The Esu of Forgiveness or Black fatherhood takes the long way round
The Esu of Forgiveness or Black Fatherhood takes the long way round
My father married at 19, emmigrated to Canada with his new wife. By 22, he had three children – his marriage floundering. He met my mother somewhere around that time, at McGill University in Montreal. They were both from Trinidad – opposite ends of the island. My mother remembers him as a serious, organized student. He helped her study for an important English final. During the summers they would hang out together in New York, where my mother worked as a nanny for a wealthy family to put herself through school. On my father’s 25th birthday, my mother was 7 months pregnant with his 4th child – me. He was in Montreal. My mother having graduated was in New York. There are conflicting versions of the communication that took place between them, but he wasn’t there – for her pregnancy, for my birth, for any of the 2 years my mother had to leave me in the care of a foster family and return home to Trinidad to look for a job, before she returned to get me and take me home.
My father came home to Trinidad once or twice a year. My mother would call him to remind him of birthdays and to send something for Christmas. I grew up without him. I am – if you read every report about black youth – a statistic. According to the ‘evidence’, anecdotal and otherwise, black fathers routinely abandon their children, and they’re left to the ravages of a world that preys on children. Listen closely to the timbre of some of this evidence and you’ll hear the strains of ‘this is really the reason that black children flounder – their absentee fathers, their single mothers, their lack of sustained family units and relationships and their failure has nothing to do with any larger forces we may want to ascribe to it.’ Listen closer and you’ll hear some other things about blackness too, but – one thing at a time.
I am today, a father – a black father. To be sure, the jury is not yet in on the success or failure of my attempts at fatherhood. At the writing of this, my daughter – my first child – is only 8 months old. There are several years of testing to go before I can say I’ve been a great, or even adequate father. Still, I moved to a city that I didn’t want to live in so I could be there for my daughter. This is not something that requires an ovation. It is part of what I see as my job. I consider myself lucky to have become a first time parent at the advanced age of 45. I have significantly more clarity than your average 25 year old about what kind of parent I want to be. I’ve significantly more sense of who I am and what patience means and requires – not because I’m wonderful, but because I’ve survived. Moreover, I look around me at my friends – other black fathers, and what I see is the most dedicated cadre of fathers you can think of – men who are not only shouldering their share of the financial burden, but working hard to be there for their sons and daughters regardless of the state of the relationship with the mothers of those children. Indeed, not one black man with whom I have an intimate relationship can be said to have abandoned his children. Wherefore then this idea that black men are more likely to not be there for their kids? How then did this narrative get born?
I’m a freelance teacher of creative writing. Among the places I do this work is in juvenile jail. You probably know where I’m going with this thread. Many of my students have not had the privilege of involved fathers. They are all Black and Latino. They almost all come from Chicago’s South and West sides, which in the context of America’s continued segregation, means neighborhoods of low socio economic status and entirely black and brown. Further, a significant number of their fathers have also been in prison or continue to be in prison. The stories are as common among that population, as they are heart-breaking. Their fathers give them what advice they can – father them however they know, until they are taken away again. Uncles and grandmothers and mothers pick up the slack. Indeed uncles and grandmothers and older folk in the neighborhood are involved whether or not the fathers are there. The village attempts to raise because it has no choice – because their schools are terrible. There are no resources. Jobs are scarce and they fall back on the extended family – the family that existed before industrialization and modern business slicked us with the con game of the nuclear family, cleaved from the rest of its support, to fend for itself in a post-industrial landscape.
