"A path more narrow than a fold out cot."

Archive for the month “June, 2014”

“You know who else is a Black Star? Who? Me.”

I hop on the A at Utica Ave., in Brooklyn, and no sooner than I sit down does a short, heavy-set brother move to sit exceptionally close to me, smiling. He asks, “Did you see us annihilate them?” His accent throws me, though it is clearly African. “What?” I am confused, a bit defensive, until he says, “The match! Did you see us beat the U.S.?” And it hits me. He’s Ghanaian. The Black Stars had just eliminated the U.S. from the 2006 World Cup. I am still in my Black Stars jersey that I had purchased in Ghana the month before. I settle into the conversation. “You think we have a chance against Brazil?” My change in attitude does not mask my doubts about bringing down a giant. “We are not afraid of them,” he declares without pause, enunciating each word in a crisp, exacting manner. “We do not care who takes the pitch, we will slay them like we slayed the United States.” We talk football and Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien all the way into Manhattan.

My attraction to Ghana and support for the Black Stars grew out of a sense of connection that began when I read Kwame Nkrumah’s autobiography, Ghana, in an African history course. I adopted a Ghanaian first name in honor of the first sub-Saharan African country to kick out the British. I’ve often wondered whether a family genealogy would reveal ancestral ties to present-day Ghana, whether my mitochondrial DNA could help locate some distant relative there. I envy those who have made such connections, imagined the tangible, specific, locatable tie to the continent providing them some form of closure. After centuries of having your history systematically obscured and hidden, an empirical link is nothing short miraculous.

Such an obscure miracle of connection, to borrow Kamau Braithwaite’s phrase, often involves a good deal of complexity. Some years ago, I watched a news story about an ancestry service that promised the victims of the European slave trade it could identify, through genetic testing, specific people on the continent with whom they share a distant ancestor. The possibility to know who your people are was, if nothing else, brilliant marketing. One segment of that story followed a young brother who went to Liberia in search of the kings and queens he was certain that he descended from; he took it in stride when he discovered that his folks lived in huts and used a hole in the ground by a distant bush to relieve themselves. A sister from Britain went looking for family and answers existential in scope, only to leave crestfallen when that family demanded she start carrying her familial weight and pay for their grandmother’s medications. Diasporas, it would seem, are not without a sense of irony.

During my freshman orientation at Central State University, a small black college in Ohio, along with learning the names of buildings and the school’s history as a black college founded by black people, us freshmen learned that answering a simple question like “where you from” required greater geographical dexterity than “Kansas City” or “Detroit.” “Where were you from, before that?” Such were the ways of the chew-stick crew, self-appointed sages who assumed the responsibility of awakening us from our mental death. “Africa” got you a pass, but a true sign of consciousness involved something along the lines of, “I don’t know where I’m from, because I only have his-story.” Such rituals sought to soothe the wounds of slavery and colonialism, their rather idiosyncratic measures of value and validity tending to create their own solipsisms. This one Nigerian kid laughed, “If I gave them the name of the city where I grew up, they would have no idea where in Africa it is.” When he said as much to our resident Shazza Zulu, money didn’t miss a beat: “See, even our African brothers have no knowledge of self.”

Were genetic testing or a genealogical search to locate my ancestry somewhere else on the continent, I doubt my support of Ghana would change. My connection, obscure and unmoored as it may be, maintains not because it merely awaits empirical verification, but because such connections are, quite possibly, only valuable as a practice. Were my mother’s line to lead back to present-day Ghana, it would not be Ghana to which I would have ancestral ties, but some previous political formation on that same stretch of land. And this might have been Kwame Nkrumah’s singular genius. In his autobiography, Nkrumah remarked that Marcus Garvey “did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm.” It was an enthusiasm that led him to envision Ghana a pan-African beacon, and drawing on Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line, to emblazon a black star on the Ghanaian flag, name Ghana’s shipping line the Black Star Line, and dub its national soccer team the Black Stars.

