My father died this past week after suffering injuries in a fire at his home. His death is as tragic as his life. Yet it has afforded me time and space to reflect on his influence and impact over the course of my life. Like life, it is complicated, full of contradictions and ultimately cannot be easily described.
He was born in the 1940s, in the segregated south. The 2nd youngest of 13. He spoke fondly of growing up a country boy. Of dogs and hunting, of nights spent outside and the amazing cooking of his mother.
I recall his stories of working in hotel kitchens, going to segregated schools, being a lifeguard at the segregated beach where he was not allowed to be after nightfall. This was life under jim crow.
In the segregated south, my father was never allowed to realize his potential, all ambition was crushed under the boot of white supremacy, choked off by #jimcrow and denied equality with a hatred of blackness that is uniquely american.
Like many of his family members and millions more from across the south, my father joined the Great Migration and left the #jimcrow laws and moved to California in the early 1960s. He found work at the General Motors plant in Fremont, Ca. and while his job was thousands of miles from the deep south, he would experience racism and discrimination all the same.
It was in California that he got his first glimpse of an integrated society. He went from an all-black school and workplace to a place where for the first time in his life he lived and worked in close proximity to people from Mexico, Japan, China and white people.
This glimpse, of a completely different societal makeup than the one he grew up in, must have been exhilarating and intimidating. I can only imagine it must have been like a Fantasy Island. Seeing integrated couples, eating wherever he wanted and having no (legal) restrictions on where he could go and when. Millions of African Americans including my father experienced this appearance of freedom and equality for the first time in the 1960s.
How he must have felt, seeing the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions played out on the national stage. Getting a peek at what a potential future looked like. A future where his children went to schools that were not only integrated but well funded. Where he could dream big and buy a house where he wanted to and live in a way that was not possible in his childhood in the deep south.
However, these hopes and dreams were torn down by government-directed infiltration of civil rights/black nationalists organizations leading to the assassinations of many of the people he looked up to #MalcolmX #MLK #FredHampton.
The trauma, the scars, the loss of hope must have been crushing. As I reflect on his life I can only imagine how those events shaped his view of the world and shaped his self-view. Hopes and dreams destroyed, purposefully and with malice.
It was after those tumultuous years my father embraced religion. Perhaps he was looking for hope, something to offer stability and safety. It was during those early years that he was a father, a mentor and a friend. Today I see how hard he tried to be the person he always wanted to be. For a few years, he succeeded.
I fondly recall when I was in the 2nd grade we mocked up a Cotton Gin for a show and tell at school, using it to illustrate the expansion of slavery in the United States. He would throw the football to us for what seemed like hours and help my brother and I design slot car tracks. I believe this was when he was at his best. He was present in our lives during those years.
With the support of his family and church, he began to embrace self-improvement. Studying religion for an associate pastor role at church and applying for a foreman position at work. For reasons only he knew, neither opportunity came to fruition. These setbacks coincided with the decades long decline of the auto industry. For my father, this created a perfect storm that flooded his self-worth and drowned his self-esteem.
This economic and personal insecurity began to take a toll on the cohesiveness of our family. Like many people during that time, he had hope for the auto industry and hope within himself, however, with each passing month and year of unemployment, the hope for a return to better times slipped further away as he slipped into the world of addiction.
In retrospect all the signs were there, little things like the car not being repaired, the yard becoming unkempt and of course, his temper became unpredictable. There were moments of kindness and compassion. However, they were fewer and farther between with each passing month. What was becoming painfully obvious was that he was the center of the storm of economic decline, emotional despair and the collapse of the black middle class.
Even as an adolescent I could see the connection between a person being unemployed and the drinking that began earlier and earlier with each passing month. The father who would often make breakfast slept until noon after drinking all day and night.
By the late 80s, our family was in disarray. There were no more family meals, no family outings and the chaos and uncertainty was increasing. Phone and electricity were frequently cut off, bills were piling up and bill collectors were calling almost daily.
I never knew exactly when the drug use began but I do recall the increasing mood swings, late night outings for no apparent reasons and new friends who were so much different than the friends from church.
In many ways, the story of my father ends here. For the next 30 years there were more attempts at rehab and recovery than I can count. It became impossible to separate the addiction and the person. We went years without speaking, often only connecting when he would need money or to dry out after binging.
There is a bitter irony in that my father, who came of age during one of the most significant demographic and societal shifts, was only tangentially aware of the presidency of Barack Obama. For someone who lived close to and worked next to Black Panther Party members in the 60s and 70s, it is especially cruel that he was only vaguely aware of the unrest in Ferguson Mo. while living just 10 minutes away.
In this reflection, it has become clear that he never resolved the trauma in his life and I am not sure if he ever could have. How can we expect someone to resolve a lifetime of disappointment and disenfranchisement? How was he supposed to resolve the trauma of seeing the people carrying your hopes and dreams assassinated, jailed, spied on and infiltrated.
This is not meant to excuse his behavior or minimize the cost of the decisions or choices he made. It’s not meant to gloss over how he took advantage of those close to him and abused them mentally and physically. It’s simply and sadly the truth for generations of African Americans.
His life and the impact it has had on many people is the very real example of how institutionalized racism takes everything from you the moment you are conceived and requires you to fight for everything. This trauma is passed down from generation to generation. Sapping the strength of a people one child at a time. Yet his story is an African American story. One of hope, promise and setbacks. A story that is shaped more by the strength and resiliency of its people than the cruelty and oppressiveness of the system we live in.
In the end, he died like he lived the past 30 years, tragically, broken and in pain. Yet his hopes and dreams are being lived by his children and grandchildren. We have overcome much that befell him. We will continue to write this uniquely African American story.