Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: Hey, y'all. Saidu here. I would really love to include you in an episode we got coming up. It's about small acts of resistance. So most of the time on our show we hear these big stories about people engaging in huge acts of resistance, right? Uprooting their entire lives to make changes in their communities. They'll quit their jobs to dedicate whole summers to protest. They'll sneak into fancy European museums and take back stolen art. Or they'll take on the government to fight for land that used to be theirs. Things like that.
Saidu: But I want to try something new. I want to hear about all the tiny ways each and everyone of you is refusing to accept things they are in your everyday lives. Like, what are the ways you're resisted in school or at work or, I don't know, like, standing in line at the gas station or waiting for the train? Did you work up the courage to wear your natural hair in an all-white space? Did you de-escalate a situation that could've gotten bad, or see somebody who did? Or even better, did somebody resist in a way that helped you out? Basically, we just want stories about small acts of resistance in your own life that had a big impact on you. And preferably, I'm looking for stories from Black, brown and Indigenous folks. Please send us your stories. I want to hear from you. We want to hear from you. Record a voice memo on your phone and send it to email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. Slide in our DMs.
Saidu: This week's episode is coming up right now. It's from the homie Aaron Randle, and he'll be with us right after this short break.
Aaron Randle: A'ight. So, Saidu.
Saidu: What's up?
Aaron: I have something that I want to show you.
Aaron: Vintage VHS video.
Saidu: This—I can tell. Like, the blue screen?
Saidu: This is giving big throwback energy, like ...
Aaron: Yeah, yeah. It's a VHS video that I have just watched for the first time probably since it was recorded in 1998.
Aaron: All right, let's get it. All right.
Saidu: Randles in the hizzee.
Aaron: Yeah, so this is ...
Saidu: So I'm guessing this is your family.
Aaron: So this is actually my annual family reunion. This is back in 1998, as you can hear with the whole, you know, Arsenio Hall, "Woop woop woop" going on.
Saidu: Nice, nice.
Aaron: Yeah. But this is—this is a big, a really big deal to me. This happens every year, my family reunion. And it's basically just a big party. So, like, right now, you see, like, in the—in the gym, you see, you know, my dad with the Camcorder, obviously. Then you see the women at the table, you know, kind of cutting up balloons, you know, streaming up banners. There's like ...
Saidu: Yeah, it looks like they're getting ready. Like, this is, like, pre-function. Like, it's about to go down but, like, they're getting ready for the function.
Aaron: Yeah, yeah. So this is like the calm before the storm. This is earlier in the day. This is, you know, set-up vibes, right?
Aaron: Now we're gonna fast forward to the actual, like, party, and I want you to see if you can spot a familiar face. [laughs]
Saidu: [laughs] Oh, damn! Okay. There's way more people now. There's, like, balloons, a Black clown, a bunch of kids standing in front of the clown. Oh, that's—that's you right—I see you right there, man. That's you right there, bro.
Aaron: You can spot that big head anywhere.
Saidu: You got your nice little teal shirt on, waiting around with a bunch of other kids. Your eyes are, like, dead center or whatever that clown—what is that clown—what is up with this Black clown? Like, what are y'all—why are so many kids surrounded around this clown?
Aaron: First off, Miss Jill is a legend, and Miss Jill was the Black clown around Kansas City.
Saidu: Hey, respect to Miss Jill. Respect—respect to Miss Jill. I'm sorry!
Aaron: But naw, she just was—I mean, I don't know. She was, like, giving out something for free. And, you know, like, I was—I'm nine years old. Like, very easy to impress me. I'm assuming from all that dried sugar on my lips that it must be candy and lollipops or something of the like. I think she was doing, like, face painting. So, like, she was just—she was the MVP of the whole event, which is impressive because you can see there's a lot of people at this damn event. Like, you see how packed it is. There's got to be at least 200 people here. Like ...
Saidu: Oh, look at you in the middle. You look so cute, man! You look cute in the middle. You cute, bro. You was a cute little kid. [laughs]
Aaron: Why you say it like—like that's new news? I've always been cute. I'm cute now. You calling me ugly?
Saidu: You know what? You know what? I'm gonna let you—I'm gonna let you have this one.
Aaron: [laughs] Let's move on. But I'ma fast forward a little bit.
Aaron: To kind of like the event of Kids Night, which is the talent show. And it went down at the talent show, right?
