My father died on October 30, 1996, 22 years ago this week. On the 20th anniversary of his passing, I wrote an article called, “A Critical Race Autoethnography: A Narrative about the Academy, a Father and a Daughter and a Search for Love.” Click below to read the article:
It was published in March this year in the Journal of Colorism Studies and it recently came back to my remembrance. The abstract says, in part:
“This article explores issues of race and gender in the context of a father-daughter relationship. The impact of racism on an African man’s experience as a faculty member in the academy is discussed, including the effects on the father-daughter relationship as manifested in the daughter’s college experiences. The opportunity for the Black community, Black organizations, and Black churches to assume a more active and intentional role in the socialization of Black children, and Black girls, in particular, as it relates to father-daughter relationships is also explored.”
In the article, I share my father’s journey of discrimination in the Academy — his journey as a person of color, a citizen of from the African continent, a citizen from Sierra Leone, West Africa, a dark-skinned Black man; a man with an accent; a man with a PhD in nuclear physics; a man who spoke up; a man who challenged racism; a man who confronted the system; a man who fought for justice, equity, and fairness. Ultimately, he was a man who was not accepted in the Academy; a man whose identities were too radically inconsistent with America’s ideologies and stereotypes about who could teach and research nuclear physics; a man who could not be allowed to be part of any physics department in America’s sacred White higher education institutions.
My father’s story of discrimination and racism (like many other men and women of color) are hidden stories, stories that are often buried in conversations with friends, in conversations between spouses. They are experiences that are shared in secret conversations, words that rarely find the light of day, and words that are rarely shared with children. I did not learn of my father’s journey from my father. I learned it in bits and pieces from my mother, after he died; and after my mom died, I learned about it in the legal documents of discrimination in file folders that were almost 40 years old. They told a piece and part of a story in stark, bleak words — in petitions, in letters, in formal and legal tones. Although some of it is shared as part of my mother’s journey in A Black Woman’s Journey, it is a story that I hope to one day more fully tell.
My father’s journey was intertwined with mine. Our lives were so connected and intersected on a daily basis. He was essentially a “stay-at-home dad,” tennis coach, music coach, and disciplinarian. We spent many many hours together, every daily. After I graduated from high school, I spent two years focusing exclusively on a tennis career, with him often as my only social contact.
As I share in the article, he wasn’t often a jovial, happy man. Racism often eradicates joy, optimism, and hope. In their place, anger, frustration, and pain come to reside. And, then, we must ask, is there a place for love? What role can and should love have when lives, dreams, hopes, and ambitions, are ruthlessly severed? As my father said in closing in one of the four letters he ever wrote to me:
“THERE ARE NONE OF THOSE NICETIES as I love you. THE FACT IS —- YOUR BIOLOGICAL FATHER. TAECP.”
In the same letter, he said, “I DO NOT HATE YOU BUT I FEEL DEEPLY BETRAYED.” It’s a little funny now, that even before texting, he typed in a strange combination of capital and lowercase letters! The message was clear: I don’t hate you, but there is no time for “niceties” of “I love you.”
As a child, I wanted the “I love you” and I didn’t understand why he never said it. Now, as an adult after many years of misunderstanding, confusion, hurt, and self-interrogation, I understand. I understand that it wasn’t me from whom he felt betrayed, but America. It wasn’t me to whom he couldn’t say, “I love you,” it was to his life. There was no space for niceties and love. There was only space for a fierce attention to discipline, to success, to fighting racism, to overcoming the system of oppression that killed him at the age of 60 — a man whose brilliance and potential were killed before it could even have a chance to blossom.
My reflection on his journey and my journey led me to think about other Black daughters and their relationships with their fathers. I often feel that we ignore Black girls and daughters in the scholarly literature; in schools; in the media; in the Black community. The dominant narrative of Black boys, Black men, and Black fathers and sons often leaves no space for us, for Black girls, daughters, and women. This reflection encourages us, as a community, to creates spaces that foster the “I love you” even in a world that perpetuates separation, silence, and pain.
So, 22 years later, “I love you.”