Like many other African-American men, I found considerable joy in Barack Obama’s historic victory. I saw his campaign as both a vindication of our long struggle for fairness and full recognition and as evidence that our society has indeed achieved a substantial degree of progress. Black husbands and fathers saw the elevation of one of their own to the most visible position in the world as an opportunity to shine a valuable spotlight on our strivings. In a media-saturated world in which the failings of black males are frequently—if not overly—exposed, those of us who are committed to our wives and children have become particularly sensitive to how black men are portrayed. Amid the fire-and-brimstone critiques of absent and otherwise irresponsible black fathers, we have often cried, “What about us?” If we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we complain, we are often overlooked.
Once a fellow writer, a black woman, wrote a piece in a national magazine urging black men to shuck their various dysfunctions and “go back home “ to their wives. I called her and shared my objections to the piece, testifying that I returned faithfully to my beloved spouse every night, but she had little patience with my protests. “I wasn’t talking about guys like you,” she said. “My piece was aimed at the rest of y’all.”
The rest of us, it seems, tend to steal the spotlight. Not that we want a prize or anything. Ten years before Obama’s victory, Chris Rock famously and persuasively punctured the notion that black men should be praised for merely fulfilling reasonable expectations. In June of 2008, responding to an online essay in support of Black Fathers Week (a commemoration I had never heard of), one frustrated correspondent echoed Rock’s observations: “So now we should celebrate when people do what they are supposed to or is that so uncommon in the black community that we need to declare holidays for that?”
Granted, a holiday would be a bit much, but we’d be grateful for mere acknowledgment. That’s probably why some black men were peeved when Obama appeared to denounce black fathers during his memorable 2008 Father’s Day Speech at Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South Side. “Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” he said. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
Clearly Obama wasn’t talking about all black dads; his criticism followed his praise of fathers who are “examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.” But the specifics of his comments were obscured by the sound-bite nature of coverage that the speech inevitably attracted. Inside the church, the enthusiastic response to Obama’s remarks appeared to be unanimous. In other quarters, however, the reviews were mixed.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates complained, “It is easy to scold blacks by making general blanket statements which feed into the low opinion that many whites harbor about blacks. . . I understand that too many black fathers have dropped the ball but many, many HAVE NOT.” Columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson sounded a similar note of dismay. According to Hutchinson, Obama asserted “that black fathers don’t engage with their children,” an argument Hutchinson condemned as “stereotypical and plainly false.”
In his memoir, Obama lamented the failure of whites to see him “or any other black man as a human individual because they buried us under the garbage of our stereotyped view of us.” Ironically, that same tendency is what disturbed some of Obama’s detractors.
Other observers were more supportive. They pointed out that Obama’s criticism of wayward black men is part of the tradition of black leadership and differed little from similar comments by such notable figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. Obama also stressed that his viewpoint was deeply influenced by his own experience as the son of an absent black father. Few of his critics addressed or took issue with his contention that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled since we were children.”
What’s more, Obama expanded his criticism to “imperfect” fathers of all backgrounds. “There are still certain lessons we must strive to live and learn as fathers – whether we are black or white; rich or poor; from the South Side or the wealthiest suburb,” he said. Unsurprisingly, Obama did discuss the most dreadful consequences of growing up in such conditions. “We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison,” he said. For me, though, what resonated most was not his citation of these familiar maladies or his stinging condemnation of juvenile behavior but his references to his own fatherless upbringing. For these and some of the other reasons mentioned above, I never took Obama’s comments personally.
Reflecting on Obama’s youthful circumstances outlined the stark differences between my life and his. On many occasions I’ve seized the opportunity to flatter myself with the similarities. We both lead productive lives, are dedicated fathers married to beautiful, dynamic black women. But Obama’s lifestyle stems in part from his resolve, also noted in his Father’s Day speech, “to break the cycle” of negligent fatherhood in his own family. In sharp contrast, I’m not breaking a cycle. I’m continuing one. My parents have been happily married for more than 60 years. Both sets of my grandparents had marriages that were far from ideal but were sufficiently joyful to last more than 50 years each, until death ended them. For me, fatherhood and a long, fruitful marriage were easy to imagine, and from an early age I aspired to achieving both.