Saidu: This is not you, is it?
Aaron: No, this is actually my next door neighbor, my very close friend at the time, Mike Davis, singing "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston.
Aaron: Yeah, he's going for it. He wants that prize.
Saidu: Go ahead, Mike.
Aaron: I actually forgot Mike could sing. Yeah, it was a lot. It wasn't even just Mike. Like, I had friends who would come in and do acrobatics. Some folks, they're praise dancing, some folks just did dance—whole dance routines. Like, kids, low-key came with it. Like, it was a thing.
Saidu: [laughs] It looks to me like really, like, Kids Night or just reunion in general, looks like very kid-friendly. Like a—like—like, I feel like your parents drag you to stuff sometimes and, like, nine times out of 10 it's, like, trash. But, like, this looks like a thing your parent will take you to when you, like, actually want to go and you show up and you're like, "Oh, this is like, really fun." There's kids everywhere.
Aaron: Yeah, I don't know what, like, most people's reunions were like, or what it gives, but, like, mine was super fun. It wasn't like, "I think I'm gonna go." It was like, "You're crazy if you're not going." It was—it was really like the event of the weekend for my family. And I mean, I guess you could kind of see here with Kids Night. Like, it was like kids' paradise. It was so, so much fun.
Aaron: And, you know, with my reunion, the only way that kid Aaron had ever thought about it was like, as this carefree, fun event, but I didn't spend time thinking about stuff like the origin story or the why behind why my family puts this kind of unusual amount of effort into gathering together every single year without fail, you know?
Aaron: But then last year happened, the pandemic came and it made me question a lot of things. And one thing that I found myself questioning was this reunion and how we got here. Because, you know, what I found out was that yeah, our reunion is this big kind of fun and carefree event now, but the forces that kind of led to this foundational event in my family, they were far from carefree or happy or fun at all. The reality is my reunion was born out of the strength of one of our matriarchs. It's the creation of a woman who experienced America trying to rip her family apart—as this country often does to Black folks, right?
Aaron: And it's the result of her fighting back and saying, "Naw, like, my family? We will be together."
Aaron: So, like, this reunion, it's not really just a party, it's a promise.
Saidu: It's a promise. I'm really intrigued to see ...
Aaron: Oh, you're intrigued?
Saidu: ... what—I'm intrigued. I'm intrigued.
Aaron: So you want to hear the story?
Saidu: I want to hear a motherfucking story. Let me hear that story! [laughs]
Aaron: So I can say it?
Saidu: Yeah, man. Go ahead and say it. Say it.
Aaron: This is my moment?
Saidu: Say it. It's your time.
Aaron: What's up, y'all? I'm Aaron Randle, and this is Resistance—a show about refusing to accept things as they are—even if it means kind of crashing the party.
Saidu: Let's get it.
Aaron: Growing up, Labor Day weekend was the most exciting date on my calendar. Not the end of school or the beginning of summer, not Halloween or my birthday. Not even Christmas. Hell, to me, Labor Day weekend was more Christmas than Christmas was Christmas. And that was for one reason only: my family reunion.
Aaron: The weekend would always start the same way: on Thursday, me and my sister would get out of school early and go home to pack, and then at night my parents would load us into cars and drive us to our grandparents' house to link up with the rest of the family. Pulling up, we'd see the entire block lined with different whips, you know, like, sedans and SUVs, trucks and sports cars, each with their trunks packed to the brim, ready to hit the road.
Aaron: Everyone in my family was there, okay? Like, my aunts with their hair rolled up in curlers and heads wrapped in bonnets, blowing into warm cups of coffee. My uncles with their Chiefs hats cocked backwards, leaning against the porch talking about last night's Royals game. My cousins playing four square under the lights on the sidewalk, and tag in the big corner yard. Around midnight, we'd pack into the cars and hit the road. It was a sight, man. 10, sometimes 15 cars streamlined down the highway going wherever. To Mississippi or Arkansas. Gary, Indiana, or Chicago. Every chance we got, me and my cousins would hop from car to car. Each had its own attraction or incentive, like a tent at a carnival.
Aaron: My Aunt Kay was going to have the R&B on deck for the elite sing-a-longs. Whatever my older cousins was whippin', I knew that's where I had to go if I wanted to hear, like, the rap that I knew I would never get a chance to hear in my old folks' cars. My uncle Jimmy? He had this huge van. It was like a playground on wheels. It had rows of seats with so much space you could build forts and tumble dramatically between them whenever you hit a bump in the road or went down a steep hill.
