Rest in Peace, Racist Uncle

Photo by Joy Real on Unsplash

My racist uncle passed away a few weeks ago. His twin addictions to nicotine and alcohol brought him to a slow, painful, and inevitable end.

His exit from this world was unmarked by fanfare or ceremony. Calls were made to family members to share the news and a few memories. His last wish that his remains be cremated without a service was almost respected, with only the barest of rituals observed to satisfy a couple of dissenting family members.

When I was a little boy, he had been my favorite uncle. Young and smart, he was always eager to play a children’s game or take his nephew to a movie. His wit was quick, displayed in word play and snappy comebacks. I saw him a lot because he helped my father out on the farm. I was always excited to see his truck pull up our long driveway.

When I got old enough to start school, even I could tell that my favorite uncle was having trouble finding his place in the world. He hopped from job to job, not always by his choice. To hear him tell it, he was always the most talented worker on every job site, but he could never stick anywhere for long.

I think my uncle was telling the truth about being the most talented worker everywhere he went, even though it was obvious that he was leaving out a few less flattering facts about his employment. To this day, I’ve never met a better mechanic than him. He could fix tractors, trucks, and farm equipment with little more than a box of wrenches. He was a talented carpenter, both for rough framing on the farm and finer finishing work. If a broken tool or toy could be mended at all, he could fix it.

He didn’t just build with wood and metal. He could create a story with words like no one I had met. His tales were so vivid that I could see the house he was building with a crew as a storm approached dark and low on the horizon, with my uncle bravely lashing the tarpaulin onto the open roof as the winds picked up and his coworkers fled. He wasn’t always the hero of his stories. Sometimes he spun yarns of fights over poker games and unfaithful women where he was quite clearly the villain. I loved him for his honesty.

There was something mean in him, though, something that he suppressed with his family but that would spring out at strangers. You could be having a great time with him after some silly movie, but then he would lash out at a poor kid who screwed up his ice cream cone after the show.

One day, when I was approaching junior high, my favorite uncle was between jobs and helping out on the farm like usual. We were repairing hog houses, since pigs are hell on lumber. Being familiar with the hogs from my daily chores feeding them, as we began our work I warned him about which animals were aggressive. I thought nothing of telling him that the black hog in a particular pen was dangerous, because it was, but that was the opening for a whole new sort of story from my favorite uncle.

He advised me that people were a lot like pigs. You have to watch the black ones. Then he gave very lengthy and specific advice on the topic. I guess he thought I was old enough to hear his twisted idea of truth.

My uncle’s racist story left me confused about the man I adored so much. With his racist admonition fresh in my mind, I realized that in his fabulous stories his antagonists were rarely white, but his allies always were. I had never noticed that before. Even in the stories where he was clearly admitting to be in the wrong, there was usually something in the tale about who he could rely on and who he couldn’t — and the color of their skin — that I hadn’t noticed before. The stories I had loved to hear from my favorite uncle weren’t just dramas and comedies from his life. They were little homilies about racial identity. It was quite a revelation to me.

I chose to spend less time with my formerly favorite uncle after that discussion in the pig pen. In my sprawling hillbilly family I couldn’t avoid him entirely, but I didn’t want to hear his stories anymore. He could still hold other people spellbound with his yarns of deceit and adventure, but I resisted his charisma.

Over the years the gaps between jobs grew longer and longer for my uncle. He withdrew deep into booze and cigarettes, which as best as I could tell were the only solace he found in this world. His mean streak grew and eventually estranged most of his family members. Even after the lung cancer diagnosis, he saw no reason to quit smoking. He was eager to get to his end.

My racist uncle retained a bit of his old charm to the very end. The last time I saw him, I knew that both of his lungs and his liver were failing him. Yet his eyes burned bright in his emaciated face, and his voice was warm as he asked about my life and gave me advice that I have since declined to take. I remembered then why I used to love him so much that day. I felt a little sorry for him.

I don’t know what drove my uncle to hate anymore than I know what drove him to drink and smoke himself to death, but I like to think it was the same thing. It’s comforting to believe that hating others comes with hating yourself, but I don’t know if that’s true. When I see the all too frequent news reports of racist violence, I wonder if those evil men were driven by the same forces that embittered my uncle and slowly ended his life. It’s easy for woke progressives to shake our heads and wonder how anyone could believe such horrible things about people only superficially different than them, but when I hear of racists winning converts I understand how charming a man with evil in his heart can be.

I hope that my racist uncle finds peace in whatever came next for him. I don’t think I learned what he wanted me to from him, but he taught me something important all the same.



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