There’s No Formula for Being a Great Black Dad

My Thing Is: My father didn’t know his own biological dad, he wasn’t always open, and he said he was “winging it” with my brothers and me. But that didn’t stop him from loving us and making us aware of our potential. 

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The author (center in back) with his father and brothers

Courtesy of Keith Benjamin

As Father’s Day approaches, I recall that my father, Randall Keith Benjamin Sr., never sat my brothers and me down when we were kids and told us his entire life story. The memories that he shared with us about his childhood were more general summaries than detailed accounts.

But he’d offer occasional moments of exposure. In those times of vulnerability, he’d, seemingly by accident, allow once-suppressed nightmares from his younger years to seep out from his mind and inspire words of wisdom.

My dad dedicated every ounce of himself to the growth and uplift of my two brothers and me. But he didn’t have much to go on. To this day, he has no idea of the identity of his biological father. His high school diploma displays the last name of “Graham.” Yet the man purported to be his biological dad has the last name “Shannon.” And just a couple of years ago, he went through the court proceedings to certify his last name as “Benjamin” because that was the last name of the man who was in the house the most when he was growing up.

His younger years, as he describes them, were “a basket of confusion” that he eventually just became comfortable with. And somehow, despite the circumstances, he has managed to be a daddy not only to the ones that came from his loins but also to a host of other sons and daughters. For some reason he felt a level of responsibility to fill roles left empty by other men. It was almost as if he refused to see his life’s story repeated.

One summer in particular, my father gathered the family to take a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. I only remember visiting one place: Bassett Hall, the two-story, 18th-century frame house that was the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. It was there that they raised their six children and instilled the disciplines and traditions that set a precedent for their family that exists to this very day. I remember the comfort of the home, its simple luxury and the warm atmosphere.

But as beautiful as the home was, what I remember most was the hollowed-out stump left at the site of the “Great Oak” that once oversaw the 585 acres of grassland. It was here that my father gathered his wife, my two brothers and me around the remnants of that tree and proclaimed to us that where we were standing was no longer unfamiliar.

As we held hands to pray, my father gently knelt down into the heart of that oak stump and pulled out five pieces, placing a piece of the meat of the tree in each of our hands. He told my brothers and me that we were not to forget that moment and implored us to remember that what we saw that day—the wealth, the success and the comfort—was no longer out of reach.

My father was not trying to show us that we could take someone else’s earned possessions. He simply wanted to make sure we were clear about what we were entitled to. He wanted to ensure that there would never be a question of our level of access. That we would push against the assumption that “the limits of [our] ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever,” as James Baldwin so eloquently describes in his letter, “My Dungeon Shook,” to his nephew.

I have no idea what made my father make that trip that day. I’m not too sure if he even planned to say all that he imparted. But what I do know is that he wanted to activate his sons’ potential. He wanted our minds to be opened to boundless visions and never to minimize our capacity to achieve.

I’m grateful for that, because I believe that everything we produce as living beings, whether negative or positive, is undoubtedly a by-product of what was deposited into us. And my father, as little as he had to guide us, made sure to ensure that my brothers and I received love and a boundless sense of limitation.

This Father’s Day, to the dads, mentors and male guardians: Let me implore you, as the son of a father who says to me so many times that he was “winging it.” You have no idea of the impact you have when you try. Your very effort to be ever present, to touch, to love, to speak wisdom, to defend and to be an example, ignites hope in the ones you raise. It doesn’t matter what you may think you lack. Prioritize the futures of the young minds you guard and always protect their potential to grow.

The future is waiting.

Randall Keith Benjamin II is the street-scale campaign manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Follow him on Twitter.

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