|A YOUNG CHARLES JOHNSON WITH DAUGHTER|
Monday, November 7, 2011
OUR FATHERS, OURSELVES.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What mistakes should fathers avoid making when raising their children?"
I deliberately spoiled my son and daughter, because my parents spoiled me. I felt toward them as I did toward my wife when we were dating: namely, I wanted them to have not only everything they needed, but everything they desired in this life. These were two black children, you understand? The history of their ancestors in this country was one of systematic denial of their personhood and material deprivation. Therefore, I insisted that both my children have the best of everything, and it was my duty, as their father, to provide that for them. My operating baseline was how my father raised me. As I saw it, I had to at least give my children everything my Dad gave me and, since his personal sacrifices made it possible for me to have a better life in general than he had, I therefore had to do more for my own children.
I was never quite as demanding with my children as my Dad had been with me. He was never harsh because that was not part of his nature. He could be generous (he bought me my first car, paid for my correspondence course with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, and paid for two years of my college education), but he was also demanding. In his view, a man had to know how to work, and it didn't matter one whit what the work was (all work done well had dignity, in his opinion, and was a reflection on the worker), so my first year home from college he got me a summer job as a garbage man for the City of Evanston, a job I did for two summers. He insisted that a young black male had to know how to make sacrifices, particularly for his loved ones. But also how to enjoy life, too. He loved to play pool. We had a table set up in our garage, and he and I spent countless hours when I was in high school on that pool table. Nevertheless, I'll never forget something he dropped on me when I was a teenager. He said, "I want you to have your own job and your own money. And your own car. And I want you not to be a burden on me." He told me that if I was ever arrested, he wouldn't come to help me. But that, of course, wasn't true, as my mother reminded me. He would have been right there with the bail money if for some reason I screwed up and landed in the slammer.
He was a mixture of gentle and tough, water and steel. He had a sense of humor that sparked to life easily. During all the years I knew him (he died at age 81 seven years ago), I never heard him cuss. Not once. The strongest oath he ever used when irritated was, "Shoot!" He was on his knees in prayer every night. At church every Sunday. And everyone in Evanston, Illinois who knew him respected my father---his employers, our neighbors, and my young friends. He was our family's patriarch. He loaned money to his many brothers and sisters from South Carolina (he was from a family of 6 boys and 6 girls). He rented out his second home to them. (Earlier in life, whenever we lived in a house or an apartment, he always found a place that had an extra bedroom he could rent to a "roomer." I grew up with roomers somewhere in the house---respectable black men and women (some with kids) who needed a place to stay, and my Dad provided that for them.) He was frugal, working two and three jobs sometimes---using the check from one job to pay the monthly bills, and putting the other one or two checks away in his savings account. Black men who didn't carry their own weight, who didn't keep a job and support their families, he dismissed as being "sorry." When he died, he left me his large South Carolina home and the huge plot of land it was on to sell (I divided the money between my children and set up safe investment accounts for them), and his savings account was just a few grand shy of six figures, which paid, first for his six months of home care when he came down with congenital heart failure, then for his own funeral in 2004. He was always prepared and carried his own weight and that of others. For life he was prepared. For his own death, too. And he was prepared to leave me and my children something to enhance our survival and prosperity.
He was born in 1922, grew up in the '30s, and there was no nonsense about him. (Even as a young man, he had ideas for how his own father---my grandfather---could improve his work as a farmer and blacksmith in rural South Carolina.) He'd laugh and joke, but when time came to take of business, he was the one in my large family of relatives that everyone turned to, including me when I was a kid. If there was something he was determined to do, he was relentless, like a force of nature, never resting until it got done. His doggedness in this regard could sometimes be funny. In his home, one of my jobs was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. Washing the dishes so they would be ready for everyone's use the next day. We never went to bed until the day's business was wrapped up and things were prepared for tomorrow. And we were always in bed by 11 PM, and up by 7 AM. My wife and I have noticed an uncanny resemblance between my southern-born-and-bred father and the character played by Morgan Freeman in the film "Driving Miss Daisy." (Speaking of driving, he always kept a Cadillac for his own pleasure, but one always purchased used.) Both that character and my Dad were minted from the template of a certain kind of southern Negro who grew up resourceful and proud during the worst years of Jim Crow, and who developed reliable algorithms for survival in a hostile world.
But even my Dad was not the best black father I've ever seen. That distinction goes to my best friend, a black screenwriter in California, who'd probably prefer that I not mention his name, because he's a very private man. He, my friend, was an athlete. He was captain of both his high school and college football teams. But what he did for his son, now on his way to med school, nearly left me speechless. At great expense to himself, he kept his boy in one of the best California private schools from kindergarten through high school, then paid for his way through Swarthmore. His son's schedule was like that of an adult from the time he was very young: classical music lessons at a conservatory (his son is a talented composer now and writes the music for his father's short films); kung-fu lessons (his son had his first children's black belt around the age of eight; I advised my friend on the best martial art systems for him to study); and sports (my buddy assembled and coached a baseball team consisting of poor, young black and Hispanic men in the Bay area to play along with his son because he had problems with what he said was the bigoted, white coach at the private school his son was attending, and the young men on this team he also served as a mentor for). His son (my godson who calls me "Uncle Chuck"), now in his early '20s, is one of the most well-rounded young men I've ever seen. When his son was a kid, something my friend did was sit himself down and record his son's daily high school lessons on a tape recorder, which they played (to save his son study time) as they drove from one after-school, extra-curricular activity to another. (Among Asians, he was the equivalent of a "Study Mom" studying her son's textbooks right along with him.) When asked who his hero is, my friend's son always says, "My Dad." (I can think of nothing sweeter in this world, no greater reward than hearing that.)
In this post I've focused more on what I think a father (or any parent) should do rather than what they shouldn't do. (Obviously, not trying to do these thing is what I see as being a mistake.) My parents talked all the time about what they felt was best to prepare me for the world, then they worked to realize those plans. What is parenting? A daily "performance art" is how I would describe it, and I see it as being the most important job in the world. So I think it's OK to spoil black children a little when they're very young, but they should never have the feeling of entitlement, or that the world owes them something. On my grandfather's South Carolina farm in the 1930s, according to my Dad, even the youngest children learned to work early---for example, bringing water (or tools) to thirsty adults in the field.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 1:33 AM