I bought a seersucker suit for Father’s Day, in honor of my Dad.

How can a seersucker suit honor your father?

I’ve always wanted a seersucker suit ever since Dad gave me my grandfather’s seersucker when I graduated from college. It didn’t fit (he was 38 Long, I’m 42 Long), but I felt honored, recognized its historical value, and have had it in my closet ever since.

My father’s father died before I could meet him; I was 3. But in many ways that suit tells me all I know about my grandfather. Maybe all I need to know, period.

William JohnsonMy grandfather.

Do you have something of your grandfather? Is it like owning a piece of history? Makes you part of history, right?

It says a lot about Dad that he had kept his father’s seersucker suit all that time, then gave it to me.

While I was searching for my own seersucker, I kept telling people that my grandfather wore one, and that my father gave it to me, and that I have it in my closet, and that I’ve always wanted one.

I’m proud of my grandfather.

I’m proud he was a Pullman Porter – a job that was coveted and respected in the black community but was also grueling and thankless, took men far away from their families.

I’m proud he was from Monroe, Louisiana before moving to Chicago in the 1910s. I’m proud that, although he was functionally illiterate, my grandfather was a dignified man who instilled strong values and virtues in his children, and who, on the South Side of Chicago during the height of the Depression, helped raise a proper family that included my Dad and eventually led to me.

I’m proud of my father, in turn, for overcoming the inherent internal and external obstacles and challenges of his neighborhood, for sidestepping drugs and alcohol and crime and gangs while sprinting back and forth from his tenement on South Prairie at East 43rd Street to DuSable High School in order to pursue and achieve a higher calling. I’m proud he won a varsity letter in track there, no doubt aided by his daily round trip sprint.

I’m proud of Dad for using his brains and wits – with no family precedent, no guidelines, no road map, and no instructions – to write his own ticket out of that ghetto.

Dad became the first in his entire family to earn a college degree, a heroic achievement for the son of a man who couldn’t read or write. “Get one o’ dose educations, son, dem books’ll bust yo’ head wide open!,” my grandfather urged, according to Dad.

Dad entered the Military Intelligence branch of the United States Army as a Russian translator before earning a Ph.D. and becoming college professor.

I’m proud he traveled to Europe and Africa with us as kids. I’m proud he was a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier covering the jazz scene in Vienna, where I was born, meeting people like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Josephine Baker along the way. I’m proud he created his own world. I’m proud he loved jazz enough to meet my mother in a jazz club in Germany. I’m proud I speak German because of my father’s linguistic and cultural curiosity and openness. I’m proud he was an interpreter at the Khrushchev-Kennedy debates during the height of the cold war. I’m proud we lived in the Belgian Congo while he was teaching at Lovanium University in Leopoldville during the height of that country’s fight for independence from colonialism. I’m proud he moved us to Boston during the height of the Northern brand of busing-induced racial hysteria in that city. I’m proud he taught at Boston College and lectured at Harvard Business School

I’m proud my Dad made history then.

Those books did bust his head wide open.

Charles JohnsonMy Dad.

When I went to pick up my seersucker suit at Brooks Brothers, I took my 3 little boys with me into the fitting room and told them about my grandfather as I was trying on the suit to double-check the tailoring. That’s when I realized my seersucker suit is a metaphor for handing down values and virtues from one generation to the next. Putting on my own seersucker means I’ve joined that tradition.

I’m glad my kids were there for that fitting room moment.

Dad, I was thinking of you. Happy Father’s Day!

I asked my Dad about that suit, and his own father. “I can see my father wearing his Seersucker Suit, such a gentleman, with almost new shoes, highly polished, a hard-brimmed straw hat, a smile and greeting to everyone,” says my Dad. “‘How are you?’ he’d ask, even of the doctor coming to examine him at the hospital.”

My grandfather died of prostate cancer, something that is preventable and treatable today. I have often wondered if my grandfather, like so many men of that old school era, chose to avoid the checkup until it was too late.

I never met my grandfather, and maybe that’s why I gravitate towards honoring our elders, men like 92-year-old Black Fives Era basketball star John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs. Aren’t we all obliged to do so? Isaacs, a longtime resident of the Bronx, was a Finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Though a Finalist, the committees voted “no” and he’s still waiting his turn.

Meanwhile, I’m proud to say that through my efforts, a sneaker company wrote a check to Mr. Isaacs for an amount that was more than all the money he had made in his entire professional basketball career.

Times have changed. But some things stay the same. Which reminds me, I need to ask “Mr. I” if he owns a seersucker.

I’m sure I’ll give my grandfather’s suit to my kids one day. They think my seersucker is way cool. My kids unanimously approve of my new suit, and they said I could wear it with sneakers, sandals, or flip-flops.

I hope they think my values and virtues are way cool too.

“My father is surely proud seeing you and your boys continuing that elegant tradition,” says my Dad. If you’re a son, there aren’t many higher honors than to hear something like that.

I think I’ll take that suit out on Father’s Day every year from now on.

It doesn’t matter how you do it. Honoring your proud past through your father and his father is a rich and fulfilling idea that makes history now.

(I wrote this last year, in June 2007, before I ever thought about starting The Black Fives Blog.)

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