In addition to growing up without a father, Obama grew up in Hawaii, where the paucity of black men further complicated his childhood years. “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America,” he recalled in Dreams From My Father, “and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know what that meant.”
During my childhood on St. Louis’s nearly all-black North Side, everyone seemed to know what that meant. Even if I hadn’t been graced with the exemplary presence of my father, I had plenty of other mentors and models to benefit from. They included my grandfathers, uncles, coaches and neighbors whose kindly interactions shaped my values and personality as much as the instruction I received at Farragut Elementary, the school less than two blocks from my house. Mr. Logan, the soft-spoken elderly man who lived in the second house from the corner, and Mr. Nash, the retiree who volunteered as a crossing guard at the intersection that I crossed twice daily, were among the men who took a fatherly interest in my safety and happiness — whether I deserved it or not.
Down Vandeventer Ave., a few blocks south of the corner where Mr. Nash reliably patrolled, music wafting from Pierre’s Record Shop added a suitably funky soundtrack to our lives. Those were the days when songs like The Winstons’ “Color Him Father” climbed the charts alongside the usual odes to romance, dancing and sweet sexy things. The Winstons began their hit with an aggressive burst of drums, followed by rhythm guitar, a sweet flurry of strings and a triumphant blast of horns. Finally, the lead vocalist eased in with his smoky tenor:
There’s a man at my house he’s so big and strong
He goes to work each day, stays all day long
Just as Obama learned how to behave by watching young black people on “Soul Train” and emulating the black basketball players he watched on TV, I watched the men of my community come and go, and their behavior and attitudes inevitably — and positively — influenced my own. An ambient masculinity, as robust and nourishing as pot liquor, enriched the atmosphere; a young boy needed only to take a deep breath to inhale the wisdom in the air. Negative influences existed too, mostly in the form of neighborhood alcoholics and traumatized war veterans, but even many of them were attached to wives and children and known to be productive citizens when sober. To most of my peers, the profile of a neighborhood father would probably have involved a man in a work uniform of some sort. He most likely would have been a habitual smoker and fond of enjoying a beer after a long day at the job. These men populated the viewing stands at the neighborhood park at Little League games, and used the same field themselves for softball contests on late summer evenings. On holidays they barbecued and set off fireworks in the front yard while their kids oohed and ahhed from the safety of the porch. Nearby, their wives, bright-eyed and vibrant, snapped their fingers to songs coming from the portable radio.
“Think I’ll color this man father,” the Winstons sang. “I think I’ll color him love.”
It is difficult even to begin this kind of discussion without arousing the suspicion of rose-colored distortion. But clearly others share my experience and my point of view. A poll conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center indicated that more than two thirds of blacks say that today’s fathers are doing a worse job than fathers did 20 or 30 years ago. Only about one-in-ten blacks (11%) say today’s fathers are doing a better job than did fathers a generation ago, compared with 24% of whites.
It’s true that sociological factors play a role in the decline of some black fathers; it’s also true that there is no real justification for the widespread irresponsibility on the part of some black men. When men are absent from their children’s lives their offspring are left with sketchy outlines and ghostly images, as Obama was.
Because I saw my father every day, the substance of his image was deeply imprinted on my consciousness. But even if he had been away for several days (and he never was), all I had to do was wander into the living room to refresh my memory. His self-portrait, rendered in oil on canvas, graced the living-room wall nearest the window.
The painting had been more of an artistic exercise than anything else. We’d all been the subject of his painter’s gaze at one time or another. In fact, his pastel portraits of each of his children were among my mother’s favorite possessions; they occupied places of honor on our walls. Therefore, in many respects it only made sense that he’d also included himself in its expansive range. The self-portrait was also a visual document of my father in the years before my birth and so provided a curious glimpse of a version of him that I could only wonder at. This father had more hair, although it was closely cropped, and sported the debonair, pencil-thin mustache of a man-about-town, the kind of mustache I later admired on photographs of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.