Aaron: Every trip for me was like fitting a dozen mini trips into one. You know, me and my cousins we'd crack jokes and we'd catch up, annoy each other. All the while getting closer. And then there was the other star of the trip, okay? Like, the food. Now my family did not play about food. Yeah, we had the basics: you know, the Cheetos and the fruit snacks and the soda or whatever, but we also had the elite Black-as-hell snacks. too.
Val: Now you know we got some fantastic cooks. You know, the men and the women alike.
Aaron: That's my cousin Val. I hit her up earlier this summer, a few weeks before this year's reunion. Now if you think about my family as kind of a nation, Val is like a head of state. Everybody knows her, and when she speaks people listen.
Val: Our aunts, they do not travel without coffee and a pound cake. They bring their own homemade pound cake, and so everybody's like, "Well, who made the cake this time? Who made the cake this time?"
Aaron: You know what I remember? I remember my grandma, she used to always fry the chicken and put it in the foil.
Val: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Aaron: And I don't know what it is about foiled chicken, foiled fried chicken, but when you're about two, three hours into that pilgrimage to wherever we going for the reunion and they whip out that chicken? It's the best tasting bird you're gonna ever have. I can taste it right now.
Val: My grandmother, which is your great grandmother, she did that all the time. So she would put it in a brown paper bag with foil, and then she would roast some sweet potatoes on the potbelly oven and put that in a brown paper bag so that we can have that to come back when we were driving in the car. It's like, you're on the road, we want to make sure you gonna eat something, just in case you don't stop.
Aaron: And we basically never stopped. "Randles? We're drivers," my dad used to say, with a peculiar amount of pride. To kid Aaron, it felt like the adults were kind of racing, betting against each other to see how far they could go in the least amount of time. It never bothered me because honestly, I'd be the winner either way. The drive there for me was lit, and where we were going was gonna be lit too. We usually got to where we were going sometime in the afternoon the next day. And as soon as we pulled up, it was go time.
Aaron: So as we settle in, we get an itinerary kind of laying out the weekend. On Saturday, there's stuff like sightseeing and shopping trips, and of course Kid's Night. Then on Sunday, there's always a picnic and a big formal banquet. And this banquet? It always has a theme. This year it's denim and diamonds.
Aaron: Do you have your denim outfit? Because I have mine ready. I'm ready. Because this year is denim and diamonds.
Val: I got mine. I got my denim and diamonds.
Aaron: Okay. I'm about to show out. I hope you're ready because I am about to come with it. [laughs]
Val: Oh, me too. I even got me some gym shoes to wear. I am going to be denim and diamond all weekend. I got some glitter gym shoes for the weekend. I got a denim and diamond evening attire for the banquet. I mean, I got a rhinestone hat.
Aaron: These themes, they are serious business, y'all. And they have been going on since before I was born. They kind of like reflect the time and then set an aesthetic for the weekend. In 1985, it was "We Are The World," after the Michael Jackson song. And then in 1979, the theme was [singing] "We Are Family," after the big disco hit that had just come out. My family started doing these themes in the late '70s, but our reunion itself? That goes back even further, to the late '60s.
Aaron: Back then, Black people all over were getting into the idea of reunions. The Black Power movement was going strong, and with Alex Haley releasing Roots, Black folks had become deeply invested in knowing as much as they could about their heritage. Folks wanted to gather, and they wanted to learn about their past and strengthen their collective present and their future. That's how my reunion got started in 1968. My dad's been to every single one since then. He's like a treasure chest of reunion memories with stories for days.
Aaron: So just talk to me like you're on the phone regular—regular degular.
Dad: Okay. Hey now.
Aaron: At 74, Dad's officially an old head, a family patriarch. For me it's cool though, because I've always been able to listen firsthand to someone who's always been in the room where it happened. So whenever I need a history lesson, he's my first stop.
Dad: We would start off going to Arkansas, and then we would just go down there every summer anyway, just about. And so that had to be in, like, oh, probably 1968. 1968, that's about when it first started.