It is my only trip to the continent, and I am at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana. I was to have visited the day before with a group of academics but fell sick, so came alone this day. The solitude allows me to commune with the ancestors unimpeded by small talk. My guide says little—identifies the holding pen where women were kept, a whipping post, the still visible signs of dried blood. He guides me into a dimly lit anteroom whose sloped ceiling forces me to walk hunched over—a design, he says, meant to prevent slaves from running. I make my way into the smallest room yet, which I must step down into. There are three local school-aged boys there with a teacher, a Ghanaian woman on her first visit to a slave castle, and a white couple laying flowers at the far wall. Though there are only a few of us, the room feels cramped, hinting at what my ancestors must have felt as slavers set anchor off shore, waiting to fill their holds with stolen lives.

I step, only slightly, into the slim 3×5 opening marked “Door of no Return,” and am overwhelmed by the horror that began here. What could one of my great grandmothers and great grandfathers have felt as they passed through this door and walked along the narrow plank extending out to shore. I hate crying, but I know they walked through this door, or a similarly built one at Cape Coast, possibly Gorée Island.

My tears begin to build and I pull myself from the door to give my emotions their range, when one of the young boys walks up to me and, in precise, exacting English, declares, “It is very bad what your people have done to my people.” At first I wonder what possibly could my group have done to this boy the day before? I know academics can be imperious, but surely not to small children? “Excuse me?” “Slavery,” he clarifies. “It is very bad what your people did to my people.” I can’t help but laugh, relieved for my colleagues, amazed at his boldness. “Oh no, son. You should say that to them,” and I point to the white couple. He looks at me quizzically, and noticing my Brooklyn t-shirt asks excitedly, “You are from Brooklyn? Are you African American?” The locale provides a history that, even at eight or nine, makes the connection obscured by my complexion. “Our teacher is from Brooklyn, do you know her?” I don’t recognize her name, and assure him that Brooklyn is big enough that I likely don’t know her. He seems unsure but poses for a picture. He asks if I like Mos Def. He reminds me that Freddy Adu is Ghanaian. We shake hands, and his teacher scolds him for bothering me. I return to my hotel in time for the bus back to Accra. The next day on Oxford Street, I find a vendor selling football jerseys and buy one. I am ready for the World Cup.


The Man I Call Daddy

Charles Edward Penn, my grandfather, had five girls. A stoic black man from rural Tennessee, I imagine he was jubilant when I came out, his first grandchild, a boy. When my biological father split before I turned one, my grandfather poured into me everything he likely considered unfit for his daughters. At nine, he made me put down my action figure dolls and compelled me to play and love baseball. I remember, too, holidays with him in the kitchen wearing an apron and baking cakes and pies. Obviously, manhood was nuanced. He also played enough country music that I know an unfortunately large number of Charley Pride songs, so he was no saint. Yet I grew up calling him Daddy. Still do. Interestingly enough, this is something I share with my mother, who also is not his biological child.

This Father’s Day, my thoughts about the man I call Daddy carry particular significance. Our father-son conversations suffered from his extreme economy of words, and rarely involved any kind of exchange (“listen to your mother”; “be careful who you hang around, cops don’t care who did what”; and this gem when I was thirteen: “You can do what I say, or we can get out of this car and I kick your butt, and you’ll do what I say. Your choice”), but his example of fatherhood made it clear that biology means little. At a time when black families were supposedly steeped in matriarchal pathology, his love of family paid scant attention to bloodlines and family resemblance.

In what now seems like a yearly ritual, black men publicly declare that we are good parents, such declarations often having less to do with asserting our manhood than expressing our frustration with the myth of absent black fathers. While an apparent supernatural phenomenon for the larger American public, the sight of a black man with his child is so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Of the black men I know (family, friends, and colleagues ranging from poor to upper-middle class), I can only think of two who are absent fathers. This is by no means a simple and straightforward issue. There are many black men who are uninvolved and/or poor fathers, though this is hardly a uniquely Negro ailment.

