What I’ve learned from interviewing my grandfather
Julian E.J. Sorapuru is a junior media studies major.
It started as a way to stave off pandemic-induced boredom. I couldn’t make many new memories of my own, so I figured I’d listen to someone else’s. Since I returned home to New Orleans in March, I have been interviewing my grandfather, Jude Sorapuru Sr., about his life. As time wore on, I couldn’t help but become increasingly introspective about the stories my grandfather, whom I call Poppa, told me.
I started seeing the threads that linked his life and mine — delicately interconnected, like a spider’s web. The choices Poppa made in his life have directly impacted my own. Hearing Poppa’s life story, which is living, breathing Black history, not only helped me to understand him better, but also to understand myself and my own circumstances.
Lucy, Louisiana is our ancestral home, a little village of 300 people about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans that hugs a not-so-mighty portion of the Mississippi River. Poppa was born there in 1937 to a family of sugar cane farmers during the Great Depression. As the second of seven children, he said, growing up, he never slept in a bed alone.
The Sorapuru family’s main concern was their farm. The life of a farmer was grueling, and Poppa had no interest in living it. Poppa said there were no “I love you”s or pats on the back dished out at his house.
Poppa always had a competitive spirit and a thirst for knowledge, and this allowed him to excel in the only school for Black children in Lucy, which was held in a converted cow barn. No matter what grade he was in, he always wanted to learn what the grade above him was doing.
While unraveling his story, I learned that Poppa’s academic excellence wasn’t just a personal achievement, but one to honor his father as well.
Poppa’s eyes well-up and his voice quivers when he talks about his father; even today, it’s hard for him to contend with the rage his father lived with. He told me that his father was angry at the world because he was smarter than what his opportunities allowed him to become — the case for many Black folks at that time. While my great-grandfather only had an eighth grade education, he still read newspapers and always made Poppa promise him, “‘I’m gonna fight ‘em like Thurgood Marshall.’”
My great-grandfather’s dreams had been deferred, so he passed them on to his son.
In 1952, Poppa left Lucy and enrolled at Dillard University in New Orleans. Having skipped a number of grades, Poppa headed off to college — the only member of his family to do so — at the tender age of 15. Since his immediate family practically had no money, Poppa had to rely on the generosity of other family members and friends to pay his $300 tuition and provide him room and board.
The transition to college was not easy. In New Orleans, there were many distractions for a kid from the country who was still just that — a kid.
Poppa grew up without electricity, a car, or even indoor plumbing, so the city and its amenities were a mystery to him. Not to mention that he was woefully unprepared to receive a collegiate education. Poppa’s graduating class in high school, the first to graduate in the school’s history, had only 14 students and three teachers. Instead of learning history, Poppa was taught animal husbandry.
Despite the challenges he faced in the city, Poppa said he was even more afraid of returning home to Lucy without his degree. Knowing what so many people had sacrificed to get him to college, failure was not an option. He eventually graduated from Dillard with a degree in education in 1956, and down the line, was able to get his master’s and doctorate degrees.
A penniless farmer’s son today holds the title of Dr. Sorapuru.
The $20 bill Poppa discreetly handed me when I got A’s on my report card as a kid took on a whole new meaning after learning about his educational journey. My grandfather’s education was his ticket out of poverty, out of Lucy, and the farmer’s lifestyle which awaited him there. How different would my life have been if Poppa never went to college?
I’ve always had the privilege of education as a guarantee, this is only possible as a direct result of Poppa’s own choices. My grandfather caught some lucky breaks, had some truly amazing people in his life, and was determined to pursue his education, which made life better for himself and his family.
I’m frugal, just like him. His cheapness is understandable knowing the time and place he comes from, while mine is an anomaly given my upper-middle class upbringing. I’m also competitive and knowledge-hungry like him as well. Not because having those traits represents my only chance at success in this life like it did for him, but because that’s what I saw modeled by Poppa and by my own father. I guess some philosophies have a way of sticking around despite circumstance.
Poppa is the manifested hopes and dreams of his father, and so am I.
Poppa’s life story not only gave me a new understanding of myself and my lifestyle, but also contextualized our modern day race relations. As a man who has seen America change so much (and in other ways, so little) in his 83 years, my grandfather was deeply concerned about the state of the nation this past year.
What he saw on the news every day shook him. He would often cancel scheduled interviews between us. These conversations were short. I could hear the somber tone in his voice over the phone; he would say, “Hey, Ju. Not today, buddy.”
Like many Black Americans, I have both Black and white ancestors and Poppa has always been interested in our family history — a complicated mess of mixed race heritage. It is not uncommon to find that Black folks in Louisiana, many of whom identify as Creole, have last names which are of French or Spanish origin, like my own (Sorapuru, which is Basque).
I remember Poppa lecturing my siblings and I (as a lifelong educator tends to do) about our family’s heritage from an early age. He’d bust out this booklet, containing family tree diagrams with deep roots, photos of Sorapuru’s past and present, and maps of relevant places to our family history.
Poppa cares about our family history so much that he successfully got our ancestral home put on the national registry of historic places. When the house went on the registry, its existence also became known online. A white man in his 60s from Washington, with the last name Sorapuru, reached out to Poppa after discovering the house on the registry. He inquired about the possibility that we were related and whether he could come down to Louisiana to visit the property.
The man from Washington did visit in 2014 and it turns out we are distantly related (usually a safe bet with a last name like ours). I still remember meeting him and his family at my grandparents’ house, one of the few times I can ever remember white folks being there. He gifted my younger brother a Seattle Seahawks cap (even though we’re all die-hard Saints fans).
But there was a thread to this story with which I was unfamiliar until I started interviewing Poppa. That distant white cousin from Washington died only a few months after his visit to Louisiana. Apparently, one of his dying wishes was to be buried in the same tomb in Lucy as the rest of Poppa’s family.
In death, he had chosen to be with his Black family members. This was incredibly moving to Poppa, and he told me it filled him with hope for the future of race relations.
That hope only lasted a few years. When our “cousin” visited Louisiana, he brought his son, who was about 40 at the time. Poppa and my grandmother went out to dinner with them on their last night in town. Poppa said he remembers the son hugging him when dinner was over and telling him that he loved him; the way you would tell a family member you’ve known all your life. The son came back to Louisiana a few more times after his father’s death. When he was here, he would always come visit Poppa. He even considered moving his family down here.
In 2020, Poppa checked Facebook and was shocked to see the son had posted a picture with an AK-47, advocating a strong pro-gun rights stance. Throughout the next few months, the son revealed more and more of his political views online; he was a hardcore Trump supporter.
“It hurts me everytime I see that,” Poppa told me in a September 2020 interview. “I couldn’t understand it, I still can’t understand it. It broke my heart, to be honest.”
How could a man hug you and tell you he loves you when his politics say he doesn’t value your life? Poppa decided that both versions of the son (the Trumpist and the one who said he loved him) could not co-exist; one had to be a lie. As a man who had lived through segregation in the South, Poppa knew which version not to trust.
History rhymes with the present. Understanding its old rhyme structure is imperative to writing a new one. What we don’t often realize is that history is right in front of us: in the buildings we inhabit, the culture we consume, and most importantly, in the people we love.
Our grandparents and other elders in our lives have so many stories to tell, lessons to teach, and words of wisdom to pass on. This transfer of stories is not only fulfilling for them, but also invaluable for us, who receive the gift of perspective.
So take the time to learn your elders’ stories. The clock is ticking and history awaits.