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Tuxedo Men: An Update

Recently I came across a passing comment that referenced both the marginalization of communities, either by gender or race, and the fact that so many people find ways to carve out paths for themselves. There is something to be said about making a lane for yourself when you don't fit in the one in which you're currently driving. 


Or maybe you're walking down a path that you dislike and have to cut yourself a new one like Maya Angelou describes from her book Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. I used to have my students read her chapter titled "New Directions" from that book. It's a short read about how, in 1903, her grandmother, Mrs. Annie Johnson, found herself in need of a new life. 

She had indeed stepped from the road which seemed to have been chosen for her and cut herself a brand-new path. In years that stall became a store where customers could buy cheese, meal, syrup, cookies, candy, writing tablets, pickles, canned goods, fresh fruit, soft drinks, coal, oil, and leather soles for worn-out shoes. 

Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.

On Saturday I was a guest at the home of one of the Tuxedo Men. A guest in terms of you are allowed to be a fly on the wall here and I was heartily welcomed. My friend, a photographer from St. Louis, Raquita Henderson, joined me. She volunteered to photograph anything they would allow and I can't tell you how grateful I am for her presence. Not only did she take pictures of their April meeting, she jumped in to help the lady of the house serve dinner. Who does that? Raquita, I tell you. She does that. And she does it with a willing spirit.

But, back to the men and new paths.

My reason for being there was to talk to them about telling their stories. The fact that these friends get together monthly, wearing tuxedos, is enough of a story that makes me even more curious. I have questions about how this started and what they've learned from it and what kind of legacy they want to leave. Do they even want to tell their stories? What could possibly come of telling them to perfect strangers? 

What I asked them is whether they would trust me enough to listen to them and commit them to a narrative that is so desperately missing in America. As I sat and observed them I felt like I was sitting in on an American history course where the players were present. More than once I caught my own heart in my throat, thought of my own father, and saw these men from a place of reverence. These professional men who are part of a legacy of Black Americans who began meeting in one anothers' homes at first. It's understandable, too, considering American history. Why go out and put yourself in a position to demand to be served, equitably, when race relations were were so tense in the early part of the 20th Century?

I told them as such and even apologized for all the crying I would undoubtedly do, but those tears didn't flow as much as I thought. What's wrong with crying anyway? If on my worst day the thing I show strangers is my humanity then it's still showing them the best part of me, right?

Legacy and paths. That's all I can see lately. I cannot put myself in their shoes or imagine the road which they've walked down, but I want to know it. I want to listen to their stories. That's what I told them and it's what I wrote about in my proposal that I shared with them. It's not a story I've ever read before.

All I truly wanted to get across to them, these private men who have met for decades, is that their narrative is necessary in the world and that I wanted to record it.

"Your legacy is safe," I wanted to tell them. But I didn't. I just said that I was a storyteller who had a blog and that a lot of my friends wanted to know more about them.  

So for now, we wait on whatever road we're sitting and consider the possible paths. 


Marce Mendez Campos via photopin cc

« Making History: The First Tuxedo Men Dinner | Main | International Women's Day: Vivian Onano »

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Reader Comments (52)

I'm so fascinated by this. I really hope they agree to your proposal!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie @MelanieMedia

I've loved witnessing this all unfold. I hope you get to share these stories and I hope I get to read them and share them and hold them close, too. Xo

I love how this has progressed from a random evening of you noticing a group of men out to dinner in tuxedos and queried both Facebook and Twitter as to whether or not anyone knew anything about them...and now you've been a guest at one of their dinners. I cannot wait to hear how the story continues to unfold!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTamara @Aviatrixt

I, too, am thinking so much about legacies and what we pass on. Excited to learn more about this group.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

Consider me waiting with anticipation for their stories - I'm ENCHANTED by the idea of their Gentlemen's group!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeanna

As a white mother of a black son, I want to hear these stories. I want another path offered to him that differs from the options that the media give him. I want his narrative to be different and I want him to know that. I want the students I teach, to have access to a different narrative that shows similarities as opposed to difference.

I want to hear the stories that get pushed to the side in favor of stories that are sensational. I want a different narrative and I can't think of anyone better to tell this story than you!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Since you first mentioned these gentlemen, I have wanted to know more. I can't think of anyone better to tell their story.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Carr-Smith

I can hardly wait for the story!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVs Herbie

I am very much looking forward to hearing the stories these men are willing to share.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAverage Jane

You have told us just enough to stoke our imaginations and leave us thirsting for more. Please give us another chapter in The Tuxedo Men story.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJodi Carmichael

I absolutely would love to hear these stories, Kelly.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

You are a gifted storyteller Kelly and I've known that since the night we first met. I am so glad you are sharing what you can of this story. Totally fascinated.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTarrant

As I posted elsewhere:
Why [do I want to hear their stories]? Where to start? Because the stories of men of color of their generation are woefully untold. Because they've got a perspective on themselves as a function of their age that can be illustrative for those of us not quite there. Because they've lived through some of the most tumultuous, amazing, heartening, and disheartening times in our nation's history. Because they won't be here to share their stories in 20 or 30 years. Because they deserve the dignity of being recognized. Because they are, they exist.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKjirsten

As a daughter, reading about the Tuxedo Men would more fully round out the world that existed before me, the world that my father has made real for me with his own stories. As a mother, having these stories would ensure that my son has a connection with a heritage that all too often gets thought of as mundane by the people who lived it, but which is, in fact, truly legendary.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIssa M. Mas

If the Vatican can loosen up and allow their entire collection to be digitized and made public then the gentlemen have to allow their stories to at least be recorded.

