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

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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