Daddy Daughter Dance

 

Sitting in my living room are four very old, well bonded, childhood friends and the daughter of one. Of this group, only one has a child and she is the princess of their inner sanctum. She has stopped us from watching “Carlito’s Way” and got me to guiltily change the channel to Disney Kids. And she isn’t even watching it. She discovered some beach balls and a handmade truck. She’s entertaining herself with objects of diversion.  This has been after a few hours of sharing peace offerings – cookies, mango juice, toy elephants & lions – all placed strategically within her reach. I have watched this child grow from a quiet baby to a talkative toddler. She is respectful. She is sweet. She is intelligent. And she has fully taken over my living room.

She interrupts the flow of conversation and adult attempts to tie up loose ends over the phone. “Pai…PAI…PAAAIIII!” [Dad…over and over again with increasing insistence]. She has been climbing on him like he is a human jungle gym. She’s been talking to herself and playing with the beads in her braids, while standing barefoot on the couch by his side. We often call her his twin and she’s, perhaps, the female most welcome in this boys club. She hasn’t left her father’s side for longer than 2 minutes at a time despite his full engagement in a boys’ conversation that has long since stopped involving both she and me.

Watching Luna with her dad has reminded me of being one of the oldest girls in my dad’s friend circle. The memories of watching them watch the game (usually football), while I’m sure my mom thought they were watching me… all came flooding back. Those days when we were supposed to go play outside, but outside had no appeal and other kids were no option. It was me, my dad, and a room full of his friends. And I thought I was of no consequence in this scene that was beyond my age and my understanding, but I wonder now if I was as Luna is today – all over the place and unaware of my primacy.

One of the first times I remember feeling aware, though, was the annual ‘Daddy Daughter Dance’ in elementary school. All the girls came with their fathers or father figures, dressed up in the frilliest frocks, and had a fancy dinner in the school gym. Looking back it was kitsch. Looking at the photos it was tacky. Looking at Luna, I see why it mattered.

Before I knew what a boy friend was, I had already had well over a lifetime’s worth of memories with a dad who loved me so much so that I understood his presence as banal. What’s more impressive is that I grew up with a fraternity of uncles who all knew me as the awkward, bookish, four-eyed tag along in the crew. Until now, I didn’t realize how important their friendship was for my idea of responsible manhood. They were and still are responsible parents, hard-working members of the working class, God-fearing (different Gods too, let me say for the record) members of my extended family.

What I understand now is that it was a privilege to have my father in my life. For an African-American girl growing up an urban city, my experience was unique only in so far as girls that look like me don’t have childhoods like mine. It is an aberration for my generation and demographic, but it is portrayed as normal for so many other little girls around the world who have learned to expect so much from the men in their lives. What’s particularly unique, above and beyond the stereotypes, is the reality that I learned at a very early age to trust, love and feel safe with Black men.

With so much of the world being afraid of groups of Black men, feeling threatened by their collective presence, misunderstanding the depths of their friendships, and questioning their right to life and prosperity, I know and have always known better. Black girls like Luna who grow up to be Black women like me know that we are not asking too much of our men to be present, to be loving, to be nurturing and to be responsible. We know that not all groups of Black men are to be feared. We understand that they thrive in their friendships and their bonds are deep. We expect that they will draw strength and wisdom from their inner circle, that they will be each other’s keeper, and they will do their own social policing to make sure that they live a truth worthy of this one chance at life that they’ve been given.

Girls like us learn a lot in this daddy daughter dance. We reaffirm our love for our fathers. We know to rely on our uncles, just as much as we rely on our aunts. We are assured that they can be relied upon as much as our fathers, for they are an extension of his ambitions for himself, his community, and his family. Whether we spin in circles in front of the television, jump on his shoulders while he tries to drink a beer,  or step on his toes while dancing in the school gym, we are lucky to have lived a very public daddy daughter dance in the audience of men who saw it as their responsibility to show us their love, protection, and respect for women, including the little one screaming to the top of her lungs “Pai…viu?” [Dad… see?] in the middle of my living room, where she is safe, where she is loved, where she can take all of this for granted… forever.