My father and I wear the same size shoes; beyond that our resemblances are few. I’m a little taller, substantially heavier with longer limbs, and my facial features bear the unmistakable influence of my mother’s side of the family. But as a child I always insisted to amused adult relatives that I looked like my father. When I was in first grade, I dragged my mother all over town in pursuit of my own pair of wing-tipped shoes, thinking that if I really wanted to be seen as my father’s miniature carbon copy, I could start with the feet and work my way up
In the portrait my father’s expression is confident, resolute. He stares straight ahead while showing just a hint of good humor. I was fascinated to learn that he’d done the painting by studying his face in the mirror, beginning with the broad outlines and facial features before filling in the flesh tones — copper, sienna, raw umber — shade by shade. My father had always impressed me as having no vanity at all; I couldn’t imagine him peering intently into a mirror under any circumstances other than when he was shaving. Still, the man in the painting recalled other, seemingly unusual images of my father, captured in a series of black-and-whites mounted on my parents’ bedroom wall. Except on the wedding portrait, in which my normally extroverted mom looks shy and even disarmingly demure, she looks dazzling on these shots, glowing and self-assured. Uncharacteristically, my dad seems very much her match and very much at ease as they pose at a nightclub somewhere, his rakish grin exposing his gold tooth. I’d witnessed fleeting glimpses of that side of my father on those occasions when he came home from a long day of teaching and sat down at the piano, his loosened tie dangling from his throat. He’d briefly forget himself as he exuberantly pounded the keys boogie-woogie style, belting songs like “Shortnin’ Bread” and “You Can’t Be Lucky All The Time.” But this was a side of my father I rarely saw, and it surfaced less as I began to grow up.
Having been born way down in the birth order, I was used to a different kind of dad. This dad was a traditional head of household, a hard-working type whose disfavor was feared and whose laughter was savored. Who didn’t go to nightclubs or taverns but confined his pleasure-seeking to a can of cold beer and a ballgame on the radio. A father who was friendly and witty and told us tall tales about a giant cat named Tabby while dressed in clothes that always evoked the world of work.
My dad didn’t shy away from disciplining us, although he tended to threaten more than anything else, and the threats were sufficient. “I’ll wear you out,” he’d growl while pretending to unbuckle his belt. My older siblings frequently reminded me that Dad had once been a much sterner figure, nothing like the grinning guy on the bedroom photos. My sister swore that he used to inspect her room by running a white glove across each slat of her venetian blinds, but Dad just chuckled when I asked him about it.
Little by little, year after year, I composed my own portrait of my father. I mixed the colors on my palette not from memory or fantasy but from the fleshy reality of genuine experience. The inveterate tinkerer who patched together our battered Rambler wagon with a few junkyard parts and elbow grease was the dad I knew best during my grade-school years. In my primary grades, he taught me about homonyms and strengthened my vocabulary through countless games of Hangman. Once when I was about 6, he brought me to his class (he was teaching seventh grade then) to read aloud to the students, so that they could see what “real” reading was. The year I turned 12, we stayed up nights building a force measurer for science class, a blue papier-mache elephant’s mask for French class and a zither for math class.
That same year, my father drove me to a nearby suburb several times a week and waited in the car while I practiced with a Little League baseball team. Watching my father reading Popular Mechanics with his black horn-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose, one of my teammates nicknamed my dad the motion-studies expert, a term we’d picked up from reading Cheaper By The Dozen in class. On the way home, we’d stop by Gateway Electronics, where my dad briefly morphed into a kid in a candy store, happily absorbed by the glorious multitude of switches, motors and gadgets.
The summer after seventh grade, I played organized baseball for the last time. My passion had waned even before the season ended, when I took to hanging with my dad at the neighborhood tennis courts. Sometimes we’d head straight to Fairgrounds Park without me even bothering to change from my Midtown Tigers uniform, so eager was I to trade backhands and forehands with him before it got too late.
I didn’t realize it then, but tennis allowed me to spend quality time alone with my father. Even though I was one of six, I never felt shortchanged in this regard. Somehow, despite all the other demands on his time, he managed to devote attention to each of his children. Sunday afternoons were his refuge, though. He’d spend most of the day at the park playing tennis with his friends, safe from the beck and call of his offspring. That is, until I started going to the park with him.
