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By the time I was eight years old, I had already lost three fathers--Bill, John, and Noel. Each one abandoned me. Each one wounded me--emotionally and psychologically. At an age when I was supposed to be carefree, brimming with happiness and laughter, I frequently felt a deep sadness, an abiding loneliness. Nothing seemed powerful enough to permanently soothe the agony I felt. I had no well of wisdom from which I could draw to communicate any of this. consequently, the personal narrative I wrote, through actions and thoughts, was laden with grief. What could I do to cope with the loss of these three men?
A girl abandoned by the first man in her life forever entertains powerful feelings of being unworthy or incapable of receiving any man's love. Even when she receives love from another, she is constantly and intensely fearful of losing it. This is the anxiety, the pain, of losing one father. I had had three fathers toss me aside; the cumulative effect was catastrophic.
It was a potent tragedy begun even before I knew my name, one from which I was unable to escape for years.
Despite the weight of this reality and its seemingly intractable nature, I tried to grapple with it, failing more often than succeeding. I didn't understand the reason for my anguish. Then in the late spring of 1988, I received a telephone call from New Orleans asking me if I would be willing to meet my biological father. After spending an afternoon with my father, I began, instinctively, to make a connection between the poor choices I had made and the years this man had spent outside my life. It would take nine years before I could fully understand or articulate what this first encounter with "Daddy" had unleashed inside my soul. Of course, I went on with my life. But my heart and head held tenaciously to one burning question: How had his absence affected my life?
Three years after meeting my biological father, I began to have difficulty with my own teenager, who appeared destined to replicate my experience; she was acting out in ways that defied her nature. She became a foreigner to me. I became xenophobic in response, fearing her future more that I feared her behavior.
I woke up one morning asking myself what had created the change in her, what caused the misdirection? Asking that question about her life made me reflect on my own; what had caused my own misdirection? What was causing it still? Was there any connection, I wondered, between the challenges my daughter was facing and those I faced?
Even then, I saw life as a series of concentric circles. I knew that none of us escapes our own history.
Still, no matter how feverishly I searched, I could not find the common center for my daughter and me--until 1995. That year, things began to come together. Maybe I had grown enough to understand. Maybe I had prayed so many years, the universe had decided I deserved some answers. I can't say for sure what finally put the pieces in place for me. This wasn't an epiphany; it was an incremental awakening.
That year--1995--plans were afoot for a Million Man March. The Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, aided by the Reverend Benjamin Chavis and others, decided to bring one million men to the nation's capital. The organizers had asked women to stay away: The event that October was to be a man's thing, a day of atonement for their failure to be the leaders of their families and their communities. Some women, mostly feminists, were angered by what they perceived as an attack against them. They blasted the event as the prelude to a return to patriarchy. Hadn't black women also faced myriad forms of discrimination and sexism? Hadn't they stood shoulder to shoulder with black men against white supremacy? Why now should they be cut out?
I reasoned, however, that there are occasions when men must be alone together, to confront themselves and each other: to celebrate their successes, analyze their failures, chastise misbehavior, call for improvements, and ruminate on the question of what constitutes a well-integrated manhood. In an essay that appeared in the Washington City Paper, "Ain't Nothing But a He Thing," I endorsed the march.
During the writing of the essay and as excitement began to build surrounding the march, I began to reflect deeply on my relationships with my fathers--Bill, John, and Noel--other men in my family, and the men I had married and divorced. The need to understand this tangled web of emotions was made urgent by my own daughter's decline. I sensed her desperation, and I recognized the aura of unworthiness beneath her bad attitude.
Underscoring the march was a five-year national fatherhood movement, which aggressively advocated the involvement of men in the lives of their sons. Young boys and men were being handicapped by the absence of their fathers, movement leaders said. Farrakhan and Chavis echoed this sentiment.
I watched these efforts with great interest, observed the fervor of advocates in this father hood crusade. I did not doubt their sincerity, nor did I doubt their conviction. As I searched their membership and read their materials, I came to understand the emphasis is on males--reuniting fathers with their sons.
I asked myself, If the absence of a father handicaps sons, what happens to daughters? What role does a father play in the development of his "little girl"?