Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father’s Day and Birthday Tribute

As the country celebrates Father’s Day, I have thoughts of my dad who died in 1990. June is also his birthday month; he would have been 87 years-old June 12. When I see the state of so many families, and black families, in particular, I think how blessed I was to grow up with my father, and that he was an involved father.

In 2008 I published a piece through Five Sisters Publications called Our Black Fathers: Brave Bold Beautiful. Hopes for a Dad’s First Born was borne out of a letter Daddy wrote to me when I was nine months-old. I got my penchant for writing naturally as attest to Daddy’s writing skills that served him well as editor of his college newspaper. When he wrote this in early 1952, we were living in Little Rock, Arkansas and the words he wrote was indicative of the conditions we were living. Arkansas was the south and therefore governed by Jim Crow laws. Yet his letter was also full of hope, hope for a future that transcended racism.


Hopes for a Dad’s First Born

A whiff of tobacco, the curling smoke of a pipe, an olive bathed in a martini, a brand new book with pages still stuck together. Those images and senses bring back memories of my dad.

To "Cocoa"
Hopes for a Dad's First Born

Not quite 9 months old are you, my darling – bordering between a baby's chubbiness and a little girl's nymph-like slimness. The laments "Momie" and Da da" have attained distinctness, but words with more than one syllable are beyond your grasp. I look into your pecan-brown face, with the dark eyes so like your mother's, and I think of all the hopes I have for you. Hopes which, if they are to crystallize, must survive a world on the brink of nihilism.

So begins the letter Daddy wrote to me over fifty years ago when I was a toddler. I recently came across this letter while going through some files of documents; birth certificates, diplomas, and the like. My mother had given the letter to me a few months after my father’s death in 1990. As the first time I read it, again I was touched and amazed at the words my father had written to me, his eldest child and daughter.

Laybon Jones, Sr. loved to express himself through the written word. He fancied himself a wordsmith as well as a philosopher on the order of Socrates. He was on his college newspaper staff and at one time thought of journalism as a career. He delighted in fancy writing pens and kept a well-stocked office at home.

You are happy, my sweet, as only a baby who has had the love and care of devoted parents could be. But what about your chances for happiness when you are 21? Through your formative years will I be able to shelter you from the ravages of a cruel world? I have no illusions that I will. Yet I trust to God that He will imbue me with the strength to impart to you an intrinsic armor of love and beauty that will withstand the adversities of a temporal existence.

Daddy had a proud spirit, one born of growing up in poverty and learning to cope with the abandonment by his own father at a young age; having to scuffle and work hard to prove that he was capable of achieving success. Deep down he had an inferiority complex about growing up poor in the 1920 and 30s, of being disadvantaged because of his black skin, and the feeling of shame of coming to the big city of Little Rock wearing the same ragged coveralls he wore in the small farming community in eastern Arkansas where he was born. The little country boy tried to fit into his new community in the midst of the Jim Crow laws of the South, while determined to avail himself of new friendships among the up-and-coming African American middle-class of that city.

He shielded us, me, my younger brother and sister, from as much pain and hurt as he could. Raised in multi-cultural California, we were not prepared for separate public facilities when we went on our family summer trips to the 1960s South. We expressed amazement more than fear when a raggedy truck roared by with a motley crew of bedraggled young adults began to hoop and holler and heckle us as we road down the Texas highway in our brand new Buick. Daddy calmly told us to look straight ahead and to hold up our heads. He refused to acknowledge ignorance on any level.

I wish I could tell you that you were born into a world of brotherhood and love for all mankind. But to tell you this would only make your awakening more poignant and frustrating. So I must tell you the truth; “the unrelenting bitter truth” The world isn't serene and garden-like, it is turbulent and savage. While there is some vestige of brotherly love scattered about the various facets of the earth, the core of mankind is hard and replete with hatred, avarice and prejudice. Nations are against nations; ideologies are clashing, with their ominous voices echoing throughout the world. Men are dying – some for what they believe – others for that they don't understand.

We moved to Oakland, California from Little Rock, Arkansas when I was two years old along with other Black families who migrated to California for better employment and economic opportunities. Daddy’s first job was at a furniture store where he was a stock boy. There is a picture of Daddy that used to hang in the hallway of our home; a young man in a pristine white sailor suit, proudly worn as an enlistee in the United States Navy. He is poised and well groomed, wearing an air of assurance because that was how he portrayed himself, as a king on a throne. He was six feet, three inches in height with a sinewy lean build that commanded attention. He posed for that picture, one leg propped up, leaning forward, looking directly into the camera, flirting with it, that was my Dad.

But it isn't all dark, my honey. For a ray of hope penetrates the abysmal well of confusion and
frustration. That ray of hope springs from the progenitors of this generation. And you of my flesh and blood I fervently hope will fortify yourself to meet the tide.

It is my hope that you will possess strength, dignity without ostentation, and love tempered with understand. To insure this, I must teach you to revere His word,....thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self.....". Stand up straight and look the world in the eye. Face the vicissitudes of life with resolute calmness. Never tire of a deep thirst for knowledge and understand. Never lose a respect for the desires of others. And, above all, keep the faith in God and confidences in yourself.

Daddy liked the finer things, a cold martini, a good biography and first-class hotels. He appreciated a woman wearing a hat to church on Sundays and a minister that exalted the Word of God in an old-fashioned but dignified manner. He also exposed his family to travel, books and the love of learning with a broader view of the world that was beyond our society’s self-imposed limitations.

Books were important to him and consequently they became so to his children. We had built-in book cases in my childhood home and they were always filled with books, all kinds of books. There was no censorship in the Jones household; anything in that bookcase was fair game. It was there I discovered James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and William Faulkner. There was a variety of nonfiction titles that far exceeded my comprehension at age ten or twelve years old, yet no book was off limits; we could read or attempt to read anything that was in that book case.
Serving in the military was a means to an end for my father. He served four years in the segregated Navy during Word War II, became eligible for the GI education bill and enrolled at Philander Smith College, a small, Black Methodist college in Little Rock at the age of twenty two. He graduated four years later and married my mother and had three children of whom he was very proud. He had a remarkable career track; real estate broker, educator, director in a government agency and a consultant for minority contracts.

When I pass by the newsstand in downtown Oakland, I cannot help but think about Daddy going there every Sunday after church to pick up the New York Times. He would come home, light his pipe and prop his feet up on his desk and immerse himself in what was going on in the world. Daddy was taken away much too soon but he lived to see sweeping changes in the country, including the transformation of the South through the civil rights movement. The same luxury hotel in Dallas which we were not allowed to darken the doors in 1963, welcomed us with open arms in 1968. Daddy not only achieved some of his goals and dreams, he lived to see his children, one of who was that little chubby girl of nineteen months, achieve some of their dreams.

Dera Williams
November 13, 2007