My parents named me Brian Solomon Collins. I was named after both of my grandfathers. My dad’s father, Brian Collins, was also named after his grandfather, the first Brian Collins (that we know of) who was an immigrant from Ireland. The family had acquired a small plot of land when they first arrived in America and worked hard through two World Wars and the Depression so that Grandpa inherited a profitable farm with 200 acres of grain, a dozen or so wooded acres, and pastures for varying numbers of cows, horses, and hogs. I have a lot of memories of that farm. For city kids like my siblings and I, visiting that property was like being carried off to another world. We could find hours of adventure in just the barn, let alone roaming through the woods. My grandparents doted on us as you would expect, and Grandpa was always trying to show us how the farm operated, probably hoping one of us would take an interest in the family business.
My mom’s father was named Solomon Stewart. He was a city counselor for sixteen years, all through the seventies and a couple years on either end. He made history as the first minority to serve as an elected official in the city’s history. It made him something of a local hero, especially to the black community. He’s never liked to talk a lot about his political career, but when I was in junior high, I got to do a research paper on him for black history month and learned about the progressive measures he passed for the city during his time in office. His favorite piece of wisdom to repeat is that everyone makes an impact in the world with everything they do. I’m sure he’s right, but I’ve never been inspired by anyone’s impact like I have by his.
Unfortunately, the two, proud families did not become one very easily. It turns out my two namesakes clashed in many ways. Grandpa Stewart was a liberal and ran for office as a Democrat, while Grandpa Collins was extremely conservative and voted on a straight Republican ticket. The fact that one family lived in the city and the other in the country also meant that they had very different lifestyles. But the difference which became the focal point of all of these other issues was race.
As it would turn out, Grandpa Collins was more than a bit racist. The way he puts it, blacks in America never learned to work for themselves. Now they either keep working for white people or they try to take what whites have. He was very suspicious that this black family his son was binding himself too would end up stealing what the Collins family had worked so hard to build up.
For his part, Grandpa Stewart was much more open-minded about race. His wife, my Grandma Stewart was from a mixed background herself, so he was comfortable with the idea of black and white families blending. However, after spending much of his career battling for progress in race relations, Grandpa Stewart had a strong distaste for prejudice. His usual response was simply ignore discrimination and remove himself from bigotry. But he couldn’t just dismiss his daughter’s soon to be father-in-law that easily. They were obligated to interact, and when they did, sparks flew.
It was only through their wives that any peace could be achieved between the two men. Having grown up around conflicts like these, Grandma Stewart knew how to put up with prejudice, however much it repelled her. Grandma Collins was simply friendly and generous and was willing to believe there was good in anyone. Her husband called these traits naïve, but they were what allowed her to form a bond with Grandma Stewart. The two women were able to put reins on their spouses’ argumentative tongues and remind them to focus on their children. I’ve seen pictures of the wedding, and both families seem genuinely happy, though no one looks as happy as my mom and dad.
Of course, the problems didn’t just go away. The fact that his grandchildren were racially mixed was just one reason Grandpa Collins was disappointed in his son. It makes him sound like a monster, and on a few occasions, he may have been. But I still remember my grandpa as a very loving man. He would take me on rides in his tractor and tell me stories about when he was growing up. One birthday he gave me a beautiful fifteen speed mountain bike that I would use for years. Most significant of all, He helped pay for my college education, even though by that time the farm had difficulty making a profit.
Grandpa Stewart seemed to have a habit of being busy or ill on occasions when both extended families were present. I think it hurt both my grandma and my mom when he avoided those events. But I think I know why he did it. I liked talking with Grandpa Stewart because he never talked down to me, even when I was a kid. For instance, he told me that sometimes, no matter what you do, you’re going to upset someone. Sometimes you upset people by doing the right thing, and sometimes you just have to choose what will upset the fewest number of people or what will upset them the least. He also told me that we’re all on our way somewhere all our lives. We’re all in the process of becoming more of who we are, but if we want to become better, it takes work, and it won’t always be easy. I think there were days Grandpa Stewart knew that if he encountered Grandpa Collins, they would clash, no matter how much he wanted to be above it.
I believe that both my grandparents wanted to be better, though they definitely struggled with it. It was no small thing for my parents to give me both of their names. Their choice to marry had blended two very different families. I bear that blend in the color of my skin and in the names on my birth certificate. And as great as both Brian Collins and Solomon Stewart are, I now embody the hope that it is possible for a person to become something even better.
No pressure though.