[Photo by Legacy Russell]
Longtime East Village resident Ernest Russell, a photographer and artist, died on July 31. He was 72. He is survived by his two daughters Angola Russell, a lawyer, and Legacy Russell, a writer, curator and artist.
Legacy shared the following tribute with us.
Before there was AOL, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat — there was DIGITALMAN. DIGITALMAN to many of us is Uncle Ernest, Ernie, Uncle Junie, Daddy, El D, Big E, ER, F STOP, ZERO, The King of St. Mark’s, or one of my personal favorites — coined by my dad’s late friend John — “Oooyyy-knee”. (Dad hated that one.)
The energy my dad brought into the world was electric.
In a recent telephone conversation with poet Fred Wilson, Fred told me of how he met my dad via his connection with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He encountered dad for the first time in a picket line. Dad turned to him and asked, “Hey man, you wanna get arrested today?” When Fred hesitated, dad repeated the question: “Do you wanna get arrested today, or not?”
Growing up with my dad meant there were lessons constantly being doled out, and constantly questions being asked. In moments where I came home from school frustrated or upset about something that had happened with a classmate or teacher, he often reacted by telling me, “Legacy, you gotta get tough.”
As I grew older, when faced with professional obstacles and looking for advice, dad would hand me packages wrapped in brown paper, usually from a cut up Trader Joe’s shopping bag and marked with an all-caps Sharpie signature: “FOR LR LOVE DAD”. Inside, nine times out of ten, was a copy of Sun-Tzu’s Art of War. Where dad pushed me to have a thicker skin, he also never hesitated to cry with me, fight with me, laugh with me, dance with me, sing with me. His ability to be both brave and vulnerable at the same time was inspiring. I collected copies of Sun-Tzu’s treatise as gifted by dad over the years; they often made appearances at birthdays or Christmas. In college when my phone would ring late at night, I would answer to hear jazz playing in the background; dad and I would talk about the day and at some point inevitably he would ask, “Legacy, are you reading Art of War? Are you sure you’re paying attention?”
I paid attention. As a kid I watched my dad like a hawk trying to figure him out. To some degree, he was always a mystery to me. Fiercely independent, creative, compassionate, silly, loving, outrageous, irreverent, I wanted to know every part of him, I so wanted to crack the case of the first man I fell in love with. No matter how much I knew about him, I never knew it all, there were somehow always things he said or did that surprised me.
In moments where it felt like there was no order, there was always a method in place, and often one with a flair. When I was a kid he would take me on nighttime bike rides around New York City; we’d fly across town and stop off at La Taza del Oro on 8th Avenue where we’d sit on stools and eat heaps of black beans and yellow rice. On the way home, I’d sit on the bike’s crossbar, sweating in my helmet in the summer heat, and when I started to fall asleep dad, worried that I would fall off, would chirp loudly, “Stay alert, Eyes-of-the-Moon!”
When I decided I was finally old enough to walk to school alone I came to dad preparing for a fight, dad shocked me by granting me permission to do so without missing a beat; I later found out that the strange sense that someone was following me for those first months was in fact dad himself running behind me, hiding in shops and behind trees when I would look over my shoulder. In times where I raised an eyebrow, Dad said it best, “Legacy, don’t you know that I’m a fool?”
When I first started rebelling as a teenager, sneaking around and breaking curfew to hang out with friends, dad, a legendary night owl who was often up until three or four in the morning playing on his computer, would be awake and waiting for me when I got home. I’d unlock the door and step into the brightly lit room of our studio apartment and he would turn around in his computer chair with his finger next to his mouth like Dr. Evil, “Legacy — what am I? A frickin’ idiot?” He always told me that he had “spies in the neighborhood” which is inevitably how he somehow knew I was drinking 40s at Union Square with characters dad deemed less than desirable, or was now wearing fishnets and a plunging neckline when I had walked out of the house in a decent turtleneck and pants.
When I announced as a little girl that I wanted to be a writer, it was dad who had me practice reading my poetry and short stories aloud. When I got super into Shakespeare and entered into a competition at school to perform a soliloquy of Lady Macbeth’s, dad videotaped me rehearsing for hours: “What beast was ’t, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me?”
In the mid-90s, Dad encouraged me to write to black theatre critic Margo Jefferson at The New York Times and ask her to be my mentor. I wrote a pithy letter to Margo, asking simply if, no big deal, we could just meet weekly to critique my new work; eventually Margo responded saying she wouldn’t be able to meet weekly, but that she’d love to keep in touch. Years later, when, in a curiously elegant twist of fate, Margo ended up on the Advisory Board of a journal for which I am now Visual Arts Editor, she wrote me saying, “I still have a letter from you! And imagine my delight when I read about your life and work in the Times a few years ago.”
Dad was a proud member of a diversely eclectic creative and political community. Though always a Harlem boy at heart, he claimed the East Village as his primary stomping ground where, for many years, he hosted friends and family for gatherings at the apartment, or twilight walks and conversations in this very park. In a 1964 New York Times article, dad, a member of the steering committee of East River CORE, was quoted saying, “Emergency repairs are no substitute for a decent school . . . That's why we’re marching.”
Dad spent a lifetime marching, instilling in me the importance of civil rights, vibing deeply with a mantra of equality and justice for all. He also believed in the power of self-love as a politic itself, a key component for collective action. “Love self!” he always reminded me,“You cannot love someone else or stand up for someone else without understanding how to love and defend yourself first.” Both dad and my mom Kamala were the first people in my life to teach me that black lives matter in their demonstrating how to build that self-love and love for others, an enduring lesson that has shaped how I see the world and a key part of my purpose within it.
Dad, you done good. Thanks to you and mom for gifting to me the most wonderful life, you two most wonderful parents. Ernie, we are going to miss you fiercely. And don’t you worry, we’ll keep fighting the good fight in your honor.