I: Colder Still
Once in Texas, I pulled up next to a Latino asleep in something like an Impala, outside the washeteria where I had come to do my laundry. He slept to the mournful Tejano music coming out of his back speakers. One booted foot hung limp outside the car’s window. Maybe tendrils of smoke wafted from his cigar as he retired in the driver’s seat, or maybe the tip was already dull and out. I don’t rightly recall; it was nearly twenty or more years ago. Some of the details remain clear, some are clouded by doubt, made hazy by attempts to transform fading memories into personal history.
The man looked weathered and hardened like a post oak. His huge gold-plated belt buckle sparkled in the sunlight, accenting tight black jeans. Tentacles of chest hair writhed from the unbuttoned top of his cream-colored Western-style shirt. Thick and black, his mustache eclipsed his upper lip. A white cowboy hat covered the right half of his coppery face, exposing a left eye as dark and scintillating as onyx. But for that vigilant, penetrating eye, he was inert and unconcerned. I walked past him. Inside, I dumped a load of bath towels into the washer. The washeteria’s warped, faux wood paneling; dirty, cracked linoleum floors; and chipped fiberglass counters reminded me of the graduate housing in which I was living. Caged and mounted high on the back wall was a television, tuned to the evening news. A young woman, standing in the middle of the floor, took in the anchor’s every word. She was dolled up like a cowgirl. A pattern of black flames was stitched down the front of her tight red shirt; the ebony tongues of fire, in their static flicker, stopped just above her chest. The same dark blaze encircled her cuffs. Her jeans, navy blue, were pocketless in back, and the smooth denim hugged her hips and thighs like a pair of stockings. Below the knee, the jeans fit more loosely, and each pant leg was stuffed into a tasseled red leather boot.
At a distance, I stood behind the woman, cocking my neck back and looking up to receive the host of the news. The story was about a young girl who had undergone an organ transplant after being abandoned at a hospital by her mother. It was a story as poignant and unchallenging as it was disposable, a dollop of newsless news. The sole purpose seemed to be for viewers to say to themselves, “Oh, how sad.” Maybe the mother had good reasons for not coming back, I thought. Maybe her absence was the best thing she could offer.
I sat down to read a book I had brought with me. There was a line of Formica chairs bolted to the floor, and I sat in the chair next to a counter used for folding clothes. I wasn’t seated long when the buzz of two dryers went off one after the other. The woman reached in among the clothes and tossed them around to see if they were still damp. She put more quarters in the first machine, started it humming again, and raked the clothes from the other dryer into a nearby laundry cart. One of the wheels refused to swivel, forcing her to jerk the wobbly contraption across the room in fits and starts. She pulled it over to the empty folding table next to my chair, dumped the clothes, and began folding.
She was close, so close I could count the tiny moles clustered at the corners of her almond-shaped eyes. The mestizo symmetry of her face was arresting; her eyes, hazel-green and heavy with fatigue; her complexion, butterscotch and mocha; her hair, reddish brown. I smiled and turned into my book. The woman went about folding her clothes, but I could feel her staring. After a minute or so, she asked, in timid and unsure English, “Will she be okay?” I didn’t know whom she meant at first, but she was talking about the child on the news. I thought the little girl would be fine and said as much. It was the kind of thoughtlessly agreeable, if not entirely candid, answer one gives to strangers making small talk. Then she asked me if I knew what was pneumonia, if it was bad to have. I said it was like a cold, nothing to really worry about. Her baby, she said, was in the hospital with this pneumonia. She handed me a wallet-sized photo from her shirt pocket. Her daughter was just a few months old. She wondered if her baby would be okay. I reassured her as best I could, though I had no idea about the truth of the matter. But truth wasn’t what she needed. We both knew that. What she needed was comforting. And she needed it more desperately than I could have imagined.
Her husband wouldn’t take her to the hospital; he wanted her to wait until the doctors made the child better. Shame and sadness grew in the woman as she shared her burden. I was standing with her, not knowing what to do or say when the door to the washeteria opened. In flowed the Tejano music and the man from the Impala. The music had been audible all along, but like the whine and chug of the washers and the hum of the dryers, I had lost awareness of it. It was so much clearer now, and I realized then who the man was. Composing herself, the woman rushed over to her dryer, diverting her husband from his path. I sat in my seat and watched. She seemed to shrink in his presence. He stood behind her, talking in hushed tones over her shoulder like a cop wooing a suspect, like a father chastising a child. Geisha-like, she orbited him, diffusing the suspicion he rode in on. He talked with her for a few more minutes, made an awkward display of affection, a kiss or hug, I can’t remember which, then nodded and smiled at me as he headed for the door.