 

 

 

2014 in Books – A Year in Review

IMG-20150129-00190At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.

I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos XavierThis story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there.  The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.

Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.

I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.

Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.

The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…

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The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964)

Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.

Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…

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Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.

I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.

And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.

P1050740I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.

Cheers to a more value dense 2015, filled with really awesome bookmarks!

On fictitious kids…

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As my birthday approaches I’ve found myself thinking more and more about youth. College kids look younger than I remember. High school kids look like they don’t care about anything at all. Elementary school kids look like they bite. Toddlers look cuter than I remember. Babies are still scary. And I just saw a 3D sonogram the other day – that is the coolest, grossest thing I’ve seen all year. Times are a-changing!

In sum, the world seems a scarier place than when my mom was my age and decided she was ready to have me. I’m thinking long and hard about who my future children will become, the world they will grow up in, who their peers will be, and who among you will be their mentors. And I wonder if, as an intelligent person and mindful individual, you ever feel comfortable bringing an innocent life into this world. There are the universal insecurities of parenting: the selfishness, the financial instability, the definitive reality that you’ll screw up your child somehow. There are the choices you must make that you can’t guarantee will turn out well: what color to paint the nursery, which school to send them to, what tactic of discipline will both allow you to control your child and to stay out of jail. Aside from these communally shared concerns, I’ll offer my own tailor-made top 5 child-rearing fears now, well before I’m confronted with the reality of having kids of my own to mess up or dump at your house at will.

1- No Newtown: Seriously, how do you avoid Raising Adam Lanza? I read Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to talk about Kevin” and I was ready to get my tubes tied. The lack of support some parents have to take care of their ‘special needs’ child is just sad. But when your child is a danger to others, where does parenting end and protecting the public begin? And how is it done? Successfully? I want to raise children that are neither victims, nor perpetrators of violence. It seems there is no money back guarantee on this one.

2- “I wish you have a daughter like you.” Signed, MOM: My mother has wished that ill omen on me since I was in elementary school, but frankly I don’t want a kid like me – or my brother. My brother and I are not alike in most things, but if I spawned a child like either one of us then that means that I will have to be on my toes every day for the rest of their lives. There will be no days off. They would either be a constant prankster who always needs hands-on parental oversight OR an aloof nerd whose quiet plotting means that they are perpetually homeless from the age of puberty onward. Actually, both types of kids sound equally sucky to parent. I sure wouldn’t want that job!

3- R. Kelly would be dead if Aaliyah were my child: Not all child rapists, molesters or predators are as well as known or as sleazy to the sight as R. Kelly. Most live amongst us as friends, family members, and trusted members of our community. Have you ever actually looked up the sex offender registry in your city? It’s frightening! What’s more frightening is that “One researcher stated that more than 70% of abusers are immediate family members or someone very close to the family.” I fully intend to cause bodily harm to anyone who dares to…. Whew! Just thinking about it makes me want to move below the Mason Dixon, so I can shoot someone with my legally owned and registered shotgun!

4- Let them eat cake?: My food restrictions being as they are, I am conscious of the fact that what I think is healthy for me is not the most conventional diet for a child. Sure, I can Vitamix their raw food smoothies, but kids need cow’s milk every once in a while. I probably bought a total of 4 gallons of cow’s milk in the last 2 years – 3.5 were used for baked goods for colleagues and the other .5 were consumed by any number of foreign visitors squatting in my guest room. I’ll have to reintroduce dairy, meat and rice to my fridge; adjust for the lack of calcium, iron and Vitamins B, C and D in my diet; and reduce my intake of tuna, coffee, dark chocolate, spiked cider, wine and processed foods (even if they are Trader Joe’s brand). Argh!

5- Keep the ole’ ticker ticking why dontcha!: In the last 5 years, both my grandfathers have passed away. So I’m concerned that I may not pop these babies out in a timely enough fashion such that they’ll have the benefit of knowing their great grandmothers. I had the benefit of growing up with the women who mothered my grandmothers and it’s really important to me that I give my children that possibility as well. I pray for my grandmothers’ health, not just for my unborn children’s sake – but I get the feeling that they’re not done teaching and I’m not done learning from them  just yet.