At The Root is a new MLK50 series that highlights everyday radical action. As the writer and activist Angela Davis said, “radical means simply grasping something at the root.” This visually-driven feature will be recurring. To suggest an idea for At The Root, email visuals director Andrea Morales at firstname.lastname@example.org
On a chilly Saturday afternoon earlier this month, Meagan Jones tricked her grandfather.
Jones, a therapist based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, traveled back home to Memphis to spend time with Herschel Gilbreath – she calls him Pau Pau – as he recovered from a stroke he had on Nov. 1. After the stroke, his doctor told the family there was also a blood clot perilously residing in his brain, promising to cause grave problems.
“[His doctor] said that we were to expect the big stroke and that he may not survive that one,” Jones said in an interview. “My heart, it broke into a million pieces.”
Gilbreath is a gay man. He came out to his ex-wife and daughter (Jones’s mother) in 1977. The following year he met Vincent Gonsoulin after moving to New Orleans. Gonsoulin was the love of Gilbreath’s life, but back home in Covington, Tennessee, few outside of the immediate family knew that.
“I grew up knowing he was gay,” Jones said. “It was not a big deal at all. It was just, sky is blue, sun comes up tomorrow, Pau Pau is gay.”
Gonsoulin and Gilbreath were together for almost 40 years before they married in a small 2018 ceremony. Yet, throughout their relationship, he told some that they were friends or even brothers. The reality of living his truth fully was something Gilbreath wasn’t ready for outside of New Orleans.
Last year, Gonsoulin died after a battle with AIDS. Gilbreath moved back to Covington where he retreated from living out proudly.
After losing her grandmother unexpectedly earlier this year, the call about Pau Pau’s stroke shocked Jones into action. Jones told Gilbreath she had hired a photographer and that she was taking him to Midtown Memphis so they could get a few photos together on a beautiful day. The playful deception was a way to deal with the heartbreak. She hired local photographer Benton Huang for what she wanted to be a “flamboyantly gay” photo session to honor Gilbreath and his impact on her own identity. Huang was so moved by the story, he reached out to local contacts in the media and community to turn it into an occasion.
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
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