I recently found myself reminiscing about a short note that my dad wrote to me on the back of a Christmas card when I was sixteen years old. He told me that I reminded him so much of his younger self, and how much he admired that about me. And that while he didn’t always understand, he wanted me to know that he never judged me, and encouraged me to be exactly who I am, even if that meant standing alone. On September 22, 2022, at 2:22 pm (coincidentally) my Dad went home to the ancestors. As we prepared for his celebration of life service, my mom asked me and my seven siblings to share a memory that encapsulated Dad in our lives.
In the days leading up to the service, my family poured over photo albums, mementos, and even dusted off a VCR to watch hours of old home movies. As we sifted through worn Christmas photos, one of my sisters asked me if I recalled the particular Christmas that mom and dad gave us each a greeting card with twenty dollars inside. We had recently moved 6,000 miles back to California from the tiny island of Guam. After 11 years away, with a family of 10, there were plenty of challenges — emotionally and financially — and a few bucks with some heartfelt words were a lot for my parents to give. But as my siblings and I took turns reading, I noticed a stark contrast between my card and the flowery messages the others received. Mine was…well-intended at best, and emotionally damaging at worst.
“We haven’t always agreed with your decisions, but we hope you know that we respect your courage and independence in making them” read one portion of the card. I still have that card, though for many years it’s been collecting dust. As my relationship with my parents evolved, I came to recognize that the intent of that greeting card was at odds with its actual impact. To some, that message may seem innocuous, encouraging even. But to 16-year-old me, it was anything but. The memorialization of the disdain of my ultra-conservative-religious parents’ for what they deemed questionable decision-making and life goals was…a lot. I once told a therapist about the card, and they remarked that a card like that might break some young people. For me though, what stayed with me was the short note from my dad on the back of that same greeting card — one I did not share with the rest of the family that Christmas morning.
The effects of a Dad on his daughter’s trajectory as it pertains to relationships, professional outcomes, and general well-being are outlined across a variety of research. At every stage of childhood development, extensive data points to the need for a persistently present Dad. And if you happen to be Black, like me and my Dad, the importance of paternal engagement is even more paramount. Considering the social impacts of Black people being consistently racialized, the engaged presence of a father can decidedly impact the rates of poverty, pregnancy, and prevalent mental health challenges often faced by Black women and girls.
Black fathers remain more involved [than men of other races] across a range of nurturing and involvement activities like sharing meals, bathing, diapering, dressing, and reading to their children, according to the CDC. However, one only needs to venture as far as your Instagram feed to witness various media outlets, pundits, and even celebrities perpetuating the myth of Black fathers’ absenteeism. Sadly, this narrative is so pervasive, it even becomes ingrained among our own. Appearing on the online talk show “The Zeze Millz Show” in December 2022, musical artist Akon became one of the most recent perpetrators of this long-held misrepresentation — remarking that showing up for your children is somehow reserved for white men.
Long before Akon shared his ill-informed beliefs, the Black community has been combatting this narrative from a chorus of voices. Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color Of Change, commissioned a 2017 report examining the news media’s portrayal of Black families because, he explains, “Millions of Americans form their opinions of Black families through the media’s disturbing and inaccurate portrayal of Black communities”. The report, A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families, found that, unsurprisingly, the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of Black families – and Black fathers in particular – are disproportionately amplified by conservative media outlets. In 2019, Candace Owens sat on a panel and declared that “The biggest issue facing Black America is father absence”, doubling down on a point she made when testifying to congress the month prior. She was and is wrong about most things, this one included. Even so, these same sentiments were shared by Larry Elder in 2015 on CNN Tonight, saying, “The primary problem with the black community in this country is absentee fathers.”
Amelia Flynn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I spoke to her about the role of Black fathers in their children’s lives and the impact of negative stereotypes. She notes that “the reason Black fathers have long been mischaracterized as absent, uninvolved, and, worse, uninterested in the lives of their children and families is largely due to inflated data and perpetuated misinformation.” She goes on to explain that the “shallow and inaccurate narrative has directly impacted our broader systems through policy and law formation — which then impacts curriculum access and discipline in our education systems, law enforcement profiling and the use of force, and biases in court-based custody decisions. The impact of these systems inevitably reaches down to the community, the family, and the individual psyche because we interface with these systems every day.”
My Dad broke every pervasively flagrant stereotype that Black Dads are absent or uninterested in their children’s lives by showing up for me consistently, and, when called for, fiercely. When I started kindergarten, I recall him sitting with me for an hour as I balled my eyes out at the thought of going to class. In grade school, when bullies called us the n-word, he gave my brother and me permission to defend ourselves without fear of getting in trouble at home. When I was 18, he was there to reassure me that the new flame of a boy who had recently broken my heart was, in fact, funny looking anyhow. And when I became the first in our family to get accepted into college, he stretched the unstretchable family budget to get me there and keep me there.
“How should I show up, and can I cuss?” I asked my mom the night before the service, as I prepared to share the memory of my Dad. She smiled, and replied, “I think your dad would tell you to just be yourself.” In unison, and without any prompting, my seven siblings jokingly shouted “Nooo! Tell her to tone it down, don’t let her be herself!”
We had a long and needed laugh — albeit at my expense. The following morning, as I stood before family and friends to celebrate my dad’s life, I reflected on what that message in the card, and my dad’s accompanying note, taught me through the years.
Though my Dad did not always understand or agree with my decisions, he worked to instill the strength I would need to make them. Though I never got the chance to tell him, I hope he knew that I took those lessons to heart, drawing on them to stand amid opposition from what, at times, feels like the entire world. Even in the areas where my dad and I disagreed — politically, religiously, socially, you name it — he consistently supported me and always made me feel seen.
When I graduated high school, I decided that I wanted to leave Arizona to go to college on the beach in Southern California. My conservative dad was not excited about my move to liberal California, or the influence it would inevitably have on me, but he drove me to the dorms nonetheless. In 2012, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, I was radicalized. He did not agree with my newfound activism, but he never stopped me from speaking my mind. In 2016, when I began deconstructing my Christian faith and left the church, he did not understand how I could walk away from a lifetime of faith — he stood behind me anyhow.
As unbelievable as it might have seemed to him, with every decision I made that seemed counter to his better judgment, I was picturing his face, and remembering his words. When I close my eyes, I can still see him, and I know I will always carry him with me. Something I hope to pass on to my daughter is my parents’ partnership in giving me options, allowing me to ask more questions, being ok if I didn’t provide the answers they wish I would, walking beside me no matter the route I chose, and the strength to imagine a better world.
While I have a greater understanding of myself today, the confidence I exude comes from the crucible of those early years. The message in the card I received that Christmas wasn’t perfect, and neither were its authors. But time, reflection, and my journey as a parent have taught me that perfection is elusive, and progress is perhaps the more reasonable goal. There is a millennial adage that goes something like “if I am too much, go find less.”
Maybe my decisions and I are not everybody’s cup of tea, but, thanks in part to my Dad, I can confidently say that’s perfectly fine with me.
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