A Sister’s Complicated Father’s Day

Last week, I had a wonderful podcast with four phenomenal Brother-poets—Reginald Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, Marcus Jackson, and John Murillo—on Talkshoe.com (Here’s the link to the podcast, in case you missed it.).

One of those brothers, Reginald Dwayne Betts, has written a fabulous piece on fatherhood for Abdul Ali, and how to reconcile pain with forgiveness. It moved me greatly and touched a nerve.

(You can read Betts’s piece over at Abdul’s blog by clicking this link.)

I think a lot about those two issues Betts brings up—pain and forgiveness—every single Father’s day, and how it relates to Black women. There’s so much talk, all the time, about the impact of physically and/or emotionally absent fathers on young Black boys in America, how this absence affects their growth into men.

But few Black people talk about this impact on Black girls, and how this affects Sisters’ growth.

I remember when I was in high school in Atlanta, and there were a few Black girls—just a few—at my school who had beautiful relationships with their daddies. They clearly worshiped and adored their fathers, and unless they were lying, I could tell by their confident bearing, the pride that crept into their voices, that their fathers felt the same for those girls.

I have to admit now that I hated those girls. I mean, I really despised them. Jealousy would eat me up, every time I heard them talk about their fathers.

This was unfair of me to feel that way. It wasn’t their fault; truly, there was no fault to be had. Those girls should have felt good, having Daddies who loved them and cherished them.

Yet, as I sat there, in the lunchroom and listened to those girls, I felt as if somehow they had won a prize that I not only couldn’t win, I couldn’t even enter the contest for, because my relationship with my father was characterized by conflict and pain, and yes, emotional absence. It just felt so unfair.

Even then, as a young girl, I ran behind my father for love I never received.  Until the day he died, I waited for some sort of breakthrough between us, like you see in a movie. Of course, it never came, even in the days where he was dying of terminal heart disease, and I visited him, bringing books that I had carefully chosen from the public library with him in mind.

For years, I lied to myself that I hated him, that he wasn’t worth all the love that I lavished on him. Now I can admit that I loved him dearly and still do, to this day, even though sometimes I feel like a fool for keeping that love wrapped in cedar and mothballs. If I didn’t love him, I wouldn’t give him a thought, every year in June on Father’s Day, and every July: he died four days before I turned eighteen, and he was buried on my birthday.

If I didn’t love him, would I be spending this time writing a blog piece? I’d just put up something corny like, “Happy Father’s Day to all the good brothers I know!”

As a grown woman, I see so many Sisters are so invested in running after—or waiting in vain for—that elusive Black male mate. We scan magazine articles, we look at news shows such as the one ABC Nightline had on a few weeks back, and we buy books like Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, hoping that we will be allowed to enter that contest, competing for that sacrosanct Black male love.

And truly, so many of us cut our eyes at other Black women, the rare ones who have secured their Black men, who we other sisters believe are so lucky to have found their prizes, just like they did back in high school–though now the prize is the wedding ring. We suck our teeth in jealousy when the statistics clearly tell us that nearly half of us won’t be able to secure a Black male mate, not because something is wrong with us, but because the Black men just aren’t there–not for every straight black woman looking for one. Yet we ask ourselves about other Black women, “Why her and not me? Aren’t I pretty? Aren’t I smart? Don’t I have good loving? Can’t I fry a chicken seasoned all the way to the bone?”

But I believe we do this—wait and wait and wait for brothers who don’t or won’t show up as romantic mates—because we really are waiting for the daddy who never showed up.

Look, I’m not trying to get all quasi-shrink on you. Maybe you’re one of those sisters who can’t relate to what I’m saying. And if that’s so, alright, then.

But maybe, you’re one who’s waiting on somebody to say something you’ve always secretly felt inside–so I’m gone be that one who tells the truth to you. This is my truth: I’ve waited for that brother who would do all those things that I never had my father to do for me. I waited and I waited and I waited. I’ve been that Mary J. Blige song, “Father in you.” Until, that is, I gave up waiting for a brother to be my father.