My dad had been an all-around jock. He lettered in multiple sports in high school but didn’t take up tennis until adulthood. By the time I joined him, we had already enjoyed many bonding experiences courtesy of our mutual interest in sports. My dad took me to my first major league game and always shared the sports section with me at the breakfast table. He seemed impressed by my ready command of batting averages and box scores, and I delighted in showing off. I nurtured my obsession with baseball the same way I pursued other interests: I went to the library. Soon I’d read all the relevant books in Divoll Branch’s young readers’ section. I still remember plots and titles: Little League Heroes, Soupbone, and Jake, about a young black Little Leaguer whose father figure was Uncle Lenny, an itinerant musician.
I continued to play tennis regularly with my father through my high school years, leading my team to the city’s public high school championship while he coached a squad from a rival school. My best friend, whom I met in high school, has a dad much like my own. Hanging out his house, I listened to his father’s tales of growing up in the Deep South and studying at Hampton Institute. My visits to my friend’s house supplemented my experiences at my home and in my neighborhood, adding another valuable component to the ambient masculinity from which I derived necessary sustenance. On one wall in my friend’s house were framed copies of letters his dad had written to each of his children on the occasion of his or her birth. Many years later, my memory of those letters inspired me to write birth-day poems for my own children. My first reaction to those letters, however, was envy. I wished that my father, not an especially talkative man, could express himself in such an open, vulnerable way. Eventually I became aware enough to realize that my father’s pastel portraits of us were letters too, that each stroke of pigment was itself an expression of paternal love and pride as eloquent as any line of verse.
Courtside, while we sat under the trees and discussed tennis strategy, my father talked as much as he ever did. I was old enough by then to understand and accept that he would never be as loquacious as perhaps some other dads. But he shared tidbits about his life and thoughts, providing images that I could mentally transform into pastel sticks and oil paints and begin to construct my own portrait of him. I listened to anecdotes about the brief spell in his childhood when he and his siblings lived near a creek and his brother nearly drowned. I heard about the time his mother placed a pie on the windowsill to cool and a sudden rainfall seemed to ruin it. His siblings declined to eat the pie but my father was undeterred. Recalling that pie while we sipped Gatorade and rested our muscles, my father all but licked his lips. “To this day,” he said. “It’s still some of the best pie I’ve ever had.”
I learned about his various jobs—a child of the Depression, my dad began working at 11. He made deliveries for a drugstore, worked in an icehouse, sorted mail at the post office. He told me about the time he was surprised by a huge dog that stood on its hind legs and placed its front paws on my father’s shoulders. Another time, a white woman to whom he’d just made a delivery smiled at him and said, “You’re a good little nigger, aren’t you?” I learned about some of the things he ate when he was out with his friends, things my mother didn’t serve at home, like pig ears, hot links and tripe.
Those were valuable life lessons for me, along with the example of how he conducted himself daily, the way he honored his responsibilities.
When I left for college my idea of manhood was nearly complete. In allowing me access to his interior, my father filled in the blank spaces, brought his self-portrait up to the present. In doing so, he completed a picture of me as well. I had neither his facial features nor his wing-tips, but I was made in his image nonetheless. He had molded me, although that fact had yet to sink in. But I knew enough to be grateful. Long ago, probably before I was born, my parents posted an anonymous poem on the wall in our house. They placed it where we’d see it each day as we brushed our teeth and prepared for school.
I took a piece of living clay,
And gently fashioned it day by day,
And molded with my power and art
A young child’s soft and yielding heart.
I came again when years were gone:
It was a man I looked upon.
He still that early impress bore,
And I could fashion it never more.
Recently I stood in the room where that poem had been displayed. It was long gone but I think of it still. I think of it and recall Sunday afternoons in the park under the trees next to the tennis courts, where my father fashioned me from clay.
“There’s a nakedness in having the contents of one’s life exposed. . .”
