A recent New York Times front-page story recited the tragic and too-familiar litany of stories of “vanishing” black men who are disproportionately targeted by the criminal-justice system and therefore disproportionately absented from communities and the lives of their partners and children. These concerns are real, and the ramifications are matters to which dedicated teachers, lawyers, politicians, community leaders, artists, coaches and mentors of all stripes devote their constant energy.
On Father’s Day, this is an ode to black male presence, to the fathers and uncles and brothers and friends who are active and present in our lives, every single day. It is also an ode to two black fathers in particular: my own, Clifford Alexander, and my late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who is the father of my two teenage sons. I write this ode against the backdrop of a language of absent black fathers and endangered and absent black men that becomes a drone, a buzz, that overwrites some of the very stories and facts that foster spiritual, physical and mental health in our communities.
I am a mother of two black sons. I share the fears so many fear for our black sons’ vulnerability in a society that enacts so much hostility and fear toward them and often sees them as monstrous and threatening rather than as, in some way, their own: neighbors, friends, fellow citizens, nephews, sons. I have written about the pernicious stereotyping of young black men (and women), and the literally deathly rhetorics of black male bestiality that have put so many young black men at risk, not just in this last terrifying year of the Trayvons and Michaels and Tamirs, but throughout all of American history.
But do I want my sons only to hear a dirge that says they are ever on the verge of catastrophe? That their every step may be their last? No. I teach and have taught these fine young men to be mighty, strong and large; yes, large in the face of hostility and stereotyping, even as I have taught them to be safe. I have taught them that fear is not a motivator. I have taught them to live every day fully and to be generous souls who share their fortune and don’t assume the worst, even as they plan carefully and protect themselves.
I am a single black mother of black sons because their father is one of the so-called absent ones. Three years ago he died completely unexpectedly, while exercising on the treadmill, four days after we celebrated his 50th birthday. He was a glorious man, an activist on behalf of Eritrean liberation during their long war, a chef and restaurant owner and a fine, Yale-trained painter. He was brilliant and peaceful and humble and grand. His name actually means love, and no one embodied it better than he. He spoke eight languages, could fix things and solve problems, and literally never had a cross word for his sons, whom he adored every single moment of their lives. They were 12 and 13 when we so suddenly lost him, three years ago.
Ficre’s way was quiet strength. He was not a loud man (though his laugh was the most robust music I ever heard). He had a contemplative, artist’s temperament, and was a keen, quiet observer perhaps in the way an immigrant must observe in order to make his way in new places, as Ficre did in Sudan, then Italy, then Germany, then the United States, where he built his life after leaving Eritrea and its long war and reign of terror in the late 1970s when he was a boy of 16.
My father’s way was, and is, from the Frederick Douglass school of black progress: Power concedes nothing without a demand. He is a classic race man from his Harlem childhood to today, a warrior on behalf of fair working conditions and life opportunities for all people. He is a feminist—yes, an 81-year-old black male feminist—who raised me to be a tough, strong, practical, sky’s-the-limit black woman who shares resources and is proud and fierce about African-American accomplishment and tradition of struggle.
I’ve used the phrase “free black men” to describe my father, Ficre and other differently mighty ones like them. My father taught my brother and me and the countless he has mentored to think outside the proverbial box that limits us as black people, for if you accept any of the conventional paradigms about what it is to be black—always falling, inferior, somehow lacking—then we will never get anywhere. Rejecting paradigms that constantly proclaim your inferiority is how you begin to be free. And Ficre’s words and wisdom are in my children’s ears as surely as if he were speaking them now, telling our sons, “Never, ever be smaller than you are. Be large.”
We are now extended family with my parents, living in the same building, where my father gives my sons wisdom, comfort, perspective and a little cash and hard candy slipped in their pockets, old-school style. My sons feel their father’s touch, for his affection was bountiful, and he loved them with generous, physical affection. Everyone needs physical affections, and perhaps more so young black men whom society sometimes sees as unlovable, untouchable, to be avoided. The touch of their father and their grandfather, and their uncles and family friends, are strong black hands that say, “We love you; you are cherished.” They walk with that corporeal memory. They walk with straight spines as the black men in their family walk with straight spines. They grow in that beauty and infinite possibility.
Today it is Father’s Day, and this is for black boys, beautiful and brilliant, trying to grow up wise and strong. And this is for black fathers here on earth and black fathers in the realm of the ancestors, who love them, and for each black man who would call a black boy who is not his son, “Son,” and puts a hand on his shoulder as the boy walks forward into manhood.
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is currently Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and author of the recently released memoir The Light of the World.