Aaron: The reunion, it was way smaller and less organized then. Basically, just my dad and his immediate family kind of, you know, linking up. But after about 10 years of those smaller, less-formal reunions, interest started growing big time. It wasn't just family in Mississippi, Arkansas or Chicago. Now it was folks from as far as California and Texas to New Jersey. Now second and third cousins and distant aunts and uncles wanted in. And so in 1977, that core reunion group? They decided to expand. They invited everyone who was interested to come to the next reunion in Kansas City.
Aaron: And Dad, he remembers '77 well. You know, everyone in Kansas City was hella hyped to host this expanded kind of, you know, Reunion 2.0, but none more than his mom—my grandma Lula.
Dad: You know, Mama was an avid fisherman, she loved to fish. And so that first year, we knew we was having the reunion in Kansas City, so she said that she wanted to have a fish fry. She worked cleaning up office buildings downtown. She would work the midnight shift, and so every morning when she'd get off, she would go fishing every morning. And I mean, she did that all summer long. And she would go out to Lake Jacomo. And then whoever would take out there, we would go out there and take her fishing. And mama would go out there, and she had her little spot, and she would go out there, and all she would be fishing for was crappies and bluegills, like hand-sized fish. And she did that every about four or five days a week all the way up until we had the reunion in September.
Aaron: Wait, you're saying she had been saving the fish that she had been catching every morning after work all summer for the fish fry?
Dad: Yeah. Yes indeed. She would come home and she would clean the fish, and then she had a freezer and then she would freeze them, you know? And she did that all summer long. And I tell you, man, that backyard was so packed with people. I know there was over 100 folks there, but she didn't run out of fish.
Aaron: Later, it would be Lula's kids—my dad and his nine brothers and sisters—who would host big reunion crowds in that same backyard. All of them played important roles in my life, especially my Uncle Philip. He was my favorite uncle, and my dad's best friend.
Dad: Everybody was crazy about Philip.
Aaron: Talk to me a little bit about what he was like.
Dad: When you seen one, you always seen the other. You know, we was always together, but we always fought.
Aaron: Ask anyone in my family. If they conjure up an image of my dad in their heads, trust me, it involves Phil. In the summer for the holidays, it was Dad and Phil hunched over the grill barbecuing for the family. Literally every Sunday since before Patrick Mahomes was born to when he won the Super Bowl, my dad and Uncle Phil would link up and watch Chiefs games together. They traveled to every reunion together, and brought most every New Year's in by each other's side. My dad has, like, 20 photos on Facebook. Phil's in, like, 15 of them.
Aaron: But last year at the end of March, Uncle Phil died suddenly back home in Kansas City. It shocked my family, but it crushed my dad.
Aaron: So that was your best friend.
Dad: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, we—we fought all the time. You know, we fought all the time, but he was my best friend. And it seems like every week I'm crying because I miss him so. You know, it's my brother. Yeah. So yeah, I just miss him and Jimmy and all my brothers and sisters. But it's gonna be bittersweet, but I just—I don't know, it's just that you just gotta reflect on the good times that we did have, you know? It's always gonna be a void. But the main thing now is that, you know, all you young people, you guys gotta keep it rolling, you know?
Aaron: Over the last two years, my family lost 17 people—to the coronavirus and other reasons. Last November, barely six months after Uncle Phil passed, my Uncle Jimmy died in Kansas City too. He was my dad's big brother, and if Uncle Phil was my dad's right-hand man, Uncle Jimmy was his left. The sudden nature of these losses was already tough. But then, when you realize that many of the folks that we were losing were my family's elders, it made the loss even tougher.
Aaron: These people have been the foundation of my family for decades. The OGs that could tell you what a reunion in the '70s felt like, and just how far we've come. And if you were on the fence about showing up to the reunion, these were the folks who could get you to change that. Now with so many of these elders gone so suddenly, it feels like we're at risk of seeing the reunion decline in a way that just a few years ago felt unimaginable. This year, I went to my family reunion in Houston, and learned about a different type of loss—a loss that ripped my family apart, but ultimately brought us back together. That's after the break.
Aaron: It's just after noon on September 2 when I arrive at the host hotel—a Marriott in Sugar Land, Texas, this suburb, like, 20 minutes or so outside of Houston. Literally before I get out of my Uber I spot my family posted outside of the hotel's front entrance as usual. My sister Danielle? She's already there.
Danielle: Hey, my name is Danielle Randle. We are in Houston, Texas, but we're in the city of Sugar Land, currently outside with my folks.
