This year for Father’s Day, Very Smart Brothas is doing a series titled “A Song For My Father” where we asked a few writers we know to write pieces about songs they’d dedicate to their dads.
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was visit the town where my father was born and raised. He’s from a little town in Alabama called Five Points, that’s somewhat near the Georgia border in east-central Alabama. Aside from the fact that we got to hang out with our aunts and uncles and cousins, I got an opportunity to learn new things about my father. I don’t know how true this next statement is entirely—maybe I just didn’t ask the right questions—but I come from a family, on my father’s side, where it seems like folks just didn’t talk about the past much. I once remember asking my father about a familial realization that dawned on me and, to paraphrase, he basically told me that all questions didn’t need answers. Even today, I have no idea if that was a warning or a joke.
To date, I’ve seen one picture of my father as a child and it might actually be the only one in existence. I’ve seen one picture of my grandfather—he passed away when I was 3 or 4 so I don’t have any memories of him; I think I did meet him at least once though—and I’ve stared at that picture so many times, often wondering what my father learned from him. In that picture with my grandfather are other family members, some I’ve met and others I don’t know at all and it only makes me wonder more and more about my family and who we are and where we come from. Pretty much everything I know about my father has been gleaned through observations I made on my own growing up or from things I finally thought to ask about that illuminated a lot about who my father is and why he is who he is. And most importantly, why he’s a champion in my eyes; when I hear Kanye West’s song “Champion,” I think of my father.
Like most families at Christmas, we hang stockings up near our chimney, sometimes with care, sometimes pretty haphazardly. They were there though. And for many, many years during Christmas, in the kids’ stockings would be fruit from our kitchen. My parents always hooked us up at Christmas; we were spoiled kids (not brats) and we would get all manner of things. But there was always this random fruit from the kitchen. I’m not saying the stockings were a disappointment but I mean, what gives? As a kid I didn’t even think to ask; I peeped my stocking and kept it moving to the skateboards and all of the other stuff Jamal and Kita Claus dropped off at the house. I remember, though, asking one of my sisters at some point if they knew why we got fruit for Christmas, especially fruit that was literally just taken from the kitchen. It ain’t like we got kiwi and cantaloupe. We got apples and oranges, typically.
My sister told me that we got that because that’s all my dad got for Christmas as a kid.
Read that again: according to my sister, that was put into our stockings because that’s all he got for Christmas as a kid.
Talk about feeling humbled. And oddly, he never told us this, or at least never told me this and I used to take walks with my dad all of the time so he could talk to me about life and the birds and the bees and what life was like for Black boys who become Black men. And not only did he not tell me, I never asked until recently (put a pin in this). I more or less went through life believing this to be true because of the weight it held and the perspective it provided to me in my own life.
I’m fairly certain my sister told me that over 10 or so years ago. More recently, as I contemplated a project that would include family history of some sort, and because that story rents space in my brain, I decided to ask my father about it. I called him and he didn’t answer so I called my mother. She told me that the famed story wasn’t exactly accurate, at least that’s not why they put the fruit in the stocking. She said that they just grabbed some fruit and put it in there. I was a little surprised because then where in the world did my sister get this story?
My father called while my mother and I were on the phone so after we finished talking, I called him back. And I mentioned that I had called to ask about the fruit in the stocking for Christmas and if it was because that’s what he got and how mama had told me that that wasn’t the reason. So imagine my surprise as my dad was like, “actually that is true. You have to realize, (my name), that we were poor. We didn’t have a lot and there were only so many jobs in the area, and though your grand daddy had a job, there wasn’t a lot of money. So yeah, we’d get apples and oranges and some peppermint candy. There were some years where, maybe, we got an old bike or something, but that is true.”
He then went on to tell me more in 10 minutes about my family and his life as a child and the environment in which he grew up than I’ve ever gotten in 42 years of living. By the time I got off the phone all I could say was “thank you and I want to know more.” To know where my father and my family came from and to where my sisters and I are in life and where my parents are in life was, again, humbling. To think of fruit as a present because that’s all there is to give tells me everything I need to know about my father who grew up and joined the military and lived all over the world and got married and had kids and created a stable, comfortable and secure environment for us to live. It taught me about not taking things for granted. My father, of course, has never forgotten from whence he came and sent us to Five Points every summer so we could go “home,” to those red clay hills.
My father is now and has always been a man of few words. When I do get him to talking though, I learn so much about our family that I never want him to stop. I learn about who he was and how our family was rooted in the values and lessons he learned in a town he loves and that we all love as well. I imagine my father walking down those dirt roads as a kid growing up to be a man I get to be proud to call my father. A man who has always had my back and has never wavered in his love, care and protection of our family. A man who has worked multiple jobs at the same time as he finished school to make sure his kids didn’t go without.
And who apparently on occasion gave us little pieces of his upbringing, maybe as a reminder of how far he’s come even if he didn’t try to use it as a lesson to make sure his kids weren’t spoiled. I’m proud of where I come from and I’m proud of my father; the more I learn the more I realize he’s a champion.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you. I don’t know if you realize that you’re a champion in our eyes, but you are.