I didn’t give up of hopelessness, but out of healthiness, because a man can’t be your daddy, and neither should you want him to be. Now, sometimes, understanding that fact can’t make up for a sad or bewildering childhood, but it can save you from a lot of useless pain and driving yourself Milledgeville-crazy.

(Those folks who are from Georgia will know what “Milledgeville-crazy” means. The rest of y’all got to look that up.)

My father and mother were married, and he lived with us, until finally, we left him. Before that time, he was in the house, and yes, paying many of the bills.  But like a lot of Black men, he wasn’t emotionally or physically present—locking himself in his office, typing his poems and ignoring his family—and when he was present, most times I wished he wasn’t.

He would get mad for no reason, but sensitive child that I was, I felt sorry for him even though who was feeling sorry for me?  (Other than my sweet mama, that is.) I wanted so badly to make him happy, not just for me, but for himself. Even then, I knew he had a birthright–and no, it wasn’t his “Black manhood.” It was his self-love.

He was a Black man born in the early part of the 20th century, but I don’t blame racism for who he was, because I’ve seen some Black men who are good people who didn’t have two degrees from Columbia like my father, and who didn’t come from a social worker mother, and three generations of physicians before her. Those other Black men I’d seen in the world had it way harder than he did, but they somehow worked it out. They did what they were supposed to do, and they didn’t complain about it.

But I suspect those men had loving parents, or someone who reached out to them very early on. By the time my father met my mother, that patient, sweet woman who loved him until the last bar of his blues song ended, it was way too late for him.

But as an adult, going through my own growth journey and understanding myself as a flawed individual who is trying to be better, I see now that this world is not arranged for people to be strong and courageous. It is arranged to keep people–of all complexions–in line.  In order to get better you have to fight your demons inside, and then fight folks outside your house, too. I guess my father just didn’t have that fight in him.

But he gave me gifts. My smile is my father’s and so are my dimples. My loud laugh.  My daddy loved to rear back and shout forth laughter.  He was completely unpretentious.

He was also a brilliant person who gave me my sense of intellectual entitlement—some would say arrogance. Even now, my shelf is crowded with his books. He introduced me to jazz, to blues, to opera, to classical music, to films with subtitles, and the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and Shakespeare.  And I remember one time he told me, “You are one of the smartest people I know.” I was only about nine or ten at the time.

My father’s been dead twenty-five years come this July 19th, so I haven’t given anyone a tacky tie in a long, long time. But this Father’s Day, I’d like to offer some love to other Black women who have faced every June the way I have, as a month to dread, as a month of absence and sadness over what we have missed out on for so many years. Even when we find that other love, still that Father’s love we’ll never have.

Father’s day is not just a day for other Black men to mourn and to reach out to each other, as a day of understanding and reconciliation.

This year, I want to say, Sisters, it’s our day, too. It’s alright to say this, even if only to yourself.

3 thoughts on “A Sister’s Complicated Father’s Day

  1. thanx for your love! these are the hard kind of truths that makes us drink, medicate, overeat and on and on. this is the second time you have told my truth. i am not ready to write it yet, but it’s always good to hear it from my sista… you always go to church on it!

  2. Your story is my story. My father died last year and so not to let our challenged relationship go to waste, I have used it and his life with its own layers of pain as inspiration to my writing. In one of her books, Alice Walker says writing about loved ones helps us to understand them better. She also contends that her relationship with her father did not improve until after his death when he began to make appearances in her dreams. My father escapes my dreams but writing about him does cause me to empathize with his blues. He was a wounded soul. On some level, I think we all are, even when we have healthy relationships with our parents. No one leaves this life unscathed. If your mama or daddy doesn’t leave you wanting, there will be something or somebody to put you in a lurch. Thankfully, for writers, a poem, a story or song serves as outlets for this pain. So what do we do? Write On! Write On!

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