In my family’s version, an unprovoked black boy (black is important, they always mention that part) murdered my grandfather in cold blood on the streets of New Orleans.
In the newspapers’ versions, my grandfather is a “tourist,” a “kind, business man,” definitely white.
In State v. Marshall, Joseph Marshall, the 16 year old boy who shot and killed my grandfather, appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court to have his death penalty overturned. The brief states that my grandfather was held up after he and two friends wandered into the Iberville housing project. When Marshall demanded, at gunpoint, his wallet, my grandfather “refused to comply.”
Give me your wallet, says Marshall.
No, says my grandfather.
According to the Supreme Court appeal, Marshall pulls the trigger then but his weapon misfires.
Get out of here, says my grandfather, and throws a punch. A swing and a miss. Maybe we wants to protect his friends. Maybe he wants to get back to the saxophone and the étouffée.
Whack, says the second bullet as it rips through his chest. Snuff, goes the brief flicker of his life.
In the Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter, witnesses report that what my grandfather actually said was Come on kid, you’re apparently a good kid, and that’s a toy gun. Leave it alone. No punch. No noncompliance.
On more sober days, I believe, not the newspapers, not my family, but the legal document. Which is to say, I believe the murderer. First of all, recent history tells us that the chances of a white man believing the gun in a black boy’s hands is a toy gun are negligible even now. And if my family’s lore holds water, my grandfather never backed down from a confrontation in his life, not even at the dinner table. Not even with his own children. A tall, burly barrel of a man, whip-smart, he inspired equal parts fear and adoration.
My grandfather’s killing and the “justice” that followed is a story about race, about class, about violence and injustice. A wholly American story. His murder helped catalyze a crackdown on crime among New Orleans’ poor, black population in the 1980s that ravished the city and coincided with Reagan’s War on Drugs. It’s a crime story prime for the picking for a writer looking to pitch a hungry agent or editor. I’ve never touched it, at least not until now, because I suspect an honest exploration into the details might unravel the “truth” less than it might unravel my relationship with my family. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between all these versions of events. My grandfather was not a tourist, for example, not exactly. He was in New Orleans for a conference and to accept a business award. And even if he “failed to comply” with a mugger’s demand for his money, he didn’t deserve to die. The teenage boy that killed him may have been an awful person, a lowlife, a sociopath. But the truth is messy, too messy for the black-and-white logic of a gun.
I’m coming clean now for a different reason. Tomorrow is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and I’m making you aware. When I speak about guns, my grandfather’s murder at the hands of a gun lends me some authority many other people don’t have when they mouth off about the Second Amendment. I’m making you aware because in the last few weeks my city–a swampy stone’s throw from New Orleans–has been beset with stories of brave vigilantes who stood their ground against gun-wielding criminals.
I abhor guns. There are people who would say that if my grandfather had had a gun on that fateful, muggy night, he’d still be alive. They are the same people who laud a League City man who last month shot and killed a mugger who approached him and his young son at a McDonald’s. He’s lucky. Statistics say he’s more likely to have gotten his son killed. And just this week Fox News called an untrained, self-appointed warden of his neighbors a “Good Samaritan” for pulling his gun on an active shooter in West Houston. The police shot the Samaritan, because they thought he was an active shooter too. They were right, actually. He was actively shooting. He too had a young son at home, a young son who almost lost his father to an inflated ego, at worst, and a dopey, illogical hero complex, at best.
Tomorrow, like other concerned citizens, I won’t strap a gun to my hip or ankle or shove one into my purse or behind my driver’s seat or under my bed. I’ll wear orange to honor Max A. Minnig, my grandfather. His bigness and his belligerence. His nine children, twenty-something grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, his great-great grandchildren, many of whom disagree with my position on guns. I’ll wear orange especially for his daughter, my mother, a woman deserving of more love and time than she ever received from her parents and now won’t ever receive. I’ll try to triage that hole with my love.
I wish my grandfather didn’t die that night in the underbelly of the French Quarter. But listen to me when I tell you: I don’t wish he had a gun.
I wish no one had a gun.
I wish people didn’t live in housing projects.
I wish people weren’t so feeble of spirit or imagination.
I wish we understood more fully what one of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, wrote when he finally gave up his guns to sit on “the frighteningly invisible palm of God.”
I wish we’d do something with the economic and eleemosynary resources we Americans have that so recommend us to solve the gun violence epidemic.
I wish that death could never be a punishment. Life either.
I wish he’d handed that lost boy his wallet.
One thought on “Sermon for my Grandfather: A Gun Story”
I think writing about our families, particularly when we don’t fall in lock-step with them, is an extraordinary act of courage. But as much as we have an obligation to act with compassion toward our relations, we also have an obligation to be honest to ourselves and to our truths. This is a worthwhile essay. Life hurts sometimes; there’s no getting around that. But you have created meaning out of it, multiple layers of it, and that is good.