I’m running away with a rant now. My daughter laughs when I go into her room to get her in the morning. She can’t believe I’ve come back. She continues to shriek as I read to her while she holds the bars of her crib and bounces up and down maniacally. She fusses through the changing of her clothes and we head out to the bus – or the subway. Everyone smiles at me on the street. White women who pretend I’m ether when I’m alone, talk to me at the streetlights waiting to cross. Occasionally, I end up with a free ride on the bus – if I’m scrambling for my bus card or it turns out that I miscalculated and my card hasn’t enough of a balance on it. I’m praised for the simplest act of caretaking – the body of my child strapped to mine as I go about my daily business. Black women are often ecstatic or confused. I am a menace when alone, something to be sized up. With my child I’m somewhere between magically visible and an alien from a foreign land. So much of what we believe about ourselves is a confusing mélange of lived experience, a con job about what should be, and statistics, damned lying statistics.
Here’s what I’ve come to notice: in general white men are far more awkward with Nina (especially in her first 3 months) than black men have been. They are scared to hold her, or think she’s too little – scared they might break the infant. They’ve had no experience with children in their family they say, or, they’ve never been asked to hold a child even if there’ve been children there. Mostly, these white men are young middle-American and middle-class. They fit comfortably into narratives of who they are as ‘men’ in their society. Not much comes up to make them question their manhood in the general scheme of the dominant white American narrative, even though they’re progressive, liberal white men in most cases. I guarantee that none of these men has ever heard it questioned whether he will or will not be present when he has a child.
Almost to a man the black men in my life and black children for that matter, pick Nina up as if it’s a matter-of-fact. They feed her – from their fingers even as did my best friend’s 13 year old son. They signify all the various ‘tones’ of blackness we’ve come to identify. They’re intellectuals. They’re titans of commerce. They’re violent cops. They’re thugs and reformed thugs. They’re hat backwards freestyling on the train youths and their ability to be tender and show love is not new to me, but I’m an old man now and my daughter is my everything and black men close to me hold her like she is everything to them too. They’re villagers, raising our children. Why is this important? Because this is an image of black manhood that we are nowhere in public representations of black men allowed to see. The narrative that dominates is that black men are menacing and frightening and it is necessary to stand one’s ground against them (even if they’re running away) and this narrative goes even further to not just criminalize but animalize black men with the idea that we’re to expect that they/we, would abandon our young.
I have several white friends whose fathers weren’t there. I know of white youth whose fathers didn’t manage to stay. None of them seem to be treated as part of a statistic. None of them seems to walk around with the ‘knowledge’ that this is part of some cultural statistical yoke they must wear. Indeed, in most of their interactions, others are surprised to learn this about them. I have several white friends whose fathers were there, whose fathers are, indeed, still married to their mothers. Some of them have parents who ‘waited until the children were gone’ to leave. Some of those people wish to all the gods that their parents had divorced. Some of them have parents who share an incredible love. Some of them are working through years of therapy to parse their parents’ relationships. No-one is surprised to learn about my father’s absence – to know this as a thing about me, because I’m black. This includes black people and Latino people and white people. We’ve bought the idea inter-generationally that we don’t take care of our children – that we are somehow incapable of nurture. Since we’re on statistics, those will also let you know that black men are at least (depending on where you are in the country) three times more likely to be convicted for a crime of the exact same circumstance as white men are. The socio-economic undertones of conviction for crack-cocaine as opposed to powder, and the generally racist undertones of the war on drugs have carted black and brown men off to prisons in record numbers in the last 30 years. Indeed, America has found a way to cart black men off to jail at numbers far exceeding that of their white counterparts from the moment Reconstruction ended. These arguments are not separate from the narrative of absentee fatherhood in black communities. The critique about a crisis in black fatherhood cannot be had without examining where black fathers go and why, when indeed they are absent. It cannot be had without also talking about why black boys and girls are adultified in the media and the criminal justice system, and anywhere they are encountered, with often deadly consequences. It cannot be had as a discussion without also having the discussion that the ability to freely go to the polls has only existed for black people in this last generation; in my lifetime.