—Noelle Oxenhandler, New Yorker, 8/7/95
Years passed. I went away to college, got married, fathered children, returned to St. Louis. All the while, my father soldiered on with his trademark quiet integrity.
My parents had lived in the same house for 35 years. They’d raised six kids—four boys and two girls. Their move to a much smaller house in a much safer, quieter, suburban neighborhood represented a sea change in the life of our extended family. Although five of us had been long gone, living adult lives, the house on Sullivan Ave. had been our headquarters. Most of us lived nearby and could arrive in a matter of minutes. My older brothers still had keys and came and went as they pleased. We all felt free to make ourselves at home, routinely raiding the refrigerator and dipping spoons into the pots that always seemed to be simmering on the stove.
Although we still enjoyed those same privileges at the new house, the atmosphere was different somehow. Warmth and love permeated the new premises sure enough, but the carefree atmosphere, the sense of oasis, had diminished. For one thing, the new house was tiny. It had two bedrooms, and everything was on one floor. The basement was also tiny. I guess for me the new house symbolized an unavoidable turning, a sense of crossing a threshold from which there could be no return. My parents seemed older, smaller. My siblings and I also seemed older, staring down middle age.
The opportunity to buy the old house seemed to be a chance to hold on to a little bit of a past already rapidly achieving a patina of glory, a thick layer of sentiment. It also represented more space for our growing brood. In April my wife had given birth to Nia Indigo, a beautiful girl to go with our two handsome sons. Our rented two-bedroom flat was no longer big enough.
Ten months and countless frustrations later, we were on the brink of a new chapter in our lives. Liana and I boxed our books and papers while our contractor and his crew began loading in drywall at our new home.
But there was a problem: My father had never cleared out the basement.
My brother Guy pitched an idea: My three brothers and I would remove my father’s belongings from the basement and carry them into the backyard. From there my father could determine what we wanted to keep and what he wanted to discard. We’d load the desired things onto Guy’s truck; the rest would be trashed.
When I got to the house at 9 a.m., my brother Seitu had already arrived. He was in the backyard taking a look at my mother’s old garden. Nearly a year had passed since my parents moved. The garden, no longer controlled by my mother’s constant care, was beginning to grow wild. Garlic was everywhere, its bulbs extended from the long stalks like antennae of some strange, extraterrestrial beast. Blackberries were in abundance too, rich, ripe and redundant. The thick lawn was a combination of sturdy zoysia and clover blossoms browning in the summer heat. We went to work in earnest after Guy showed up.
For many years, my father had supplemented his schoolteacher income by moonlighting as a sign-painter. He often worked in the basement, part of which was partitioned into a private room for him. I have fond memories, more imagined than real, of “working” beside him, scratching out rudimentary letters with my own paints and brushes while he painted glorious pit-roasted pigs for Q King Barbecue, or multicolored horoscope signs for Ruby’s Zodiac Lounge. But he didn’t just paint signs. His cubist guitarist stood sentinel over our couch during my childhood, and his hand-carved hardwood mask graced an adjacent wall. Both pieces made the move to the new house, as did the beloved pastel portraits.
Over the years, as Dad’s passion changed from painting to electronics, he became an expert builder of speaker cabinets, amp kits and various kinds of stereo gadgetry.
My dad built me a pair of speakers to take to college with me, and they became cherished companions through countless moves and missteps along my fitful trek to maturity. Just as my father had captured my impish toddler grin in his pastel portrait of me, I made various attempts as a young poet to fashion an image of him in verse. I usually began with his passions. Visualizing him bent over his worktable, peering through the thick lens of a magnifying lamp as he touched a soldering iron to a transistor’s tiny tendrils, I imagined him prying secrets from the circuitry.
if you could
you surely would
see inside the science of sound,
track the transit
of silence-slicing signals
burst out as music
through woofer, tweeter & midrange
past crackle & hiss
to decibel-dance on air. . .
In time my dad’s private portion of basement gradually expanded to take over the whole thing. Thirty-five years’ worth of possessions made it difficult for anyone other than my father to make it past the stairs and navigate the narrow pathways piled high with speakers, tools, rolls of canvas, empty frames and great rows of art paper.