Maybe he thought he was inoculating his wife from some future sorrow by refusing to let her see her child. Should the worst befall them, she’d be less susceptible to the excesses of grief that Plutarch cautioned his wife against when he heard of the death of their two-year-old daughter, Timoxena. In his letter of consolation, the philosopher urges his wife to be sensible and temperate in maintaining her composure. Surrendering to unrestrained expressions of grief, resigning oneself to lethargy, he warns, exhausts and paralyzes the spirit; and is shameful as well. He assures his wife that he feels the loss of their daughter keenly, that he’s not made of oak or stone, yet he chides, “. . . if I find your grief exceeds due measure I shall be more greatly distressed than by the misfortune itself.” Maybe the man in the washeteria was like the ancient philosopher. Perhaps his decision to leave his child in the hospital was rooted in a cultural code as equally classical and inscrutable as Plutarch’s.
The decision seemed cold to me then; and now that I myself am a father, it seems colder still. I have two girls, three years apart. The older one was two years old when she had her first surgical procedure. Following alongside the gurney as she was wheeled into the operating room was difficult. Seeing the tray of bright shiny knives beside her, the tubes in her arms, and her falling unconscious was harder. But when it came time for me to leave her side, that was too much. My eyes watered, body slacked, and the intern, a family friend, ushered me out of the room like a medic walking a wounded soldier off a battlefield. And all this drama over the removal of tonsils and adenoids.
II: Not Dead, But Escaped
In his 2008 Father’s Day speech, President Obama said, “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.” If you are an involved parent (adoptive, divorced, married, or single), then this isn’t news to you. You already know that raising a child takes courage and that courage is difficult business. Sometimes it is hard to muster; sometimes it comes as easily as your next breath.
For people of African American descent, the decision to have a child might be considered an exceptional act of courage because our children are born, to use the language from Obama’s speech, with a “tragic history.” The legacies of slavery (the on-going acts of cultural mockery, economic injustice, political disenfranchisement, and racial terror) make the childbearing decision particularly vexed. The thought that one’s child might be stalked and killed like Trayvon Martin evokes a long and variegated history of racial terror in America: the 1955 murder of Emmett Till; the 1963 terrorist bombing of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair; the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; the 1965 shootings of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo; the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald; the 1998 dragging murder of James Byrd; the 2011 vehicular murder of James Craig Anderson; and the 2012 Good Friday slayings of William Allen, Bobby Clark, and Donna Fields. The fact that some of these martyrs are white should remind us that the struggle for racial justice in America has always been an interracial struggle.
No one chooses to be born. That choice is made for us. So to bring African American children into a world in which they will be assaulted by racism in school, the workplace, and popular culture, a world in which they can be ridiculed, mistreated, or killed for not being white, can seem more like cruelty than courage. The defeatist idea that it is better to face oblivion than to face racism has a long pedigree in African American literary history. African American writers and intellectuals have explored abortion, infanticide, early natural death, the social death of racial passing, and living childfree as solutions to escaping the stigma and suffering of racism. We find African American parents, both real and imagined, wrestling with this unique brand of procreation anxiety in the works of some of our best thinkers and writers. Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ernest J. Gaines, Angelina Weld Grimké, Lorraine Hansberry, Fenton Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams come most immediately to mind. However, W. E. B. Du Bois captures the spirit of this idea most poignantly in “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” the eleventh chapter of The Souls of Black Folk.
Du Bois’s wife gave birth to their first child on Oct. 2, 1897. Du Bois writes that the news that his wife had given birth to their first child was followed by “the fear of fatherhood mingled wildly with the joy of creation.” That joy is short lived, as Du Bois begins to fret about his son being born in “a land whose freedom is to us [African Americans] a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of the Veil as it passed over my baby.” The Veil is Du Bois’ metaphor for race and racism in America, and by extension the global racial social order. That his child should be born in the soul-crushing racial hierarchy of America was “the unvoiced terror” of his life.
There was an “awful gladness in my heart,” writes Du Bois, when his son, at eighteen months old, died of diphtheria in the spring of 1899. My soul, Du Bois says, whispered to me, “‘Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.’” Du Bois saw his son’s death as a merciful pardon from the “bitter meanness” of American racism, a meanness that would have caused the child’s soul to “grow choked and deformed.” He congratulates his son for having escaped the “living death” of being born in the pigmentocracy of America: “Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.” By the end of the passage, Du Bois transcends his cynicism and rises out of despair. His son, he admits, might have had a stronger temperament than him and that race relations in America might improve in the future: “Idle words; he might have borne his burden more bravely than we,–aye, and found it lighter too, some day; for surely, surely this is not the end. Surely there shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the Veil and set the prisoned free.” The prospect of losing one’s child to an illness is frightening, but to lose one’s child, mortally or psychologically, to the cancer that is racism is for all of us an “unvoiced terror.”
