One of the most poignant questions that has transgenerationally been suspended in the minds and hearts of families of color is: how can I be a father when I have never been a son? More often in not, in the African American culture, there is an absenteeism of fathers. The reasons are obvious — due to lengthy prison sentences, substance abuse, and the beat goes on –all leaving some kind of surrogate to step in to fill the void that unfortunate situations and circumstances produced.
That surrogate for me happened to be my great-uncle James Griffin. Because my father was incarcerated in a federal prison during my formative years, it was my maternal great-uncle who was the navigational voice of maleness in my life. Uncle Jimmy taught my how to “aim” when I pee’d, as not to leave a mess on the floor; how to keep my eyes open when I had school yard fights, considering I would squeeze them shut when we shadow-boxed; how to balance and ride a bike; how to shuffle a deck of cards; how to spell words like “gnat” and “czar” at the age of 7; how to fish (though, that was a one-time event, after I nearly drowned, falling out of the boat), and how to courage the nerve to ask my elementary school crush Tara Lyons to be my girlfriend (that didn’t go over well either — I’m still recovering from the dejected cackle of laughter — but at least I tried!). My uncle Jimmy was my very own Superman, a 6’1″, 250 lbs, Vietnam veteran of someone who could do ANYTHING and wasn’t afraid of ANYONE — not even the shadows from my night light that danced on my bedroom wall and tormented me!
When I was near-fatally shot over a drug deal at the age of 14, uncle Jimmy was with me during my recovery. When I graduated middle to go into high school, uncle Jimmy was there. When I was sentenced to nearly 16 years in federal prison, uncle Jimmy was with me in the courtroom. When I had my first son, uncle Jimmy was there. During every facet of my life – highs, lows, and everything in between — uncle Jimmy was the constant male presence I could count on to give me the growth and support I needed to make it though whatever challenge.
My uncle Jimmy served as the anchor that kept the winds of life from aimlessly sailing me towards a path of utter hopelessness and absolute destruction.
Before he passed away, I spoke to him from the bowels of the federal prison I was in at the time. I knew that his health was failing, and he was low on life. Among other things we discussed intimately, I asked him the question that taunted me no less than those shadows on my bedroom wall used to: “How can I be a father when I’ve never been a son?” Uncle Jimmy’s answer was simple, yet eloquently profound. In an oxygen-assisted exasperated voice, uncle Jimmy responded: “You’ve been my one and only son for all of your life. Now be the father to your children that I have been to you!”