Comedian Paul Mooney once said that every Black man in America has a police story. I certainly have one or two or three, but that’s not I thinking about this morning. I’m not even thinking about Henry Louis Gates’ police story or his Beer Summit with President Barack Obama and James Crowley.
I’m actually thinking about a corollary to Mooney’s Maxim — that Black men with police stories also often have daddy stories; that fathers, whether active or missing, dead or alive, good or bad, are often at the core of our narratives.
I had the distinct pleasure of a summer visit from my twelve-year old nephew, and he has a daddy story. We are related by matrimony and adoption, not blood, but our kinship ties are deeper than the dried ink on my marriage license. His daddy story begins with abandonment and moves at a steady pace through confusion, resentment and deep-seated anger. Still, he has found the wherewithal to retain a child-like innocence.
When I was 12, I had already surrendered much of my innocence and had spent more days than not without my father. I was already enrolled in high school more than 3 hours from my home. I was making my own decisions about things that parents believe to be their prerogative. I wasn’t an adult, but I wasn’t a child, either.
He was very much alive, but also very much incarcerated for youthful indiscretions he knew to avoid. Of course, my father did not grow up in a vacuum. He too had a daddy story. His daddy story was not so much about abandonment as it was about priorities — the priorities of his father, my grandfather, placing work before family. The economics for Black families in 1940’s and 1950’s New York City were acutely challenging. Times were different and a man’s first obligation was to provide. In that respect, not much has changed, except that in the 1960’s and 1970’s, something did change.
The taboo of abandoning one’s progeny for the pursuit of more ass or more frivolity faded from sight. My nephew’s father lives from that ethos. And yet, he didn’t learn it from his still-at-home daddy who does not share his value system. Nonetheless, he picked up this spiritual virus somewhere and has infected his own child. The solution to my nephew’s daddy story must ultimately become one of reconciliation — with himself (his true self — not the self he likely blames for his father’s choices), with his father (and all of his flaws, and the positive traits he has passed on), with his mother for choosing his father, and with the world for always seeming to judge him before ever getting to know him.
Of course, the world cares little about your pedigree at the end of the day. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. The world only cares what you can do. My hope is that my nephew finds a way to continue to do things for himself and others before he ever has a police story.
My hope is that he understands that what will define him is not that he shares this experience will millions of other boys. After all, our common bonds and bruises are the essence of hot Saturdays in air-conditioned barber shops — and not much more. Our bonds announce to whom we relate, but not how we relate. There is another level. Most of all, I want him to know he will be defined by how he responds to his life experience. He has tremendous personal power because he has the power to choose and he must know that freedom means that he must not be a prisoner to reactionary police or the choices of his father.