Striving to walk in the giant footsteps of Baba Chuck – Pierce Freelon

Pierce Freelon
Pierce Freelon

I walked into Baba’s house, and took off my shoes. Tip-toed past his Yoruba shrine and African sculptures, into his bedroom where I was surprised to see Ivy underneath him. Literally underneath him, supporting his lower back with her body. She was sprawled out on her belly – a breathing pillow – smiling as she rested her chin in the palms of her hands.

It reminded me of the story of Queen Nzinga, queen of the Ndongo people of modern-day Angola. Legend states that the Portuguese attempted to insult Nzinga during an intense negotiation, by not offering her a seat at the table. They expected her to sit on a mat, on the floor. So she ordered a servant to the ground, so she could sit on his back.

This gesture of power surprised the Portuguese, and I always thought of it as an exhibition of privilege: Nzinga flexing her strength, in a situation where the Europeans were attempting to undermine her as an equal. But here, now, my perception has forever shifted. After witnessing Baba Chuck – our very own Royal Elder without a comfortable place to sit – propped up on Ivy’s back, as a gesture of unconditional love; I wonder if Nzinga’s “servant” could have been a member of her family, humbling themselves, to honor their elder. Our Babas, our Queens, deserve a seat at the table. A place to sit comfortably, with dignity. If that means my flesh becomes your chair, then we will fold our bodies to accommodate you – because we love you and we honor you.

The scent of sage tinged the air. Baba Chuck basked in the soft glow of the television. The Food Network flickered, at a low volume. The thermostat was set on Senegal. It was hot but Baba chilling: being held by five women. One woman held each hand, one held each foot, and Ivy’s body propped him up. She was his backbone. His eyes were closed, and he was mostly non-verbal. He could squeeze, and shift and hum, and tilt his head. He seemed very present, very aware of his surroundings, but he seemed to be struggling to call his body to action. Every few minutes he would jostle, or stretch his hands out, or gesture slightly, indicating to us that he was uncomfortable. That he either wanted to sit up or lay down. To stretch his legs, or roll over on his side. And it took several people to maneuver him. We used our collective strength to make him as comfortable as we possibly could. And so he led us in his final choreography.

When I had heard that Baba Chuck would be transitioning soon, I immediately went to his house. I was coming unannounced, and I didn’t want to intrude so I sat on his porch swing, and swayed in the evening breeze. I could hear folks rustling in the house, and tried to stay quiet. Next to me on the bench was a sign that read “peace.” It reminded me of Baba Chuck’s quote: Peace. Love. Respect: For Everybody.

And it occurred to me that, if I ever become mayor, this mantra will come with me. The halls of city council should ring with these words of wisdom as a matter of practice and invocation. As an homage to the ancestors, and as a mandate to members of city council, to uphold the principles of Durham, as dictated over and over again by our patriarch, our elder our sage and our father Baba Chuck. I told this story to the brothers in the room, with passion and vigor as I gripped Baba Chuck’s hand. He squeezed my palm, managed to open his eyes, and he spoke the last words I heard from him:

“Oh My Goodness.”

Can you hear him? I can, even now, as I type on my phone between splashes of salt water. I can hear him, and feel him. Ashe.

Baba Chuck transitioned a few hours later, on Mother’s Day. Of course, he did! He had to make a big splash on a holiday that we’ll never forget. Just like his birthday: New Years Day. He always had way of making holidays even more Holy and he’s done it again. And Mother’s Day makes complete sense for his grand exit from this plane. His massive energy is nurturing, like my mother’s, and grandmother’s. He was ambidextrous, fluidly wielding the cosmic feminine and masculine energies, like a wizard. Matriarch. Patriarch. Elder. Baba Diva. Pan-African Sorcerer.

He is my mentor. I strive to walk in his giant footsteps. To carry the torch of his spirit so future generations can bask in the light of our ancestors. Their collective wisdom, love, art and vibration. What an honor it was, to be his chair. To use our physical bodies to make him more comfortable as he ascended to a higher plane. We lifted him, each of us, one tug, pull, twist, roll, laugh, tear, squeeze, kiss and prayer at a time. We lifted him. The same way he lifted us on his back. Grandfather Baba, cosmic elder, mentor to so many. Challenger-inspirer. Change shaper. Truth seeker. Thank you. You’ve done the work you were put on this Earth to do and we thank you for it. Give thanks. Peace, Love, Respect: For Everybody.