Aaron: The pandemic's kept me away from Danielle for longer than usual—almost a year. But ain't nothing changed with that girl. That smile and that swagger that charms everyone she meets? It's still there, and it's all on display now.
Danielle: We have added more and more chairs, you know, to the curbside. So now it's our porch. So we can sit out here chillin', you know what I'm saying? Making it our own.
Aaron: The once spacious lobby is now cramped with about a hundred Black folks holding court. You got teenagers huddled in groups staring at TikTok. My Aunt Bonita with her famously long fingernails and pack of cigs reading somebody down—with love though, always with love. Cousins with babies on their hips and the latest family gossip on their lips. My uncles slapping dominoes and talking smack. I see my Dad and Val in the center of it all, chilling on the couches, talking about who knows what to a group of family huddled around them. To an outsider, it might seem like chaos, but the truth is everyone has strategically placed themselves to be in the line of sight of the hotel's entrance so they can see who's pulling up.
Aaron: Speaking of pulling up, outside, one of my Houston cousins has his 1970s Chevy Donk sitting on 30s in the hotel driveway, and it feels like every hour is passing through with somebody new hopping out and saying wassup. It's like the hood rich valet. This scene does not change. Nobody's moving from these posts. This is our lobby now.
Shanice: Oh, I am Shanice, the one and only from Chicago! Well actually, I'm not from Chicago because if I say, like, "Aurora," you're gonna be like, "Aurora, Colorado?" And I been coming here almost like since I was a young'un.
Carrie: Okay, this is Carrie Randle. I am from Randle, Cunnie Randle's granddaughter, and I actually live in Dallas by way of Kansas City.
Ma$k Twain$: I'm Casey May from the Randles, but right now they calling me Ma$k Twain$. That's M-A-$-K T-W-A-I-N-$. The dollar signs are silent. I'm a published artist. Look that shit up.
Caelen: My name is Caelen. I'm from Gary. This is my first reunion in what, like, six years?
Arnetta: I'm Arnetta Randle. I'm the daughter of Willie and Lula Randle from Kansas City, Missouri. I haven't missed not one family reunion since they started.
Marvin: My name is Marvin. I'm from Chicago, Illinois.
Crystal: Hey, my name is Crystal. Originally from Illinois, but I stay in Lubbock, Texas.
Lasaul: I'm Lasaul Williams. I'm part of the Randles, so my grandmother is Oney Randle Williams.
Deja: Mama, what team we on?
Mama: We on Randle.
Deja: Oh, team Randle!
Aaron: My fellow producer Mack has come to Houston with me to help report, but my family don't really know strangers, and to be honest, they don't know what a podcast producer is either. So they make him a cousin. He's Cousin Mack now.
Mack: How you doing?
Bernita: You my new nephew? Now don't be interviewing me!
Mack: I can't ask you a few questions?
Woman: Oh, it's nothing we won't do for family. That's how they be on the podcasts! Oh, go Gators! [laughs]
Bernita: My name is Bernita Canada Shaw Randle, from Kansas City, Missouri. I'm the adopted daughter of Willie and Lula Randle. Now what else do you need to know about me?
Onnie: My name is Onnie Williams. Onnie Randle Williams. I'm 90 years old. I'm the daughter of Ezekiel and Eula Randle.
Aaron: Onnie's my great aunt. Her mom—my great grandmother—was a woman named Eula Randle. I'd heard Eula's name before, but really that's all that I knew—her name. But the more people I talked to, the more that name came up. I started to realize Eula was the key to understanding this entire thing, the beating heart at the center of the reunion.
Dad: Oh, she was the—she was the sweetest person, I tell you. When we was little, me and my brother Philip, they used to send us down to Arkansas to be with our grandparents. You know, they just gave me and Philip everything we wanted, you know? And they didn't have that much but, you know, if you wanted it, you know, you got it, if they had it.
Val: Grandma Eula was simply an amazingly strong woman.
Aaron: That's cousin Val again. She's one of the few folks at the reunion who knew Great Grandma Eula intimately. She spent her childhood visiting her and getting to know her firsthand.
Aaron: I know you were young when she passed, but describe to me what she looked like in as much detail as you can.
