My great-uncle Bobby Joe Hand, age 71, is being buried today at Flatwoods Methodist Church near Eva, Tennessee. I am in Magnolia, Arkansas, and I wish I was there.
I am an academic, so I deal with things in academic ways…in this case writing. This blog post is about mourning (or paying tribute to) a family member, and (more selfishly), about being away from your family in times of need.
Bob Hand was my mother’s mother’s brother. This might not seem like a particularly close connection in some families. However, as both of my parents are only children I have no uncles or aunts. If you put this together with how young my parents were when they gave birth to me, you have a recipe for great-uncles feeling like uncles (in fact, some of my cousins feel like uncles, too).
Bobby was very dear to my grandmother–Billie Jean (Hand) Deason. He was her “little brother,” and, more importantly, he was a quick-witted joker. You almost never left an encounter with Bob when you did not smirk, smile or chuckle a little. My grandmother always told me that his given name was “Bobby Joe”–not “Robert Joseph.” As someone who is named “Jamie” (not short for “James”), this is something I could appreciate.
Now that I sit down to write, I realize that I know surprisingly little about Bob’s early life. I know that he was a part of a large family deeply rooted in south Georgia peanut farming. I know that he served in the US Army, that he once lived in San Antonio and that he worked in the construction industry in the Atlanta area. Bobby and his wife Madge really came into my life sometime in the 1980s when they bought some land and built a “cabin” near my grandparents in Eva, Tennessee. Bob must have done well in the Atlanta construction business (they are always building in Atlanta, right?), because he and Madge soon came to Tennessee permanently… in a sort of “semi-retirement.” I say “semi” because they immediately started farming (cows, corn and soybeans) and Bob soon ended up running the local Farmer’s Co-op. When my Grandfather Deason passed away, Bob and Madge came to not only farm their own land, but the 300 acres that my grandparents had farmed before (this is sounding less, and less like retirement, eh?).
Bob Hand was smart and resourceful. He would challenge whatever platitude you put forth…he was a great debater. He did not accept received truths. He loved to hold forth on world affairs, politics, business, and ….well…anything. We even had a conversation once about how some anthropologists thought that Leviticus was against pigs because they competed against people for food while other animals turned inedible stuff (grass) into edible stuff (meat and milk)…Bob quickly said: “well if that’s it, they’re fine to eat now…they all eat corn these days.”
This is why I want to talk about Bobby Joe Hand and Antonio Gramsci (an unlikely pairing in most regards).
Every good anthropology graduate student knows a little about Antonio Gramsci…unfortunately, they often know only a little. Mostly, they read a couple snippets of his work and then attempt to talk with an air of great authority on the subject. For those of you not chained up in the ivory tower, however, I will say that Gramsci was one of the most influential social theorists of the 20th century. He was a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime (his “prison notebooks” are his most cited work). Gramsci’s writings were heavily concerned with culture and the nature of political leadership.
What does an Italian Marxist convict have to do with a Georgia/Tennessee farmer? Well…I’ll tell you (the anthropologists in the audience already have a clue where I am going…I hope).
Gramsci thought that we had been hoodwinked into thinking that intellectuals were only “men of letters,” professors, and learned clerics. He thought that there were men who were “organic intellectuals”–folks who did not have “book learnin” but, nevertheless could be important critical thinkers. “All men are intellectuals,” wrote Gramaci, “…each man..carries some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is to bring into being new modes of thought.” (Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1997, p.9).
In this light Booby Joe Hand was a real intellectual–an organic intellectual. I have a Ph.D., but Uncle Bobby was one of the best critical thinkers I have ever met. I wish I could bottle the way he thought and make my students drink it (but, then again, they would constantly argue with me after that….I’d better think about this).
I hope the folks at the funeral are making the occasional straight-faced, snarky comment…in honor of Bob.