One of my most vivid childhood memories happened in the living room of my grandfather’s house. My grandfather, who was an amazing storyteller, was talking to my brother and me about his childhood and his experiences in the world.
I sat there as an eight-year-old along with my brother, who was 11, with rapt attention. He said with extraordinary passion and conviction – eyes watering and in his booming voice – “Never put your head down!”
We sat there transfixed - almost paralyzed - as we knew even then that he was not speaking literally but metaphorically. He was trying to convey the self-confidence, dignity and pride we need to have as Black men in the world. I think about that moment often because it not only informs how I engage with the world, but how I try to guide my two sons.
Since the 17th century, as the first African slaves arrived on Virginia’s shores, these noble individuals’ captivity was framed around the idea that subjugation equals inferiority. The idea was to make them feel that their bodies, their hopes and dreams and the bonds they had with their family did not have the same value as those of a white man.
It is why even today, when we see senseless acts of violence against Black men and Black people, they go unpunished. It reminds us that the value of human life is not viewed the same, that who you are is not measured by what we have in common or by that which is eternal, but by the shade of your skin.
The thing that should be inherent in all of humanity is the idea that we are all part of a collective journey. A journey in which we are on equal footing. And that it is in this shared humanity that we will elevate our consciousness and station in life.
Sadly, this is not a universal feeling in our country today. All hungry kids are not treated the same, all of the unemployed are not viewed with compassion and all of those who have suffered during the pandemic are not given the same empathy.
It is this bizarre dichotomy that makes the role of the Black father so important in nurturing and cultivating Black men. The role is as important now as it was when our ancestors arrived in this country in chains.
It is important for Black fathers to affirm to their sons that they are the descendants of kings and queens. That they are from a people who have made extraordinary contributions to every aspect of society and the world. That the United States of America would not have ascended to prosperity without the determination and resilience of the Black man.
I have reminded my sons of this often throughout their entire lives. I reminded my son of this when, as a fifth-grader, he was called the N word by a classmate and saw the students’ parents not address the child’s behavior appropriately. Or as my oldest son beautifully navigates his way in college with dignity and is not disheartened by the visible displays of things like confederate masks worn by other students.
Black fathers play a vital role in helping to ensure that Black boys and girls grow up to be strong Black men and women just as our ancestors did for us. We have to make sure our sons understand that we have a responsibility to honor the example that our ancestors set before us.
Our ancestors who, despite knowing that they would never see a free society, sacrificed for us. Despite their toil, their pain, their suffering, they knew they had to create a better life for their children, grandchildren and future generations. Black fathers and mothers – many of whom were separated from their own families - still passed on important values that resonate with my family today.
I have many hopes and dreams for my sons. I want them to live with integrity and make meaningful contributions to the world. I want them to earn and demand respect and live with the self-assuredness that they are not any more – or any less than anyone else. That no matter the circumstance, if they maintain the gratitude for their ancestors, their love of family, their belief in loyalty and honesty – then they can achieve greatness.
The beautiful young boy, Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 for “allegedly” whistling at a white woman. Certainly, if he was white he would not have met the same fate. I remind my sons to remember him - but also to remember the words of his mother. Despite the profound despair of losing her child she was reported to have said at his funeral, “I don’t have a minute to hate.” “I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.”
If my sons live with that sentiment, I will be a happy man indeed.