Wednesday, April 22, 2009
An Open Letter to My Father
You named me for a woman whose voice tells the story of women daring as pirates, women whose sensual footsteps marked paths unbecoming of any era’s definition of a “lady” but crucial to the heart and soul’s beat of the black Americas; you named me for a woman who calls forth generations of ripe genius, demanding an answer affirming the resilience of a people more beautiful for our collective denial of what popular national policies and practices would craft as our inevitable demise. And though I’ve never known her to belt out the word “feminist” over any melody, her presence, whether live or recorded, fills that politicized identity with the fiery blood, the fearless pout, and the demand for respect which have all merged to birth black women as the foremothers of any rendition of feminism and humanism since our ancestral feet touched soil this side of the Atlantic.
I cannot claim her life and legacy as singly my own. She has many daughters, of which I am only one. But I can find myself, in moments, upon the story-sounds brought into the world by way of her heart, her lungs, and lips. And in finding myself there on more occasions than I could ever recount in this space, and in acknowledging the role you played in guiding me to where I should look for a strong and worthy affirmation, I am certain that you had a pivotal role in designing my life as a rebellious and empowered black woman determined to break free of any and all oppressive forces hell bent on silencing me, or any of the folks I lovingly consider familiar to my own heart. And I love you for it.
We have not had an easy walk together. And this, I think, should never be a surprise for you. There should be some comfort in our tensions, because, even in those difficult times, I was testing the variegations of your initial intent. The name, the path, the promise and prayer you must have carried within when you helped to give me life, demands that of me. So when I railed back at you for setting before me what I recognized as a limitation (whether curfew or expectation of what your experience dictated I should do), I was only living what you passed on to me.
What did you pass on to me, beyond the name, and possibly, somehow, within it as well? There are many gifts I can recall, but I will begin with words – the most simple and obvious treasure for a young woman writer. It was you who taught me how to read at the early age of two, and it was you who traveled with me to countless bookstores come Saturday with the most precious freedom imaginable: you gave me free reign in bookstores with shelves dedicated to the lives of black and brown people so that by age twelve I discovered Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. And on our Sunday drives through the city, you asked me to read Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Semple stories until we doubled over laughing at the mirror reflection found in small black print. Beyond that, and also converging within that miracle, were the countless meetings and business trips I was so lucky to experience with you, because you lived your words, “If there’s somewhere I can’t take my daughter, what business do I have there myself?” And you were educating me through that choice. I learned the courage and tenacity it takes to be an entrepreneur and a thinker, the joy found in speaking back against the odds, and the importance of living my politics, despite potential personal discomfort. It was you who took me to my first protest in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. on a cold January day. And you would not let me stop walking and chanting, regardless of how cold the temperature or how my shivering lips eventually produced unintelligible words nearing a whisper instead of a shout so that what may have become a whisper there certainly could never stay that way. You affirmed my voice, demanding my input in every family debate and requesting my services on projects that would have typically gone to someone with more experience. You dared me to reach beyond the comfortable place of my youth, and to create a path informed by my ability to think and act from a space of confidence. Thank you.
When I became a single and divorced mother of two daughters, it would have been easy for me to become embittered toward black men, had it not been for your presence in my life. And I have to be honest, Dad, when I was transforming through that painful time, our relationship became a frustration for me in ways I am only recently beginning to understand. In mining my most intimate knowledge of self, I had to look at my relationship with you, the first “man” in life, because I believed that in unpacking all that I had experienced with and through you, I would come to some epiphany about how I, a black woman raised in a two parent household of some privilege, could find herself among the epidemically ruptured, and perhaps irrevocably damaged, contemporary black and broken families. I wanted to hold you accountable for every human mistake, every disappointed frown in my memory of life as a young girl in your home, because in so doing, I could forgive myself, forget the true collapse of sacred vows, deny the sting of this nation’s constant trial against those of us young colored genius’s who often turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the perpetual need to be consciously responsible in our community’s evolution, trading a history of politicized progressive movement forward for a near dupie’s sleep through it all. I wanted to blame you in much the same way that many in my generation blame our parents’ generation for failures we feel too small to clean up. But I could not hold that line. Your life’s work, and the many struggles and victories of those who walked with you, refused me that easy way out at every turn.
You did not coddle me into understanding this. Instead you challenged me to step up my game in ways that seemed ridiculous to me sometimes. You demanded that I find a way to speak my story of addiction, abuse, and spiritual deficit by helping me to write and eventually see my words live through the performances and interpretations of a special family of risk-taking artists. You also told me something which helped me to understand that, even when your version of black manhood did not measure up to what I thought it should be in relation to my experience as a black woman, it is only possible for us to choose, if spirit finds us strong enough, to become better versions of self; and no politicized identity, no moralized idea of right or wrong, can change that very human aspect of our being. You said, “Every man is [at best] a recovering sexist,” and that one can only work diligently at unlearning what he has been conditioned to practice. Through that admission, I came to understand that we are all always unpacking the debris of a remaining cultural tendency to oppress and deny that which is both our most honest and most troubling inherent trait – LOVE. Thank you.
It is my respect and admiration for you and your determined walk in this life which has kept me wanting the stories and lives of black and brown men, in spite and because of the “failure” of my marriage (not to mention all the other break ups and break downs in relationship with my brothers). What I once shamefully defined as a failure in loving a black man has finally become a lesson in how love can often tear folks down simply to create an opportunity to know a more revolutionary way of loving, one transcending life’s inevitably real and down right ugly ways of testing faith, strength, and awareness. Thank you.
Your choice to push me further away by forcing me to walk alone with a sense of dignity and a certain independence of spirit at times when I was whining and crying out of a sense of apologetic victim-hood has kept me from hiding under your protective wing, even though you risked losing the closeness cultivated during my early years by taking such a stance.
You are always with me, whether we agree with laughter and conspiratorially pleasant smiles or disagree with arms folded across chests and angry words straining but never breaking the simple truth – I will always be your daughter, and you will always be my Dad. There are no replacements, no imitations, no doubts or dismissals. And if I often seem brazenly rambunctious in how I choose to be your daughter, simply remember . . . you helped to design me this feminist black woman, and you chose my name.