I was watching the Bud Billiken Day Parade when I heard news of the death of Chicago comedian Bernie Mac. As the floats made their way down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Chicago’s south side in the back to school parade which is the largest African American parade in the nation, the people who lined the streets took a moment to reflect and remember the life of the man who never forgot where he came from.
Local celebrities, newscasters and just plain old regular folks alike shared their favorite Mac moments like his appearance in the movie Friday and the Ocean’s films. More than one shouted “Who ya wit”, one of Mac’s favorite lines. The parade, which is over 75 years old, draws old and young onlookers and performers from around the nation. Folks wake up early, set up folding and lawn chairs, fire up the barbecue grill and make it a family affair and it is somehow fitting that his passing was announced where this group of people was assembled because the community resembled a huge family gathered together to hear this important news and to grieve together.
Unlike other comedians and actors who get rich and quickly move to a new location and cut ties with the people they knew, Mac owned a home in the South Suburbs and before his death had met with Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to find out what he could personally do to improve education for students in the city. Mac’s down to earth nature came across in his professional work as well. Much of his material was derived from the realities of urban life for many black folks. He took on subjects from crack addicted family members to marital difficulties in a no nonsense kind of way always adding that he was just saying the things we could not. It was his mix of fearlessness and compassion that smoothed his rough edges made him seem so much like that uncle who lovingly tells it like it is and dishes out healthy portions of tough love because it seems like no one else will.
I shed tears the morning of his passing to honor the life of a local black man who made good. Mac put in numerous hours of work on regular jobs and stayed on a good path, not getting sucked into the thug life, strung out on drugs or locked up, and I know, from personal experience, that it is not easy to rise above one’s environment as he did. Yes, there is a certain amount of pride attached to watching someone who came from your part of town overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and climb to the top of his craft. It gives hope to those who remain letting them know that they too can shake off the shackles of poverty and despair and create good lives for themselves and somehow that person who beat the odds becomes just as close to you as that guy you went to high school with even if you never knew him personally. Bernie Mac will be missed but his legacy will live on as part of the Chicago family.