When I set out to write this book, I decided that throughout it, I would be totally honest and transparent in everything I said, even if I thought it would be painful. My goal is to help fathers to build relationships through sharing my own experiences; some of which I’m proud of, others…not so much. However, each of them are experiences that I believe have common threads for all of us, and if my mistakes and failures can make all of us better Daddies just as much as my successes can, then let the chips fall where they may. That being said, this posting will start off with another “not so much” moment…and here we go:
i wasn’t always proud to be me.
My mother used to clean houses when I was small. That’s what she did to keep money in the house and food on the table. I remember sometimes, she would take me and my little sister Charmaine with her when she went to clean. We had rules. The most important of them all was, “Don’t touch NOTHIN’!”. I probably don’t have to say this, as we were both pretty young and as such, borderline barbarians, but THAT, dear reader, was what we call, “wasted breath”. As soon as her back was turned and she was out of earshot, we would usually tear thru those houses, running around playing; doing whatever mischievous ideas crossed our lil miscreant minds. But there was one house that was always a little different for some reason.
That house was Ms. Zella’s house. I really hated the days that we had to go to this particular house. I don’t remember much about Ms. Zella, only that she was a middle aged White lady; tall and slender, with a sour face. Mama would always make it very clear that we were not allowed to roam freely in Ms. Zella’s house. I think it was because a lot of times, Ms. Zella would be home while Mama cleaned, and she didn’t want her kids to be seen as some untrained little rabble-rousers that slowed down her work. So, we tried our best to do what we were told. The fact that Mama cleaned houses want’t bad . Not at all. I would dare think that most kids at that age really think that whatever job their parents do is cool. I did. It was the other stuff that punched me in the gut.
Mama’s interactions with Ms. Zella bothered me. I remember how it made me feel to see Mama defer to some lady that was way younger than her; shoveling on her as much respect as humanly possible. I would get mad whenever I heard Mama show her respect by calling her “Ms. Zella”, and her calling Mama “Josephine” in return in that irritating, Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara, Flo from Mel’s Diner, whiny southern accent of hers. The whole package made it all feel like someone slowly dragging their fingernails across a chalkboard every time she opened her mouth. Now, for a child that was always taught to respect his elders and to ALWAYS say “Yes, Sir.” and “Yes, Ma’am.”, I couldn’t fathom how she could get away with talking to Mama like that.
Now, I understand how this could be seen as a very trivial instance, but the fact that I remember this stuff some 30 odd years later, and that it played such a role in developing my idea of race relations and my own sense of self worth is important to note. Children see more than we think, and internalize more than we know. It’s not always the big, civil rights, march on Selma moments that shape a mind, it’s the small things too.
That wasn’t the only thing that hounded me from inside the walls of Ms. Zella’s house though. It was also the less obvious things. I remember being surrounded by images of stuff that was, in my eyes, proof of an infinitely better life than my own. I always say that poor people don’t know that they are poor until someone (or something) points it out to them. Well, Ms. Zella’s house did that for me with a vengeance. It pointed out my lack and repeated it over and over again with a deafening reassurance…a virtual “Naaah naaah nuh Naaah Naaaaaaah” that would make the hunger that would gnaw at me in bed at my own house seem that much worse, and me feel powerless to change it.
Her house made fun of me. Sometimes it was simple stuff; stuff like the fact that their TV’s had more than three channels, that they had carpet on the whole floor, that they didn’t have bed sheets on their furniture to make it all match, that the clothes in their closet didn’t all smell like wood or kerosene smoke and, most importantly, their refrigerator was always full…always.
Sometimes, mama would feed us out of that fridge. I think those were the best lunches that we ever had, or at least they were to me. The extra seasoning of knowing that those “rich” folks would be just a lil short that day always felt like I was thumbing my nose in Ms. Zella’s face, and that made it taste all the better. But that feeling of triumph always faded away with the feeling of fullness and the return to powerlessness.
And so, I wasn’t proud to be me.
I wasn’t proud to be Black, because everything that I saw, to me, seemed like Black failure and White success. Every history book that I opened painted me as a member of a group that really hadn’t accomplished anything. They were all filled with stories about how we were brought here in chains and their pages seemingly revealed that I should be thankful that we were “rescued” from the wilds of Africa. Oh yeah, they would always throw George Washington Carver in there for good measure….You know, so I wouldn’t feel left out, but usually just in February.
I wasn’t always proud to be from a single parent home despite the fact that my parent was an honest, loving, hard working mother. I wasn’t always proud to be a “smart kid” in school. In actuality, I really wanted to be one of the “cool kids”, but it was hard to do while wearing the “freshly picked from the bin in the grocery store” shoes with the hard plastic bottoms that my mother used to buy for me. I wasn’t always proud of the home my mother provided for me even though it was more than adequate and filled me with what would become fond memories til this day. I wasn’t always proud of the hand me down pants that I had to wear with the multiple lines around the ankles from having year after year of cuffs ironed into them, but that kept me totally warm in the winter . I wasn’t proud of the fact that Mama used to get free vegetables to feed us with. In fact, most of those things I didn’t see as signs of anything honorable, but rather bright scarlet letters. I was ashamed of everything that I was for a while…but not forever. It took a few lessons, but I learned a few things that will help me with my daughters, and I thank God for these lessons.
First, it’s important for us as fathers to teach our daughters that their value does not go from the outside in, but the inside out. In THEORY, that should be easy, but in practice, it’s much more difficult to pull off. To begin, we have to understand, that we are in a constant battle for our daughters’ mindspace. That puts us in direct competition with the negative influences. (BET, MTV, Housewives of Atlanta- Beverly Hills-New Jersey, Teen Moms, etc.) We have to become positive counterbalances to all that that they are bombarded with every day. This is not easy, and it’s often not very fun either. But it IS necessary.
Everywhere they look, and in everything they hear, our daughters are told that their hair isn’t long enough, or their clothes aren’t cute enough, that they don’t sing good enough or that their lips are too fat and their noses too wide. What we have to do then, as those charged with being their protectors, is become the first line of defense for them. We may not be able to intercept all the arrows flung their way, but we can help make their armor a bit stronger; their shields a bit thicker. We have to take every opportunity to show them their worth and to help them know that their beauty springs from the strength of their character. We are tasked with teaching them that true beauty comes not from what people see, but rather from what they can never see. Our role is to make sure that they understand that HOWEVER God made them is beautiful and that they never have to sell out or settle to fit in. It’s invaluable for them to know that regardless of the cost of their clothes that no one is worth more than them, and that others are important as well. Sometimes it’s difficult for a girl to find something about herself to be proud of. So, sometimes, as Daddies, we have to point it out.
Secondly, if I can borrow the term, we have to “accentuate the positives, and eliminate the negatives.” When my girls were younger and much more vulnerable, every day, I would try to find SOMETHING to compliment them on that wasn’t something that could be bought, or worn, or borrowed. Now the business of my life would get in the way of doing it sometimes, but whenever I find a free second to do it, I try to. I’ll put it to you like this. I’m a grown man, and still, when one of my daughters sends me a text message, or writes on my office whiteboard about how proud they are of me, that they love me, or that they see how hard I work for them, it makes my day go just a little bit smoother. I can’t tell you how many times a perfectly timed positive message from one of them has kept me from throwing in the towel. Now, if a grown man can gain strength from that, and I already KNOW how hard the world can be, how much more valuable can it be to a little girl to see that they have someone in their corner? Try to find excuses to compliment her. It’s important to give them a reason to smile.