III: What’s in a Name?
I have always been intrigued by President Barack Hussein Obama II, as our fathers were both East African immigrants who married American women. Obama’s mother was white, mine African American. When my father came to America from Uganda in the 1960s, he was already married with children, and he and his wife had two more here in the States. When he got my mother pregnant with me, his wife took her children and went back to Africa. My mother and father eventually got married and had a second child, my younger sister. The marriage did not last long; they separated with when I was still very young. After my father left us, he went on to have more children with other women. I inherited his last name, but he was not present in my life in any meaningful way. I saw him only a handful of times before he died in 1997.
My mother had two more children by another man when I was ten and thirteen. Though this man did not live with us, for a few years he was a male presence, albeit a fractious one, in our lives before he died. All of my mother’s children share the same last name even though we don’t have the same father. My mother once considered having my younger siblings take their father’s last name, but I argued against it. Back then, my siblings and I, sometimes in earnest, sometimes in jest, would taunt each other about whose dad was the biggest loser. At the time, I thought having the same last name would unify us. I also thought it would spare us—spare me—the shame of having to explain the circumstances of having different last names. In my mind, having a half or step-sibling was like wearing a scarlet letter. I was besotted with the notion of the traditional family, and this despite the fact that many of the kids I knew, like me, were being raised without fathers. Now, because of my teenage insecurity and misguided notion of unity, my younger siblings are saddled with a surname to which they have no ethnic or cultural ties, a name which obscures their true heritage. It is odd to bear the name of a man one never really knew. It is a story that Obama knows all too well. His life demonstrates that with extraordinary luck, pluck, and talent we can overcome the failings of our fathers. We do not have to be defeated by our names. Our names are what we make them; they are ours to polish or tarnish.
IV: Role Models
As the child of a working, single-mother, I spent my early years under the care of my grandparents. From the time when we were infants until the end of my freshman year of high school, my mother would drop my sister and me off at my grandparents’ house early in the mornings. One of our cousins would be brought there too by his mother. We slept, ate a hot breakfast (often grits and Jimmy Dean sausage), and walked to the elementary school on the street behind us. After school, we’d run home to be scared witless by the three o’clock movie: Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, all those monster and sci-fi classics that used to come on back in the late 1970s, back when we had rabbit ear antennas, black and white TVs, and four channels.
My grandparents’ house, down in Louisiana, is the place I think of when I think of home. I adored my grandfather. When he was around, I was always by his side, closer even than his shadow. We called him Grandee, but the neighborhood knew him as Reverend Morris, a deacon in a Baptist church that was just two or three blocks from his house. I think he was in his early to mid-nineties when he died in the late 1980s. As far as I know, we don’t have any precise records of his birth. He had a conservative sartorial style, a strong work ethic, a Baptist worldview, and was a member of the Masons. He was my best friend, my patron saint. When I discovered the bottle of whiskey he kept under his mattress, I learned that even saints have secrets.
I had never seen alcohol in my grandparents’ house, but W. E. Garret and Sons Sweet Mild Snuff was my grandfather’s public vice. It came in a little red tin can that looked like a stubby piston. He kept it on top of his dresser. A brass spittoon was his constant companion. I don’t recall him ever preaching, at home or in the pulpit, against his disgusting habit, nor against drinking, smoking, gambling, dancing, playing cards and dominoes, or listening to the Blues. It was my grandmother, Ruby, who branded those pastimes as works of the devil. She was a scripture quoting, Bible thumper. Like the God of the Old Testament, she was all about obedience and punishment. She was more likely to welt us kids with a switch than embrace us with a hug.
My grandfather never spanked any of us. But there was one time when I took his kindheartedness for granted. I continued doing something he had repeatedly asked me not to do. I don’t recall what it was, but he raised his voice, more in annoyance than anger, and lashed out at me. Though his swat contained all the suddenness of a viper strike, it amounted to no more than a feeble tap on my arm. Either his heart was not in it, or he was just too old and frail to do any better. Guilt-sick in the pit of my stomach, I stood there, breathless and numb for having provoked him to act against his nature, for having exposed his impotence.
