What I’m Pondering This Father’s Day: Memoirs by Some Notable Black Authors

June 17, 2017

Last year long about this time, I read a tribute by Walter Moseley to his father Leroy. His dad, Walter says, taught him “to bob and weave in life and art,” which, if understand it, means to agilely protect himself.

The lessons were Leroy’s own stories about growing up poor and oppressed in harshly racist Louisiana, learning to do various sorts of paying work and to protect himself after he fled to New York City — this after his mother died, his father left and the relatives he resorted to wouldn’t care for him.

Leroy wanted to write pulp fiction, but realized that it was impossible for an impoverished man in the Deep South to become any sort of writer then. “Hardly easier now,” Walter interjects.

Leroy headed west and settled in Los Angeles, having realized that more of his draft-age friends died in Houston than in the Second World War. He became a “fiercely loving father, ” prepared all his kids’ meals, but left Walter free to choose whatever he wanted to do when he grew up.

So Walter decided to be an artist –“someone who makes something from nothing.” That, in his case, would be something from the “stuff” of Leroy’s stories — “of pedestrian, tragic life.”

A telling snippet follows. Leroy decides to go to an all-white café. He orders a tuna melt, gets served and exclaims in his later telling, “Man, that tuna melt felt like freedom.”

Then the man next to him drops dead.  “I realized right then and there,” he said, “that, freedom aside, no man, no matter who he is, can escape his death.”

Yet that wasn’t his “ultimate gift,” though the insight surely became part of it. The gift itself, imparted through a wave and smile as he was dying, was “an indomitable spirit and the talent of taking the beauty and refusing the rest.”

It’s nice to reflect again on how Walter learned to “attend to ordinary suffering, to the love that persists in its midst … and the attendant grim humor.”

He wasn’t rejecting anger. Nor lessons like the talk black parents feel they must have with their sons. But what I’ve heard and read suggests that those are more consumed by continuing anger at violence against blacks, though not to the exclusion of helping their kids avoid it.

And in some cases, they’re messages to us, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s potent book-length letter to his son.

I’m brooding on blacks’ memoirs of their youthful days with their fathers in part because we’re about to celebrate Father’s Day — officially at least. But I’m also working my way through Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line.

The line is one Williams discovered — that he looked white and thought he was, partly because his black father passed as Italian until chronic financial, booze-fueled recklessness brought him to seek housing with his unmistakably black mother.

Things go generally from bad to worse, so far as his father is concerned — and ultimately his brother, who rebels against his father’s demands and related, though unexpressed needs, e.g. making sure he’d gotten to the home his mother had exiled him to before passing out in the street.

Greg responds instead by giving his all to qualifying for a college education — and the financial assistance he’d need, of course. We know he succeeded. We know that, in some perplexing manner, his relationship with his father, as processed through this memoir had something to do with it.

We — daughters, as well as sons, on the white side of the line as well as over into the colored—know how life with our fathers (or without) helped shape the way we are today.

I still recall especially fraught and endearing moments with my father, who died many years ago. I convert them into unspoken words — from raw memory to memoir snippets.

No art nourished that way. But probably political leanings, since I recoiled at my father’s bootstrapping conservatism, even when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Republicans any more.

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