Opinion | My Dad Wasn’t Around, but I Had No Shortage of Black Father Figures

I knew about Father’s Day, but I did not celebrate it as a child. It was someone else’s holiday, much like St. Patrick’s Day, which belonged to the Irish and had no hold on me. In grade school I endured the pinch that went along with failure to wear green. Similarly, since I grew up without a father around, the annual June celebration passed without comment.

For me, as a Black man, to speak about an absent father is perilous. The trope of neglectful Black fathers, long ago debunked by statistics, is a much-loved talking point that those outside our community use as a buffer against addressing anti-Black racism.

Nonetheless, it must be possible to speak of a particular experience without tying it ontologically to Black people as a whole. Black children can have experiences that are common to humanity without indicting a whole race. Fatherly abandonment transcends culture.

Because of an old football injury, I lack flexibility in my left knee. I have had it so long that I do not notice. But I am often asked by those who see me jog for the first time, “Do you know that you drag your left leg?” When I hear those words, I feel the stiffness that I have long ignored, and I become aware of the limp that has been with me since the age of 17. The same is true of Father’s Day. It was an old wound I mostly ignored until someone pointed it out.

The incident that most vividly reminded me of this wound occurred on the Father’s Day between my junior and senior years of college. I had agreed to do an internship with a small, struggling church in rural Louisiana. Although it had invited a friend and me to help invigorate the congregation, there was not much to do. I passed the time reading and enjoying the few distractions Pineville, La., had to offer.

When Father’s Day rolled around, I had no idea it was coming. That Sunday, I watched, stunned, as my host family gathered around their father from him, uttered kind things about him, recounted pleasant memories of his devotion from him as a dad and even gave him an ugly tie.

The possibility of a happy interaction between a father and his children opened a long-buried desire. Hope, dashed a million times, is frighteningly hard to kill. I decided to attempt another reconnection with my father, who was in prison at the time. Over five typed pages, I let flow a vulnerable epistle acknowledging the difficulties of the past and offering forgiveness for a host of his sins from him, large and small. I conceded that I had made my share of mistakes, too. I felt the letter. Weeks went by. Finally a box arrived from an Alabama correctional facility. I opened it with trepidation, wondering what he had felt to inaugurate a fresh era of our relationship.

There was no letter. The box contained religious tracts from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My father had converted while serving his sentence. (He would abandon the religion shortly after his release from him.) No new era was to begin that day. I thought, “I guess I am alone, after all.”

For a long time, I told the story of making my way without a father. It was something I overcame on the way out of poverty. In that account, I rightly credited my mother for the formative role she played in my life. But I see now that this narrative is incomplete.

I would not have survived Northwest Huntsville, Ala., without Black men. I did not have a conventional father-son relationship, but that did not mean I never experienced love and fatherly affection from Black men. When the time came to care for my own children, I found myself drawing on what these men taught me. Becoming a father gave me a new appreciation of the formative role these men played in my life.

Most youths who survive childhood trauma do so because they encounter love. Someone says, “Your life and what you become matter to me.” How did fatherly affection see into my heart? It came from my coaches and the men in my Black Baptist church. Alongside the constant prodding of my mother, my high school football coach Harold Wells kept college ever before me. I have checked in with my teachers to make sure that I was in class. He and my other coaches spoke to us about avoiding bad company that could ruin our futures.

When I did get a variety of offers to go to university, I had a father figure to discuss the offers with in Coach Wells. He supported my decision to turn down athletic scholarships and choose an academic one.

Coach Wells wasn’t the only one to guide my way. The pastor of my childhood church, Oscar Montgomery, like many other Black clergy members, made it a point to celebrate nearly everything the children of the congregation did, from elementary school to college. He would announce before a crowd of nearly a thousand every child who made the honor roll or excelled in some athletic or artistic competition. It was a small but important sign that people knew and cared about what we were doing. I did not have a father to tell me that he was proud of me. I had the pastor, deacons and other clergy members, male and female.

Members of the congregation stepped in to tutor us and assist with college or job applications. They cheered us on from the stands at our sporting events. They contended with school boards and city officials for the resources we needed. They served by being present. They were the great cloud of witnesses. Their attention soothed, even if it couldn’t eliminate the pain of my father’s absence.

I now have four children who flood me with presents and draw fair to middling images of our family on white computer paper every June. Father’s Day is as ordinary to them as Christmas or Thanksgiving. And I am grateful to the many Black men who showed me how to be their father.

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