Don’t get me wrong. Grandee wasn’t all sweetness and light. I saw him angry once or twice in an argument with my grandmother. At his meanest, he would say something like, “Woman, you ain’t fit to wear a dress,” or “You ain’t got the sense God gave a goat.” I was too young to understand what those curses meant, but the language stayed with me because it was so venomously hurtful and poetic. More often than not, he was a man of uncommon temperance. He didn’t mind if I jumped in his lap even when he was wearing his best clothes. Shirt and tie, hat and suit, leather shoes. That’s how he left for work every day (even after he retired, he sat around the house in buttoned-down shirts, slacks, and loafers). Grandee would walk six or seven blocks from the house to a bus stop on Linwood Ave. and go downtown to a law firm where, I’m told, he worked as a paralegal. I’m not certain what exactly his job duties were or what his job title was, but paralegal is how my mother likes to frame it. In the afternoons when he returned, my sister, my cousin, and I would run down the slope of the front yard, looking down the street for the bus that brought him home. We’d stand there on the sidewalk in front of the house bouncing, like puppies, in anticipation of the treats awaiting us in his pockets. Sometimes they were peppermints, sometimes ounces of rock sugar in a little brown paper bag. We stood there in that happy state of agitation until he finally arrived; we swarmed him with hugs when he did. More than anything, I think we were relieved to be free of our grandmother’s watch.
Growing up around my grandfather shaped my ideas of what it meant to be a man, but Mr. Reed was the only man I routinely got to see actively being a father. Mr. Reed lived on the street behind my grandparents. He had three boys and a girl. The girl was nicknamed Becky, by her brothers, after some television character she loved. Becky and I were the same age and I was best friends with her brothers. Her brothers and I grew up climbing trees, catching tadpoles, shooting birds with BB and pellet guns, and teaching ourselves kung fu from mail order books. Years later, after the Reeds moved over to my side of town, I spent as much time in their household as I did my own. The Reed boys and I spent a good portion of our teenage years as shut-ins, obsessively playing video games, getting as much sunlight as vampires. Those were good times. The Reed household was a sanctuary from the turmoil in my own. Sundays were about the only time that I didn’t see the Reeds because I had to go to church with my family, which was virtually an all-day affair. For me, church was a chore. Having imbibed all those kung fu books and movies as a kid, Buddhism had a stronger hold on me than Christianity, and it still does. Mrs. Reed, like my grandmother, had an abiding faith in the Bible. That religiosity may be one of the reasons the Reed children and I became so close and stayed out of trouble as teenagers. It’s a religiosity I never fully embraced, but one which I’m loath to totally discount.
Mr. Reed wasn’t the church-going type, but he watched baseball religiously. He had thick muscular arms, a solid chest, and, like his wife and children, fair skin. If they had straight hair, his two older sons could probably pass for white. Like his wife, Mr. Reed worked a tiring job, a job that required a blue uniform with a white name patch. He liked us kids to stay outdoors and out of his way when he was home. I tried to keep as low a profile as possible lest I disturb or annoy him. Unlike his wife, he didn’t engage me about my interests and pursuits. In all of the years that I knew him, our conversations weren’t much longer than hello and goodbye. To me he was a thing of awe, a body as distant and stony as Mars. He spoke few words, had fewer smiles; but that probably had more to do with missing teeth than with a lack of thought or feeling. I had one of those whiskey-under-the-mattress moments at Mr. Reed’s place. The Reeds had a tiny, enclosed porch-like room on the back of their first house. It had a sofa or set of chairs in it. I don’t know where Mr. Reed was, but one day a couple of the Reed kids and I sat there quiet as worshipers in pews, reverently turning page after page of his Playboy magazines.
Mr. Reed is dead now, passed away in his fifties. He was a good man. He worked hard, provided a home, disciplined his kids, scrutinized their friends, loved his wife, and gambled a bit. I’m not sure what he and my grandfather would think of today’s men, men who turn to books and websites about parenting. Would they think that today’s middle-class father is too soft, too yielding? Or would they envy the kind of fathers who spend hours getting their toddlers to learn phonics; the kind of fathers who plan, host, and shuttle kids to birthday parties at the YMCA, Chuck-E-Cheese, and Pump It Up; the kind of fathers who enroll their little ones in dance, kung fu, and soccer; the kind of fathers who make breakfast, pack lunches, cook dinner, wash dishes, mop floors, and arrange play dates?
My grandfather and Mr. Reed, with their whiskey and centerfolds, were no Cliff Huxtables. They were flesh and blood men, as complex and contradictory as the rest of us. They were working-class, of little means and less status. They didn’t have college degrees, but they still had their families’ undeniable respect. We revered their stoicism, sacrifice, and solitude; feared their disappointment, disapproval, and discipline. Like a post oak, they were hardened, hardened by the elements of their time, the expectations of their era, the codes of their day.