I have not shared this photo before. I have wanted to keep my father to myself, perhaps because, when he was alive, I had to share him with so many.
But it’s Father’s Day, and it is both nationally and personally a sober time. So I am giving all of us a gift by sharing my father once again.
My father left for college when he was only 16. He left for the big city from a farm in Nebraska, where he had no exposure to Black people.
There was no one whiter than my father, with his light eyes and hair, his aquiline nose, his Midwestern twang, and the way he said words like egg and roof. Tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and Oxford shirts were his uniform. He lent them a white guy cool by finishing his look with khakis and topsiders that he wore with no socks. He smoked a pipe. He loved Latin and classical music and German food. He was completely and unapologetically white.
My father was also the greatest man I have ever known. I described him to a friend recently: the way my father was committed to social justice and the cause of civil rights; the way he gave his voice, his body, his life force to the struggle for equality for Black people to the degree that he received letters of thanks during his lifetime from Martin Luther King, and to the degree that he was eulogized in Congress upon his death.
My friend said “Your father sounds as though he was very…optimistic.”
This friend of mine is a very polite young white man. I could tell from the pause between the words “very” and “optimistic” that what he’d wanted to call my father was “naive.”
Here is what my father was: he was grounded in his identity as a white man, aware of the privilege this status conferred upon him, and acutely conscious of the mantle of responsibility laid upon him to live a life of service to those upon whom society had conferred a different status entirely. Continue Reading…