We of the middle passage have a responsibility to document our journey. We now have pen/paper, audio recording devices, video blogs and somebody's sister down the way. Our young ones need to know the details of the path that was used to make the invisible visible.

Plus, I know some older women who would very much enjoy seeing men in tuxedos. Or a sweater.

True life stories can heal people. I've witnessed it. I have benefited from people I've never met telling me their story so that I could move two feet forward.

Kelly is a bit more sedate than I am. She can be trusted to get the full respectful skivvy. I hope that this is an opportunity the sharp dressed men will take up with gusto.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGena

oh, I am fascinated in the histories, the stories of their time & how they were a part of it.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRene

There is power in the stories we are told about our past, the stories we whisper about our present and the stories we dream about our future. Stories like these make the journey that much easier when you know them. Thank you for sharing this!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJerry

Kelly, you are such a force - and the perfect person to bring the magic of the Tuxedo Men to the rest of the world.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I am so excited to learn more about the fascinating journeys of the Tuxedo Men! I know I will read their stories and find joy, dignity, injustice, strength and perseverance. Our history is often marginalized and not documented; we are all so lucky that they are willing to share their personal stories with the world.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTamara Douglass

Their stories are needed to show us another way of living, of supporting one another. I'm fascinated, but more importantly, I'm hopeful that their stories will lend a hand, shine a light, show a way, for those who need it.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Penning

Men, real men, in tuxedos meeting monthly to share their lives, pains, passions and joys. I want to know them. I want to know their stories. I'm so hoping that this happens because it will be important and beautiful.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJane

Please, please, PLEASE tell me that this will be a book. It would be absolutely fascinating told in any form, but this story MUST BE TOLD. I can't wait to hear/read/see more!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenene@MyBrownBaby

I just took my 10 year old son to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC, housed in the Woolworth's where the sit ins began. Julian Bond was my professor in college for "History of the Civil Rights," hands down the best class I have ever taken. If it weren't for individuals's STORIES, we would not have the rich tapestry we have of firsthand voices sharing experiences that shaped our nation, our history, ourselves. I relish the chance to read and listen to the Tuxedo Men's stories. And you bet I'll share them with my sons.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterilinap

You had me at tuxedo men. I cannot wait to hear all about your experience, to hear all about their stories. What an honor to be invited, I am grateful that we readers are along for the ride.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSheila Jones

I really can't wait for this!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeShanee

I've been so thrilled to watch this develop, and am not at all surprised you've gotten this far. And this is far, make no mistake. Keep going, girl. I don't just THINK their story would be instructive, enlightening and moving - I KNOW it would be.

To the Tuxedo Men - You don't know me from Adam, but I'd like you to know that if you choose to trust ANYONE with your story, Kelly is your woman. No one would approach it with more intelligence, respect, historical perspective, honesty and appreciation than she would.

So I hope you agree to her proposal - but should you decline, I'd like to personally thank you for letting her in as much as you already have. But truthfully? You should say yes. :)

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAliza Worthington

The story of this country is wildly incomplete because of the suppression of African American narratives all throughout its history. We NEED the stories of the Tuxedo Men because they are individuals and have stories we haven't heard and stories that matter. I hope they accept your proposal because I want to hear their stories too. I want to see our history become more balanced and encompass more truth.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngelina

My curiosity was piqued the first time Kelly wrote about the Tuxedo Men. I can't wait to hear more.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGrandeMocha

Waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLinda jones

LOVE this. Need more. ASAP. This is a great American story waiting to be told.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEllen G

This is a story that needs to be told and I know that you are exactly the right person to tell it Kelly. Wishing you all the best with this, although I know you hardly need it. You have every bit of strength, humanity and love that you need to do this right. xo

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

Yes, yes, yes, to the comments above! Their stories are important and I have no doubt that you will honor them, understand their personal and even sacred nature. You are the perfect person for this.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkim

Tell us these stories. Tell them to all of us. Bring them to life, bring them to Madison, Wisconsin. We rrrrrreally need to hear them.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Kelly, with you, it's always something! Always unique. Always from the heart. Always with perspective. With clarity. With purpose. I was fascinated the first time you mentioned the "Tuxedo Men". Anyone else would have thought, perhaps a bachelor party, and dismissed the whole thing. The fact that you even noticed that this could be something different and unique and set your goal to find out more, then pursue, is amazing. I was going to start the next sentence by saying, "Can you even imagine what stories...." ...but obviously that is precisely what you must have been thinking. I have always regretted the stories I could have known and share with my own children and grandchildren, if I'd only thought to ask or even just listened. I know you will listen, and I'm hoping they will share, and that you will write, and that I can then share with my own daughters and grandchildren.

