This is the first of three in a weekly blog about Christmas - my experience growing up in a musical family in California.
It’s no secret my father, Dick Nash, is a great trombonist. But less is known of his and my mother’s roles as civil rights activists. Through their associations with an organization called Operation Bootstrap, my family was introduced to a man who called himself Hakim Jamal (formerly Allen Donaldson). He was a disciple of Malcolm X, and became an active spokesman for the Nation of Islam and of Black Supremacy, groups that would refer to the white man as The Devil. You can read a little about Hakim Jamal here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakim_Jamal.
In 1967, my parents got to know Jamal from seeing him at various civil rights meetings and fundraisers. When late December arrived, my mother invited Jamal and his family to come to our home and trim the Christmas tree with friends, a ritual very special to us. He said his family wouldn’t be interested. My mother snapped back, “Why don’t you ask them.” “OK, I will” was his response, sure they wouldn’t want to drive all the way from Compton to spend the evening in a white family’s home.
About three days later an envelope arrived in the mail with several letters, all handwritten by the Jamal children, saying “Yes, we want to come trim the tree with you.” My mother called Jamal’s bluff and won.
When the anticipated night finally arrived, my father made the climb up to the loft on a ladder that seemed to stretch upward for miles, a climb that took him to some magical place above the garage we kids were not allowed to go. This is where they kept all the Christmas decorations, and other magical things (we imagined).
When the boxes were brought to the living room, my mother would unpack the contents carefully and dust everything off. In these cartons were items that perhaps because they were only seen once a year, seemed so precious and valuable - glass balls of the most vibrant colors, ornaments handmade in elementary school by my parents, endless strands of lights and tinsel. My dad would ask one of us to help him identify the “duds” along the line of Christmas lights and we would carefully replace them.
Eventually everything would be organized and ready for THIS YEAR’S TREE, which was certainly the best one ever. My mom would continue preparing food and drinks, and we kids would wait impatiently for friends to arrive so we could start trimming.
When the Jamals’ car pulled in the driveway, the headlights swept across the floor-to-ceiling curtains, and our pet Mynah Bird barked like a dog (mimicking Lucky, our miniature poodle). The front door opened, and six people poured at different speeds into the house. There was one person missing: Jamal. He was a very stubborn man, and apparently had no intention of coming in to be part of our Christmas, just brought the family as per their wishes, and in keeping of his promise. He actually stayed out in the car the entire evening. Looking back, I wonder what was going through his head for those hours, while his family was in the “Devil’s” house.
This photo was taken that night:
During the months that followed, the Nashes and Jamals got very close, and that summer went on a week-long vacation to the Grand Canyon.
This a portrait of the two families during that trip in 1968:
I think that Jamal’s softening happened for a couple reasons. One is that Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam, disavowing racism, and Jamal followed suit. But I like to think the main reason is that he saw my parents for who there were: caring, giving people that embraced all into their lives. No hidden motives, just love. Once he felt that, he opened up to and trusted us.
To open your home is the true spirit of Christmas. The gifts are pretty nice, too.