In a way, I understand why black fathers still seem novel. The life story of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, weighs heavy with the pain of his father’s absence, and resonates with the experiences of a number of black men and women. He has made fathers taking greater responsibility a regular theme of his speeches (at least to black audiences). Hear enough stories about black boys killing black boys, see a few unqualified statistics about black marriage rates, and the problem can seem self-evident. This helps explain the appeal of Pres. Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the sense it gives that the federal government is finally taking the plight of black men seriously. Yet the thinking behind MBK is nothing new. The idea that our problems will evaporate when black men assume their parental responsibility has fueled many a Sunday sermon. In the 1990s, it helped the Nation of Islam draw over a million black people to the Million Man March, and sparked efforts all over the country to establish black all-male academies to provide black boys access to black male role models. MBK hasn’t so much proposed something new as it has placed Presidential imprimatur on an old idea.

But if new wine in old bottles still gives a buzz, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that such proposals trade on the same notions of single black mothers as inadequate parents; high crime rates, sagging pants, and thug music symptoms of a pathological culture that will disappear when men become men. It’s a belief rooted in racial stereotypes and desperation, and ignores the fact that black men have always raised their kids.

Maybe it’s an irony of slavery, Jim Crow, and the second ghetto that black men like my grandfather (and black women more generally) have never restricted their ability to love to the precincts of their DNA. This includes black men caring for the children of white men who either raped black women (quite a long history there), or, like my father, simply didn’t care (equally long history). Too many of us, myself included, have suffered abuse from stepfathers and boyfriends to be romantic about this, though abuse is hardly the monopoly of non-biological parents. Still, we hear far too infrequently stories of black men who invest themselves and their time in their non-biological children.

I first thought seriously about my grandfather raising first my mother, then me, when I was twenty-three. I had met my ex-wife whose daughter, Cheyenne, was one year old. When Cheyenne was two and declared me her daddy, I didn’t think twice about the responsibility I had assumed. At nine, she learned about her biological father and wondered what that made me. A father, I told her, is someone who loves you, helps raise you, and teaches you how to be a good person. I explained that my Daddy was actually my grandfather. She said that she knew why we did not look alike. My explanation seemed inadequate, but she’s never again asked if I was her father.

This past December, Cheyenne graduated college. Like other fathers when their child’s name was called, I stood and screamed in joy and amazement at the intelligent, smiling, beautiful woman dancing across the stage. I took photos, my mother fawned over her, my sister made inappropriate jokes like only an aunt can do. My four-year old adores her big sister who takes her to the movies, lets her drink soda, and plays videogames. My grandfather dotes on them both, and is far more generous with the cake and ice cream and occasional twenty-dollar bill than I ever remember. Sometimes family is a patchwork. Black families often are.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy


Breaking In

Granddaddy would argue with TV
umpires, squatting Toni Peña-style
on replays to prove the runner out,
stomach swollen from Budweiser.
Wondering why I preferred catching
fireflies to Dave Winfield taking one
— low & outside — over Fenway’s
Green Monster, would curse my grandmother,
“I ain’t raising no fag.” At 9,
closet thing to a son, he decided
to make me a man & teach
me how to work a baseball glove
till it gave easy as my hand.
Showed me how to turn sweat
& dirt into a poor man’s oil,
rubbing the leather stain-brown.
After a month under the T-bird’s
front wheel my glove laid flat. I carved
my name in the palm like granddaddy
said all legends do. Broken in
from years at short-stop in the
Tennessee Black League, his glove fit
tight around those calloused fingers,
swallowing balls like a Venus Flytrap.
He skipped grounders hoping
I’d learn to scoop them into
double plays. “Get your glove down,
LIKE THIS!” Made the ball whistle,
a bottle rocket exploding
in my glove. We played well past
the warning of street lights, the ball
in & out of shadows, my bony arm
slumped under the weight of my glove,
the bruise on my forehead raised
for a week.

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