Stacked in the basement, my father’s things were part of his private life, with an emphasis on private. As children, we seldom penetrated his lair. Usually we hovered near his door until our queries drew him out. Eventually he’d emerge, dusty, preoccupied, happy. Out on the lawn, though, my father’s life seemed somehow violated. Perhaps our actions that day were no more a violation than my writing about him now. I write to gather my fading, elusive memories of growing up under my father’s influence and once again endow them with living, organic flesh, to unlock his mystery, to make my love for him resonate from some shared secret, some newfound intimacy and not just blind filial devotion. And, in the process, learn something about myself as well.
Guy, Seitu and I began lugging stuff up the exterior basement stairs to the backyard. Shortly afterward, Boyce showed up. He’s the youngest by far, born six years after me. Guy and myself are only three years apart, while Seitu is 10 years older than me. In those days, Seitu and I were roughly the same size. Guy, although a little shorter, was much thicker, and years of working with his hands had made him quite solid. Boyce was the tallest and most powerfully built with thick wrists like the handles of baseball bats. We worked quickly, spicing our labor with the jokes and small talk of easy camaraderie. Yet I wondered if, like me, their laughter hid deeper thoughts. Were they also still curious about this man who raised us, loved us, taught us so many things?
The backyard was nearly filled and the basement was maybe one-third empty when my father rolled up the alley in his station wagon. I think we all felt a little apprehensive when he opened the back gate and walked in, surveying the results of our labor. He was clad in his customary khakis. Never a large man, our father was summer-slim, older, slower. Yet cords of veins still rippled along the inside of his nut-brown forearms. I always wanted forearms like my dad’s. I never got them.
Strewn on the lawn were the bits and pieces of our father’s private passions: motors, circular saws, a jig saw, buckets of brushes, stacks of silkscreens, old gym bags stuffed with tennis balls, speaker cabinets, old fiberglass insulation, old ropes, three vacuum cleaners, four washing machines, hand saws, old lamps, dusty sketchbooks. It was like sifting through a dead man’s things, except our father was alive and breathing and eyeing each piece with longing. Still it was a wake of sorts. In the end he took only a few things, some tools, a speaker or two, some things that had belonged to his own father.
Would I someday relive this scenario with my own sons? Would I eventually choose a few things, some of them things that had belonged to my own dad, just as my dad had done before me?
We agreed to meet again the following Sunday. The sky grew gray and drizzle began to fall, gradually growing into heavy rain. It seemed appropriate somehow.
Even more years have passed since that day in the yard. My wife and I were blessed with two more sons, and we have raised our brood far from our Midwest origins. My father is in his eighties, weakened by ailments and the cruelty of time. I see him far less often than I would like, less often than I imagined. I have had the opportunity to discuss Obama’s victory with him and have been thrilled to share in his delight and surprise. I hope that future remembrances of Father’s Day will provide occasions for our president to discuss not only our shortcomings as fathers, but also pay tribute to the tradition of paternal accomplishment that also winds it way through our public and personal histories. I hope he will sing the praises not only of well-known men but also the kind of men he briefly mentioned at Apostolic Church of God, the ones who are “examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.” Men like my dad, whose steadfast toil amounts to a legacy of selfless labor and steady vigilance, of sacrifice and guidance — of what my wife would call coverage. My father, quiet and self-effacing, was always uncomfortable with effusive displays of affection. He’d likely react similarly to any suggestion that his life — his fatherhood — merited any special mention. He’d say that he was just doing his job.
He’d be right, of course. But failing to honor those who do right threatens to consign them to the same sketchy outlines inhabited by absent fathers, threatens to wash away their images as steadily as the rain that fell on my brothers and me amid the assorted fragments of my father’s life. It is that prospect, however unlikely, that inspires me to tell my own children about Dad’s childhood adventures and the lessons he imparted beneath the shelter of a tree. It keeps the memories fresh and vibrant, enabling me to dip into them whenever the copper, sienna and raw umber start to fade. Then I can touch my paintbrush to the palette, and color him in again.