Living Tribute

For a minute, it felt like a reality show called Physical Therapy with The Harris Siblings.  Big Brother Glenn was answering questions from his new Physical Therapist. I was listening to her intake interview with him, but I was distracted as Big Brother Ron quietly cracked jokes and Little Sister Anna talked waayyyy too loudly on the phone until I gently waved her quiet.

It would have been exasperating if we all weren’t so nervous and hopeful and if our family didn’t have the same ability to laugh and concentrate at the same time.

Over the next few weeks, we learned that the Physical Therapist was tough enough for Glenn and able to tap into his competitive temperament. As I attended several sessions, she had the former athlete and DC Hall of Fame broadcaster pushing past discomfort to increase his mobility. She had him walking across the room and climbing stairs. And practicing on his own during off days.

I was inspired by Big Brother Glenn – almost as much as I was worried about him before coming to DC for my April-June Nicholson Project residency, my reunion with the extended fam, and my reunion with Glenn after his most recent stroke.  

In 2005, Ron and a community committee produced a ‘Living Tribute’ to Glenn at the Blackburn Center at Howard University. Praise. Flowers. Roast. Affirmation. Electricity in the air as we uplifted a DC Native Son. I told Ron the Living Tribute was a model that should be used for other worthy recipients.

To date, Glenn is the first and only recipient of one of Ron’s Living Tributes, but I’ve kept alive in my spirit the notion that in our lives we must remain ready to ID folks deserving of their own Living Tributes. And we must organize and produce such Praise Events whatever their character or size while folks are still breathing and can savor their dap.

‘What the fuck Mo!’

The young brother yelled at the bus driver, who had accelerated so fast that I stumbled and almost fall.

‘Driving off so fast you almost had OG flying!’

I regained my balance and found a seat. I was touched that Homeboy had looked out for me in such a publicly profane way, setting the ethical framework for all to hear.

‘Yeah and I didn’t wear my wings!’ I said nervously.

Homeboy wasn’t having sentimentality. He just nodded at me and stepped down the aisle to his own seat. I didn’t look back at him when I disembarked at the Potomac Metro station.

Consider this shoutout a Living Tribute to my anonymous Southeast DC knight in shining armor!

I’m the guy who looks to the rainbow in my family. Who laughs. Gets serious. Actually wants to know the grown nieces and nephews and their children. Who can dive into deep waters of family history. Who can discuss what would ordinarily be taboos.

Like Al Jarreau, I convert emotions into music and know when to listen, when to critique a long-ago decision, even my own, in order to atone or sift lessons. Who can graciously be on the receiving end of my sister Anna’s stinging recollections of me wearing my various polyester ensembles during my adolescence. Who can lament with each of us as we tell sacred stories about Ma, who died in 1984 and is still the deepest crater in all our lives.

I walk the lines between brooding and meditation, between paralyzing sadness and liberating knowing that we were raised, I mean RAISED, by flawed but heroic parents who TRULY wanted us to do the right thing as Living Ambassadors to their best aspirations for us! Who wanted us to be Living Tributes to them and to each other, understanding that family is a lifelong set of shifting experiences and vows and opportunities to renew dedication to one another.  

Sit with our oldest brother in silence b/c he chooses not to speak b/c he doesn’t trust himself to speak clearly after strokes, b/c he unfairly compares himself to a 40-year Hall of Fame career of improvising Sports Talk.

Ride shotgun with Ron to his grandson’s graduation from middle school, enrolling in a congregation of DC residents of all cultural backgrounds but grounded by the magnificent Black families roaring their joy out to their loved ones throughout the ceremony, only to have the entire gogo end with the students marching out the auditorium to the timeless Frankie Beverly singing  We Are One!

Living Tribute. Give it up now to our loved ones!

Muster all the family courage to wreak happiness, to excavate the memories that make us hold our heads to the sky.

Continue to make eye contact, to slow your roll if age has slowed one of us physically or mentally, listen to the same stories, the classic songs, and learn anew, learn to renew, get current as possible and bring all drama and trauma into the healing present and sing along with Frankie when he and Maze as they harmonize: I wanna thank you, uttering the heroic gratitude that helps us transform lingering pettiness then transcend it into actual LIVES, lives that can be, for sure, complex, funky, irritating, or downright exhausting, that make our guardians and ancestors proud!

Would you sing for me?

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “….  These are the kinds of memories that form the elemental layers of mythology. And frankly, the more I think about it, they are real insulation for my daily and symbolic life as a brother dedicated to living humanely. In a world where I can become the boogey man in a minute — fingered out the mouths of murderers from suburban Boston to rural South Carolina — elevating my personal memories into instructive mythology might just keep me sane or calm enough to speak the magic words of self preservation when I find myself in the center of a police flashlight, or dying while the opening credits roll, or even facing down another young brother whose brain is on cultural vapor lock. As I add layers to my mythology — improvising on the keys to better living, gleaning the secrets I’ve learned from the let’s get it on of my life — my confidence grows. I join with other men seeking to keep on keeping on. We swap our tales of families that coped, of love that lasted, of urban lives built on rural gumption, until a common body of insight simmers, ready for freddy with a language as natural as Smokey’s “Tracks of My Tears,” a wisdom as familiar as Richard Pryor’s Mudbone stories, and a mutual ownership as gracious as the standing dinner invitation of a favorite aunt and uncle.This is the mythology we save because of self-love. It ain’t no joke and, quiet as it’s kept, it ain’t no myth .…”

9 thoughts on “Living Tribute”

  1. Another “Dope ass” post, Bruh Peter Harris. Big Bruh. I am still high on fuel after a great summer here in DC with your visit and then some more events that came this way. DC is hanging tough. Is your daughter flying the friendly skies yet?

  2. My Dear Brother Peter, my soul sings a constant song for you, spiraling, ebbing, flowing, replete with the substance of resilience and surrender to the mystery, the darkness from which all light comes.

  3. It’s been such a quick, quick while ago since I was first introduced to you and your work, Brother Peter. When you and Carla were handed the batons as Altadena poets laureate. You have enriched my world and I pray for you all the best.

  4. ..get current as possible and bring all drama and trauma into the healing present.. I love this. Peter the helmsman with one eye on infinity, reading the current, following the current, slipping through the picket fences. Thank you and blessings on your fantastic journey.

  5. You-a-TRUE -DOO-WOP BRUHva in harmony witcho SELF, in CLASSIC, PETER J-ness STYLE!
    I appreciaLOVE the WAYS you MOVE in this here ‘healing dance”…
    This a Master Class fuh SHO, and the LOTUS FEET BE YO!
    And YO-to-tha-RAINBOW!
    i bow down.

    ALL JOY,

  6. My Dear and Lovely Peter J.,
    Thank you for your sure and powerful boundaries of dandelions and sunflowers- the depth, gentleness, and height I’ve always experienced upon our encounters whether face-to-face or just being somewhere near your presence. I see you. The great love emanating from you- the kind without fear, without hesitation but the kind that is all-embracing. ‘in your face’ kind of loving like a ‘forehead kiss’.

    I love you Peter J.



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