It’s been three months and two weeks since my father returned to dust but his indelible life looms like the moon on a clear black night. He was an American enigma: an elegant black man who emerged from the carnage of history, joyful and unbroken. He was the doting dad whose dark visage somehow eluded the American gaze.
This is an ode to my father and all the unsung patriarchs who defy books, headlines, music videos and statistics; men who nobly show that masculinity can be tender and tough; protective and vulnerable; and who, whether dapper or scruffy, penniless or rich, cherish their children.
My dad was one of twenty million African American men, their stories at times converging but singularly shaped by specific situations and sensibilities that belie stereotype. He was born in the Bronx in 1931 in the mist of the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration and the blues. He was the tenth of fourteen children of a cheerless father, a South Carolina shoe salesman, and a kindhearted mother with crisp diction and a regal carriage from upstate New York. Though little more than a generation removed from slavery, they flouted the social constructions that narrow and ensnare. They were strivers without a blueprint who, from their teeming tenement, nursed their brood’s far-flung dreams.
Well-read and refined my father drew inspiration from the poetry of Langston Hughes and the largesse of Father Divine. He’d be seasoned and softened by hardship. He recalled breaking his leg after fleeing and falling through the fire-scape with a stolen biscuit. He endured brutal whippings from a tyrannical father who thought terror – and not love – would spare him the wrath of the streets. But endowed with steely intelligence and a reverence for history my dad overcame his hardscrabble childhood poised to thrive. With little more than a sixth grade education the scrappy kid who had shined shoes and peddled fruit willed his passion for antiques into a prosperous business. He would create a flourishing antiques center in a downtrodden neighborhood, revitalize housing and freely provide opportunities to those who had been left behind.
My dad eschewed formal religion and found salvation instead in the unheralded past. From his 18-room Victorian house in Englewood, New Jersey he waged a silent revolution. There, amid antiques and splendor, he stockpiled images of black grace, brilliance and defiance that disrupted and buoyed. Here, a gilded-framed daguerreotype of an aristocratic African American boy; there a painting of Malcolm X in a flowing white robe. Bookcases brimmed with rare books filled with stories of black scientists, scholars, artists and dreamers who defied boundaries. Vintage posters, letters, and photographs summoned resilience and resolve. These artifacts formed the basis of a counter-narrative that fortifies me still.
Dad believed in stories; he knew their capacity to empower, liberate, disable or destroy. He would take me to the Schomburg Center and Tree of Life bookstore in Harlem where black lives mattered, where the accounts of extraordinary people who lived on the margins of American consciousness, reigned. He thought I should know that one day, as he drove his vintage Bentley, a white man rolled down his window to ask, “Where’s your master, boy?” My dad — dark, dignified, dashing — laughed as he recounted the affront. He wanted me to know that he had won – that despite all the humiliation his country had hurled at him, despite the withheld opportunity and distorted depictions, he had a cut a path through a maze of intolerance and indifference. And he never lost sight of the continuing struggle. He marched on Washington in 1963 and 1995; supported school children in Jamaica; and liberally assisted those in need. Neither consumed by anger, hatred nor regret, he managed to survive the crucible of American bigotry utterly humane.
He had triumphed and repeatedly paused to celebrate. For friends and family, his home was a refuge of joy and generosity: cook-outs, reunions, weddings, basketball, badminton, chess, Ping-Pong, jazz. Though his curiosity would take him around the world, send him gallivanting on horseback, gliding down mountains, or sailing high seas, home, surrounded by loved ones, was what he savored most.
I salute my dad and all the fathers who persevere with the weight on their shoulders and targets on their backs, and also those who fail but dare to try anew. An extra bow to dads like mine who show little black girls they can be adored by gallant princes, too. That is what truly great fathers do.