Val: Well, I can tell you that I look exactly like my grandmother. She had beautiful brown skin with long black silky hair. And Grandma was a short woman, but she was strong in stature, and she carried authority when she spoke. Grandma was a lot of fun. And, you know, I remember as a little girl, grandma had me on the farm picking okra. I'm never gonna cook any more okra because it pricked my fingers. And I then shucked a whole bunch of peas with her. And I then ran through the field with her at night looking for my daddy while she's calling, "Sterling. Sterling, where ya at? Where ya at?" And I'm like, "Grandma, I can't see my hand in front of my face." But yes, she had my hand and we was running. And I'm always thinking about we're not going to step on those snakes, are we? We're not gonna step on those snakes are we?
Aaron: Eula kept that family farm running. And when her kids got older, they took it over. They lived off that land and grew crops like beans, pecans and okra. But one day, their livelihood came under attack, and my grandpa decided to do something about it.
Dad: And I guess he had some white neighbors. And so the cows from the neighbors had got into his pen, into his crops, and destroyed his crops, eating all the corn and stuff like that that he's growing.
Aaron: As the white man's cows ate away at his family's crops, grandpa Willie decided he'd round them up and hold them hostage.
Dad: And he said that, you know, "If you want your cows back, you got to pay for what they destroyed." I guess he was, like, standing up for the whole family, you know, at that time, you know? You know, and you're not—you know, you're not going to let your cows come over here and destroy our crops that we just planted, and then you come and get them and say, "Well, you know, that's it." No, Daddy said, "You're gonna have to pay for what they did."
Aaron: But in the 1930s South, you wasn't just gonna be telling white folks what they could and could not do. So that Saturday night, a group of white men showed up at my great grandma Eula's house looking for my grandpa, but they had just missed him—he was out partying with his friends. But Eula? She knew they'd be back.
Aaron: So it was like, an understanding he was on borrowed time. He needed to—he needed to ...
Dad: He had to get out of here, because eventually they were going to come and get him.
Aaron: She put him on a segregated bus, headed north to Kansas City with his wife and two babies. He had cousins there who could help him get settled and begin planting roots to start a new life.
Aaron: I know you just describing grandma as someone who gives and gives and loves her family so much. What impact do you think—or, like, when you learned that story, what do you think that that had on her having to send away her oldest son? Like, how do you imagine that made her feel?
Dad: Well, I'm pretty sure it made her feel pretty bad because—but you know what? In them days, you know, you would rather have a son or a daughter that's still living and not living in that area, and went someone else—went somewhere else, you know? Because eventually—eventually they would have got him, you know? They would have got him. And then when they—when you hang them, you know, it's like, "Yeah, well, that's another n***** gone," you know?
Aaron: It's these kinds of run-ins, or in my grandpa's case, near-misses with death, terror and anti-Black violence that caused so many Black families to abandon what they knew as home and migrate out of the deep South to Northern cities and to the East Coast and to the Midwest. It's a part of our larger collective story that explains how so many of us became so fractured and so spread out.
Aaron: My dad says having to send away her firstborn son so suddenly devastated Eula, but it never killed her spirit or her desire to see her family back together again. As time crept on, she became just like all those other Black families in the '60s: eager to reunite their stolen legacies, determined to restore their lost nations. So she started planting the seeds for a reunion.
Aaron: Before this year, I haven't really considered how so much of what my family does finds its roots in survival and safekeeping. And I kept learning stuff like this. Like those caravans we traveled in, always together and without stopping? That started because the family feared stopping in potentially dangerous cities in the South. Those caravans weren't just the adults having a race, they were intentionally and meticulously planned to keep us together and safe. Realizing all this was a lot to take in. I needed to make sense of it. So Mack and I went up to the room to talk. I couldn't have asked for a better person to decompress all of this new information with.
Aaron: Yeah, I'm kind of still processing what I just heard. But I didn't think about why are we in Kansas City, you know? Why aren't we in Chicago? Why aren't I a New York kid? Like, you don't really know those origin stories. And when I learned that it literally came down to my grandpa was a hothead. Like, some white folks did him wrong. And he was like, buck back at white people in the '20s in Mississippi. Like, my grandfather did that. Like—and that's literally why we're in Kansas City, because his grandma was like, "Oh, you go stay with your cousin, because you can't be here."
Mack: Right. Your family's story is a very clear—it's like a very clear, clearly drawn-out version of what, like, all African people in the US, like, all of our—like, that experience of, like, displacement, that is our larger story. That's like, literally all of—that's like—that is our larger story. That's how we get here, is like you—you're Aaron from Kansas City, but you could have been Aaron from Mississippi. Like, you could have been Aaron from fucking Nigeria, like, you know what I mean? Like, that shit is, like, crazy!
