There are few holidays that elicit a more complex set of emotions than Father’s Day.
Some people use the day to think about the challenges they faced (and overcame) growing up without a father. Others see the third Sunday in June as another chance to highlight the tremendous work single mothers do to raise children.
For me, Father's Day means something much more. It’s an opportunity to celebrate my father and thank him for the indelible impact he’s made in my life.
My dad immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados, a small island in the eastern Caribbean many people wouldn’t know about if not for Rihanna. He was born 10 years before the country gained independence from Great Britain and was the second youngest of six siblings. He was a bright student, but also spent time helping his family tend to their livestock and harvest sugarcane—an aspect of life quite common for an economy that was heavily dependent on agriculture.
He met my mother when he was 19 and they maintained a long-distance relationship when she moved to New York City two years later. His first time in this country was for their wedding, and he didn’t settle here permanently until after I was born. Like many immigrants, he worked during the day and went to school part time at night until he earned his bachelor’s degree.
My dad worked hard to provide for our family, but nothing he bought me was as valuable as the lessons he taught me.
I learned my discipline and work ethic from watching him get up every morning to go off to work, rarely taking days off and always taking his responsibilities seriously. I learned the importance of education from his time as “dean of homework” in our house. He saw potential in me and committed himself to not letting me waste it.
He taught me the importance of faith through the example of his service in our church and his study of the Bible at home. I learned financial stewardship from watching him and my mom tithe, save and invest. I learned fidelity from seeing him come home to his family every night. That may not sound particularly noteworthy, but as I grew older, I came to realize that there are many men, across racial and socioeconomic status, who are unfaithful to their wives and desert their kids.
He also taught me the importance of being intentional about my future. He always told me that his job was to get me to and through high school. From there he expected me to be fully responsible for the course of my life. He advocated a “politics of employability” that stressed the importance of pursuing higher education, finding a job and becoming self-sufficient before getting married and starting a family.
My dad taught me a lot, but our relationship wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We went through a period of time when he felt I was being rebellious, and we butted heads on everything from my curfew to my haircuts. We only spoke on the phone twice during my entire four years away at college. I thought that was because he wasn’t a talker—until my sister told me he called her every week when she was in college.
We also didn’t see issues of race in the same way. Even though the Caribbean also experienced slavery, his upbringing in a country that is majority black left a different imprint than living in one with a history of concerted political, social and cultural efforts to lock black people in a perpetual state of second-class citizenship.
That’s not to say he never felt the sting of racism once he moved to America. He faced discrimination during his time in the private sector, but he worked hard to equip me and my sister with the sense that we could accomplish anything—even in the face of opposition—if we worked hard enough. And we never had any reason to doubt him, in part because his decision not to focus his energy and attention on the challenges we’d face because of our race kept us from being saddled with the psychological baggage that can come with being black in this country.
Today I am married and hope to have my own children one day. But even as I grow older, I still cling to the lessons my father taught me. I am extremely fortunate to have my dad in my life and have tremendous respect for him and the other men who helped guide me and my friends in our youth. They laid the foundation for us of what it means to be a man. I see their focus on faith, family, character and service operating in my life today, and for that I am eternally grateful.