An occasion for tears, humour and unfinished business


The funeral of Dudley Zacharias Laws, like the narratives of simplicity and complexity inter-weaving the tapestry of his life, was an occasion for tears, humour, exhilaration … and unfinished business.

Thus, how else to recall the exhilarating musical tribute in Jay Douglas’ performing Leonard Cohen’s, ‘Hallelujah’! Not only did Jay take the vast stage of sitting dignitaries and standing bouquets in the palm of his hands; not only did he energize lyrical phrase and musical phrasings, he also overwhelmed and overflowed the grateful hearts and joyous spirits of attendees.

My spouse, Joan, long-suffering during four decades of marriage (referred to by her – jokingly I’m sure – as 43 years in Egypt), usually reserved in expressing emotions publicly, was on her feet, hands aloft, voice rejoicing and eyes brimming along with Jay.

Also, my going outside, apologizing my way through throngs of standing mourners to periodically check out where I’d parked to avoid being towed, found the police friendly, cooperative, mostly Black and, as Pathfinders at a Jamboree Camp fire, eagerly recalling tales.

For example, during a rush-hour rally outside Police Headquarters at College and Yonge Streets, with streetcars jammed all the way to University Ave., the despairing police requested and received Dudley’s help. The streetcars, as the police reminded him, had working-class mothers with children in daycare, awaiting. Another story was about one of Dudley and Charlie’s many forced marches. After rallying for several interminable hours at City Hall, surprising the attending police detachment, they decided to take the demonstration uptown to 41 Division on Eglinton Avenue. On foot. Some 15 kilometers away. In February!

In addition, no permit for the rally had been issued – none had been applied for – and the police were busy trying to get a BADC member to sign the forms. In further reference to the police brass, one wit observed that Dudley’s sense of humour accompanied him in death, with his burial site permanently located in the Vaughn riding of recently elected Federal MP, Julian Fantino, a former chief of the Toronto police.

On another point, several speakers referred to Dudley as being a freedom fighter. And which he was. However, while people would normally choose, for example, to be a carpenter, an architect, a teacher, a CEO in some pharmaceutical company testing products in Africa, no one chooses to be a freedom fighter.

It’s an unnatural choice. Life that is sensible goes with the flow; sits on the fence; takes the glory without being muddied or bruised. Becoming a freedom fighter is taken only by those insanely in tough-love with community, and unknowingly seduced by Justice.

In fact, no one ever chooses to pursue Justice; no, not that Task-Mistress: exacting, uncompromising, unforgiving, and unrequiting. She chooses you!

You either surrender or resist. Resisting, one’s life no matter how fulfilled is still left in shallows and on shore. Surrendering, one must become companion to storms and deeps; to isolations, self-doubt and calumny.

Justice as a cause, is divine, a spiritual journey in which, ahead stretches a long road, at the end of which is a junction beginning yet another long road. Because every oppressed generation either finds defenders of its ideals or serves the interests of others.

It is as if the Creator determined that every human being is born with the responsibility and capability, preferably for good, to change the world; that is, anywhere one’s shadow falls, and one’s influence is felt.

One example of this is the U.S. Civil Rights movement. It arrived, not as policy decided in the esteemed ranks of academics and public officials, but rotting in the swamps of the Tallahatchie River in the racist state of Mississippi (1955). Emmet Till, a 14 year-old Black boy visiting from Chicago, had been accused of winking earlier at a White woman. Kidnapped and murdered, his brutalized body, despite pleas from the Governor to his mother not to, was later shown in an open coffin for the world to view.

One young Baptist preacher, fresh out of Seminary, son of an established, respected preacher and with a promising career saw Emmet Till’s body. It changed the trajectory of the life of this young preacher, who in 1968, 13 years later, and still in his thirties, would also be assassinated: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Therefore, when Pastor Audley James issued an alter-call ‘for Justice'; a call for youth in the congregation; youth under the age of 35 and therefore BADC babies, and they responded en masse, filling the front and the nave and aisles they were also responding to a redemptive force that in its eternal quest, takes no prisoners, leaves only cold comfort, demands sacrifice, but imbues banal existence with creative meaning!

Truly, the body is more than meat and life more than raiment.

This was, to me, the second most poignant vignette of the day. The first was the singing of the Black National Anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice’ by the children from the Africentric School. Their presence, and tribute to a man who for unyielding decades had been among the most ardent advocates of this school, was evidence that Justice, despite her other unrelenting attributes, still rewards effort, if grudgingly. Effort that changes lives, and eternity.

The third most poignant moment was recalling of the last public act of his life, again addressing Black inmates during Black History Month, 2011 at Joyceville Penitentiary. Ironically, this latter bookmarked along with these students the cause of his life. The next day he was admitted to hospital from where he’d leave a corpse.

Hopefully, along with these students at the Africentric School and the youth responding to Dr. James’ call committing themselves to the cause of Justice, fewer of our young men would celebrate Black History Month in prisons.

One way to excise this evil in our midst is annually, May 1, Dudley Laws Day (his birthday is May 7) for every Black man to go public with his children, especially to libraries and book stores. And keeping in mind that the best thing he can do for his children is to love and respect their mother.

Also, during the bitterness of the Middle Passage our Rites of Passage were destroyed. These Rites had been used, as viable communities still do, to guide boys into manhood and men into fatherhood. Slavery thus effectively destroyed Black families, ensuring that we would later belong, not to viable communities, but to institutions: plantations, prisons, mental asylums, children’s aid, public housing, government employment…

Finally, in the name of Dudley Z. Laws, and in a cause left still incomplete, are there among us those with the resources and influence – and will the churches, community organizations et al, join them – who can issue, by May 1, 2012, a historic call to re-create viable, non-sectarian Rites of Passage for both our boys and our girls?

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