Mack: The reunion is—in that sense, it literally is an act of resistance. Like, the sheer reunification of the family every year is like ...
Aaron: Oh, fuck! Because he didn't move out on his own terms. He was forced away.
Mack: Exactly, exactly.
Aaron: It's literally like, "You forced my baby away, but I'm gonna still see him every year."
Aaron: "He's gonna see his people every year."
Mack: Exactly. Yeah!
Aaron: [laughs] Aah!
Mack: It's so beautiful. And here y'all are like, what is it? 54? 55? 54? 54 years later?
Aaron: 54 years later.
Mack: Still doing this shit.
Aaron: I headed to the final event—the banquet—looking at everything with new eyes. Maybe it's kind of corny, but with all this new context, this year's theme now felt kind of poetic. I mean, there's denim, this durable fabric built to last. And diamonds, these precious stones, survivors of pressure. Looking around the room, that was my family in more ways than one: strong and beautiful and withstanding.
Aaron: I scanned the dimly-lit hotel dining hall and watched them settle into their tables, ready to be served this big, fancy four-course meal by wait staff. In the center was a beautiful ice sculpture, and behind it on a raised stage a DJ spun R&B. There were tiaras and custom-made denim two-piece sets. My mom had on this beautiful floor-length denim gown. Everyone was beaming at how good they looked themselves, no doubt, but also at each other. Then, about three courses in, my cousin Ernestine from KC came up and kind of got the evening agenda going.
Ernestine: I just want everybody to give a shoutout to Texas. [applause] You guys did y'all's things. Them ribs! I wanted so much more, but I didn't want to get fat. But everything: the green beans with the turkey necks, and oh my goodness! But I just want to thank Texas.
Aaron: The banquet? It's like our family's general assembly, where everyone kind of gathers in a formal setting and celebrates each other in an official capacity. It's where we honor the oldest and the youngest members of the family, officially announce where next year's reunion will be, and even give out scholarship money. The scholarship? I think of that as a way that we demonstrate, you know, like, our desire to take care of ourselves, to be self-sufficient. It's how we say "We got us."
Adrienne: And last, but certainly not least, what you have for her, Lisa?
Lisa: We have $500 for Antonice to use for schooling, for anything you need that's benefit for your schooling. Not them new Jordans coming out! But enjoy, and good luck on your future endeavors. And we know you will do well.
Aaron: Once business is out of the way and the food's been served, and all the fits have been gotten off, the time comes for the DJ to drop a very specific beat—a beat that sends my family all the way up and brings everybody to the dance floor.
Aaron: "Family Reunion" by the O'Jays is our national anthem. We sing it every year at the banquet Sunday night without fail. Usually everyone gathers in a circle, joining hands or wrapping their arms around each other. Connecting. It's a special moment where people cry and hug and smile at you from across the floor. I couldn't see a lot of those smiles this year because of masks, and there wasn't much hand holding because, you know, social distancing, but the energy in the room was as strong as ever.
Aaron: I love playing our national anthem, but if I'm honest, it's always a moment that sends you through all of the feels. It's that song that you know everyone's waiting on, so when it drops, folks jump up like they just heard the opening horns on "Swag Surf." You're hype, even though this is very much not a hype song. But then you get close and start singing the opening lines. "It's so nice to see all the folks you love together." And you're hit with such powerful joy and happiness. It's pure love.
Aaron: But then the song keeps going, and there's this line where Eddie Levert is like, "I wish grandma could see the whole family. I sure miss her face, and her warm and tender embrace." That's when the sadness starts to creep in, for all those who aren't there, for the ones who have been gone for years, and the ones who just left. The ones like my Uncle Phil and Uncle Jimmy who were just here with us singing this exact same song the last time we came together.
Aaron: As the banquet was winding down, I checked in with my dad to see how he was feeling.
Dad: It's just hard that they're not here, you know? So this is the first reunion I ever went to that they're not part of, you know? And it's just hard. It's hard getting through it, but I'm gonna get through it, you know?