I loved seeing your posts about the Tuxedo Men and especially the thought that they are older dudes who have this emotional closeness and care for each other to do something so cool and maintain their friendships in this formal way!

I think it can be complicated to expose your stories to the world or a larger public and that you (Kelly) understand that really well. It can go down a bad road into "performative pain" and sometimes no matter how you frame and present personal narratives they get read that way (I can say as a wheelchair user, for one) The truly fascinating thing about personal histories to me is people's relationships over time and how their knowing each others' histories affects their lives. I hope that makes sense. I also think there are some interesting ethics important to follow as an editor of biographies of living people, of doing rounds of approval (unlike journalism which can be way too fast paced to go through several edits and really get buy-in from the people quoted or who are covered in a story) and the editor or biographer ends up in an ongoing relationship of trust built over time. Ideally, right? Kelly, you're such a fabulous storyteller with great personal and political awareness, I feel sure you would make something fantastic happen!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Oh god I do hope they say yes and tell you their stories. I want to read them and then I want to read them to my boys.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterA'Driane

I grew up listening to the stories my Grandm and Grandfather would tell me, and I was rapt. I would listen to them for hours. He had been quite a rascal in his youth and early manhood, while she was simply the kindest, gentlest soul, and I'm told (and believe) that she always was I heard their stories - some, I begged them to tell, again and again. They were magic, gold - insights into and episodes from the lives of ordinary working- class people from the East End of London. But I never wrote them down - nor did anybody else. Why would we even think to?

My aunt, who used to drive up to see them every other Sunday, and who would take one of my siblings or I with her, effervescent she did, was a similar fount of stories. She was a midwife, throughout her professional life, and she worked until she retired at sixty. After training, she worked with an order of nuns, but never with the intention of taking holy orders. If you have seen "Call The Midwife", then she was Jenny. In later years, she became more like Sister Evangeline, and I loved her immensely, and miss her terribly. But I still have the memory of her stories. But she never wrote them down. Nor did I. Not did anybody else. They are likely to die with the lady of us who heard them. I am saddened by that, and I bear shine of the responsibility for that.

For all that we - those who've commented here, and many who haven't - want to read these stories - or hear them (what a joy it whirls be for Kelly to write them, and for these wonderful men to read them aloud, capturing their voices) - want to read these stories, I suggest that it is their own flesh and blood, of generations yet unborn, who will thank them the most. We will be happy beneficiaries, after the fact.

Why Kelly? Because she is quite simply one of the finest writers I've ever read. I cannot imagine ever allowing someone to tell the story of my life. But if I did - it would be her. She would tell it right.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Taylor

Kelly, I love the way you tell stories with such depth and honesty. I so look forward to the stories these men have to share and the way you will bring them to life for us.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

Cannot wait for your deep-telling of these priceless portraits, Kelly!

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

Waiting with bated breath, my dear. Hope to follow along in this journey. These stories *need* to be told and I so hope they are willing.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbecky

These stories, these voices, these truths, there is a blank space in our national tapestry that these will help fill. Our children must, should, oh please let them, hear what these men have lived and done and wished they had done and will yet do.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaryn

We need to hear this story. Too many times the narratives about black people don't show the depth and width of our experience in America. Hollywood and the powers that be manage what we see - let's bust that paradigm and tell the story of the Tuxedo Men! I'm rooting for your Kelly Wickham

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenise W. Barreto

Kelly, I am SO HOPEFUL and EXCITED that you found this compelling and untold story. And that this story found YOU, and your passion and talent! I hope these gentlemen trust you to do justice to their story, and help it reach and inspire people who need to hear it. Good luck!

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCat/@DearBadKitty

I love that the Tuxedo Men let you observe. What a fabulous and intriguing group!

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKarianna

I am truly intrigued and can't wait to hear more.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

Kelly, I have been watching from the sidelines from your first facebook update about who the Tuxedo Men are. I'm so in love with the possibility of your documenting their untold stories. I think it's the reporter in me. Please keep going.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

beautiful + necessary x

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkatie in nz

Kelly, if anyone can do these gentlemen RIGHT, you can. I so hope they allow you to tell their story. It would be in excellent hands.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Yes, please write more! I'm sending good vibes their way so they'll have to say yes! Who could say no to that face anyway?!? I'm fascinated, I've got to know!! Good luck, Hun xx

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWifette

As a lifelong journalist, I have become completely, utterly obsessed with the untold stories in our rich, deep, imbalanced culture. I want to know the stories of every person I see on the subway. But the stories of a group of men who build a friendship and haven of trust, and honored that with tuxedos and a lifetime of meetings? And especially because these aren't the men who run media? (Because we've all read that story, though they were wearing suits and not tuxedos, and, okay, good for them, but enough already; time for someone else to run the world.) Also, Kelly: You have amazing judgment, both for people and for story. And so that is why I say that I cannot wait to read about this, and I'm so glad they exist and that you found them.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStacy @bklynstacy

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