enamored by his cool. PopPop would wear some version of his work clothes almost all of the time: navy work pants, a blue collared button up, work boots, and a blue baseball cap that was dimpled in the top and slightly leaning to the side. My PopPop would give a nod of his head as he smiled and said “HEY Scoodaroomp!!” (His pet name for me was more of a sound than a word). “Hello, hello. What do you know?” They laughed at me then went back to being enamored. They commented on his pork chop beard (a thin closely edged-up line of hair connected his sideburns to his mustache) and his tinted glasses. He was a kind of cool that most people did not know how to be. It was just who my PopPop was; he was kind, loving, and cool.
My grown self was ready to hit the road, and I had never paid so much attention to my PopPop as he wrote in any instance before this one. This time I was pressed. And being pressed made me concentrate on every curve of every letter that he wrote. I noticed that he was having trouble and seemed frustrated with himself.
“Thank you. I love you, PopPop,” I said as I kissed his cheek. “I love you, too, Sweet,” he returned, in what was our usual refrain.
I cannot remember how much time had passed before I sat down and talked to my PopPop about it, but the moment did come when I could no longer resist asking. “I only went to the second grade” he responded. At seventeen and a high school senior, I could not understand that concept. How did he stop school at seven years of age? Had I heard stories of the vast disparities in the education of black folk? Yes. Had I known about court cases revolving around education equality and people of color? Yes. In all that I had known, I still was not able to conceive of my kind, loving, and cool PopPop’s formal education ending at the second grade. I revered him no less from the moment forward. I never felt sorry for my PopPop after that.
As we talked, I began to absorb the reality of my PopPop’s education and realized that the times, indeed, had changed. In the 1910s, when he was a child, the education of black children was an openly separate issue from the education of white children and was far less of a priority. When I was seventeen, it was illegal for a child under the age of sixteen to not go to school. When my older brother reached the legal age to work, he was in high school. He could only work after school and for limited hours. For my PopPop, it was getting a couple of years of schooling then spending your life working.
In listening to my PopPop, I got a better idea about why my great grandfather helped his children, his children’s children, his children’s children’s children, and a wealth of other family members earn degrees. He worked in manual labor and became a master of his trade. He was the first to arrive on the job and the last to leave. His family was what he had worked for and when someone wanted to go get a degree, it was the same as if they needed clothes or food; if he had a penny, we had a penny.
Although, he passed the December before I earned my bachelor’s degree, my PopPop’s pennies did a lot to get me across that stage in my cap and gown. Earning that bachelor’s degree led to my earning a master’s and, soon now, a PhD. For eighty years, he worked and he watched his children, grand children, and great grandchildren become, by most labels, smarter than he was. I never encountered anything from him other than pride in that fact. And he never took credit for any of it.
Blerds are blerds for many different reasons. We self-identify based on individual criteria, but we come together around a singular identity. We are creatives, intellectuals, and seekers. We are the products of discipline and discovery by our own hands. As we work toward our dreams, we navigate obstacles dealing with our color, our genders, and many other aspects of who we are. We invest in ourselves and we hone our skills. We individually and collectively have a story. But our prequels are the lives of people like my great grandfather.
My mother’s favorite Adinkra symbol is the sankofa bird. One sentiment that this symbol embodies is that “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
My one charge to us blerds is that we continuously recollect the memories of our loved ones who poured endlessly into our lives. I charge us to remember that we are also the products of diligence and sacrifice by the hands of others. As we gain the confidence to unashamedly be who we are, we must also retain the humility and respect for those who loved us to and through our journeys