My friend, Camille tells of how her mother hated to take her and her sisters shopping. For her, a young woman who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the idea of shopping was a joyous occasion. She could never understand why her mother didn’t share in their joy. As an adult, she asked her mother who revealed that as a girl in Houston, when her own mother took her shopping for shoes, she’d have to have her foot outlined and presented to the clerk, because black people were not allowed to try shoes on – shoes that presumably might also have to end up on white feet. Shopping, even in the 50s and 60s meant subjecting oneself to constant indignity. Of course, the shopping example is only microcosmic about what all black life has been like in America up to very recently. The decimation of schools in black neighborhoods, the prison industrial complex, Trayvon Martin and the 188th day since George Zimmerman’s acquittal, all conspire to suggest, that to speak of black fatherhood, in the context of that white American trope of nuclear family head-of-household figure, without also examining the myriad ways in which it might be made not possible or might not be the most advantageous model even, is to ask all the wrong questions and to cultivate willful ignorance. It is also to ignore that across all lines national divorce rates are around 50% and climbing, that alternative modes of family are steadily on the rise among all people, that even as we speak America is deconstructing what family means. Some of those very white friends who grew up in two-parent households aren’t sure that’s what was best ultimately. But the narrative about black men and their children morphs into a narrative about nuclear family being something we should aspire to, and must ignore all the other truths in our lives in order to maintain a nuclear household or be counted (or looked upon) as part of that statistic and conversation about ‘the breakdown of the black family.’ In this narrative, marriage is sacrosanct and without recognizing it we engage in equating non-wed parenthood with abandonment of the offspring, even when those fathers remain involved on a daily basis. We beat that idea about the head, because we desperately want it to be the reason for everything that ails ‘the black community.’ We’d rather not look to some more deeply seated, fundamental reasons for general social inequity.
The Yoruba of West Africa, whose descendants peopled much of the Caribbean, and Americas through slavery, count among their orishas – their manifestations of the Godhead, Esu. He is the messenger between the human and divine worlds, Undergod of duality, crossroads and beginnings, and also a phallic and fertility Undergod, transporter of souls to the underworld. He is considered a trickster god. Think Coyote of some Native American traditions. Esu is the embodiment of that very Christian of biblical ideas that we can’t possibly fathom how God works, or know what he has in store for us. For the African in diaspora, Esu is a grounding idea (whether he participates in the Yoruba spiritual system or not). How else to explain the Middle Passage, what God’s intention is, but by the idea that He manifests as a trickster with the ability to show multiple faces of the self to others and to ourselves. I often think of Esu when I think of the myth of the absent black father, the black father gone, abandoning his charge. Among the many stories told of the playful Esu, who manifests as Elegba often in the syncretization of Yoruba and Christianity in the Caribbean and South America, is that he once walked between two rows of workers on opposite sides of a path. Half his body is painted blue, the other half red. One row of people says “Did you see that blue man?” The other row says “No, he was red!” And so they argue until Esu passes back going the other way, such that the first row says in effect “My bad, he was red” while the other argues ”No, no. you were right. He’s blue.” The essence of Esu is to remind us that not everything is as it appears, and that we must know all sides of a thing before we can locate what it really means. My therapist, a man of endless analogies, says “Do you remember the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Do you remember how many people had the vision of the mountain and drew it, but got to it and couldn’t make contact? Richard Dreyfuss character made a 3-D model out of mashed potatoes or something, so when he got there, he knew he had to walk around it and go to the other side.” We were talking about cognitive behavioral understanding or some such. I was trying to understand my own actions, how I might live more honestly in them. Fatherhood, is like that – but then so is blackness, and its intersection with maleness, and its intersection with white western post industrialized life. We heed the lesson of Esu and forgive what we thought we saw the first time round. All around me are black men so full of love and tenderness for their children that I’m often on the edge of weeping for joy when I see us on the street, give dap to us when we get together. We can let statistics that want to tell one story ‘prove’ one thing to us, but we must watch what is actually happening and seek out stories on the ground; walk to the other side of the mountain to find out the real truth.
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