Aaron: I'm proud of you. I know you got through it. I was looking out for you. I was looking—I was looking out for you. And I—you know, there was times when, you know, you'd be hanging out in the front and, you know, everybody's just sitting there talking. And you just—I could tell that you were just—you wasn't alone, obviously. But if—you knew that, you know, you're used to having Phil right there and Jimmy right there, and really, when y'all get to talking, y'all become the center and everybody kind of just gravitates to y'all. So it was kind of like, you know, I could see—you know, I know you had to figure out this reunion in a completely different way, because I can't imagine, you know, you had your best friend for every one of the 54. But you did it, and you was here and you was at the banquet. You had a good time.
Dad: Oh, yeah.
Aaron: Got a little sliz, got—got a little—got a little drink in ya. [laughs]
Dad: Oh, yeah. We all woulda been full on that.
Aaron: Yeah, yeah. So I mean, it's really good to see you push through this, and I know it doesn't necessarily get any easier, but that's our new challenge we gotta figure out, you know? How to move forward with them in our hearts, and I think you did that this year and did it well.
Aaron: So how do you think grandma feels about—your grandma would feel to see where the reunion is at 54 years later? Like, now that she's—what do you think she would say to see that this has gone on for 54 years?
Dad: I know she'd be so happy, you know? She would be so happy because she just loved her family and, you know she just loved her family, you know? And so as long as I'm on this Earth, I'm gonna make a reunion, you know?
Aaron: By 1:00 a.m. Monday morning, the reunion has finally ended. I watch as folks retreat back to their rooms, guys with half-undone neckties and ladies with their heels in their hands and their edges slightly sweated out. Exhaustion hits me too. It's been a long four days of reporting. I ask Val to come back to my room, half to say goodbye before I go to the airport, and half to kind of sit with her and take it all in. I've learned so much this weekend, about my family and our story, but also about the reason why we're all here in the first place: my great grandma Eula.
Aaron: What do you imagine she could even think to say in this moment if she could, if someone asked her?
Val: I think my grandmother would say, "My children kept their word."
Aaron: Next year, it'll be my job to keep that word. The reunion's coming back to Kansas City, and I'm helping plan it. We'll have our work cut out for us as we move the reunion into the future. All of a sudden, the halls of the hotel start to fall quiet. The weekend had finally wore my family out. Right before I called it a night though, Mack pulled the recorder out one more time. We started talking about what the next chapter of the reunion would look like.
Aaron: I have to go harder. Like, even whatever I've been doing, whenever we've been doing, we have to go harder. "We" being the younger generation to really, like, make this reunion a can't-miss event. And I think before we—I said that for more of an ego perspective, but now I say it with so much more humility because now it's like I'm actually doing work for my ancestors. Like, this is work that I had to do to honor Eula. Like, before it was like very much I'm doing this to beat my chest. And I actually don't feel that. I think I don't feel that at all right now. Like, I want to get to work to honor the woman who was forced to send her firstborn son away because of anti-Black violence, and who took that trauma and flipped it and turned it into a reunion that literally continues on more than half a century later.
Aaron: This is a woman who didn't even, like, have schooling past middle—didn't even have middle school, middle school schooling. This is a woman who was a farmer. This is a woman who—you know, whose mother was born a slave, you know? Here we are in Houston in a Marriott, like, still, 300 strong. So yeah, I'm just ready to get to work, and I'm just ready to just push this thing forward. So much so that I am prepared to say that next year is gonna be the best reunion we've ever had.
Saidu: That was Aaron Randle. Thank you so much for listening. This episode of Resistance was reported by Aaron Randle, and produced by Aaron Randle, Salifu Sesay Mack, Bethel Habte and Alyia Yates. And hosted by me, Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.
Saidu: This is Mack's last episode on the show. Mack, we love you. I love you so much. Thank you for everything. I'm immensely, immensely grateful for everything you've done for us, and I wish you the very, very best of luck with everything you'll do in the future. And I can't wait to see you again back up here in New York. And I mean this when I say it: good lookin', homie.
Saidu: All right. Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh. We were edited by Lynn Levy, Brendan Klinkenberg & Lydia Polgreen. Mixing, scoring and magic by Haley Shaw. Additional scoring by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Theme by Bobby Lord. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer and Teiji Mack. Fact checking is by Rosemarie Ho. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. Credits music, what you're listening to right now is "Family Reunion" by none other than The O'Jays.
Saidu: If you enjoyed this episode, tell a friend about it. You can find me on Twitter at @saiduttj. And you can follow us on IG @resistancepodcast. Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. All right, I will see y'all in two weeks. Send me those voice notes.