Learning how to be a father who won't leave.
I learned shortly after my daughter’s mother and I separated that by continuing to be in my daughter’s life, I was committing a highly subversive act.
It felt as though my ex-girlfriend wasn’t prepared to deal with my continued presence, my picking our daughter up on weekends, my asking for her on holidays. It felt as though I wasn’t following the script, and she, as well as her family, couldn’t understand why I didn’t just leave. After all, as a black man wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?
My parents’ marriage disintegrated not long after I came into the world. I have absolutely no recollection of them being together, but my older brother and sister insist that this was indeed the case for several years. I rarely if ever saw my father. And when I did he was always very serious, even when he smiled. Occasionally, he would pick us up on a Saturday afternoon and take us out to eat. Then we would often go several weeks at a time without seeing him.
Shortly after I turned 7 years old, my father came over to our house one evening and called my two older siblings and me into the living room. Like always he was wearing a collared shirt and a tie, and like always he was very prideful. He told us that he would be moving back to his home state of Tennessee with his new wife to be the pastor of his own church. We didn’t believe him. We made him place his hand on the Holy Bible and say it again; after he obliged we knew it was true. He only stayed for a few minutes, and then he left. We smiled and waved goodbye to our father through the window, never fully realizing what was taking place.
After that night sometimes we would see him once a year. Other years we wouldn’t see him at all. In the beginning he would call, but then the calls began to come in a lot less frequently. I never called him. As a matter of fact, by the time I was a teenager, I became a lot more comfortable with his absence than I was with his presence. In the public schools that I attended not having a father was trendy. It made you normal.
In junior high, whenever I was hanging out with my friends in the hallway or in the gym and the subject of our fathers came up, we all chimed in with different reasons as to why we hated our dads. Why dude was a coward. At least one of us declared that he would beat his father to the ground for what he did to his mother—if he ever saw him again. There could have been a whole room full of black boys and you wouldn’t find one of them that wanted to be like his father. No one ever tried to understand his father. We all depended solely on our mothers, or in some cases our grandmothers, for our daily representation of what a man was supposed to be. And we were able to infer from these women’s stories that a “real man” was everything that our fathers were not.
At the age of 19, I fell in love with a woman. Three years later she gave birth to my child. About six months after that she broke up with me. She confronted me one evening and said that she could tell that I was unhappy with the relationship. I couldn’t find the words to disagree with her. Two days later she moved out of my house and took my baby girl with her. It was at that point that I realized I had no idea what being a father meant. I needed to find out in a hurry, but there really weren’t a lot of role models in my family.
My mother’s father was shot in the face the day that she was born and died in the hospital a few days later. The only thing I knew about my paternal grandfather is that he and my father didn’t get along. He died before I was born and I have never so much as seen a photograph of him. My mother once said that he was the overbearing type but I’ve never been able to confirm this with my father. My father has never brought him up.
My daughter felt the negative energy. Before I could buckle her down in her car seat for the nearly one-hour drive, she would break out screaming and crying until she lost her breath. After I strapped her in and turned onto Main Street heading toward the freeway the crying would persist. I would look at my baby through the rearview mirror, she’d make eye contact with me and scream louder. One day I became unraveled.
I demanded that she stop crying, and told her how much I sacrificed for her. That I had gotten a college degree so I could provide for her. That I was being degraded on a daily basis at a job that I couldn’t stand just so I could have enough money to come get her, and she had the nerve to disrespect me. Cut it out! I told her. Stop it! But she continued to cry. This little brown-skinned girl with light brown eyes like mine, and full eyebrows like mine, was in her car seat openly expressing all of the sacred things that I had learned to forget, like those trips to the barbershop.
I never liked to get my hair cut as a child. About once every few months my father would take my brother and I to the barbershop for a haircut. By this time I would have a small unkempt Afro with patches of tiny naps on the back of my neck. In preparation for my trip to the barbershop my mother would gently comb my hair with a little plastic comb. She would spray water on the tougher spots so the comb would go through nice and easy, so I wouldn’t squirm as much (because I was severely tender-headed). But I still squirmed and all of mother’s careful strokes and tedious labor were irrelevant by the time I got to the barber’s chair, because the water had dried, making my hair harder and nappier than ever.
The barber was my father’s friend. He was an old guy with glasses, named Will. He never showed me any mercy. My father was always first to get a haircut and it always amazed me how he used the barber’s chair like a pulpit. He carefully directed the general conversation of the shop to topics that interested him. Somehow he was able to redirect all conversations about sports —which he had always abhorred—to the need for black people to support black businesses. Conversations about women somehow ended up being about Christianity. My father, although small in stature, was the unofficial maestro of the barbershop. And he never once had to raise his voice.
My brother would go next. He never let his hair get as long and kinky as mine. His hair was so soft and thick the barber almost thanked him for letting him touch it.
Then it was my turn to go. While my father continued to direct conversation and my brother sat in his seat glowing with all of the adulation he had just received, Will the barber ripped through my hair with a torturing device known as the “natural comb.” A natural comb is a long black comb with metal teeth designed specifically for taming the most savage, unruly naps. As he ran the comb through my hair with so much force that it snapped my head back and I could literally hear the naps popping out, I tried so hard to keep it together, but I could feel the tears coming. I knew that he had to comb my hair so that it wouldn’t damage his clippers but I couldn’t understand why he had to be so brutal. Why didn’t he ask me if I was tender-headed? If he did then maybe he would be able to comb my hair gently like my mother did. Why didn’t it bother him that he was hurting me? I could no longer stop the water from trickling down my cheek. I looked at my father, the great composer of conversation, through blurred eyes as I cried. And I remember him finally looking up at me. He did not say anything. He was ashamed.
And now this little being was in my backseat screaming so loud and for so long that she lost her breath. I hadn’t made it to the freeway before I cracked. She broke me down. I pulled the car into the nearest parking lot, unbuckled her, and held her close to my chest. I let her cry and she did for several minutes. I rocked her and shushed her gently while telling her gently that everything was going to be OK. I kissed her tears away until no more fell, until she went to sleep in my arms.
That was the day I learned to transcend my manhood in order to be a good father. I promised to listen to her cries in order to interpret exactly what she needed. Sometimes it was a bottle, sometimes it was reassurance, and sometimes it was a hug, while other times it was a song. Indeed my daughter was the first female I learned how to effectively communicate with. She became my entire weekend, she was my focus, and she became my identity.
That was the day I promised I would never leave her.
Reprinted from Rad Dad (Spring 2014), a quarterly zine that features dispatches from frontiers of fatherhood.